Fifteen Sweets were offered a pro contract in 2017, marking a new single-year high for the franchise, which will enter its ninth season next summer.
Of those 15 players, 10 inked their offer sheets and are headed off to compete in the Minor Leagues.
Yet the group we outlined last week will hardly be the only card-carrying members of #SweetsCountry to populate the MiLB.
Eleven more ex-Sweets were already on Minor League rosters when the season opened this spring. A few of them have drawn appetizingly close to the Major Leagues.
This piece is a look at those 11 players. Some of them suited up for Walla Walla within the last few years. Most date back to the (J.C.) Biagi era. In either case, many of these young men have parlayed a season or two in the WCL into encouraging pro careers.
As we continue our postseason wrap-up, this piece examines the onetime Walla Walla’ers who have been making names for themselves over multiple Minor League seasons.
Jay Flaa RHP (reliever) Frederick Keys (A+, Orioles)
Flaa (pronounced FLAW) came to the Sweets out of North Dakota State University in 2014 and served as the team’s closer. Finishing fifth in the WCL with seven saves, Flaa struck out a literally-unbelievable 58 batters in 29.1 innings. That’s one out worse than exactly two Ks per inning. He pitched to a 3.37 ERA in 20 games (one start), while scattering just 24 hits. Amazingly, Flaa was somehow omitted from the WCL All-Star game, which was played in Klamath Falls.
Flaa began his college career at Division II University of Mary in 2011 before transferring to North Dakota State. He was always a big-time strikeout pitcher, and he harnessed his control while learning to throw quality strikes. By his senior year (2015), Flaa had brought his ERA down below four and punched out 54 batters in 35.2 innings as a short reliever at NDSU.
The Baltimore Orioles picked the projectable Flaa in the sixth round that summer. Since then, the 25-year-old has steadily climbed the ranks. Now in High-A, Flaa frequently finishes games for the Keys (18 of his 33 appearances). He’s racked up four saves and in 47 innings this summer, and he has K’d 65 batters. Jay has limited opponents to 31 hits and walked 29. Clearly, the strikeout stuff translated to pro ball.
If Flaa keeps his strikeout rate up and doesn’t succumb to control issues, he should have a chance to put himself on the Orioles radar in the coming seasons. 25 is old for an A-ball pitcher, so next summer might be a make-or-break season for the native of Mandan, ND. Double-A is typically where the true prospects emerge.
Juan Gamez RHP (reliever) Elizabethton Twins (Rk, Twins)
Another North Dakota State alumn, Gamez is one of three former Sweets currently on the Elizabethton roster, along with 2017 draftees Mark Contreras and J.J. Robinson. Drafted as a two-way player (pitcher and catcher), the Twins decided to convert Gamez to pitching full-time in 2017.
Juan played for the Sweets two summers ago, in 2015. He filled a variety of roles for the team, playing first base and backing up Willie MacIver behind the dish. He played in 44 games and hit .220 with two homers. He also made nine pitching appearances.
Gamez transferred to NDSU after two years at Pima CC in Arizona. There, he was one of his conference’s top hitters before making the jump to Division I. Although he had an up-and-down career at NDSU, the Twins liked him enough to select him in the 31st round of the 2016 draft.
Gamez spent 2016 in rookie ball with the Gulf Coast League Twins. He made seven starts behind the dish and three appearances on the mound.
This summer, which is Gamez’s second at the rookie level, he’s done nothing but pitch. In 11 games, Gamez has posted an ERA of 5.59 with 19 hits, nine walks, and 14 strikeouts in 19.1 innings.
Matt Hall LHP (starter) Erie SeaWolves (AA, Tigers)
The 24-year-old Hall has shot through the Tigers’ system since being selected in the sixth round out of Missouri State University in 2015. He was picked three spots ahead of Flaa.
After posting 18 terrific starts (2.96 ERA) in High-A Lakeland, the Tigers brough Hall up to Double-A to see what he could do. The six-foot southpaw has struggled in two starts since the promotion but he should re-acquire his bearings after adjusting to stiffer competition.
In High-A, Hall struck out 110 batters in 103.1 innings, while dispersing 98 hits and walking 38.
One piece of encouraging info: Hall made 11 starts in Lakeland last summer after a promotion from Low-A West Michigan. He struggled at first, pitching to an ERA of 4.15 in 60.2 innings. This summer, though, Hall made the necessary adjustments and figured out how to master the High-A level. There’s no reason to think he can’t do the same in Double-A.
Hall was one of the Sweets’ top arms in 2013, which was in between his freshman and sophomore years at MSU. It was the following spring, Hall’s junior year, that he really exploded. He became the staff’s top arm, starting 17 games and racking up an absurd 171 strikeouts in 125 innings, while maintaining a 2.02 EA. Unsurprisingly, Hall left school a year early to sign with the Tigers.
In 11 games (7 starts) with Walla Walla, Matt posted a 2.25 ERA, which was tops among Sweets starters. He limited the WCL to 39 hits in 52 innings, while punching out 45. He featured a 10-strikeout performance in his final start, which came against the Kelowna Falcons.
