A thing happened the other day that got me thinking. A couple other things have also happened that had me thinking anyway, and maybe we should get to those first.
Those other things are the multiple league championships that the various Cardinals’ affiliates have won this season. State College wrapped up the New York-Penn League championship just last night, becoming the latest Cards’ affiliate to take home hardware in 2016. Side note: New York-Penn League, please, for the love of god, figure out a different name. Every time I write, say, or even think your current name, I think of a New York-based penal league. Like Rick Vaughn was in. Just swap Penn and New York around, or something. I don’t care. Just fix it. Further side note: ‘penal league’ almost always makes me laugh.
Anyhow, State College are NYPL champions for 2016, having swept the best-of-three title series against Hudson Valley. That’s great. But let’s not forget that Johnson City, the Cards’ other short-season affiliate, also won their league title. (Appalachian League, specifically.) The Gulf Coast League Cardinals won the GCL championship about a week and a half ago.
Besides the title winners, the Redbirds’ system also had other teams in the hunt, who fell just a little shot in the playoffs. Peoria was knocked out in the first round of the Midwest League playoffs by Clinton. Springfield was edged out by Northwest Arkansas in the opening round of the Texas League playoffs. Only Memphis and Palm Beach really had forgettable seasons, and I would imagine at least part of Memphis’s woes came from once again being heavily raided by the big club at various points in the season.
I’m not sure how strong a correlation there is between minor league championships within a farm system and future big league success. I’m also not entirely sure minor league championships really mean a whole lot in terms of the actual quality of prospects a system can boast. You would think there would be a decently high correlation, but I don’t really know. It would seem, looking at where the Redbirds’ various farm teams finished, that Chris Correa and Randy Flores absolutely killed the last two drafts, considering all three of the Cards’ short-season affiliates won titles this year.
So congratulations to all those clubs that succeeded, and congratulations to Memphis for being an awesome, fun city with a great ballpark. Palm Beach, sorry, but I have nothing to recommend you for. You’re in Florida and your baseball team was mediocre. There are no two worse things I can think of to say about a place.
The main thing that happened that got me to thinking about this subject, though, was an exchange I had just the other day at work. I was at my place of employment, and the UPS guy came in. Now, the UPS guy comes in all the time, and a somewhat ritualised exchange has developed between us. If the Cardinals happen to have lost the game the night before, when John the UPS guy sees me, he’ll say, “Hey, Aaron. Your Cardinals suck.” At which point I will generally agree with him, and we will then move on with our jobs, having gone through the blue-collar male version of dogs sniffing each other’s asses in greeting. I’m very grateful to be a human and not a dog, by the way.
On this particular morning, though, the Cardinals had won the night before, and so John said to me, “Hey, Aaron. Your Cardinals almost don’t suck.” Which is, of course, the standard sort of opening line when they won. It’s not as ritualised as the losing line, but it’s usually something along those lines.
After a few more exchanges of banter, he asked me if there was anything coming up for the Cardinals. He knows I write about the team, and knows I follow the minor leagues far more avidly than the majority of fans. So anytime he wants to know the state of Redbird prospects, he just asks me. I serve a similar function for my father, actually, and a few other people in my life.
When I answered that no, there wasn’t anything on the immediate horizon for the club, and that everything good they were going to bring up this year was already up, he said something to the effect of, the farm system’s really dried up, huh? Not the exact words, but that’s the gist of the thing.
I was in the middle of doing something, and so didn’t really make the effort to engage much further in the conversation, but internally I was thinking to myself, good god, what do you expect? The system produced two more starting pitchers just this year, following wave after wave of graduations in the last few years. You can’t possibly expect even more, can you?
So in my head, for the rest of the day, I went back over the past few years, listing to myself the various and sundry prospects who had debuted. And while I was doing this, I actually became more and more impressed with the Cardinal system, even to an extent I wasn’t before.
