On Sunday, the Wilmington Blue Rocks played their final home game of the season. In about a week’s time, the 2016 season will come to an end. I asked first year manager Jamie Quirk (first year managing in the KC Royals farm system) how he would assess the season.
“As a manager, if you assess wins and losses, not really good,” Quirk said. “I don’t look at it that way.”
The Blue Rocks are currently just 49-82 overall (dead last in the Carolina League Northern Division), the second-worst overall record in the league. They are set to finish last in their division in the second half (which is how they finished the first half). The Blue Rocks have just a 21-43 record against divisional opponents Lynchburg, Potomac, and Frederick (who they finish the season with for four games).
One guy who epitomizes the Blue Rocks season is starter Zach Lovvorn. He has an awful win-loss record (2-15), but has pitched well. His ERA is just 3.95 and has gone less than five innings just nine times in 25 games (two of those games came in relief of Kyle Zimmer back in May and two more of those games were his first two starts). He has given up two runs or less in 11 outings and the Blue Rocks defense has cost him 14 runs. Lovvorn didn’t pick up his first victory until July 8th, when he had an ERA of 3.27. During that stretch, Lovvorn kept his head high and just kept grinding, knowing wins and losses don’t tell the whole story (I just wish the Royals rewarded him with a promotion).
“I think in my mind, we had a lot of kids who learned through the course of the year,” Quirk continued. “I see progression in a lot of them. A lot of them know they’re not where they want to be yet.”
Though outfielder Brandon Downes doesn’t have a great batting average (.235), he has shown a little more power in the second half (two more doubles and two more home runs in five less games in comparison with the first half). Downes has also cut down on his strikeouts (69 compared to 95 in the first half). Fellow outfielder Elier Hernandez hit just .205 in the first half, but has been making much better contact in the second half (hitting .247).
With more playing time came a better average for utility man Robert Pehl, who has played both corner outfield spots, along with first and third base. Oh and he has pitched three times. Pehl has hit .303 in the second half.
The Blue Rocks pitching staff has been very inconsistent this season, mainly because the starters have had a tough time going five or more innings. That taxed the bullpen. However, many have pitched much better than earlier in the season.
Derek Gordon, who is now in the rotation, is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities. He has not allowed a run in 16 of his 33 appearances. Kyle Kubat has not allowed a run in 12 of his 23 appearances. Before getting injured, Jake Kalish was 3-0 with a 2.48 ERA in 18 games with 35 strikeouts. Opponents were hitting just .201 against him. Lefty Luis Rico has not allowed a run in 15 of his 24 appearances after starting the season in the middle of May coming back from injury. Jacob Bodner has just a 1.74 ERA in seven August appearances (he looked really sharp on Sunday).
Starter Matt Tenuta has allowed two runs or less in 11 of his 24 appearances. Six of those games have come in the second half.
“We’ve sent a lot of guys up to Double-A that have done well for Double-A,” Quirk continued.
The Blue Rocks have seen 14 players graduate to Double-A during the 2016 season. Three were returnees on rehab assignments (shortstop Raul Mondesi and pitchers Andy Ferguson and Glenn Sparkman).
First baseman (now left fielder) Ryan O’Hearn was the first promotion of the season back on May 2nd. O’Hearn hit .352 with seven home runs in 22 games with the Blue Rocks before his promotion and continued that hot-hitting in the first half with the Naturals (.304 with six homers in 46 games). He has struggled in the second half to a .212 average in 58 games with 70 strikeouts (though he has hit seven homers and driven in 28).
Following O’Hearn up to NW Arkansas in the month of May was reliever Evan Beal (though he was first promoted to Triple-A Omaha), starter Pedro Fernandez (who has been on the DL with the Naturals since the beginning of July), reliever Tim Hill, swing man Ashton Goudeau, and second baseman Corey Toups.
Beal had a 1.23 ERA in nine games with the Blue Rocks and pitched twice with Omaha before settling in with the Naturals. There he is 1-for-4 in save opportunities and has struck out 42 in 48.2 innings (compared to 17 walks and 46 hits allowed). The lefty Hill had a 4.42 ERA in 13 games with the Blue Rocks, but has pitched much better with the Naturals. In 29 games, he has a 3.46 ERA and had struck out 40 in 39 innings (opponents are hitting .253 against him).
Goudeau walked just nine in 35 innings with the Blue Rocks in seven games (five starts), but had a 5.14 ERA and a .295 opponent’s batting average. He has started 16 of his 19 games with NWA, going 5-12 with a 5.18 ERA. Goudeau has struck out 65 in 88.2 innings, but has allowed 103 hits (13 home runs). Toups wasn’t all that impressive in Wilmington: .252 with ten doubles, five triples, two home runs, and 11 RBIs in 41 games with a lot of mistakes on defense, but he has played much better in NWA. Toups is hitting .279 with 23 doubles, two triples, nine home runs, and 36 RBIs in 79 games. Oh and he has stolen 15 bases (compared to three caught stealings).
In June, reliever Matt Alvarez moved up (but has since been released), as did shortstop Humberto Arteaga after representing the Blue Rocks in the All-Star Game. While Arty deserved the promotion to Double-A by raising his average to .286 at the time of his promotion (he hit just .200 in April and was down to .180 in the middle of May), it has been a struggle for him in the Texas League. He is hitting just .175 with three doubles and eight RBIs. While he never walks (just 13 total times this season), he has struck out 40 times in 177 Double-A at-bats. Arteaga also has five errors (he had just seven with the Blue Rocks and none after May 14).
In July, both starter Josh Staumont and outfielder Alfredo Escalera were promoted (on the same day). Staumont was well…inconsistent in Wilmington and has continued that trend in NWA. Since moving into the rotation, he pitched less than two innings three times with the Blue Rocks (out of 15 starts), but struck out nine or more in a start three times. With the Naturals, he has pitched less than five innings six times (out of nine starts), but has struck out eight or more three times. At the two levels, Staumont has 147 strikeouts, but 100 walks (and ten hit batters) over 111.1 innings. He has also given up 94 hits (but just five home runs).
Though Escalera was struggling to start July, he raised his average to a respectable .269 after hitting just .191 in April (he hit .327 in May and .305 in June). He continued to struggle in July in NWA, but has gotten hot at the plate in August (.298 with nine doubles and ten RBIs). The big issue with Escalera is the strikeouts: 42 in 42 Double-A games with just four walks.
A week ago, first baseman Samir Duenez was promoted to NWA and has been the DH in trying to help the Naturals win the Texas League North Division second half title. Duenez spent two months with the Blue Rocks after spending the first half in Low-A Lexington. In just those two months with Wilmington, Duenez ranked second on the team in home runs (seven) and third in RBIs (42) in just 56 games. Add that to the 49 RBIs he collected with the Legends and the five already in six games as the Naturals DH. Duenez also hit six of his seven home runs at pitcher-friendly Frawley Stadium (compared to the six he hit with the Legends). The 20 year old (he just turned 20 in June) has showed no problems adjusting to better pitching as he moves up the Royals ladder.
“I try to look at it in a positive way. Disregarding the win-loss record, there’s a lot of good things that happened out there. They’re realizing how hard the game is. That’s one thing I preach…It’s a game of negatives. You have to be able to take a good shower to come back the next day and get after it. For the most part, they’ve all done that. There’s a lot of work still to be done in their games,” Quirk finished.
It will be interesting to see if Quirk ends up back in Wilmington for a second season or if the Royals move him up the ranks with some of his players. It will also be interesting to see where the 2016 Blue Rocks end up in 2017.
*All stats from NWA are as of 8/28 and from milb.com.