Cardinals Confusion

One of the fun things about going to minor league baseball games is trying to pick out the future big leaguers on the field. Fans do it, ushers do it, broadcasters do it, newspaper writers do it – it’s a fun, never-ending conversation.

As a team broadcaster, I see a lot of games and I’ve picked a few winners over the years. But I have a secret to tell you.

I can’t figure out the Cardinals.

The St. Louis Cardinals are surging in the playoffs once again – and once again, it is seemingly unlikely players who are leading the way. Last year it was David Freese and Allen Craig. This year, they have had huge clutch hits by Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso.

The Cardinals have reaped the benefits of one of the most successful farm systems in the sport – even though they rarely get credit for it. According to my count, 19 of the 25 players on the current St. Louis playoff roster are homegrown (I included players they originally signed/drafted, and players they traded for as minor leaguers like Freese and Adam Wainwright). It seems like many of these current homegrown Cardinals players did not have “top prospect” profiles as minor leaguers, yet here they are, with the chance to reach another World Series.

I’m as confounded by this as anybody. There is no team in the PCL that I have been more wrong about in recent years than their Triple-A affiliate, Memphis. I’m a radio guy, not a scout. The Cardinals organization has proven that, over and over again.

Now, Tacoma only sees the Redbirds for one four-game series each year, so my look at them is brief. But there are statistics, too, and they are just as confounding.

The Cardinals are getting huge contributions from several players I never expected to do well in the majors.

Kozma is the most extreme example. He had many important hits after a September call-up, leading the team to the wild card. He’s already come through in the clutch multiple times in the post-season.

Kozma has a career minor league batting line of 236/308/344 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). When Tacoma faced Memphis two months ago, Kozma hit eighth in the lineup. Eighth in the order, in Triple-A. He hit .232 with 11 home runs in a full season for Memphis this year.

What in the world is going on with Kozma in the playoffs? Heck if I know.

How about the Cardinals starting center fielder, Jon Jay? He hit 305/373/400 for St. Louis this year, and is now a career .300 hitter in over 1,300 big league plate appearances.

When he was in Memphis, Jay put up a .281 batting average with a .732 OPS in a full season in 2009. Those are very pedestrian numbers for an outfielder in the PCL. Since reaching the majors, he has had a career OPS of 773 – 40 points higher than in the hitter-friendly PCL.

I saw Jay slap a few singles and also drill a homer against Tacoma in 2009, but not once did I think to myself, “this looks like a starting outfielder on a World Series team.” Whoops!

In his full season with Memphis in 2010, Lance Lynn was a workhorse, making 29 starts. He went 13-10 with a 4.77 ERA – not bad numbers for the PCL, but far from elite.

The Rainiers whacked Lynn the only time they saw him in the regular season – Chris Woodward and Eliezer Alfonzo took him deep. Like I said, I’m no scout – and I never thought to myself, “this guy looks like he’ll lead a playoff team in victories some day.”

Lynn went 18-7 with a 3.78 ERA for the Cards this year, leading the team in wins and finishing second with 180 strikeouts.

I fell for the party line on Allen Craig, who crushed the PCL for two seasons in 2009 and 2010. The word was that he couldn’t play defense. He was not very good in the outfield, scouts said, and he was stuck behind Albert Pujols at first base. Now that Pujols is gone, Craig is hitting up a storm in the majors.

An exception seems to be David Freese, who put up big numbers in the PCL (306/351/556 over a full season in 2008) and obliterated Tacoma pitching in a four-game series.

Then there are the little guys- Shane Robinson and Skip Schumaker, who both stand well under six feet tall. The looked like typical “gritty” little guys who used hustle and determination to reach Triple-A, and would probably end up as minor league coaches or scouts. They have made themselves valuable as major league utility players, with Schumaker even learning to play the infield at the major league level to create a role for himself.

On top of all of this, the Memphis players who I thought were going to be good can’t crack the starting lineup. In recent years I’ve been impressed by Adron Chambers, Matt Carpenter, and Daniel Descalso. Descalso did have a big showing in the Division Series so I’m holding out hope that I can still be right about him.

I can’t figure out the Cardinals. But it certainly is cool to see a team with so many homegrown players do well. It shows other teams trying to build from within that it can be done.

One thing I can figure out is this: nobody should offer me a scouting job when my broadcasting days are over.

Links:

  • The Tacoma Rainiers are giving one lucky kid a chance to trick-or-treat with Rhubarb The Reindeer. Contest information is right here.
  • Baseball America released its list of Top 20 Prospects in the PCL. Two Rainiers appear on the list. Subscribers can click through for scouting reports.
  • The latest minor league transactions show that both Mike Wilson and Cesar Jimenez have elected to become free agents. The Mariners can still re-sign them, but look for both to opt for a change of scenery this off-season.
  • Larry Stone spent a chunk of his vacation watching playoff baseball, so we get his thoughts.
  • Inspired by Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated has a look at little-known infielders who have come up big in the playoffs. 1978 Tacoma Yankees second baseman Brian Doyle shows up on the list.
  • The new short-season Northwest League team in Hillsboro, Oregon has a name: the Hillsboro Hops. Check out the logo – yay or nay?

Check back Thursday afternoon for a look at how former Tacoma Rainiers players did on other minor league teams this year.

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