The Cardinals’ four full-season minor league affiliates opened the season on May 4th, 2021. On Saturday, I covered Low-A Palm Beach. On Sunday, I gave a treatment of High-A Peoria. On Monday, I covered AA Springfield. Today, I finish the series with the AAA Memphis Redbirds.
TRIPLE A-EAST (SOUTHEAST DIVISION)
Triple-A has received the most restructuring out of all the minor league classifications. The old Pacific Coast League was a 16-team league, divided into the American and Pacific Conferences, each of which had Northern and Southern Divisions. In 2019, the Redbirds played in the American Northern alongside the Iowa Cubs (Cubs), Nashville Sounds (Rangers) and Omaha Storm Chasers (Royals). The American Southern had the Round Rock Express (Astros), San Antonio Missions (Brewers), New Orleans Baby Cakes (Marlins) and Oklahoma City Dodgers (Dodgers). The Pacific Northern had the Sacramento River River Cats (Giants), Reno Aces (Diamondbacks), Fresno Grizzlies (Nationals) and Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners). And the Pacific Southern featured the Las Vegas Aviators (Athletics), El Paso Chihuahuas (Padres), Salt Lake Bees (Angels), and Albuquerque Isotopes (Rockies).
The Redbirds will are now playing in what has been branded as the Triple-A East League, which is a mammoth 20-team league that looks almost nothing like the Pacific Coast League, but makes more geographic sense. There are only 10 teams in the new Triple-A West League, and the Mexican League is now an independent league and no longer part of minor league baseball. The only 2019 Pacific Coast League teams in the new Triple-A East league are Memphis, Iowa, Nashville and Omaha. As you will see shortly, Nashville is the only one of those clubs the Redbirds will play, and even that club switched its affiliation. The Redbirds will be facing entirely new opponents in almost entirely new ballparks.
The Memphis Redbirds will play in the Southeast Division alongside the Charlotte Knights (White Sox), Durham Bulls (Rays), Gwinnett Stripers (Braves), Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Marlins), Nashville Sounds (Brewers) and Norfolk Tides (Orioles). Jacksonville was the AA team for the Marlins and has been bumped up one classification. Nashville was the AAA team for the Rangers, but has returned their affiliation to the Brewers, with whom they were affiliated from 2005 through 2014. Other than Memphis and Jacksonville, all the other divisional opponents come from the old AAA International League.
The Midwest Division consists of the Columbus Clippers (Indians), Indianapolis Indians (Pirates), Iowa Cubs (Cubs), Louisville Bats (Reds), Omaha Storm Chasers (Royals), St. Paul Saints (Twins), and Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers). The Northeast Division features the Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays), Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies), Rochester Red Wings (Nationals), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (Yankees), Syracuse Mets (Mets), and Worcester Red Sox (Red Sox). Other than Iowa and Omaha, who came from the Pacific Coast League, and the St. Paul Saints, who were in the independent American Association of Professional Baseball, these clubs also came from the old International League. The St. Paul club is the new AAA Affiliate of the Twins, which was long predicted because their facilities are 15 minutes away from the major league stadium. The Twins’ old AAA team was Rochester, which is switching affiliations to the Nationals. The AAA club of the Red Sox moved from Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Worcester, Massachusetts.
The AAA season was scheduled to open on April 6th, but was pushed back to May 4th along with the other full-season classifications. The primary reasons for the change were to allow for players to get vaccinated and to delay commercial air travel. Starting on May 4th and ending on September 19th, the club will play a six-game series against another club every Tuesday through Sunday, and every Monday will be a day off. This will amount to 20 six-game series for a total of 120 games, instead of the 142-game schedule that was originally planned. There will be no All-Star Game and no playoffs.
Of all the Cardinal affiliates, the Memphis schedule is the most odd, because it reflects the unwieldy nature of the large league. Of the clubs in the Redbirds’ division, the club will not play Charlotte at all, will play Jacksonville for only 1 home series, and will only play 1 home and 1 road series each against Durham and Norfolk. The club will play Nashville for 1 series at home and 2 series on the road. The Redbirds’ most frequent opponent will be Louisville, a club not in the division, whom they will play for 2 road and 2 home series. Of the clubs in the other divisions of Triple-A East, Memphis will only play Columbus (1 home series), Indianapolis (1 road series) and Toledo (1 home and 1 road series).
