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Minor League Season in Review: Idaho Falls Chukars

The offense-friendly Pioneer League was especially friendly to Chukars hitters.

Kris Bubic pitches for the Idaho Falls Chukars
Steve Thayer

The Royals had a very college-heavy draft this year, and the Idaho Falls Chukars benefitted from that strategy. The short-season affiliate in the Pioneer League had the oldest starting lineup in the league, and the third-oldest pitching staff. That experience allowed them to have a winning record in both the first-half and second-half, although they weren’t able to make the post-season, finishing with an overall record of 43-33.

Best player: Nathan Eaton was the Whit Merrifield for the Chukars, playing at least ten games at four different positions - second base, third base, center field, and right field. Eaton was 21st round-pick in 2018 out of the Virginia Military Institute and took to the Pioneer League, batting .354/.427/.581 with 5 hr 53 RBI and 19 steals in 66 games. He finished third in the league in batting average, tied for the lead in runs scored, was second in steals, and sixth in walks.

Best pitcher: J.C. Cloney won all nine starts in Idaho Falls with an impressive 1.93 ERA before he was promoted to Lexington. Selected as a ninth-round pick out of the University of Arizona in 2017, the left-hander struck out 50 in 56 innings to just 10 walks.

Best prospect: Kyle Isbel only spent 22 games in Idaho Falls after he was selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, but it was clear he was too advanced for the league. He hit .381/.454/.610 with 12 steals and was named the fourth-best prospect in the league by Baseball America.

The Pioneer League is a tremendous hitter’s league, with teams averaging nearly six runs-per game. The Chukars averaged a run better than that, scoring the second-most runs in the league. Teammates Ryan Rohlman and Nathan Eaton tied for the league lead in runs scored with 59. Eaton provided versatility all over the field with an OPS of 1.008 while Rohlman manned first base with 38 walks, good for third in the league. Second baseman Kyle Kasser, drafted out of Oregon, took a high-contact approach to hit .357 with a 9% strikeout rate.

Shortstop Offerman Collardo hit .273 with a 13.9% strikeout rate, but with little power. Third baseman Angel Medina, the youngest regular in the lineup at age 19, struggled, hitting just .212. Catcher Nick Hutchins led the team with seven home runs, and his backstop partner Jesus Atencio hit .309/.378/.381.

Speedy outfielder Tyler James, a 25th round pick in 2017 out of William Carey College, led the Pioneer League with 38 steals, and now has 69 swipes in 93 career minor league games. Right fielder Jose Caraballo struck out 25% of the time, but managed to hit .293/.330/.450. Left fielder Hunter Strong, a 25th round pick this June, hit .336 in 32 games. Former UNLV Runnin’ Rebel Kyle Isbel destroyed the league before his promotion to Lexington in late July. Outfielder Andres Martin joined James, Eaton, and Isbel as Chukars to reach double digits in steals.

The league-average ERA was 5.03, which makes first-round pick Kris Bubic’s 4.03 ERA a bit more impressive. The left-handed Stanford grad struck out 53 in 38 innings over ten starts, although he did struggle a bit with walks. Second-round pick Jonathan Bowlan struggled more, with a 6.94 ERA with opponents hitting .329/.364/.574 against him. Jon Heasley, an 18th-round pick signed over-slot, posted a 5.15 ERA. C.J. Eldred, the son of the Royals pitching coach, gave up 59 runs in 72 innings. Connor Mayes, a 2017 draft pick out of Texas, struck out nine in six shutout innings in his debut, but had an inconsistent season, finishing with a 5.52 ERA.

Seventh round pick Tyler Gray didn’t wow anyone with his ERA, but he struck out 57 in 47 1/3 innings. Nathan Webb and Stephen Greenelees both had major command issues, and while Domingo Pena could throw strikes, he was battered around for a 7.27 ERA. Youngsters like Rito Lugo, Elvis Luciano, and Rylan Kaufman made just a handful of apperarances, but impressed in their short time in Idaho Falls.