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System Sundays: The Heroes of Memphis

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The Memphis Redbirds won their first Triple A championship, and there were several breakout performances along the way.

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals
Former Memphis star Tyler O’Neill
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I don’t have a lot of time this morning, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. Hopefully.

If you follow the Cardinals’ minor league system at all, you probably have already heard that the Memphis Redbirds are the champions of not just the Pacific Coast League, but all of Triple A baseball for 2018. Last year they dropped the Triple A championship game to the Durham Bulls; this year El Baby Birdos avenged that loss against that same Durham club.

The season had plenty of great performances and heroes; you don’t roll up two historically great seasons back to back without having a lot of talent. Tyler O’Neill was the Redbirds’ best player for much of the season, and Dakota Hudson was named PCL Pitcher of the Year. Both players are now at the big league level, probably to stay (Hudson less certain than O’Neill, clearly), but both were huge parts of the incredible record Memphis managed to roll up in the early part of the season.

What I’m more interested in here today, though, is the future, rather than the present. Dakota Hudson and Tyler O’Neill are part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ present. I want to highlight a couple players who significantly raised their stocks late in the season, and into the postseason, as they propelled Memphis to its first-ever Triple A title.

I have four players I want to highlight, guys who pushed their profiles higher, and must now be considered among the potential first wave of reinforcements we may see in 2019, if and when the big league club has to reach down into the system to fill whatever holes may arise.

Lane Thomas, OF

Thomas actually spent the majority of the season in Double A Springfield, which makes his inclusion here somewhat of a surprise. However, after beating up on Double A pitching to the tune of a 123 wRC+ for much of the year, Thomas was promoted to Memphis late, struggled initially, and then finished strong, appearing to make the same sort of adjustments at the plate that led to his great year in Springfield.

The overall numbers in Memphis were not crazy good; a 110 wRC+ boosted by a .326 BABIP is not exactly the stuff of legend. He was also much too aggressive at the plate early on after his promotion, and he ultimately posted just a 5.0% walk rate in 140 Triple A plate appearances. That, after a walk rate near 10% in Springfield. However, Thomas finished the season on an upswing, showcasing his power/speed combo in the postseason, with an .804 OPS against top-notch pitching talent, and his approach improved the longer he was at the level.

As things stand right now, Thomas’s future with the Cardinals is somewhat clouded by the fact he’s a right-handed hitter, and the Cards are absolutely lousy with right-handed hitting outfielders. With that one caveat, however, he looks to me like a better, more ready bet to perform as a big league fourth outfielder in the near future than Justin Williams, who is a much higher rated prospect in most quarters. Thomas’s ability to handle center field is a boon to his chances, as well.

Randy Arozarena, OF

Ah, Randy. One of my favourites in the system, still, but a player who nonetheless just put up one of the stranger, more confusing seasons I can remember seeing from a guy this talented. Depending upon which day you saw Arozarena, you could think he was a good prospect of a power/speed sort, a good prospect of a patience/contact sort, or not a prospect at all. He absolutely clobbered Double A, posting an 1.136 OPS (211 wRC+), in just over 100 plate appearances, but he struggled overall for Memphis, coming to the plate 311 times and putting up just an 81 wRC+. His strikeout to walk ratio in Triple A was very solid, but he showed essentially zero power, and even posted a low BABIP, the result of loads of suboptimal contact.

However, once the postseason began, Randy Arozarena transformed himself into Memphis’s best player, and managed to switch up the narrative on his season as a whole in doing so. In the playoffs, Arozarena came to bat 32 times. He walked five times. He struck out five times. He collected eleven hits, including three doubles and two home runs. Overall, his postseason OPS was 1.226, and he basically showed off every tool and ability that makes him so exciting a player to watch. There was power, speed, defense, patience, and contact. At various times since signing with the Cardinals, Arozarena has shown all of those tools, but never really all at the same time.

Until now.

Now we just have to wait and hope that the all-around game Arozarena brought to the postseason carries over to 2019.

Jake Woodford, RHP

I’ll admit that I’ve never been a huge believer in Jake Woodford. He was not at all my favourite pick of the Cardinals when they selected him out of Plant High School in Florida a few years ago (part of the Chris Correa draft in 2015), and his lack of strikeout punch up to this point in his minor league career has mostly served to confirm what downside I saw in him at the time. I liked him better than Connor Jones, another low-K sinkerballer taken in the early rounds by the Cardinals, but not as much better as I would prefer.

An interesting thing happened once Memphis made it into the postseason, though: Jake Woodford just...got better. Like, a lot better. He didn’t really look all that different, honestly; he didn’t start throwing a different pitch, or throwing harder, or anything like that. He was sharper, yes, but didn’t really look different. Just, you know, better.

Which, in an only somewhat paradoxical way, makes his sudden improvement less exciting. If something overt had changed, it would be easy to look at the performance and rationalise the improvement. Because he didn’t really appear to be doing anything differently, just better, it’s a little easier to believe it was just a hot streak.

However, even if it was only a hot streak, it was one hell of a hot streak, and really showcased the very best of what Woodford has to offer. He threw 11.1 innings in the playoffs for Memphis, and the statline he rolled up is pretty extreme: a 0.79 ERA, just five hits, two walks, and ten strikeouts. Strangely, he did not actually run the extreme groundball rate he normally does in the playoffs, and to my eye he seemed to be working a little more North/South with his fastball, rather than focusing entirely on the bottom of the strike zone, as he has in the past, so perhaps there’s a little more giddy up — and empty swings — to be found at the top of the zone for him. Regardless, when I sit down to start putting together the official list this offseason, I can say already that Woodford’s sudden star turn in the postseason at Triple A is going to affect my opinion of him. How much? I don’t know yet. But even in just under a dozen innings he showed me something I’ve never seen from him before. And now that I’ve seen it, I know it’s in there.

Will Latcham, RHP

I remember liking Will Latcham when the Cardinals drafted him out of Coastal Carolina, as a live-armed relief-only guy without a whole lot of secondary stuff. I honestly hadn’t seen him a whole lot since then, though, as he knocked around the lower minors the last two seasons. He was promoted to Memphis for their playoff run specifically, and in making two appearances for the Redbirds he jumped back to my mind as a guy I expect to make the big leagues, and possibly have a pretty nice career.

Latcham threw just 3.2 innings, and the overall results weren’t exceptional; his ERA in the postseason for Memphis was 4.91. But in those three-plus innings, he also struck out six batters, walked just one, and generally missed a lot of bats. The breaking ball was a little sharper than I remember, but mostly Latcham just has a fastball that seems to get on hitters faster than they expect. Good velocity, into the mid 90s, but even that doesn’t quite capture how late most of the swings against him were. There were a few solidly struck balls, yes, but with a little more refinement I really do think Latcham has a future as a John Brebbia type, working in the seventh inning neighbourhood.

Apologies for the abbreviated post, everybody, but I have things to attend to today, and so I’ll call it there. Let’s hope the big club can finish off the sweep this afternoon against those pesky Giants; they need every win they can get right now.

See you tomorrow.