EXPERIMENTAL RULE CHANGE
The size of first, second and third base will increase from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. It is hoped that this will result in fewer player collisions and spiking incidents and that the slightly shorter distance between bases will result in greater numbers of stolen bases and infield hits. J.J. Cooper from Baseball America reports that the Triple A-East League, in which Memphis plays, will use the new base during the first half season, and the Triple-A West League will use the enlarged base for the second half, but that base will be manufactured by a different company. The purpose of the leagues only using the enlarged base for half the season is to identify if the change made any difference.
*Manager: Ben Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round of the 1999 draft, but the Cards needed another catcher by the trade deadline in 2000 and traded Johnson and Heathcliff Slocumb to the San Diego Padres for catcher Carlos Hernandez and minor leaguer Nate Tebbs. That was Johnson’s age-19 season. Johnson played parts of the 2005 and 2006 season as an outfielder with the Padres and closed his major league career in part of the 2007 season with the Mets. After retiring from professional baseball as a player in 2010, he coached in high school, managed the Arizona Centennials in the independent Freedom Pro League in 2012, scouted for the Diamondbacks for 3 years and coached in 2018 for the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Rays. He was named the Memphis manager for 2019 when Stubby Clapp became the Cardinals’ first base coach.
*Pitching Coach: Dernier Orozco. He has been the Memphis pitching coach since 2018. He played one season in the minors in the Red Sox system in 2003, and by 2006, he was a Cardinal coach in the old Venezuelan Summer League. He was the pitching coach for the Cards for the old VSL squad, the GCL squad, and at the Short-Season and Low-A levels before serving for Memphis.
*Hitting Coach: Brandon Allen. He had a brief major league career. He was drafted in the 5th round of the 2004 draft by the White Sox, and broke into the majors in 2009 with the Diamondbacks. He spent parts of 4 years in the majors with the Diamondbacks, Athletics and Rays. He played in the minors through the 2016 season with an assortment of clubs. After retiring, he joined the Cardinal organization and served as the hitting coach for Johnson City in 2017, Palm Beach in 2018, and Springfield in 2019. He was set to be the Memphis hitting coach for the 2020 season before the minor league seasons were canceled.
*Strength and Conditioning Coach: Frank Witowski.
*Trainer: Dan Martin. Martin has been a trainer in the Cardinal organization for various clubs since 2013 and with Memphis specifically since 2019.
*There was a reason why I delayed writing this Memphis preview until its season actually started. I knew that the 26-man tentative opening day roster the club announced in a press release would not be the roster the club actually used. One reason for that is that the Alternate Training Sites are now closed, and the 5-man taxi squad only operates while the major league club is on the road. I also knew that that the Cards would option one or more players to Memphis before May 4th. Since I wanted to provide you with the full roster that Memphis actually opened with, I decided to wait.
*That turned out to be all true. Not only did the announced roster not include Lane Thomas or Austin Dean, the latter of whom was optioned on May 3rd, but it included Johan Oviedo, who was recalled by the Cardinals on May 4th. It also did not include Jose Rondon and Tyler Heineman who were on the Cardinals’ taxi squad during its road trip to Pittsburgh that ended after the game on May 2nd.
*Tyler Heineman, whom the Cards signed to a minor league deal and invited to spring training, was the taxi squad catcher on the Cards’ most recent road trip. The taxi squad does not operate in its full implementation when the major league club is playing at home. By that I mean that the only taxi squad player allowed for home games is a catcher that is permitted to serve as a bullpen catcher and work out with the club, but is not permitted to be in uniform and in the dugout during the game. The taxi squad makes sense for road games, because it makes it much easier for the club to make a last-minute roster move. And I can see using a taxi squad catcher at home last season when there were no minor league games and the only other place to put the player was at the Alternate Training Site. But it doesn’t make much sense to have a catcher signed to a minor league deal that just sits around with the major league club all year and doesn’t play in available minor league games. The major league club has two coaches—Jamie Pogue and Kleininger Teran—whose listed job is bullpen catcher. I understand that players like Heineman have not had much of a market this season, but I’m not sure that a player trying to get back in the big leagues would sign with a club, knowing that he would just hang out with the big club but never have a chance to play in the minors and showcase his skills. This is the reason taxi squads have historically been illegal. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cardinals didn’t use a taxi squad catcher at home now that the AAA season has started. Heineman was listed on the Gameday application as available on the Memphis bench, and until I find out otherwise, I am taking that to mean he was in the Memphis dugout.
