Cubs All-Star infielder Javier Baez highlights the list of top Northeast Florida performers this year from across Major League Baseball.
From his high school days swinging the bat at Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Javier Baez has grown into an All-Star Game regular.
The Chicago Cubs infielder, who played his second All-Star Game Tuesday night at Cleveland's Progressive Field, stands out as the brightest star in Northeast Florida's baseball universe.
But he's not the only one making an impact.
There's Howie Kendrick, rallying from a major injury to fire the Nationals into the playoff race. There's Adam Wainwright, still powering on in the Cardinals' rotation. And they're just the beginning.
As baseball pauses for its annual break at the Midsummer Classic, here's a look at the first-half performances from big leaguers around the Jacksonville area. Note that the list includes players who have appeared on MLB 25-man rosters and injured lists as of July.
Javier Baez, Arlington Country Day, IF, Chicago Cubs
Now a two-time All-Star after starting at shortstop Tuesday for the National League, Baez has blossomed into a genuine star with the Cubs. If not for the final-month surge of Milwaukee's Christian Yelich, Baez likely would have won last year's NL MVP award. This year, he's doing it again — though his base-stealing has declined (five steals so far) and his strikeouts remain stratospheric (108), Baez owns an .881 OPS that's identical to his 2018 mark.
Not much has changed: His .556 slugging percentage ties with Willson Contreras for the Cubs' best, and his defense makes him a Gold Glove contender. Because of the difficulties elsewhere in the middle infield, where Daniel Descalso is batting .186 and Ben Zobrist hasn't played a game since May 6, Baez may now be the most indispensable ballplayer in Cubbie blue.
Kyle Bird, Clay/Flagler, P, Texas Rangers
By now, Bird is likely more than familiar with the trip from the Rangers' home near Dallas to Nashville. Three times in 2019 the Rangers have called him up from the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, and three times they've sent him back, once after a major league stint of barely 48 hours. The most recent transaction was a trip to the minors on June 24.
Bird, who made his MLB debut in April, so far holds a 6.75 ERA in six relief appearances with one save. Hits haven't been a problem for him — he's holding batters to a .167 average — but walks are another story. He's issued 10 free passes in 6 2/3 innings. Aside from Jesse Chavez, Shawn Kelley and Chris Martin, though, Texas has struggled to find reliable relief, so if Bird keeps pitching well at Triple-A, he may get another shot to aid the Rangers' playoff chase.
Mike Clevinger, Wolfson, P, Cleveland Indians
Injuries have taken their toll in the first half on Clevinger, who quietly rose to become one of the American League's steadiest pitchers (25-14, 3.05 ERA combined over the 2017 and 2018 seasons). The Wolfson graduate spent the first two months on the sidelines with a back injury, then sprained an ankle immediately after his return. He's only pitched five games so far, going 2-2 with a 4.44 ERA.
His most recent start against the Royals, though, showed what he's capable of: six solid innings, with nine strikeouts, no walks and no earned runs allowed. Cleveland, chasing down Minnesota in the AL Central and fighting with Tampa Bay, Boston, Oakland and Texas in the wild-card chase, will count on Clevinger in the second half.
Ben Gamel, Bishop Kenny, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Gamel isn't the big name in the Milwaukee outfield — when the three regulars are Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain, that's just about impossible — but after departing the Seattle organization, the Bishop Kenny graduate seems to be nailing down a fourth outfielder role with the Brewers.
So far, he's hitting .251 with five homers (a marked improvement after going deep only once in 2018) and 19 RBIs, with a .723 OPS. He's picked up his walk rate, drawing 23 free passes in 199 at-bats compared to only 36 as a starter with 509 at-bats in Seattle in 2017.
Howie Kendrick, West Nassau, IF, Washington Nationals
What a resurgence. At this time last year, Kendrick was fighting back from an Achilles tendon tear. Now, he's been one of the most productive players on a Nationals team that's contending just fine even without Bryce Harper, with a performance that placed him in the All-Star Game conversation.
The numbers thus far: a .327 average, which would be the highest of his career to date, along with 12 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .940 OPS, all while rotating around the horn with games at first base, second and third. Kendrick, who turns 36 Friday, has particularly blasted the baseball during the past 30 games, hitting .374.
Walker Lockett, Providence, P, New York Mets
Former Stallions slugger Lockett got a brief call-up to the Mets in June, taking the mound for ballgames against the Phillies and Cubs. He's still searching for his first big league victory, after going 0-1 with an 11.74 ERA in those games.
Mets starters have largely remained durable in an otherwise messy season, but as trade rumors swirl around Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, Lockett could be poised for another chance if a rotation vacancy opens up.
Nate Lowe, St. Johns River State College, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
Lowe only has 14 major league games under his belt, but it's a safe bet that the Yankees aren't looking forward to seeing him step to the plate. He bashed home runs off the AL East leaders in back-to-back games on July 5 and 6.
Those home runs, Lowe's first in the majors, are the highlights so far in the 24-year-old's brief career with the Rays. He's currently batting .240 with four RBIs and a .716 OPS in three stints with a Rays team that keeps winning in spite of relocation talks. With starting first baseman Ji-Man Choi sidelined for now with an ankle injury, Lowe has a chance to play himself onto the roster for the long term in the coming days.