In the day to day, it’s easy to look at one or two specific prospects doing the kind of coverage we do here at VEB, or even just for the casual prospect follower. You think a certain guy has a chance to be really good, and you focus in on that player, and it’s easy to lose perspective, to sort of forget where the system as a whole is. If the two or three players you’re way into have good seasons, system must be doing great. Those couple guys fall on their face, system sucks, obviously.
So in order to give the Cards’ farm system some well-deserved love, and to perhaps give everyone that long view we should probably take from time to time, I thought I would go back and just list the most notable Redbird prospects to debut each year. Deciding what year to start was a bit of a challenge, but I settled on 2011 after some consideration. That was the last year of both the Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols eras, and so represents a good transitional sort of period, I think. I’m not going to go into every single player to make a major league debut each year — sorry, Alberto Rosarios of the world — but the notable players I’m going to. I would like to point out this misses by just one year on Allen Craig, which I regret. But, 2011 feels more significant to me than 2010. So beginning with the Cardinals’ last championship season, the last year of the greatest player I’ve ever personally seen wearing the Birds on the Bat, we have:
- Matt Carpenter — A 13th round pick in 2009, Carpenter came up in 2011 for 19 uneventful plate appearances, in which he walked a bunch, struck out a fair amount, and had some truly horrific batted-ball luck. He then turned into a multi-position star in 2012, and to date has been worth 20.7 wins above replacement in his career.
- Tony Cruz — Hey, they can’t all be world-beaters, and Tony Cruz was a perfectly fine backup catcher for league minimum for a couple years.
- Lance Lynn — The big fella came up and pitched mostly in relief (when the phone worked, that is), in 2011, then made a very successful transition to the rotation the next season. He’s torturous to watch at times (or maybe that’s just me), but a 112 career ERA+ is nothing to sneeze at.
- Eduardo Sanchez — Remember how exciting Eduardo Sanchez was? Unfortunately, throwing sliders that unreal seemingly destroyed his arm, and he was last seen pitching for the Cubs in 2013.
- Pete Kozma — It sure is a shame Kozma never learned how to hit, isn’t it? We’ve seen just how hard it is to find a really good fielder at the shortstop position, and for all his faults, the Koz could pick it.
- Matt Adams — I’ll admit, Adams has been a bit of a disappointment to me since his monster debut back in 2012. He’s still the best player from Slippery Rock University I know of, though, and a key part of that unbelievable 2009 draft the Cardinals engineered.
- Joe Kelly — Always miscast as a starter, Kelly should really have found his place as a righthanded Zach Britton by now, but he’s still somehow always in a rotation. Still, he brought the Cards back John Lackey (along with the aforementioned Allen Craig), so good value. Also part of the 2009 draft class.
- Ryan Jackson — Sure is a shame Ryan Jackson never learned how to hit, isn’t it? We’ve seen...oh, you know the story. Another 2009 draftee.
- Sam Freeman — I always thought there was more in Freeman’s arm than we saw, even though he was actually really good in limited action for the Cards in both 2013 and 2014. The walk rate just never really came under control, though.
- Shelby Miller — Okay, so I kind of buried the lede here with this one, as Miller is obviously the biggest deal to have debuted in 2012. Honestly, though, he feels like a 2013 debut to me, so I kind of forgot. He gave the Cards one great year and one mediocre to ugh year, then brought back Jason Heyward. Now he’s, um, never mind.
- Trevor Rosenthal — Rosie also feels like a 2013 debut to me for some reason, but nope. Another one of those 2009 draft class success stories (Miller was the first rounder that season, by the way), Rosenthal moved through the system in a hurry considering he was a juco guy, and became one of the better closers in recent memory for a period of time.
- Carlos Martinez — Not going to bury the lede this time; Carlos is the young pitcher the Cardinals’ rotation is going to be built around for the next half decade, at least.
- Michael Wacha — I miss 2013 Michael Wacha. I thought there was a chance he was going to be a long-term building block, barely a year after I (mildly), panned him as a draft pick because I didn’t see the stuff as any better than a #4 starter, and felt there were better options on the board. Well, he looks like a #4 starter at best nowadays, too, but the way he’s gotten there has been rather circuitous, to say the least.
