Last Saturday, I started to look at the “Other” Braves teams of 1995, the season that brought a World Championship to Atlanta. I am moving up the ladder after opening with the Danville Braves and will head to the other coast to look at the Eugene Emeralds.
Wait, we had a team in Oregon? It didn’t last long. The Braves experimented with the idea of a short-season A-ball team, largely built of college draftees. In 1995, the experiment began in Eugene and lasted four years before the Braves moved their short-season squad to Jamestown, New York, but after three years, they simply dropped the extra squad, pushing up Danville as the highest short-season team before the jump to full season ball in the South Atlantic League. The Eugene squad actually replaced the Idaho Falls Braves team that existed from 1986 to 1994. The Eugene Emeralds continue to play, most recently as an affiliate of the Padres.
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But back to 1995. Paul Runge took over the reigns for the first season in the Northwest League. Runge had managed Idaho Falls in 1993, Danville in 1994, and would head to Macon in 1996. He has managed 1459 games in the minors, all with the Braves, and currently serves as a minor league coordinator in the Astros organization.
The Emeralds were led behind the plate by Mike Mahoney and Fernando Lunar. Mahoney was the better hitter, but the difference between the two was not great and both had sub .700 OPS. Mahoney would eventually get cut after the 1999 season, when he hit just .228 with Richmond. He caught on with the Cubs and made his major league debut with the Cubbies in 2000. He would stick around for the Cubs, making it back to the bigs for a 16 game run in 2002 and also played for the Cardinals in 2005, where he hit his only major league homer against Mark Prior. Lunar made it to the majors with the Braves in 2000, but was traded at the deadline to the Orioles as part of the package that brought B.J. Surhoff to the Braves. He played in 75 games with the Orioles, mostly in 2001, but appeared in his final game with the O’s on April 11th, 2002. He would bang around the minors for awhile, even playing in six games for Mississippi in 2007 to close off his career. He did have a brief moment in the sun during his time with the Braves. On June 24th, 2000, Lunar was called for a “catcher’s balk” while receiving a pitch from Greg Maddux where he set up behind the plate with a foot outside the catcher’s box. In 363 games with the Braves, Maddux was called for just four balks.
Wilt Person and Randy Hodges were the primary performers at first and second, but neither would be in the system by 1997. At third base, Brian Rust was a recent draftee from Lewis and Clark College out of Portland so he had to enjoy playing near to home. He would struggle, though he did hit 10 homers for Eugene the following season. Rust would catch on with the O’s organization in 1999 and played three years for them, reaching AAA, but he never got a callup, finishing his career with a .785 OPS after 2001. At shortstop, Rob Sasser was a tenth rounder in 1993 by the Braves out of Oakland, CA. He was a slow riser, but after a brief run in Danville that I spoke of last week, Sasser headed to Eugene and was a solid everyday player for the Emeralds, slashing .269/.344/.444 with 9 HR and 14 steals. He struggled defensively as most minor league shortstops do. After a 1996 year with Macon that saw him hit .262 with 38 steals, the Angels selected him in the minor league Rule 5 draft. He wasn’t there long before being used in a deal that sent Ken Hill to the Angels and Braves nemesis Jim Leyritz to the Rangers. In 1998, Sasser appeared in a 10-2 rout by the White Sox over the Rangers, hitting a popup in foul territory to former major leaguer Chad Kreuter. Sasser would play baseball until 2006, but never got back to the majors. Glenn Williams, the Australian prospect, slashed just .224/.291/.373 while playing mostly DH, though he did play a little short. Williams was ranked #76 by Baseball America before the season, but would continue a unspectacular career where he OPS’d .700 in 1260 minor league games before hanging it up after 2007. He did have a nice cup of coffee in 2005 with the Twins, though, hitting .425 in 40 AB.
