Aurora’s 2024 Draft Class Adds Power, Speed, Depth
by Francis Ferry, NLN baseball beat writer
June 5, 2024: Asheville, North Carolina – The PEBA’s annual amateur draft began as expected – Reno taking a gamble on a high school senior with but a years baseball experience – Nick ‘Six Pack’ Shaw, although that was an awfully impressive 39 IP high school career. For the Borealis, over the years they have drafted a closer type pitcher (‘Sleepy’) and a catcher (Manny Castro); three outfielders (Ferrell, Hale and ‘Fudd’) and three pitchers (Drake Fisher, ‘Massacre’ and Billy Taylor). Out of the 13 drafts in the Topham Era, five have seen Aurora draft a second basemen with their first pick – including the regiemes initial top selection, ‘Gypsy’ John Foster in 2011 (Riley Cole, Gabe McIntyre, John Dickson and Pablo Medrano rounding out the group). This year they went in a direction they haven’t gone since the 2010 draft, the last of the Rodriguez years – they drafted a first basemen.
The answer to that trivia question is Rod Johnson.
No trade brought Aurora an early pick this year, thus they did not select until the 27th pick of the first round, and yet after 26 selections their ‘top hitter on our board’, as GM Will Topham put it, was still available. That would be José Torres, a big – 6’ 5”, lanky – 215 lbs, first baseman out of West Virginia University. Torres was a 4-year starter for the Sherpas and a 4-time Eastern Seaboard All-Star. Durable – José started all 222 games he played in, hitting 22 HRs each of the past two seasons – 77 in all, averaging 53 RBI over the past three years. Those 77 homers is the third best college total in history – behind San Juan’s António Correa (91) and Fargo’s Gustavo López, and tied with Kentucky’s Ira Murdoch. With a .352 career average – he hit .410 his junior year, with a .424 OBP and 1.106 OPS, Aurora has selected a player with a world of offensive potential – and coaches feel like his defensive game, which needs work, still has a high upside. The only downside to the native of Eugene, Oregon, is his lack of speed. It’s expected that Torres will be assigned to SLRC once he’s signed – something that is expected to be a challenge for Aurora. José is known to have a hard drive to win, but doesn’t seem keen on playing for the Borealis – go figure.
After selecting what Aurora had tabbed as the draft’s best hitter, they turned their attention to the mound, and with the 62nd pick, they found their #3 rated SP still available in one of the most intriguing drafts in memory. Ohio State’s Félix Juárez is an enigmatic pitcher – at 6’ 3”, 200 lbs, his body says hard thrower, but with a fastball that tops out at 91 and a nifty curve and change, he’s more a pitcher than a thrower at this stage of his baseball career. Félix has a career 9-7 record and a 2.40 ERA over 202 innings. Over his three years with the Scarlet Brutes, his numbers got progressively better, so that his senior numbers included a 1.49 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and .135 OAVG. He has a tendency to keep the ball on the ground – a trait the Borealis are known to stress. Juárez’ 4-1 record in 13 starts doesn’t reflect the nature of his effort. Mid-season he OSU lost four consecutive starts – each by 1-run, three of which were ND’s for Félix – by 2-1, 3-2, 3-2, and 4-3 scores. He also averaged 3.5 K/BB. Like first-rounder Torres, Juárez isn’t the best of students, but the coaching staff at Ohio State praise Félix’s leadership skills. It’s believed that Juárez may be a difficult sign, but assuming Aurora gets his John Hancock on the dotted line, he may find himself also beginning the year at SLRC.
Aurora’s run of drafting college players continued (as it would through out the entire draft – belived to be a team first) into the third round as with the 7th selection in the round – acquired from Okinawa as part of the 2022 winter meetings deals between the two teams, they selected Mountain Home, Arkansas native, CF Dusty Gillespie out of the University of Pittsburgh. At first glance, Gillespie, the 73rd overall selection, appears to be a poor man’s Mike Hale – super-speedy, excellent CF with a solid swing that should translate into a high contact – gap-driving swing. A three-year starter who, on the surface, doesn’t have the best of numbers – a career .248 hitter with a .651 OPS, he has flashed some promise – in 2023 he had 17-2B and 5 HR. Dusty is an ‘Adonis of a specimen’ as one scout put it and certain to get a long look in Aurora’s system. Oddly, Dusty has only played CF in his career, “All the way back to middle school, coaches always just stuck me out there – it feels so awkward if I run out to left or right for batting practice, I don’t know if I could play the corners”. With the Borealis, it may be moot as early reports suggest that Gillespie might rank as Aurora’s 3rd best CF propect after 2022 3rd round pick (#72) Nick Heath (GAT) and 2021 3rd round pick (#96) Joe Harris (GAT). Gillespie is likely to begin the year at Mokule’ia.
