In unusual fashion, minor league baseball kicked off last night with AAA games. The games for the other full-season leagues will start on April 8th. This preview is late because the Memphis club waited until a few hours before the opening game to announce the opening day roster. I’ll start off with a brief introduction to the league structure and schedule, remind you of the new rule changes, and then discuss the players.
STRUCTURE OF LEAGUE AND SCHEDULE
I highly recommend that you take a glance at my preview of the Memphis club I wrote last year here, as well as this piece which explained the restructuring of minor league baseball, as well as the shuffling of the Cardinal affiliates.
The first thing to note for 2022 is that the old names for the leagues are back. Instead of playing in the Southeast Division of the Triple-A East League, the Cardinals will be playing in the East Division of the International League. The International League has the same 20 teams that last year’s Triple A-East League had, but instead of dividing the 20 clubs into three divisions, there are not just two divisions of 10 teams each. Last season, the Cards were in a 7-team division with the Charlotte Knights (White Sox), Durham Bulls (Rays), Gwinnett Stripers (Braves), Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Marlins), Nashville Sounds (Brewers) and Norfolk Tides (Orioles).
Just like last season, the divisions don’t mean much. The Redbirds are in the same division as Omaha (Royals), St. Paul (Twins), Toledo (Tigers), Nashville (Brewers), Columbus (Indians), Gwinnett (Braves), Indianapolis (Pirates), Iowa (Cubs) and Louisville (Reds). But Memphis will not play Louisville, St. Paul, Toledo or Columbus at all, has only one home series against Omaha, one home and road series against Indianapolis and just one home and road series against Iowa. Meanwhile we have three series against Charlotte, Durham, Jacksonville and Norfolk, all clubs in the other division. Somehow Memphis will end up playing only 9 out of the 19 other clubs in the International League.
Back from last year is the six-game series format. The clubs will play from Tuesday through Sunday with Mondays off. There are three exceptions. Perhaps for marketing purposes, Memphis will play the first game of a road series against Durham on Monday July 4th, with an off day on Tuesday, July 5th. All minor league clubs will have a four-day break from Monday, July 18th through Thursday, July 21st. This coincides with the Major League All-Star Break, although it doesn’t look like there will be any All-Star games in the minors. Following that four-day break, the Redbirds have a 3-game series, and the club closes out the season with a three-game series from Tuesday, September 26th through Thursday, September 28th, without having Monday, September 25th off. The club has 150 games split up into 24 six-game series and two three-game series.
In addition, the coaching staff for Memphis is the same as last year, and I introduced those people in last year’s piece.
EXPERIMENTAL RULE CHANGES
Last season, the experimental rule change in AAA was larger bases, specifically that the size of first, second and third base was increased from 15 inches to 18 inches. That will continue this year in all full-season leagues. This season, the AAA level will see additional rule experiments that were tested in other leagues last season. Pitchers will now be limited to two free steps off of the rubber or pickoff attempts. If the third attempt is unsuccessful, the runner automatically advances. Finally, for all games in Charlotte and Starting May 17th in the Pacific Coast League, the Robo Ump system will operate that was previewed in Low-A Southeast last season.
OPENING DAY ROSTER (32)
*Note. Last season, AAA and AA rosters were expanded to 28 and High-A and Low-A were expanded to 30, and the change was made permanent. This season, the Cards’ full-season clubs have announced 32-man rosters to start, with the exception of Peoria, which announced a 31-man roster. There has been extensive coverage of the various rule changes involving the minor leagues and no one that I can find has mentioned an increase in the permissible roster size. I think you’re going to find that there has been no change, and that some of these guys are on the injured list, but have not been announced as such yet.