- Tyler Lyons — Well, the team certainly got handsomer in 2013.
- Kevin Siegrist — I miss 2013 Kevin Siegrist, too. That 832 ERA+ was pretty good.
- Seth Maness — It was really the year of reliever debuts in 2013, wasn’t it? Carlos came up in the bullpen, Siegrist jumped into a prominent role immediately, and Maness did his magic trick double play thing every time out. Lyons ended up in the ‘pen, and now it looks like relief might be the best chance Pac-Man has to stay healthy.
- Kolten Wong — Wong had one of the quickest rises through the system of any player not named Wacha, and while his initial stint in 2013 was anything but memorable (well, I guess his World Series was memorable, but not in the way you would like), but since Wong has been worth 5.0 WAR and is still yet to turn 26 years old.
- Randal Grichuk — Did you know Randal was drafted ahead of Mike Trout?
- Greg Garcia — Did you know Greg Garcia once drew a walk while driving to the ballpark?
- Tommy Pham — Did you know that Tommy Pham was drafted by the late, great Dal Maxvill in the late 80s?
- Marco Gonzales — Did you know that Marco Gonzales, um, uh...was born in Colorado?
- Sam Tuivailala — Did you know Tuivailala was the pitcher who issued the walk to Greg Garcia while the latter was driving to the park? Tui was showering at the time, and missed up and away with the shampoo.
- Oscar Taveras — Sigh.
- Stephen Piscotty — No, I haven’t entirely forgotten how much fun it was to watch Jason Heyward patrol right field last season. But having a ~125 wRC+, 3-3.5 win outfielder ready to step right in to that spot helps quite a lot.
- Tim Cooney — Hey, remember Tim Cooney? That was a fun thing, right? To have one of those junky lefties who happened to secretly be really good in our rotation for a change? Sure wish he hadn’t gotten lupus of the shoulder.
- Mitch Harris — Good story. Not as good a pitcher.
I have to admit, I’m a little surprised this is basically all the notable debuts there were in 2015. It felt like there should have been more, but no.
- Seung-hwan Oh — Okay, so probably not a credit to the Cards’ minor league system. Hell of a signing, though, right?
- Aledmys Diaz — You all saw that home run last night, right? Case closed.
- Alex Reyes — The walks are definitely a problem. Then again, if no one can hit you, the walks can be somewhat mitigated. Still, Reyes needs some more work. He’s also the most exciting arm the Cards have developed since at least Carlos, and maybe longer than that. (Though I’m still betting Martinez is the better pitcher over a career.)
- Luke Weaver — Kind of amazing how a guy with Weaver’s numbers in the minors this year could possibly be overlooked, but when there’s another player right above you on the organisational list who sucks up so much of the oxygen the way Reyes does, it happens. Weaver should never see the minors again, aside from potential rehab starts.
- Carson Kelly — The book is still waiting to be written on Kelly, but for the moment he’s the heir apparent to Yadi, and probably deserves that spot. Will probably head back to the minors to begin 2017, but he’s not far off.
I can’t give credit for Matt Bowman, though he’s been another really positive mark on the club’s scouting side this year.
Obviously, there are hits and misses here. For every Matt Carpenter or Lance Lynn, there’s an Eduardo Sanchez who just disappeared after injury issues or a Ryan Jackson who just busted. But seriously, just look at that list. The Cardinals are in playoff contention again this season, the same as pretty much every season, and this list is the main reason why.
You could make an entire starting eight out of just this list of players, and wouldn’t have to stretch anyone positionally to do so. And then you could put a borderline Cy Young candidate on the mound to start said game.
Speaking of that borderline Cy Young candidate, the game today is at noon. Enjoy, everybody. And while you’re watching, spare a moment to marvel at just how much of what you see on the field has been carefully cultivated by quite possibly the best front office in baseball.