*My last point about the major league taxi squad is that it while it is still permitted to have a 5-man taxi squad on the road, I wonder if the Cards won’t use a smaller number like 3. If they have the full 5, I’m interested to see what roster ramifications that will have on the affiliates. Will Memphis just roll with what it has, or will we see cascading promotions throughout the chain every time the Cards go on the road?
*Ricardo Sanchez was listed as on the opening day roster for Memphis, but there was no way that could possibly happen. This is the same Ricardo Sanchez that pitched for the big club last season then went on the 60-day IL with an elbow injury. The Cards outrighted him after the season, then re-signed him to a minor league deal after became a Rule 55 minor league free agent. He had Tommy John surgery in October, and will be out for the season. He has now been removed from the roster on the Memphis home page, and I can’t explain why he was included in the opening roster announcement. He also wasn’t listed in the transaction pages as being put on any injured list. If I had to guess, I would say he was put on the Memphis 60-day IL, but I’m not sure what his official status is.
*The roster size of AAA clubs is usually 25, but has been expanded this year to 28. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America notes here, major league clubs impose restrictions on their AAA affiliates. For example, clubs often have a rule that only one 40-man roster player may pitch on one day, just in case the major league club needs a fresh arm. The initial roster the Redbirds announced was only 26 players, but they opened with the maximum allowable 28.
Jesus Cruz, Alex FaGalde, Junior Fernandez, Bernardo Flores, Jr. (L), Connor Jones, Matthew Liberatore (L), Tommy Parsons, Roel Ramirez, Angel Rondon, Zack Thompson (L), Austin Warner (L), Garrett Williams (L)
Aaron Antonini (L), Tyler Heineman, Dennis Ortega
Rayder Ascanio, Evan Mendoza, Max Moroff (S), Kramer Robertson, Jose Rondon
Conner Capel (L), Austin Dean, Scott Hurst (L), Lars Nootbaar (L), Matt Szczur, Lane Thomas
7-DAY IL (2)
Evan Kruczynski (L), Johan Quezada
**I don’t know what injuries Krucynski and Quezada have sustained. They’re not announced publicly on the transaction pages, and minor league clubs don’t have to file a doctor’s certificate to place players on the minor league injured list like major league clubs. I’ll do my best to try and track it down. The club did not make any corresponding roster moves to account for these injuries, so Memphis opened the season with a 26-man active roster, two short of the maximum allowable 28. A situation like this helps explain the expansion of the roster size. In many instances in a past minor league season, you would have seen players shuffled from AA to AAA and throughout the chain to accommodate these injuries. But because of the COVID protocols, it will be more difficult to shift players all over the country. Unless there is some sort of dire situation or purposeful promotion or demotion, I think you’ll see the clubs wait to make roster moves until the Monday off days.
**Methods of acquisition of the players:
*2019: Thompson (1st round), Antonini (18th round)
*2018: Nootbaar (8th round)
*2017: Hurst (3rd round), Robertson (4th round), Kruczynski (9th round), Mendoza (11th round), FaGalde (30th round)
*2016: Jones (2nd round)
*International free agents: Fernandez (DR 2014), Rondon (DR 2016), Ortega (Venezuela 2013 future service)
*Undrafted: Parsons (Adrian College, signed 6/12/18)
*Signed out of independent ball: Warner (undrafted out of Bellarmine University; pitched one summer and part of another for the River City Rascals of the independent Frontier League before the Cardinal organization purchased his contract on 6/23/17).
*Purchased from a foreign league: (Cruz 7/2/17, purchased from Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League, where he debuted in organized baseball in the spring of 2017; added to 40-man roster 8/18/20, outrighted to Memphis 9/3/20).
*Outright assignment waiver claim: Flores (claimed 4/1/21 from White Sox; originally drafted in the 7th round of the 2016 draft); Sanchez (claimed 2/6/20 from Mariners, outrighted to AAA Memphis 10/30/20, declared Rule 55 minor league free agent 11/2/20, re-signed to a minor league deal 11/16/20; originally signed with the Angels in 2013 for future service out of Venezuela).
*Rule 5 draft: Williams (minor league portion of the December 2020 draft, taken from the Angels after 4 years in the Giants organization and 1 year in the Angels organization; originally drafted by the Giants in the 7th round of the 2016 draft, then traded to Angels 12/12/19).
