By Joe Wedra
As the Carolina League finishes up their first two full months of play, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are sitting pretty.
They place behind the Salem Red Sox in the Southern division, but have a healthy lead over the Carolina Mudcats to sit sturdy in second place as the heat of summer kicks into gear.
At 27-23, the Pelicans sit in the thick of the league race, seemingly poised to be in the running to snag a second-consecutive league title.
Approaching the heart of the schedule, here’s how things are shaping up across the diamond thus far in 2016 for Myrtle Beach.
Much like 2015’s Mills Cup campaign, the Pelicans are standing firmly on a foundation built by their starting five arms.
Zach Hedges leads the team in innings pitched, making nine starts and certainly getting the most out of his outings. The 23-year-old California native has a 2.35 ERA, holding the opposition to just 42 hits in 53.2 innings worked. His success is particularly notable due to the fact that he was a 26th round MLB Draft pick in 2014.
Top prospect Jake Stinnett out of the University of Maryland has been just as vital to Myrtle Beach’s early success. Tossing 46.2 innings, he has allowed just 30 hits and 16 earned runs.
Despite high walk numbers, Stinnett is missing bats at an impressive rate with 36 strikeouts. His upside has shown early and often, proving he was worthy of the Cubs’ 2014 second-round selection.
Erick Leal has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the Pelicans in 2016, notching a 6-2 record and 3.71 ERA over his first eight starts.
He has been arguably the most recently consistent arm as well. In his three starts over the span of May 13th-25th, he worked into the seventh inning, surrendering just seven runs in 21.2 innings.
Tennessean Trevor Clifton undoubtedly wins the award for the best numbers through the early portion of the season. He has worked in nine games, throwing 46 innings of superb baseball. Leading the team in strikeouts (51) and starters in ERA (2.35), it’s Clifton who is rising up the Cubs prospect rankings.
Finally, Jonathan Martinez, the Venezuelan-born right-hander in his second year with Myrtle Beach, is the only Pelican who has truly fallen short of expectations. Still owning an ERA under four however (3.88), the 21-year-old clearly has time to find rhythm after somewhat of a rocky start. In 2015, he went 9-2 with a 2.56 ERA over 23 appearances.
It’s been a mixed bag early on for the Pelicans when it comes to relief out of the ‘pen. And when you take a look at their 23 losses, you can pin much of the blame for that number on the arms who have worked in the late innings.
Largely, it’s been a developmental group that has performed as such. Young arms like Jordan Minch (22-year-old former 35th round pick) and Ryan McNeil (6’3” righty from California) are still fine-tuning their games, not out of the ordinary for single-A baseball. However, the back end of the bullpen struggles have proven to be costly.
Luckily, reliable arms have emerged in longer relief roles and have kept the Pelicans in the win column.
Daury Torrez and Tommy Thorpe have both seen extended work after outings from starters and have fared well through their opportunities.
They have both proven to be legitimate multiple inning arms, able to use their strikeout abilities to keep Myrtle Beach in business through the mid-to-late innings.
Things are far from perfect, but manager Buddy Bailey does have pieces to work with to win games while continuing to develop his youth.
Much like the bullpen, there’s been a lack of consistency from Myrtle Beach’s nightly one through nine.
They rank second-to-last in the Carolina League with a .237 team batting average, struggling to find consistency from top to bottom. With just 381 hits in their first 50 games, the Pelicans rank in the lower half of the league in almost every offensive statistical category.
However, the glass half full approach can spotlights on all four of Myrtle Beach’s regular starting infielders, all of whom are contributing brightly.
Both Ian Happ and Gleyber Torres, top Cubs prospects, are stinging the ball lately. Happ, hitting .274 with 27 RBI, and Torres, slugging over .415 and locking down the second spot in the order, are performing on-par with expectations after a slow start.
Yasiel Balaguert and Jason Vosler, starters at the two corner infield spots, are spraying the baseball around the park as well. Both have proven to be reliable extra-base hit threats as well as tough pitcher-vs.-hitter matchups at the plate.
Their power combined with the versatility of the Happ/Torres duo adds up to be a legitimate top-of-the-lineup threat.
But all good things must end, a phrase that is uttered every night after the productive part of the order passes by.
The Pelicans have six regular or semi-regular starters hitting under .230 on the season, contributing largely to their team total 397 strikeouts over 50 games. The latter half of the order’s inability to drive in runs has haunted Myrtle Beach early on, as they rank out to third-worst in the Carolina League with 194 runs scored — the league leader, Lynchburg, has 281.
A long season awaits Bailey’s team.
The Pelicans are primed to take advantage of their starting arms to make a run; it’ll be up to improvements from the tail end of the lineup and the bullpen to carry them over the hurdles and into postseason contention.
If all facets of Myrtle Beach’s game can click through the heart of June, one might imagine that the “Grand Strand’s Cubs” might just be able to capture yet another Carolina League title.
All stats as of Wednesday, June 1.