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The Minorest Leaguers

In general I'd rather watch the highest level of a sport than its lower rungs, but there's something to be said for the kind of weird diversity you can get in a league where you've still got bizarre outliers and uncontacted, self-educated types, the players whose swings make about as much sense as steampunk computers. It may be that everybody should swing, for instance, the way our own thepainguy espouses, but there's something fascinating about players who don't. And those players are more likely to be successful in the low minors. 

So, without sticking at all to the actual prospects, I think it might be interesting to have a handle on the various players we'll watch filtering into and out of canonical short-season ball in 2011. In the interest of proving my reluctance to stick mostly or even entirely to prospects, we'll start in the Dominican Summer League, in which the best hitters had a team OPS of .752 and the worst an OPS of .553. The home run champion, the Yankees-2's  Ravel Santana, hit more (10) than eight other teams, including the DSL Cardinals

It's like the Union Association out there, and while the Cardinals graduated a fast-moving prospect out of the DSL just last year they don't have any Fred Dunlaps in reserve. (There's my argument: Put Daniel Descalso in the DSL for a year, just because I happen to like weird, unbalanced leagues.)

Last year's DSL Cardinals didn't have a single player hit more than one home run—eight players, between 17 and 19, each hit one over the course of 71 games. (Last year's top sluggers graduated to the GCL Cardinals or Johnson City.) In a league with this much noise—the average line is .235/.334/.311, which shouldn't look very familiar—it's hard to say who's worth watching. 

But if you want to pick a hitter, why not Luis Perez, who hit .302/.409/.397 as an 18-year-old, with a nice 29:21 BB:K ratio. Sure! He even hit one of the home runs. That .806 OPS would probably give him a huge PEDROFELIZ+, but it's important to remember that in the DSL there isn't really enough talent to discern a reasonable league average—the Cardinals trotted out five players over at least 30 games who finished with an OPS under .504. 

The pitching side is even harder to figure out. The DSL Cardinals averaged 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, two higher than league average. Considering the Cardinals had an actual prospect in the DSL last year, Carlos Martinez, I'm willing to punt everybody else until I write this post again in 2012. 

The GCL Cardinals are the next step up, and also impossible to deal with. GCL games just barely avoid being scrimmages. Zack Cox got his feet wet there—6-15 in four games. Roberto De La Cruz, one of the Cardinals' early big-bonus international signings, showed a little competence after a disastrous age-17 season, hitting .241/.291/.432 with seven home runs.

He also showed a level of third base competence I haven't seen this side of Levi Meyerle (or Matt Holliday), making 19 errors in 41 games for a fielding percentage of .835. In his brief promotion to rookie-level Johnson City he fielded five balls in nine chances, which would be a good result for somebody plucked out of the stands during the seventh-inning stretch and given a shot to win a Johnson City Cardinals foam finger.  

(Baseball blog rule: If somebody brings up your fielding percentage, it's always bad news.)

It makes sense to mention two other GCL hitters of note together—Anthony Garcia, an 18th-rounder from Puerto Rico was really bad and incredibly young for the 2009 GCL squad; at 17 he hit .235/.316/.333 in 23 games, mostly as a catcher. Moved to the outfield in 2010, he hit well enough to move on to the actual minor leagues—.284/.406/.457 in the GCL, and then 1-3 with Johnson City. He also did a little catching near the end of the season, which means we could have another Steven Hill/Bryan Anderson situation in four years if everything breaks our way. 

Samuel Tuivailala, whose name I find only slightly easier to spell after remembering Hoomanawanui all football season, was 17 all last season for the 2010 GCL Cardinals, and hit .178/.335/.256. It's a weird debut—in 162 plate appearances he avoided contact 64 times, but at least 29 of those retreats were walks. Tuivailala is a shortstop but roamed briefly around the outfield last season, presumably to shake his bat out of the coma. He's got an interesting bat and a great fastball, which makes him Robert Stock, but the Cardinals are presumably several years from considering moving him to the mound—he's closer to not being allowed to go to the prom than he is to A-ball. 

On the pitching side there's Bryan Martinez, who made a nice stateside debut after teaming with Carlos in the DSL. Among the other starters there was Javier Avendano, who struck out 52 recent high school graduates in 40 innings and put together an ERA of 1.35. He's in the states for good at 20 after spending two years with the Cardinals' Venezuelan team. 

Recently Bill James wrote a fascinating article suggesting the solution to minor league baseball's attendance problems and Major League Baseball's developmental was to make it enormous and largely self-contained—field more teams, leave players on their teams for a full year, require everybody to spend a few years at one rung or another. (I'd link to it but it's locked entirely behind the Bill James Online paywall.) The Gulf Coast League and the other so-called complex leagues are symptomatic of the way things have gone instead; these guys are basically playing in the dark until they reach Johnson City. 

Hopefully a few of them will be worth watching on Future Redbirds once they do.