*Minor league free agents: Heineman (signed 11/14/20; originally drafted in the 8th round of the 2012 draft by the Astros; has MLB experience with the Marlins in 2019 and the Giants in 2020; outrighted by Giants, 11/1/20, declared Rule 55 minor league free agent 11/2/20), Moroff (signed 12/15/20; originally drafted in the 16th round of the 2012 draft by the Pirates; has MLB experience with the Pirates from 2016 through 2018 and the Indians in 2019; most recently on a minor league deal with the Mets for 2020, declared Rule 55 minor league free agent 11/2/20), Rondon (signed 12/17/20; originally signed with the Angels in 2011 as an international free agent out of Venezuela; has MLB experience with the Padres in 2016, the White Sox in 2018 and 2019 and the Orioles in 2019; most recently on a minor league deal with the Orioles for 2020, declared Rule 55 minor league free agent 11/2/20), Szczur (signed 2/14/21; originally drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 draft by the Cubs; has MLB experience with the Cubs from 2014 through 2017 and the Padres in 2017 and 2018; most recently on a minor league deal with the Phillies for 2020, was released by their AAA club 6/27/20).
*Trade: Liberatore (1/9/20 traded by Rays with Edgardo Rodriguez to Cardinals for Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena, with the clubs also swapping Competitive Balance Round draft picks; originally drafted by the Rays in the 1st round of the 2018 draft); Quezada (2/10/21 traded by Phillies to Cardinals for cash considerations; originally signed with the Twins in 2012 as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic for service in 2013); Ramirez (7/31/18 traded by Rays to with Genesis Cabrera and Justin Williams to Cardinals for Tommy Pham and international signing bonus pool money; added to 40-man roster 8/5/20, outrighted to Memphis 9/25/20, re-signed to successor minor league contract some time before 11/2/20 to avoid Rule 55 minor league free agency; originally drafted by the Rays in the 8th round of the 2013 draft); Ascanio (8/30/17 traded by Mariners to Cardinals for Mike Leake, international signing bonus pool money and cash considerations; originally signed with the Mariners in 2012 as an international free agent for service in 2013); Capel (7/31/18 traded by Indians with Jhon Torres to Cardinals for Oscar Mercado; originally drafted by the Indians in the 5th round of the 2016 draft), Austin Dean (1/14/20 traded by Marlins to Cardinals for Diowill Burgos; originally drafted by the Marlins in the 4th round of the 2012 draft); Thomas (7/2/17 traded by Blue Jays to Cardinals for international signing bonus pool money; originally drafted by the Blue Jays in the 5th round of the 2014 draft).
*The following players have MLB experience of some kind: Cruz, Fernandez, Flores, Quezada, Ramirez, Heineman, Moroff, Rondon, Dean, Hurst, Szczur, Thomas
*The following players can be said to be receiving an aggressive promotion to AAA: Liberatore, Quezada, Thompson, Antonini, Ortega, and Nootbaar. The most aggressive promotion is Liberatore, who is the youngest member of the squad at 21, has pitched a total of 25 professional games, and topped out in 2019 with 16 games in Low-A. Thompson is a little different case because he’s 23, and supposed to be the “polished college pitcher,” but was still drafted in 2019 and only has 13 professional games, 11 of which topped out at High-A. Quezada pitched 3 games in the majors for the 2020 Marlins, but before that his max level was High-A in 2019. He’s an unusual case because he’s already 26 and lost a year to shoulder surgery in 2017. Antonini went straight from Middle Tennessee State through the 2019 draft to Johnson City, and 25 games there in 2019 is the only professional game experience he has. He’s the 3rd catcher on the Memphis roster, and is almost certainly on this roster only because Yadier Molina is on the shelf and Ali Sanchez is backing up Knizner in the majors. Dennis Ortega is an organizational soldier who has basically been a backup catcher at every level and skipped AA Springfield. Nootbaar started 2019 in what was then Low-A Peoria, and ended up at AA Springfield. He had 122 PA at Peoria, 155 PA at Palm Beach and 93 PA at Springfield. Before that, his only professional experience was in 2018 at Short Season-A State College, and he’s the first player the Cards drafted in 2018 to crack AAA.
*Players on the prospect lists include Liberatore (#4 Fangraphs, #43 BP 101, #3 BP, #31 MLB Pipeline 100, #1 MLB Pipeline), Thompson (#6 Fangraphs, #5 BP, #4 MLB Pipeline), Fernandez (#15 Fangraphs, #14 MLB Pipeline), Cruz (#30 Fangraphs), Jones (#31 Fangraphs), Ramirez (#33 Fangraphs), Rondon (#11 MLB Pipeline), Flores (#25 MLB Pipeline), and Mendoza (#28 MLB Pipeline).