SF Giants 2021 MiLB Year in Review: Eugene Emeralds

San Francisco Giants v Detroit Tigers
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This is the fourth in a series of six articles reviewing the minor-league season in the SF Giants system. Today we continue with the Eugene Emeralds, a new affiliate in the full-season High-A West League. Previous reviews covered the Dominican Summer League, Arizona Complex League and San Jose Giants.

As the dust settled following MLB's downsizing and shuffling of Minor League Baseball, the Eugene Emeralds and San Francisco Giants found themselves paired for a new affiliation, with the Emeralds and five of their former Short-Season Single-A level Northwest League mates bumping up to the full-season level. San Francisco's former Northwest League affiliate, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, was bounced from affiliated ball and became an independent professional team; they were one of four teams to bring a lawsuit against MLB this week stemming from the handling of the contraction of 40 teams from affiliated baseball.

The Emeralds are a rarity in MiLB, having kept the same nickname since their 1955 founding. An independent team in the Northwest League for its first four seasons, Eugene contracted with the Giants for their first affiliation in 1959, with the partnership running through 1962. Since then, the Emeralds have bounced among multiple MLB teams and even had a dalliance with the Triple-A Pacific Coast League from 1969-73.

Recently, the Emeralds were affiliated with the Chicago Cubs from 2015-2020 and the San Diego Padres from 2001-2014. Since 2010 they've played home games at PK Park, which they share with the Oregon Ducks baseball team.

A lot of things went right in Eugene's first go-around as a Giants affiliate. Some top Giants prospects spent time with the Emeralds, but in general it was unheralded players who powered the squad to a first-place finish in six-team High-A West at 69-50. An 8-2 finish to the season propelled the team to a half-game advantage in the final standings over the Spokane Indians.

Eugene cruised to the High-A West title

The Emerals played the entirety of the championship series on the road in Spokane, serving as the visiting team for the first two games before assuming home duties for the final two (and they would have been "home" for the if-necessary fifth game). The team explained that they had to play their final "home" regular-season series on the road and couldn't host playoff games because they were after September 10, the end of their annual lease with the University of Oregon. Before the re-organization of MiLB it wasn't a problem, as they annually finished their season and playoffs in the first week of September.

Being in a hostile environment didn't seem to hurt Eugene's chances. They blitzed Spokane in the top of the first inning of the first game of the series with eight runs, including three home runs and a triple. Two solo shots in the third extended their lead to 10-0, and the Emeralds held off a late Spokane charge with single runs in the seventh and eighth and three in the ninth for a 15-7 win.

Game Two was a pitchers' duel throughout, as Eugene's Conner Nurse struck out eight over seven scoreless innings and Spokane's Chris McMahon put up goose eggs for six 1/3 frames. The game was tied into the ninth inning, when a single, walk, single and double plated three runs with two outs. Eugene pitcher Chris Wright got into trouble by allowing a soft single and walk with two down in the bottom of the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate, but a strikeout put the Emeralds one win away from a title.

In Game Three, the teams were equal on hits but Spokane broke through with single runs in the first, second and seventh innings before a three-spot in the eighth put it out of reach, prolonging Eugene's celebration with a 6-1 victory.

It didn't take long for the Emeralds to break open the scoring of Game Four, with a sacrifice fly plating one in the second. In the fifth, Marco Luciano launched a two-run blast, and back-to-back homers in the eighth contributed more insurance as four pitchers combined on a three-hit shutout to clinch the title.

Ismael Munguia led the way in the regular season and playoffs

The 23-year-old Nicaraguan outfielder spurred the offense from the leadoff spot, batting .336/.366/.502 in the regular season with nine home runs and 15 steals in 81 games. In the championship series he was 12-for-19 with two home runs, five runs scored and five RBI. Munguia has had a slow rise through the system after debuting at age 17 in 2016 in the DSL. He grew in the power department, as his nine bombs were three times his career total entering the campaign.

Giants top prospect Marco Luciano finished the season with a standout performance in the championship series (6-for-15 with three extra-base hits), but his first taste of High-A was underwhelming after spending more than half of the season with Low-A San Jose. In 36 games in Eugene, Luciano hit just .217 with one homer and 54 strikeouts. He was 19 for most of the season, however, so he has plenty of time to figure out progressively-better pitching and capitalize on his potential.

The Giants' #30 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, Brett Auerbach, found his pop with 15 home runs in 53 games to go along with 18 stolen bases after a promotion from San Jose. Will Wilson, their #15 prospect, was in Eugene for the first half and earned a bump up to Double-A Richmond with 10 homers and 14 doubles in 49 games.

The High-A competition proved a stumbling block for multiple top hitting prospects under the Giants' tutelage. Jairo Pomares, the #9 prospect, hit six home runs in 26 games with a respectable .262 average, but he drew just one walk against 33 strikeouts. Catcher Ricardo Genoves, checking in at #18, batted just .217 with a .658 OPS in 65 games, and fellow backstop Patrick Bailey hit .185 in 33 games.

Pitching a strength

In all, eight members of the pitching staff with double-digit innings pitched turned in ERAs under 4.00. Chris Wright, a 2019 12th-round lefthander out of Bryant University, was almost unhittable as the closer. In 37 innings over 31 games, Wright allowed just 15 hits - walking more, with 18 - and struck out 62 on the way to a 0.97 ERA. Wright converted 17 saves in 18 regular-season chances and tossed two scoreless innings in the playoffs which included being on the mound when the team won the championship.

Caleb Killian was 3-0 in four starts before a promotion to Double-A Richmond, and he was eventually included as part of the return in the Kris Bryant trade with the Cubs. R.J. Dabovich struck out 28 and gave up two hits in 12 2/3 innings in an 11-appearance stint before heading to Richmond, and Austin Reich K'd 51 with just five walks in 34 2/3 innings.

Ryan Murphy, the 2020 fifth-round pick and #21 prospect, started six games following a longer time in Low-A. A 1.44 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings - just 13 hits and eight walks allowed - proved he has room to rise before batters figure him out.

Other top-30 pitching prospects on the roster were #11 Seth Corry, who took a step backward with his control (63 walks in 67 2/3 innings) after showing gains in the area in 2019, #27 Kai-Wei Teng (4.33 ERA but just 53 strikeouts in 95 2/3 innings) and #28 Blake Rivera (6.43 ERA in 14 innings).

The new partnership between the Giants and Emeralds proved fruitful, and with the talent rising through the farm system Eugene should continue to be competitive.