St. Louis Cardinals Minor-League Season Preview: Memphis Redbirds

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next week, Future Redbirds will be taking a look at the roster of each of the Cardinals' full season minor league affiliates and break them down by top prospect status, possible promotions, and breakout candidates to watch throughout 2014. VEB Community Top 20 prospects will be denoted with an asterisk so that you can get a good idea of who each roster shakes out in terms of top end talent.

I had the good fortune of attending Memphis' opening day game against the Iowa Cubs on Thursday night despite the cold, rainy, and generally awful April weather here in Iowa. I'd been working on outlining the minor league rosters for all the full season affiliates prior to attending the game and couldn't help but notice the plethora of talent that was about to start the year at Memphis, especially in the outfield...and then it took me nearly a half inning to figure out who was pitching (Boone Whiting, I apologize, but from a distance, you just don't look like a guy named Boone). I'll blame that on the rain (Yeah, yeaahh....), or the pre-game micro brews at El Bait Shop (which is the ViveElBeer team dream bar -- over 200 beers on tap and another 100 or so bottled), or the fact that tater tots aren't a good dinner option before you're going to go stand in the cold for three hours.  Either way, when you take a look at how this roster shook out, the first question you ask is: Where are all these guys going to play?

Pitching Rotation:

  1. Boone Whiting
  2. Angel Castro
  3. Tim Cooney*
  4. Tyler Lyons*
  5. Scott McGregor
  6. John Gast (7 Day DL)

I'm making the assumption that McGregor is the fifth starter for the Redbirds at the beginning of the season even though he was competing for a bullpen spot in the big leagues. He started 17 games with Memphis in 2013 and until John Gast returns mid-summer I would expect him to get those starts.

Cooney is the main story here after his stellar season at Springfield in 2013 followed up by a solid spring in which he got a non-roster invite to big league camp. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to older, more mature hitters with the "fill up the strike zone" approach he's used thus far in his career while lacking any true plus-plus offerings. Both Lyons and Whiting are still age appropriate for the AAA level and provide some solid depth for the big league club should they need a spot starter due to injury or some help in the bullpen. I still think Lyons could be a back end starter for somebody at the big league level, it's just impossible to see that happening here in St. Louis what with the current pitching rich MLB staff. Should he pitch well the first half of the year, however, he would make an interesting trade target for a team light on high minors pitching prospects who might be looking to trade a reliever.

Increasingly, it's looking like that help may come in middle relief and it's possible that journeyman Angel Castro gets a look there. He pitched well in the second game against an Iowa club that features talented hitters like Javier Baez, Josh Vitters, and Arismendy Alcantara. I would expect Zach Petrick to make a push for Memphis by mid-season if he continues to pitch as he did this spring and in his Springfield debut and Castro would seem to be the odd man out if that happens.

Bullpen

  • David Aardsma (R)
  • Jose Almarante (R)
  • Eric Fornataro (R)
  • Sam Freeman (L)
  • Nick Greenwood (R)
  • Jorge Rondon (R)
  • Lee Stoppelman (L)*
  • Heath Wyatt (R)
You can see why the Cardinals were actively looking for pitchers like Aardsma and Neshek this spring: There's a real lack of quality right handed bullpen candidates in the high minors and especially here at Memphis. Fornataro hasn't been able to build on his success in AA, Rondon continues to walk 12-13% of the hitters he faces which minimizes his fantastic stuff considerably. Those are the two guys on the 40 man roster, and neither has done much so far this spring to demonstrate why they should keep a spot on it.

Of the righties, the guy to watch is Jose Almarante, who was also a non-roster invitee this spring but failed to make it to camp on time due to issues with his visa. He's about 8 months younger than Fornataro and Rondon and put up an excellent 2.95 FIP in 66 2/3 innings across the A+ and AA levels last year, and is looking to become the first Haitian native to ever pitch in MLB (hat tip to DT Flush for that little tidbit). If the bullpen woes continue for the Cardinals, that may come sooner rather than later, but a spot would have to be cleared on the 40 man for him to get promoted. That's why I would expect to see Fornataro and Rondon at first gasp, with Almarante making it later on if those two aren't effective.

The lefties are the two to watch at this level, in my humble opinion. Most Cardinal fans are familiar with Freeman, who's had a few cups of coffee with the big club and features a good fastball and average-ish breaking stuff. Stoppelman climbed the ladder right through the organization last year and looks to have the makeup and stuff of a big league bullpen stalwart that could carve out a nice career for himself. His struggles this spring got him a demotion to Memphis to start the year, but he righted the ship in minor league camp and looked really good on Thursday night against Iowa. He also seems to be the best candidate to fill a gap at the big league level should the Cardinal middle relievers continue to look as terrible as they have so far. Yes, that would mean three lefties in the bullpen, but at least we wouldn't have to watch Randy Choate pitch to switch-hitters and right handed batsmen anymore either. I hope. *sigh*

Catchers

  • Ed Easley
  • Audry Perez
  • Dante Rosenberg (7 Day DL)

Perez is on the 40 man roster and is probably the emergency call-up should anything happen to Yadier Molina or Tony Cruz. Easley and Rosenberg are here because someone has to catch these minor league innings and it might as well be these two guys. Nothing really of note here prospect-wise that will impact the big club, but Perez is known around the organization to be an excellent receiver, so that could play a big part in moving pitchers like Cooney and Stoppelman towards MLB readiness.

