Eugene, Oregon is nine hundred and eighty-one miles away from Petco Park. For the players on the Eugene Emeralds baseball team, it probably seems a lot farther than that, and for some it is. But Eugene, Oregon is where many of those selected by the Padres in the first year player draft play their first professional baseball game. It is the place where a chosen few take one big step toward every American boy’s dream of being a Major Leaguer.
I spent three days in Eugene last week and watched the Emeralds take on the Single A Short Season Affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. The community of Eugene really supports "the Ems", as they are called. The Ems play at PK Park on the campus of the University of Oregon and PK Park is actually the home of the Ducks baseball team. The staff at the Ems do a really great job of engaging the crowd, offering fun on field games and promotions that get the crowd involved in the game. Information is easily available and all the staff there make a baseball fan feel welcome.
Each night at the ballpark, there was a large group of employees from local businesses filling a wonderful picnic area with grilled burgers and local brews. Like Petco, PK Park features great local craft beers like those from Oakshire Brewing, a local Eugene product. The stands were packed every night. I spent time talking with several dedicated Ems fans, and they really know baseball. They remember prospects like Corey Kluber, Rymer Liriano, and Dan Robertson even years after those players come through Eugene. Some even remember when Mike Schmidt played for the Emeralds when they were the Phillies’ AAA team in 1972.
The Padres drafted 39 players in the 2014 first year player draft in June (not counting Johnny Manziel). 31 of those 39 players eventually signed with the Padres and matriculated into the Padres player development system. The Padres signed 25 of their first 27 selections including the top 18 draft picks. 18 of the Padres 31 new joins have played for the Emeralds this season. By comparison, the division rival Dodgers also signed their first 18 selections and 33 of their draft picks eventually signed into the organization. The Saint Louis Cardinals, an industry leader in scouting, only signed 13 of their top 18 selections. Tampa, a useful comparison to the "small market" Padres, signed their top 25 players selected and brought 36 new players into their system.
Most websites and publications rank the Padres minor league system somewhere near the top of the second tier. For the Padres to perform at a championship level, new General Manager A.J. Preller must ensure that the minor league system is at or near the top of baseball. In 2014, the Emeralds have the second lowest batting average in the Northwest League this summer. Auston Bousfield (5th Round 2014) and Marcus Davis (24th Round 2013) are hitting over .300 with 140 and 188 AB respectively. So, there are prospects doing well offensively.
Who is the best hitting team in the Northwest League this Summer? That would be Texas Ranger’s Spokane Indians and 5 offensive players drafted this June while Preller was the Ranger’s Assistant GM. (The Ems have 7 2014 offensive draftees). The Rangers class was no doubt heavily scouted by Preller and recently added head scout Don Welke, although the Rangers scouting emphasized international scouting and signing. The Emeralds have the second highest ERA and the third highest WHIP in the league in 2014. Spokane leads the WHIP category, as well, and Diamondbacks affiliate Hillsboro Hops leads in team ERA. The farm system is mostly about individual prospects and the development of those prospects that scouts believe have tools to succeed at higher levels. But the collective underwhelming performance of this team suggests an overhaul of the baseball operations and scouting departments in the Padres front office was the right move.
The local sports bandwidth in Oregon is dominated by Ducks football. The Ducks have a saying that you see on billboards and tee shirts all around Eugene: Win The Day. This is a philosophical mantra that connotes a process of winning at every level of detail. This process translates to championship level product on the field in prime time. The Padres should live this philosophy, too. As Preller and Welke turn to the task of building the best farm system in baseball, the Padres should make it their organizational goal of the Padres to "win the level" from the top of the organization down to rookie ball, Friars should be groomed to be winners.