AP Photo

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.

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

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.

Best starting pitcher: Tyler Wagner (Utah), Brevard County (Milwaukee Brewers)
Deseret News archive photo

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.

Best relief pitcher: Brandon Kintzler (Dixie State), Milwaukee Brewers
AP photo

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.

Best prospect: Tyler Wagner (Utah), Brevard County (Milwaukee Brewers)
Deseret News archive photo

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.

Most improved player: Taylor Cole (BYU), Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays)
Photo by Jim Goins, Dunedin 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.


Best short-season start: Nick Green (Utah), Idaho Falls (Kansas City Royals)
Deseret News archive photo

First, a shout out to 2014 Olympic speedskater and Utah resident Eddy Alvarez, who hit .297 through his first week-and-a-half in the Arizona League. Also, Utah alum Trey Nielson and Dixie State product Bubba Blau have played really well since joining the their respective short-season teams this year.

However, this title goes to former Utah pitcher Nick Green, who has three saves and a perfect ERA in the Pioneer League since signing his entry-level deal with the Royals. Green was a 10th-round pick by Kansas City in the MLB first-year player draft in June. Green was 2-4 and posted a 4.26 ERA in 23 appearances with the Utes earlier in the year.

Best moment: Marcus Littlewood’s grand slam seals 16-run comeback
Deseret News archive photo

Usually when a team’s down 17-1 after five innings, you expect the team down 16 runs to just pack it up and try again for another day. That’s not what the Clinton LumberKings (Iowa) did against Burlington (Iowa) in a Midwest League game on May 7. Clinton became the kings of comeback by scoring six runs in the sixth inning, five runs in the eighth and five more in the ninth. The big blow, a grand slam by Pine View High School alum Marcus Littlewood in the top of the ninth inning to tie the game.

Clinton went on to win in a tradition football score, 20-17 in 12 innings. The moment was talked about throughout the country, including getting a feature in a Sports Illustrated magazine. Littlewood was also interviewed on ESPN the day after the large comeback.

Best week of hitting: Jake Hannemann (BYU), Kane County (Chicago Cubs)
Deseret News archive photo

As stated in another column, from June 23 to June 29, Hannemann had a week that was so good, opposing pitchers probably felt like the Lone Peak and BYU product was playing The Show. That’s because Hannemann collected 12 hits and 5 RBIs, while scoring nine runs and stealing nine bases in six games.

His manager in Single-A Kane County Mark Johnson was impressed on what he saw, too, telling Naperville Sun Times reporter Mike Knapp “when he does what he does, he creates havoc.”

“He just keeps improving,” Johnson added. “Every day it’s something, either on defense or the bases or at the plate, he keeps improving and keeps learning.”

Hannemann in general had a great month of June, and won a fan vote on Bleed Cubbie Blue for the best Cubs minor league player in June with 41 percent of the vote. It’s impressive when you consider he was up against one of the best prospects in all of baseball, Kris Bryant, and the Cubs’ first-round pick this year, Kyle Schwarber.

Hannemann is batting .262 in 81 games for the Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League this season. He has 13 doubles, five triples, six home runs, 39 RBIs and 56 runs scored. He’s also 30-of-34 stealing bases.


Most bizarre moment: John Buck (Taylorsville H.S.) makes his major league debut at first base
AP Photo

Back on June 15, John Buck, then playing for the Seattle Mariners, was pushed into playing first base for the first time in his 11 major league seasons. He wasn’t penciled in to play first base, but wound up there after his teammate, Logan Morrison, got frustrated after an at-bat, slammed his bat into the dugout wall and a piece of it gave him a large cut over his eye.

For those who know of Morrison and his past oddball antics, this was one of those “Oh, LoMo” moments.

Morrison was fine after a few stitches, but was forced to leave the game, creating an unfortunate hole at the position. Buck, primarily a catcher, came in and played without a problem. He hadn’t played the position since he was in the minors.

Best duel between Utahns in baseball: Keenyn Walker (Judge Memorial H.S.) homers off Tyson Brummett (Spanish Fork H.S.) in Double-A game
AP Photo

You normally wouldn’t expect to find a battle of former Utah preps deep in the heart of Dixie, but that’s exactly what happened on May 27. Birmingham outfielder Keenyn Walker (Judge Memorial H.S.) stepped up to the plate to face Chattanooga pitcher Tyson Brummett (Spanish Fork H.S.) in a matchup in the Double-A Southern League.

Walker proceeded to hit his second home run of the season off Brummett, while going 2-for-3 at the dish. Walker’s Birmingham Barons went on to win 2-0.