Utahns in baseball: The best of the best in the first half of the season (10 items)

By , Deseret News

July 14, 2014

We’ve reached the MLB All-Star break and it’s been quite an interesting first half to the season. It also has been a great season for baseball players with ties to the state of Utah.

Former Ute C.J. Cron has been outstanding in his first two months in the MLB season, while BYU alumnus Jeremy Guthrie has had his shining moments with the Kansas City Royals, too. Plenty of other players with Utah ties have also excelled in the minor leagues all season.

It’s also sports-award season, with ESPN’s ESPY Award show on Wednesday. With that spirit, we combine the two for the Utahns in Baseball First Half Awards (doesn’t sound as sleek as ESPYs).

Now, since not all players are on the same playing field, the selections were made on numbers each individual has put up in their respective league.

1 of 10. Best hitter: C.J. Cron (Utah), 1B/DH, Los Angeles Angels

Not only has C.J. Cron been impressive in his first couple of months in his big-league career, he crushed the ball in his short time with the Salt Lake Bees, too. Cron batted .319 in 28 games, with six home runs, 12 doubles and 26 RBIs before being promoted to Los Angeles.

The former Ute then made a great impression in his MLB debut, going 3-for-5 at the plate. He’s gone through the flux and flows of a major league rookie since, but heads into the all-star break with a .278 average, .350 weighted on-base percentage, nine home runs and 27 RBIs in 52 games. He seemed to wrestle away the primary designated-hitter job from longtime MLB veteran Raul Ibanez, who the Angels released on June 21.

If only Jose Abreu, Masahiro Tanaka (prior to the injury) and George Springer weren’t around, Cron could seriously contend for the American League rookie of the year award. However, he’s probably be just as content with Los Angeles’s 57-37 record at the all-star break — and the Angels being just 1 1/2 games back of the Athletics and the best record in all of baseball.

2 of 10. Best starting pitcher: Tyler Wagner (Utah), Brevard County (Milwaukee Brewers)

Yes, Brevard County is in advanced Single-A and far away from the majors, but maintaining the numbers he’s put up in any league is impressive. Tyler Wagner is second in the Florida State League with eight wins and leads the FSL with an eye-popping 1.74 ERA. He’s 4-0, with a 0.33 ERA over his last four starts and put together a run of 27-straight shutout innings.

It’s even more impressive when you look back at his Utes career and realize Wagner was a relief pitcher in college — a pretty good closer to be exact — but switched to being a starter since going to the Brewers organization in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

3 of 10. Best relief pitcher: Brandon Kintzler (Dixie State), Milwaukee Brewers

Brandon Kintzler hasn’t had the type of success he had last season, when he posted a 2.69 ERA, 2.54 FIP (for you sabermetric gurus out there), a solid strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.07 WHIP. He also converted 27-of-31 hold opportunities. But, such is the life of a major league relief pitcher. It’s hard work to consistently come in year after year and put up numbers like that, especially for nonclosers. If you don’t believe that, check some of the all-star relievers the last couple of years and where they are now.

This season, Kintzler has a 3.82 ERA (5.12 FIP) — just 18 strikeouts in 33 innings. However, he still has converted 8-of-10 holds. Simply put, he might bend, but he still holds on to game leads for the Brewers. If he can find those 2013 numbers again, it’d be an even bigger boost to the biggest surprise in the first half of this MLB season. Milwaukee heads into the all-star break with the lead in the National League Central race and sit just half a game behind the Dodgers for the best record in the NL.

4 of 10. Best prospect: Tyler Wagner (Utah), Brevard County (Milwaukee Brewers)

Since it’s looking more and more each day that C.J. Cron will stick in the majors for good, let’s go back to Wagner for a second. It’s hard to find a better prospect than someone who has consistently (and quietly) improved in the minors like Wagner has. The former Ute pitcher spent two years at Utah and finished with a 2.06 career ERA and 15 saves (a school record). He then switched over to a starter after getting drafted, but has still kept runners from scoring. That experience in the bullpen may play a major factor in what Milwaukee could do down the road.

Wagner has just 77 strikeouts in 98 innings of work, but holds a 1.53 ground ball to fly out ratio and opponents are hitting just .218 off him this season, which means he’s a pitcher that likes to pitch to contact — and isn’t letting batters elevate his pitches too often. It’s tough to project whether or not that success will continue or what a team’s plans are. However, many of the pitchers that were in Wagner’s shoes earlier this year have been promoted to Double-A already.

Another impressive stat: Wagner’s highest ERA per month so far this season was a 2.04 ERA in the month of June. He even posted a start earlier this month that got him named Baseball America Prospect Report pitcher of the day.

5 of 10. Most improved player: Taylor Cole (BYU), Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays)

Taylor Cole has been, without a doubt, the most improved out of the players in this pool. Cole leads the Florida State League in strikeouts and strikes out roughly 10.6 batters per nine innings. He’s also dipped his ERA from 4.02 in 132 innings last year in lower Single-A Lansing to 3.15 so far this year in 97 innings — and he already has 13 more strikeouts this year than all of last year in Lansing. Last year he had 103 total strikeouts and 61 walks (including one extra start in Dunedin at the end of the year). This year, he has 114 strikeouts to just 26 walks — and eight of those walks came during a three-game rough patch a couple of weeks ago.

Speaking of that bad stretch, Cole allowed 14 runs in 14 innings in three starts, but that also means 41 percent of the runs he’s allowed this season came in those three starts. After about two weeks off, Cole rebounded on Thursday, allowing just three hits, one run and striking out seven. That’s the type of success he was having before the mini slump.

Cole helped lead the (minor league) Blue Jays to the best record in the first half of the FSL. His reward was getting the start in the league’s all-star game, where he played alongside the aforementioned Wagner.

1. BlueHusky
Mission Viejo, CA,
July 15, 2014

As an Angel Fan I've seen C.J. Cron play nearly every game. He's a keeper, displacing Raul Hernandez at DH. Plays some defense, too.

Part of the reason that the Angels have the 2nd best record in MLB and are breathing down the necks of the A's. Of course, having the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, doesn't hurt.