That summer, Hall was one of six Sweets pitchers picked to the All-Star team (along with Sean-Luke Brija, Bret Helton, Chris Lovejoy, Cody Poteet, and Sean Silva).
As an aside: Walla Walla’s lone pennant-winning campaign featured an astounding nine All-Stars. The game was played at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria.
Jon Harris RHP (starter) New Hampshire Fisher Cats (AA, Blue Jays)
Another member of the vaunted 2013 Sweets pitching staff, Harris came to Walla Walla after his freshman year at Missouri State. Like his college teammate Hall, Harris left MSU a year early to sign when the Toronto Blue Jays picked him in the first round of the 2015 draft. He went 29th overall.
In Walla Walla, Harris was just OK. He appeared in 11 games, making eight starts and racking up a 5.35 ERA with 44 hits allowed in 42 innings. He struck out just 30.
But he was a full-time starter at MSU for all three years and by his junior season, Harris had become quite the prospect. In 15 starts, he pitched to an ERA of 2.45. In 103 innings, he struck out 116 and allowed just 75 hits.
It’s been an up-and-down season for the 23-year-old Harris as he adjusts to Double-A. Still, the Blue Jays have not wavered in their commitment to Harris as a starter. He’s started all 22 games he’s pitched in this summer, and he’s thrown 119.2 innings. Harris is not an enormous strikeout pitcher but at six-foot-four, he’s big and projectable.
Harris has a chance to pitch himself into the Blue Jays’ plans in the next year or so. As a 23-year-old starter in Double-A, he is constantly being evaluated on his readiness to step in should Toronto need pitching help.
Harris is currently ranked by MLB.com as Toronto’s 20th-best overall prospect.
Bret Helton RHP (starter) Bradenton Marauders (A+, Pirates)
The aforementioned Helton starred for the Sweets as a rising sophomore in 2013, posting a 2.49 ERA in eight games (six starts). He struck out 38 in 39.2 innings that summer.
Selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the ninth round of the 2015 draft out of the University of Utah, Helton has worked as both a starter and as a reliever in 2017. He’s spent the entirety of this season in the High-A Florida State League, amassing a 7-1 record with a 3.42 ERA in 97.1 innings. Helton has pitched in 26 games, starting 11.
After easing his way into the role, Helton became a full-fledged Pac-12 starting pitcher his junior year. He left the Utes after three seasons to sign his pro contract.
The Pirates began Bret at Low-A West Virginia, where he spent two seasons. But noticeably, he’s pitching better in High-A than he ever did in the NY-Penn League.
The six-foot-three Helton is not a big strikeout pitcher, but he’s tough to square up when his command is on. As he ascends the ranks, 24-year-old Colorado Springs native is a player to watch in the Pirates system.
Cooper Hummel C Carolina Mudcats (A+, Brewers)
The first non-pitcher on our list, Hummel spent the summer of 2014 – between his freshman and sophomore seasons – in Walla Walla before moving on to the Bend Elks the following year. He batted .284 as the team’s starting catcher with eight extra-base hits in 12 RBI in 32 games. He raised his batting average to .309 in Bend.
A three-year player at the University of Portland, Hummel left school early to sign when the Milwaukee Brewers made him their 18th round pick in the 2016 draft.
Hummel only started for the Pilots for one season, but he made the most of it. Hitting a volcanic .320/.422/.490 with 21 extra-base hits (five home runs) and 29 RBI in 54 games, he earned himself a shot at a pro career.
After a promotion straight from rookie-league Helena, where he spent last summer, Hummel has adapted to A-ball. He’s currently batting .224 with three bombs in 41 games. Plus, he made the final out in this slick triple play last week.
Luke Persico OF/1B Beloit Snappers (A, Athletics)
Persico was an incoming freshman when he arrived in Walla Walla for the 2013 season. He struggled, batting .213 in 29 games.
But Luke quickly figured the college game out. Receiving significant playing time as a freshman at UCLA before graduating to full-time starter stats as a sophomore and a junior, Persico was a high-average hitter who hit the ball hard and flashed good speed. He batted .323 his junior year, prompting the Athletics to pick him in the 12th round in 2016.
Like many others, Persico forewent his senior season in order to sign with Oakland.
Luke has been a valuable contributor for the Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League this summer. He’s hitting .267 with five homers and 57 RBI in 97 games. Plus, he’s received significant playing time at both outfield corners as well as first base. Going forward, the 21-year-old Persico is likely an outfielder.
It’s too early to tell what Persico’s ceiling is. But if he keeps up the solid production, he could soon reach the upper levels of the Minor Leagues.
Cody Poteet RHP (starter) Jupiter Hammerheads (A+, Marlins)
Yet another 2013 pitching All-Star, Poteet came to Walla Walla following his freshman spring at UCLA. He started six games and provided a 3.78 ERA in 38 innings
A large part of the Bruins pitching staff for all three years he was in school, Poteet was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Marlins in 2015. His selection came after a collegiate campaign that saw Poteet accumulate a 7-1 record and an ERA of 2.45 in 73.1 innings.