With the 96th pick at the end of the 3rd round, Aurora took CL Raúl García, a 6’ 7”, 205 lb lanky right-hander out of Seton Hall. Listed as the Rampage’s closer, the truth is Seton Hall has used a rotating closer over the course of his four-year career – though he had 11 saves as a freshman and 12 as a junior. García features a fastball that tops out in the mid-90’s to go along with decent breaking balls and a change that the GM says, ‘has the potential to be devestating’. Raúl has a hardworking attitude that is reflected by the drop his ERA has taken over his career – 6.20 as a freshman, and finishing off with a 2.88 this year. He has cut his WHIP in half, posting a 0.82 in 2024, with 31 K and only 7 BB. Of Aurora’s top four picks, Raúl is the only one with playoff experience – pitching well against Northwestern and Minnesota in 8 relief appearances. Despite the improvements, Raúl is viewed somewhat as a project and he will begin the year at Short A as Mokule’ia’s closer.
After selecting two pitchers and outfielder and a true first basemen, Aurora turned their attention to the infield in the fourth round, picking up SS Robbie Lambright, a 3-year starter at East Carolina University. Lambright’s highlights certainly wasn’t his offensive numbers in 2024. If his .234 average in 2024 wasn’t exciting enough for you (or his career .241), then perhaps his career .309 SLG will do ya – or perhaps it’ll be the 108 K in his 585 AB. No… What’s attractive about Lambright is his ability to play around the horn (save 1B) with an excellent array of skills that just need a little polish, and blazing speed that saw him steal 24 bases in 30 attempts. Head Scout Joe Horn tells us that Robbie ‘shows he understands the strike zone, he just needs to learn the patience to swing at the right pitch’, a skill that surly will translate into an improved average. He’s a quite leader who’s scrappy win-at-all-cost attitude makes coaches smile. The California native to the ‘Gold Country’ (Columbia) may not have a golden pedigree, but with a little hard work – and luck, he may just pan out for Aurora. It’s likely he’ll begin the year in Hawaii.
Attention returned to the mound in the 5th round – and across the Pacific, as the Borealis mined the Land of the Rising Sun for left-handed SP Jiro Oike from Hosei University. In 2024, Jiro looked to put it all together – eliminating the longball, cutting his opponents average by .100 to an even .200, shaving over half a run off his WHIP, while posting an 8:1 K/BB ratio. Oike combines a decent – if not sometimes straight fastball of 95 MPH with a potentially nasty curve and a change that ‘bluntly needs work’, according to Horn. Jiro was enrolled in a joint bachlors-masters program at Hosei in Digital Engineering, and his college coach called his efforts on the field as ‘equally legendary’. Jiro was in the rotation all season, before a ‘sprained elbow’ ended his season and saw him make one relief appearance during the Avocat’s playoff run. Trainers have given him a clean bill of health, and Oike is expected to step into the rotation at Mokule’ia.
The 2024 draft will go down in the annuals of PEBA history as one of the most peculiar, wildly speculated drafts – one that saw GM’s disagreeing on talent from pick one through the end. “Only twice during the entire draft did we have our ‘next man up’ snatched out of our hands as we were locked and loaded.” Was how Will Topham put it. “How often does a team select five of their listed top 18? I’d guess never.” And one of those was OF Luis de los Rios – in the 8th round!
Yes, it was one of the most perplexing drafts yet.
de los Rios is a speedy, good glove – potentially good bat, player who has a quality line-drive swing that could equate a higher average – and slugging percentage, if he gathers a greater command of the strike zone. He was a 2023 ICOL All-Star.
Amongst the remaining draftees, few are as eyebrow raising as 11th round pick Toshio Sugano, a catcher out of Outback State. Toshio spent the entire 2024 season on the Crocs roster, yet he accumulated exactly 0 innings. And yet Aurora scouts who watched team workouts would tell you he had by far the best mechanics behind the plate and the strongest arm on the team. They also suggest that he might even be able to fend for himself at the plate if given the chance. An outstanding defensive catcher who might not embarrass himself behind the plate? In the 11th round? That sure seems like a no brainer.
However you slice up the draft, on the surface it seems to be a much more talented collection than that that headed off to Hawaii and SoCal last year. Whether that translate into quality bodies that will continue the Aurora winning tradition in 4-5 years is still to be seen. For now, Aurora’s 2024 Draft class feels more winner than loser – let’s give them a solid B.