From left-to-right, the outfield was made up of George Lombard, Joe Trippy, and a platoon of Reymundo DeLeon and Roosevelt Brown. In the case of Lombard, the Braves had a five-tool prospect. A second rounder out of Lovett School in Atlanta, Lombard hit .252/.323/.351 with Eugene with 35 steals. When you add his 16 steals from Macon, Lombard finished the year with a personal best 51 steals. Lombard would climb the ladder, reaching the Baseball America Top 100 before 1997 with a high of the #26th best prospect in the game prior to 1999. However, he stagnated in AAA and injuries limited him to 32 games from the beginning of 2001 to mid-June of 2002. At that point, the Braves traded him to the Tigers. He would bounce around from there, playing for the Devil Rays, Red Sox, Nationals, Dodgers, Marlins, and Indians. He was a bust and played in just 144 games in the majors, half of which came for the Tigers after his trade in 2002. That version of the Tigers lost 106 games. Since returing after 2009, Lombard managed for two seasons in the Gulf Coast League for the Red Sox before being promoted to an outfield and baserunner coordinator in the Red Sox farm system.
Trippy was a northwest native and undrafted free agent with range and speed. He hit .309 and stole 29 bases for Eugene. He added 48 steals in 1996 and 34 in 1997 for Durham, but couldn’t hit at AA and eventually tried his hand in independent ball before ending his playing career after 2001. His season with Eugene was the only year of DeLeon’s playing career. He struck out 48 times in 127 at-bats and slashed .189/.268/.260. Roosevelt Brown, a native of Mississippi, was a 20th rounder back in 1993. He slashed a brilliant .309/.366/.558 with Eugene and was hitting .278 with 19 HR with the Macon Braves in 1996 before the Braves sent him to Marlins for Terry Pendleton. After 1997, the Cubs selected him in the minor league Rule 5. He hit well with them and made it to the majors in 1999 and would go on to appear in 228 games over four years with the Cubs, hitting .251/.311/.407. The Cubs cut him after 2002 and he went to Japan, hitting .291 with 43 HR in two years with Orix. He tried to make the Braves squad in 2005, but was a spring training cut as Ryan Langerhans beat him out for the last OF spot. After a season in the White Sox system, he retired and has been a hitting coach in the Braves system.
The top starters for the Emeralds included a famous name. John Rocker, a 1993 18th rounder, started 12 games for Eugene, though he didn’t pitch very well (5.16 ERA, 1.37 WHIP). Of course, he would go on to become a great reliever whose mouth got him into trouble, along with some injury issues. Charlie Cruz, a 13th rounder out of Florida State, was Eugene’s best starter, striking out 90 in 81.1 ING to go with a 2.55 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Cruz finished second in K’s. Billy Blythe was historically awful in 1995. In 14 games, including 10 starts, Blythe gave up 55 runs, 41 earned, in 37.2 ING (9.80 ERA). He walked a league-leading 49 and struck out 24. He was equally wild the following season, walking 107 in 122.2 ING for Macon with 19 wild pitches. After injuries and ineffective play, Blythe was finally cut in 1999 after never making it beyond Macon.
Future Brave Adam Butler was signed out of independent ball and led Eugene with 8 saves, which was three fewer than the league-lead, shared by Russ Ortiz (yep). He struck out a Kimbrel-like 50 in 25.1 ING. In 1996, the lefthander saved 30 at three different levels while nailing down 22 saves with Greenville in 1997. Butler broke camp in 1998 with the Braves, though after four games, he was demoted with a 33.75 ERA. In his final April game, he gave up a homer to future Brave, Rico Brogna. He would get a pair of callups and lowered his ERA to 10.80, but never got back to the bigs after 1998. He spent just more year in the Braves system and went back to independent ball. After 2001, he hung up the spikes. Another lefty, Antone Brooks, was stellar with the Emeralds, allowing just one earned run in 17 innings with 26 K’s. He went to Macon the following season and again was very good with 101 K’s in 80.1 ING to go with 10 saves. Unfortunately, injuries derailed a once promising career and after 2001, his time was done.
The Emeralds would finish 37-39, 11.5 games out of first.