Alex McRae, Jacksonville University, P, Pittsburgh Pirates
Previously a JU Dolphin, the right-hander is back in Triple-A baseball after four Pirates outings during May and June.
The numbers weren't great — 0-2 with an 8.76 ERA — though McRae at least struck out his share of batters (15 in 12 1/3 innings). Keeping them off base, though, was another matter. He has dropped his last four starts at Triple-A Indianapolis, so McRae needs a turnaround soon to return to the big leagues before the rosters expand in September.
Daniel Murphy, Englewood/JU, 1B, Colorado Rockies
At 34, the 2015 NLCS Most Valuable Player has had an up-and-down season. Murphy is batting .274 — a thoroughly respectable figure, but the lowest for him since 2009 — and his reduced range in the field means that he's playing exclusively first base now after spending most of his 11-year career at second.
Still, Murphy has picked up the pace of late, hitting .318 in his last 30 games. He's also the source of a bewildering statistical split: He's batting .311 at home compared to .239 on the road, not a rare phenomenon for Rockies hitters, but all seven of Murphy's home runs have come away from the thin air of Coors Field.
Darren O'Day, Bishop Kenny, P, Atlanta Braves
The former Crusaders pitcher, an All-Star four years ago, hasn't yet thrown a major league pitch in 2019 due to lingering tightness in his forearm. He's on the 60-day injured list, a frustrating setback after injuries limited him to 20 games with the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.
Roberto Perez, Florida Gateway, C, Cleveland Indians
Another candidate for Northeast Florida's title of most underrated. There was a time when Perez — coming off seasons of .183, .207 and .168 at the plate — was viewed as a defense-first catcher. Those days are over. In 2019, the 30-year-old from Puerto Rico has joined the season-long home run explosion.
With 16 home runs at the break, he's already doubled his best single-season total (eight from 2017). He's also improving his contact (a .256 batting average and .345 OBP) and run production (36 RBIs, two away from his career high). So far, Perez has also retired 35 percent of runners attempting to steal.
Sean Reid-Foley, Sandalwood, P, Toronto Blue Jays
He's back in the minor leagues for now, but the former Sandalwood star shows signs that he can make the grade at the big-league level. In four appearances (two starts) with the Blue Jays, he's recorded a 3.55 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. Reid-Foley has also tamed his control: Last year he walked 21 batters in 33 1/3 innings, yielding a 5.13 ERA in his seven starts, but he's sliced his walk rate considerably.
With Toronto out of the AL East race, Reid-Foley could be in line to return to the rotation for the long term should the Blue Jays elect to trade ace starter Marcus Stroman.
Austin Slater, Bolles, OF, San Francisco Giants
Grand slam alert: Slater's only been back in the big leagues a week, and he's already shown he can pack a punch with the bat. The Cardinals found out Saturday, when they faced Slater with the bases loaded. One pitch later, the Bolles graduate had swatted the ball over the right field fence, picking up four quick RBIs and the first grand slam of his MLB career.
Slater's numbers so far are staggering: a .429 average, nine RBIs in five games and a 1.643 OPS. While it's safe to say he won't keep up that pace, he's likely to start earning more playing time in a Giants outfield where only Slater and Alex Dickerson (.362 in 15 games) field an OPS greater than .725.
D.J. Stewart, Bolles, OF, Baltimore Orioles
A former top prospect in the Orioles organization, Stewart has continued to struggle with staying healthy. An early June ankle sprain — he was one of three Baltimore players hurt in the same game — has landed him on the injured list.
At the time of his injury, Stewart had played seven games with a .167 batting average. Once he completes his rehab assignment with the Double-A Bowie Baysox, though, Stewart could get a more serious look with the Orioles. Already more than 30 games out of first place, Baltimore has nothing to lose by trying out prospects.
Myles Straw, St. Johns River State College, UT, Houston Astros
A former SJRSC product who began his baseball career at Braden River High School south of Tampa, Straw made his big league debut last September and has gotten more opportunities in his second season. So far in 2019, he's split time between shortstop and all three outfield positions.
So far, Straw hasn't shown much home run pop (none so far in 52 at-bats this year), but he's reaching base at a steady clip: He's batting .288 with a .403 on-base percentage while helping the Astros climb in the AL West standings.
Adam Wainwright, Glynn Academy, P, St. Louis Cardinals
Just when the Cardinals' veteran starter seems to be nearing the end of his St. Louis career, he keeps on coming back. Wainwright, who pitched his first Cardinals game in 2005 — his teammates then included long-retired veterans like Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders and former Jacksonville Expos star Larry Walker — has rebounded after elbow inflammation limited his 2018 season to eight starts.
So far in 2019, Wainwright owns a 5-7 record and a 4.31 ERA, and his WHIP of 1.38 would be his lowest for a full season since his 20-win campaign in 2014. His performance has kept St. Louis in the NL Central chase, particularly after a disappointing first half for projected top-of-the-rotation starters Miles Mikolas and Michael Wacha. With 153 career wins, Wainwright's next one would lift him into sole possession of fourth in the Cardinals' all-time list, behind only Bob Gibson (251), Jesse Haines (210) and Bob Forsch (163).