The giveaway for me is Ljay Newsome. We know that he had Tommy John surgery last summer, and won’t be able to pitch until the middle of this season, at the earliest. Yet he has been announced as part of the Memphis opening day roster, without a mention of an injured list placement. I’m going to list here what the club has announced, but I’d be willing to bet that Newsome and three other Memphis players will be announced as being on some type of injured list in short order. Last season, the club announced the players on the injured list when it released the opening day roster, but for some reason, that didn’t happen this year. When I get this nonsense sorted out, I will let you know.
Jacob Bosiokovic, Junior Fernandez, Matthew Liberatore (L), Zach McAllister, James Naile, Packy Naughton (L), Ljay Newsome, Johan Oviedo, Blake Parker, Tommy Parsons, Angel Rondon, Kyle Ryan (L), Connor Thomas (L), Zack Thompson (L), Brandon Waddell (L), Jake Walsh, T.J. Zeuch
Ivan Herrera, Ali Sanchez
Luken Baker, Brendan Donovan (L), Nolan Gorman (L), Evan Mendoza, Kramer Robertson, Corey Spangenberg (L), Juan Yepez
Alec Burleson (L), Conner Capel (L), Clint Coulter, Ben DeLuzio, Scott Hurst (L), Justin Toerner (L)
*Of the players on the AAA Memphis roster to end the 2021 season, nine players are out of the organization. LHP Tyler Webb elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment. C Dennis Ortega, OF Nick Plummer and OF Justin Williams were declared Rule 9 minor league free agents. IF Rayder Ascanio, RHP Jesus Cruz, RHP Seth Elledge, RHP Connor Jones and LHP Austin Warner were released.
*Anderson Tejeda, whom the Cards signed to a minor league deal and invited to spring camp as an NRI, was released. That leaves shortstop to a smattering of Evan Mendoza, Kramer Robertson and Corey Spangenberg. Mendoza has the most experience at the position.
*The only real promotions are C Ivan Herrera, 1B Luken Baker, RHP Jake Walsh and OF Justin Toerner, and even these four players received small cameos in Memphis last season. IF Brendan Donovan and RHP Jacob Bosiokovic were in Memphis last season for roughly one month to close out the season.
*Most of the new blood comes from the pitching depth the Cards signed in the off-season in the form of James Naile (signed as a minor league free agent after 6 seasons in the Oakland Athletics organization), Zach McAllister (280 games pitched over an 8-year MLB career), Packy Naughton (waiver claim, 4-year minor league career, 7 career MLB games), Blake Parker (350 games pitched over a 9-year major league career), and Kyle Ryan (190 games pitched over a 7-year major league career). In addition to the latter four pitchers, Junior Fernandez, Ljay Newsome, Johan Oviedo, Angel Rondon, Brandon Waddell and T.J. Zeuch have major league experience. That’s 10 out of the 17 listed pitchers. Of the position players, aside from Corey Spangenberg (1,380 PA over 6 major league years) only Ali Sanchez and Scott Hurst have played in the majors before, and the time for each was limited.
*Perhaps the only other unfamiliar face that has made the roster is Ben DeLuzio. A two-sport standout in high school, he was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft as a shortstop by the Marlins. But DeLuzio turned down a $700,000 signing bonus to play baseball at Florida State. He ended up in the outfield, went undrafted after he struggled to hit, and ended up signing a deal as an undrafted free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. He’s spent five seasons in that organization, and had a few years with super-high BABIPs, and slapped some singles, but never demonstrated any power. You’d think if he was a stud on defense, he wouldn’t have been demoted in August of 2021 to AA for his third spin at that level. He is supposed to have blazing foot speed. The Cards snagged him in the minor league portion of the December 2021 Rule 5 draft, which means that the Arizona Diamondbacks were not willing to place him on their AAA reserve list. The Cards were not required to roster DeLuzio with AAA Memphis, but at least for right now, it looks like he might be the short side of a platoon in center field with Scott Hurst. Aside from Clint Coulter, DeLuzio is the only right-handed outfielder on the roster.
*Here’s how Memphis lined up for the first game against a left-handed pitcher: