It was a successful season for the Hops as they won their first Northwest League title, going 48-28 in the regular season, then running all the way through the playoff to capture the crown. Outfielders Grant Heyman and Steven Nyisztor were stellar at the plate while pitchers Ryan Doran, Ben Eckels and Zac Curtis had solid seasons on the mound. The Hops didn’t dominate in any one area, but used a balanced approach to find success.

AZL D-backs at a Glance

Northwest League (A-) Ranks (out of 8 total teams)

  • Record: 48-28 (1st)
  • Runs: 376 (5th)
  • OPS: .699 (5th)
  • HR: 47 (4th)
  • SB: 105 (3rd)
  • K: 639 (4th)
  • BB: 267 (4th)
  • Runs Allowed: 330 (4th)
  • ERA: 3.64 (4th)
  • WHIP: 1.32 (2nd)
  • K: 591 (7th)
  • BB: 250 (3rd)
Team Review

Hillsboro is home, generally speaking, to a bulk of recent college draftees. This year was no different as a plethora of 2014 college picks made their professional debut for the Hops. They came together quickly to form a powerful, young nucleus that ran right through the league to make the Diamondbacks, as a parent organization, proud. As you may have noticed in some of the other minor league reviews, most of the minor league affiliates had winnings seasons and it’s great that these kids are taking the field expecting to win.

Offensively, the Hops were solid if not truly spectacular. They ranked in the middle of the pack in a number of categories. They didn’t hit for a remarkable amount of power or take an obscene number of walks, but they managed their strikeouts and stole a relatively strong number of bases. In short, they didn’t obliterate opposing pitching but they held their own and used a solid overall level of production to best the competition.

The pitching staff was slightly better, but not by much. They lacked dominant starting pitching, with no full time starter striking out anywhere near a batter per innings. The bullpen, however, was excellent, helping maximize leads. Collectively, the Hops were tough to hit and did a good job of limiting free passes. A steady approach on the mound helped the Hops remain competitive night in and night out, ultimately culminating in a league title.

Top Prospects

Grant Heyman, LF: selected in the 8th round of the 2014 draft, Heyman burst onto the scene and immediately produced. He was chosen out of the Souther Nevada Community College, a rare collegiate team that plays with wood bats. He was noted for his ability to make quality contact with some power and didn’t disappoint in either category. He cranked out five homers and ten doubles while managing to swipe eight bases. At just 20-year old, he’ll be ready for full season ball in 2015 and could potentially move quickly as a left fielder with some ability to both field and hit. Heyman will have to learn to control the strike zone moving forward, but this was good debut.

Zac Curtis LHP: Curtis was selected two rounds before Heyman, coming in the sixth out of Middle Tennessee State. He’s a hard-throwing lefty who served as the Hops’ primary closer all season. He posted dominant peripherals by striking out 14 batters per nine, although he walked four per nine. He surrendered only 18 hits in 27 innings while sticking out 42. Curtis is 22-years old and could also move quickly, potentially seeing High-A before 2015 is out. He’s a reliever all the way, so as long as he’s generating K’s, he’ll keep moving forward.

Stryker Trahan, C: the Diamondbacks’ first rounder in 2012, Trahan’s struggles have been well documented. He was moved to the outfield over the winter and after that didn’t prove to help him at the plate in the Midwest League, he was moved down to the Northwest League and back behind the plate. There are no indications that his defense has significantly improved, but he hit much better against lower competition. With a .267 BABIP with the Hops, his uptick at the plate wasn’t a function of luck either. Perhaps this is a case of him finally dialing some things in or maybe he’ll continue to struggle. We simply can’t say, but he’ll likely find himself back in the Midwest League to start 2015. Here’s to hoping he’s turned some kind of a page.

Kevin Cron, 1B: Cron is the younger bother of notable Angels rookie CJ Cron, and like his brother, Kevin is noted for having big time power. He didn’t sign when drafted by the Mariners back in 2011 (3rd round), instead opting to attend TCU. He didn’t improve his stock and instead fell to the Diamondbacks in the 14th round of the 2014 draft. He got right to work, slugging six homer and ten doubles in just 33 games with the Hops before earning a call up to South Bend where he hit six more home runs. His numbers were solid across the board, but he’s limited to first base defensively. As it stands, he looks like a relative bargain coming from the 14th round and should start 2015 in the Midwest League, with High-A a possibility before the end of the season.