He’s split 2017 between two levels – rookie league and High-A. With Jupiter, he’s put up a 4.34 ERA in 64.1 innings. Poteet is certainly not a big K guy (31 of them in High-A), but he can be effective nonetheless.
The 23-year-old Californian has shown flashes of being a good pro pitcher. But high-level baseball is all about consistency. If Poteet can consistently give the team great outings, he should continue to advance through the system.
Arturo Reyes RHP (reliever) Memphis Redbirds (AAA, Cardinals)
Reyes is as close right now as any Sweet has ever been to earning a Major League callup.
He pitched for Walla Walla in 2012 and was an All-Star when the Sweets hosted the midsummer classic at Borleske Stadium. The now-25-year-old Reyes, who was entering his junior year at Gonzaga, pitched to a 2.05 ERA in 52.2 innings across 10 games (eight starts). He twirled two complete games that summer. His ERA was the league’s second-lowest.
Reyes’ junior year would be his only spring at the Division I level. He transferred to ‘Zaga after two seasons at Columbia Basin College and left school early when the St. Louis Cardinals made him their 40th (and final) round pick in 2013.
Since then, Reyes has steadily climbed the ladder. He’s now spent parts of three seasons at Triple-A. And in 16 games (six starts) for the Redbirds this summer, Reyes is pitching to a 2.67 ERA with 38 hits scattered across 54 innings.
Right now the biggest obstacle for Reyes, aside from his size (5’11”) and his lack of dominant strikeout numbers, is the fact that he’s not on St. Louis’s 40-man roster. That means that if the Cardinals want to call him up, they need to cut one of their active players from the organization. The 40-man hurdle is higher for relatively modest prospects like Reyes than it is for more highly-touted arms.
On the merits, Reyes should become the first Sweet to make their big league debut, whether it be with the Cardinals or elsewhere. His minor league numbers suggest that it’s more a matter of when as opposed to if. He lasted into the final week of Spring Training with the Cardinals’ Major League team and if St. Louis is out of the playoff race in September, Reyes may get his shot.
If he does, he will become only the second true 40th round draft pick since 2000 to crack the Major Leagues (several more have been drafted in the 40th round, declined, and gone back to school). His company would be the All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler, who is now with the Washington Nationals.
Joey Wagman RHP (reliever) Stockton Ports (A+, Athletics)
Wagman’s Minor League career has been anything but ordinary.
Drafted in the 17th round of the 2013 draft by the Chicago White Sox as a senior out of Cal Poly (where he was named to two All-America teams and set the school’s win record with 26 total and 13 his senior year), Wagman was released after just a season and a half in MiLB.
In order to keep his career alive, Wagman signed a contract with the Rockford Aviators of the independent Frontier League. There, he led the association with 85 strikeouts along with a 6-2 record and a 3.05 ERA.
The Athletics took notice. Oakland soon signed Wagman to another pro contract and in 2015 he was back to pitching in affiliated baseball. Now 26 years of age, Wagman has ascended to High-A, which may be his last stop. He’s currently pitching to a 5.58 ERA.
But Wagman’s lasting legacy as a ballplayer may not even be his Minor League career. Awesomely, Wagman was a member of the Israeli team that shocked the world by advancing to the semifinal round in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Wagman made one appearance, tossing an inning against the Dutch team in Seoul.
Joey was an original Sweet – he pitched for the team in 2010, our first season. He was heading into his sophomore year at Cal Poly at the time. Wagman appeared in six games, starting four, and managing an ERA of 2.64 with 33 hits allowed in 34 innings.
Eric Yardley RHP (reliever) San Antonio Missions (AA, Padres)
Yardley, a three-year WCL vet, suited up for the Sweets in 2011. He also played for the Moses Lake Pirates in 2010 and the Klamath Falls Gems in 2012. Eric pitched in seven games during his only season in #SweetsCountry.
He pitched four years at Seattle University, becoming the Redhawks closer by his senior season. He compiled 11 saves to go along with a 2.52 ERA.
Although nobody drafted Yardley, the Padres swooped in and offered him a pro contract after a brief stint in the independent Pecos League. The native of Richland, WA then headed to rookie ball and has been working his way up ever since.
Now nearly 27 years old (his birthday is on Friday), Yardley has split time between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso in 2017. The bulk of his innings have come in Double-A though, and he’s excelling.
Yardley is working to a 1.92 ERA in 56.1 frames. He’s struck out 50 (walked 10) and stingily let up just 44 base hits. This monster campaign builds off an already-great 2016 in which he kept his ERA down to 2.93 between San Antonio and El Paso.
Yardley is the classic example of a player who’s had to work extra hard for every opportunity he’s been given. Ultimately, we hope that hard work translates into a full-time promotion to El Paso where he will be but one injury or roster move away from a big-league callup.
by Ben Farber