Mudcats Develop and Star as Carolina League Closes First Half

The Carolina Mudcats slogged its way through the first half of the season with a 29-38 record, placing the team 11.5 games behind first place Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League South Division. It was the second year in a row the Muddies finished in last place in the division during the first half of the campaign, although expectations were markedly different from this season entering the campaign.

Two Mudcats featured in Tuesday’s All-Star Game between the Carolina League and the California League with a third player, Anthony Gallas, having been named to the Carolina League team but unable to participate due to promotion prior to the game.

Third baseman Erik Gonzalez earned a starting nod after finishing the first half batting .297 with a home run and 30 RBIs. It was the second mid-season All-Star appearance for the Dominican-born infielder who was signed by Cleveland as a non-drafted free agent in August of 2008. It also was a significant improvement for Gonzalez. In 39 games with the Mudcats last season, he batted .242. On Tuesday, he had one hit in four at bats in his All-Star appearance.

Left- handed starting pitcher Ryan Merritt was tabbed the starting pitcher for the Carolina League All-Star and hurled a perfect inning to open the game. The Texan went 6-2 during the first half of the season with a paltry 1.66 ERA in 12 starts. Merritt pitched 76 innings and struck out 59 batters while walking 16.

The positive performance of Gonzalez and Merritt, along with the improvement of left-handed starting pitcher Shawn Morimando and the promotions of Gallas and former Carolina stopper Louis Head to Akron, show a continued commitment to development within the Cleveland organization, sometimes even to the detriment of the affiliate’s win-loss record.

In 2013, stocked with some the Tribe’s top prospects and two former first-round draft picks, the Mudcats failed miserably on the field, spending most of the year with one of the worst records in all of Minor League Baseball. The success in Akron in 2014 with most of the same players, the RubberDucks enter Wednesday 41-30 overall and with a half-game lead in the Western Division of the Eastern League, shows definitive growth.

Carolina has had its struggles. The Mudcats finished six games below .500 in the first half at Five County Stadium, although to be fair only Myrtle Beach and Potomac—the two division winners—actually fared well at home.

The Mudcats have struggled at the plate. Carolina is second-to-last in the Carolina League in hits, runs scored and runs batted in. Lack of speed on the base paths is also an issue as the team has a league-worst 49 stolen bases.

Carolina has kept its head above water in most games with stingy pitching, particularly from its starters. The staff ranks second in hits allowed, home runs given up and walks issued. It is safe to assume that a promotion is in order for Merritt, along with Morimando who has already pitched one game for Akron this season, and Tribe fans will get to see the duo become the latest Mudcats to make the trip to Ohio.

While it is often lamentable for observers at Five County Stadium to witness the Mudcats struggle there has clearly been a concerted focus on player development from Cleveland, aided by the Carolina management, which looks to pay dividends well into the future. As the depth of talent in organization grows, it will be interesting to see if the success in the standings trickles down to the Class-A Advanced level.

Photo: Dean Strickland/O.D.

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