Ben Eckels, RHP: Eckels is a sneaky lefty in that he was drafted in the 11th round of the 2012 draft out of Cal Davis. At just 20-years old, he’s made steady progress, posting dominant peripherals in for the Hops. In ten starts, he struck out 10.84 batters per nine while walking only 2.66. It was his second pass through the Norhtwest League, however, and once called up the Midwest League, he got rocked. He’s not likely to stick in the rotation, but he’s been tough on fellow lefties throughout his brief career and he’s got a chance as a lefty reliever. He’ll start 2015 in full season ball, and if converted to a reliever, could really take off. He qualifies as a sleeper at present.

Brent Jones, RHP: a 4th rounder out of this year’s draft (Cornell) Jones has a power arm from the right side. Unfortunately, his command leaves a lot to be desired. The Diamondbacks were willing to take a chance on refining his mechanics and if he can do it, he’s got a chance to stick as a reliever. He wasn’t exactly dominant with the Hops but was slightly better after being promoted to South Bend, so he’s one to watch in 2015.

Felipe Perez, RHP: in case you don’t recall, Perez was an interesting storyline in 2013 as he bucked a commitment to UCLA late in the process only to sign with the Diamondbacks as a free agent after the draft had passed. He’s only 20-years old and has shown excellent control throughout three minor league stops, but his strikeout numbers leave something to be desired. Another sleeper, he’s presumably got the talent but is yet to fully tap into it. He should start 2015 in full season ball where he’ll be tested with a full pro season as a starter.

Top Performers

Position Players: three full time players, and two part-timers, made up a core of five batters who produced offense at an above average rate. Outfielders Steven Nyistzor, Grant Heyman and Jordan Parr were a regular unit who did great work at the plate, posting wRC+ marks of 133, 120 and 113, respectively. They also combined for 14 of the team’s 47 home runs on the season, nearly 30% of the team’s total. Stryker Trahan and Kevin Cron also posted good offensive numbers, albeit in fewer games. They each hit six homers on their own, helping power the Hops.

Pitchers: starter Ben Eckels was third on the team in starts (10) and fifth in innings pitched (47) while posting a FIP of 2.55 over those innings. He was easily the team’s best starter, but he was also supported by a fantastic bullpen. That ‘pen was headlined by closer Zac Curtis who struck out 14 batters per nine innings as a power lefty. Dustin Loggins, who actually hails from Stuttgart, Germany, led the team in appearances (27) out of the bullpen and struck out over 11 batters per nine. 2013 late round pick Tyler Toyfair pitched well after being promoted from Missoula. Although the starting pitching wasn’t dominant, it was solid more often than not and the bullpen did a fine job of holding leads.

Most Valuable Position Player: Grant Heyman, LF

It should be no surprise, if you’ve read closely at all, that Heyman was the team’s most valuable offensive player. He was drafted somewhat high and came into the league as a well-regarded prospect, then didn’t disappoint once he took the diamond. He led the team in total bases, runs batted in and was second among full time players in wRC+. It was fantastic debut for Heyman who’ll undoubtedly begin 2015 in full season ball and should reach the California League before the end of the year.

Most Valuable Pitcher: Ben Eckels, RHP

On a team of average starters, Eckels was the one true bright spot in the rotation. He posted the lowest FIP and ERA among Hops starters while striking out nearly 11 batters per nine and walking less than three. As a 2012 11th rounder, he’s made progress across his minor league stops, although he’s never gotten much in the way of attention, although being a 5’11” right-handed starter doesn’t help his cause. Still, Eckels has remained productive and could potentially move to the bullpen where his stuff might play up enough for him to have a shot at the majors.

Parting Thoughts

It’s always nice to win a championship, no matter where it’s done. The Hops exceeded expectations in 2014 and it’s another example of minor league players proving they can win. There were some standout performances along the way and several top collegiate draft picks got their careers under way on a positive note. Full season South Bend, and in a case or two, Visalia, should provide yet another challenge for these guys as they try to continue winning for the parent club but also improving as individuals. Guys like Heyman and Curtis can really begin to put themselves on the map with a successful 2015 and Stryker Trahan will be trying to reclaim his value, as well. There will be storylines from this group next season.

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