Infielders

  • Jermaine Curtis (2B/3B)
  • Greg Garcia (2B/SS)*
  • Luis Mateo (2B/SS)
  • Scott Moore (3B)
  • Xavier Scruggs (1B)

Greg Garcia would do well to file a name change to Serially Underappreciated Greg Garcia (SUGG) at some point this season if he continues to rake at AAA and never gets a chance at a 25 man roster spot. With two homers already, Garcia seems intent on making his case to at least get utility innings with the big league club at some point in 2014 and I still can't figure out why he's not currently doing so, given the terribleness that is Daniel Descalso at both the SS position and the batters box.

Curtis broke out in AA in 2012 and had a fairly pedestrian 2013 with Memphis, which motivated the club to go get journeyman Scott Moore to man innings at 3B this year. Moore's probably the dreaded AAAA player in that he can tear up high minors pitching but can't seem to make the transition to the big leagues. Regardless, the Cardinals needed depth at 3B while waiting on Patrick Wisdom to figure it out and Moore is a good left handed stick who can provide it. Mateo is the utility filler on this team, playing wherever he's needed and generally stinking it up at the plate.

Scruggs is the player with a lot to prove here (as I feel Garcia's already pretty proven).  He'll likely be a minor league free agent next season as I can't see the Cardinals putting him on the 40 man with Craig and Adams already at the big league level. If he can continue to crush left handed pitching and keep his power numbers up while improving his ability to hit breaking stuff from right handed pitchers, he could be line for a platoon spot for a team weak at 1B or in LF.

Outfield

  • Randal Grichuk (CF)*
  • Oscar Taveras (LF/RF)*
  • Stephen Piscotty (RF)*
  • Tommy Pham (LF/CF/RF)*
  • Joey Butler (LF/RF)

Damn, that's a lot of talent -- four different guys from the VEB Community Top 20 are in the Memphis outfield. Joey Butler hit .291/.395/.437 for Round Rock last year and he's the FIFTH outfielder for Memphis right now. Thursday's opening game saw Taveras in LF, Grichuk in CF, and Piscotty in RF and that is, by far, the best opening day outfield in terms of both current talent and upside that Memphis has probably ever seen in its decade or so history as the Cardinals AAA affiliate.

In a way, I feel the worst for Tommy Pham. He looks like he's finally healthy, he had a great spring training, but I just can't see how he gets on the field with those other three guys ahead of him and especially so if Grichuk plays really well to start the year. Pham is still a legit 4 tool prospect in my mind, and if he's healthy he should get a chance to showcase what he can do -- perhaps he should start taking some ground balls at second base?  It's not like Luis Mateo needs loads and loads of PA's to slug under .300 again this year.

It would be hard to keep all of those guys down through mid-season if you were any other team...but when you're the Cardinals and you have a really solid outfield already, you give them as many AAA PA's as they can get to develop. Piscotty should see most of the time in RF (and looked very good there on Thursday night in the mist with a tough sky - Grichuk got credited with a hit when he hit a sky-high pop up that both Iowa's RF completely lost track of) and Grichuk most of the time in CF, which leaves Taveras to play LF. Not sure that's best for him from a developmental standpoint since the Cardinals could more likely use him in CF if he can play there at an average rate. It's possible that they aren't going to push the ankle any more than needed and Grichuk really needs to prove that he can play CF anyway. Still, I wonder what the big club is going to do if Taveras is tearing up AAA while Matt Adams and Allen Craig are hitting well in the big leagues and Jay/Bourjos are struggling. Do you promote him and give him the innings in CF when he hasn't played there much at all during his stint at AAA?

Best Projected Lineup:

  1. Garcia (SS)
  2. Grichuk (CF)
  3. Taveras (LF)
  4. Piscotty (RF)
  5. Moore (3B)
  6. Scruggs (1B)
  7. Curtis (2B)
  8. Perez (C)
  9. Pitcher

Garcia should get a number of innings at 2B, 3B, and SS as he's likely going to be called on as a utility guy, but he should be leading off, followed by the three outfielders. I picked this alignment due to the L/R/L/R/L/R nature of it and the fact the Grichuk seems like a good two hole hitter if he can figure out how to take a few more walks. Regardless, this should be a lineup that scores plenty of runs against AAA pitching as you have at least 4 big league quality hitters at the top, with solid contributors in Moore and Scruggs following them up. If this group is kept here all season and the rotation gets an upgrade with Petrick in July, I'd expect this team to contend for the PCL title again this season, even after graduating a number of players to the big leagues from a year ago. Such is the depth of the Cardinal farm system.

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