Cardinals Cancel Instructional League Again

At least two dozen MLB organizations are holding fall camps for minor league prospects, but the St. Louis Cardinals are not among them. Vice President Jeff Luhnow explains why.

In a move that is increasingly rare across MLB, the St. Louis Cardinals have decided not to hold their fall instructional league camp in Jupiter, Florida for the second consecutive year.

What is "Instructs"?

Most organizations consider "instructs" to be an integral part of the player development process. Camps run for roughly four weeks starting in mid-September with focus on on-field workouts, intrasquad games and 12-21 contests against other area major league organizations.

The core of invitees include signees from this and the prior June draft along with academy players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that the organization is planning to send to the US next summer.

The newly-signed draftees are an especially important focus as they begin to be indoctrinated into what is expected of them as professionals both on the field and in off-field matters such as conditioning, weight training and nutrition as they head into the winter.

Minor league instructors provide direct one-on-one tutoring to players and the informal setting allows in-depth attention on the spot that is not possible during the regular season. By definition, instructs lacks the built-in pressure of the sanctioned game environment, with the latter not conducive to experimentation and teaching.

For pitchers, it might be a change to their delivery, refinement of a certain pitch or perhaps the start of a conversion from starter to reliever. Position players can work on new positions to increase their versatility, refine defense at their current spots or tinker with their approach at the plate.

For players injured during the season, instructs allow them to throw more innings or get more at-bats to make up for lost time. For example, the Nationals are sending pitcher Chien-Ming Wang to Florida. The veteran missed the entire 2010 regular season recovering from surgery.

Who attends?

Typically, around 35-50 players are invited to instructs with a dozen or more coaches on hand.

Among the high profile prospects assigned to instructs in Florida include the Pirates' top two picks from this June, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, the number one selection in the draft, Washington's Bryce Harper, and the top pick in 2008, Tampa Bay's Tim Beckham.

Former Phillies first-rounder Joe Savery is heading to Florida to begin a conversion from pitcher to hitter while the Royals are sending former Miami Dolphins quarterback Pat White to their camp in Arizona.

Which organizations are participating?

Across MLB, at least 24 of the 30 organizations are holding instructs this fall. The group with full camps include 11 of the 15 teams that train in Arizona and 11 of the 15 in Florida.

In terms of the Cardinals' direct competition, all five of the other National League Central organizations are among those hosting instructs in 2010.

In two cases, organizations have scheduled mini-camps. The Orioles are holding an abbreviated camp in Baltimore because both of their Florida facilities are undergoing renovation. The fall plans of the Marlins, St. Louis' partner in the Jupiter facility, are limited to a mini-camp as well.

That has an impact on travel options. The Cardinals have been more limited in the recent past due to a shortage of external competition nearby, as a number of organizations have departed from South Florida in recent years.

Still, both the Mets and the Nationals are holding full camps this year. As such, it would seem there could be area competition if the Cardinals were participating. The only other Florida club which I have not been able to determine is holding instructs is Atlanta.

Update 9/22: Another potential opponent will be training in the vicinity - the Chinese National Team. Former Cardinal Tom Lawless manages the crew, which will be working out at the former Dodgers complex at Vero Beach until October 24. They have already scheduled a dozen games against Florida instructional league teams.

Update 9/23: The Mets moved their camp to the Gulf Coast of Florida, to Ft. Myers, so they would have adequate external competition.

What other leagues are active?

The Arizona teams, with the benefit of most being located in the general Phoenix area, have formed a "parallel league", which allows some of their top prospects another venue in which to compete. Formal plans by MLB to add a "junior Arizona Fall League" to replace the Hawaii Winter League for A-ball players across all 30 organizations remain on hold.

Each MLB organization is allowed two AFL players who have not yet reached Double-A. The Cardinals' exception selections are two of their top draft picks, third baseman Zack Cox and reliever Jordan Swagerty. Cox previously made a four-game cameo appearance in the Gulf Coast League in late August while Swagerty has yet to make his professional debut, though he was assigned to Batavia for the final few weeks of the season.

There seems risk in the Cardinals' approach of exposing new draftees to the advanced competition of the AFL right out of the chute, typically made up of Double-A and Triple-A standouts. On the other hand, if Cox and Swagerty excel this fall, their assignments next spring could be advanced.

The other 40-some Cardinals draftees are among those not so fortunate to have a place to play this fall, however.

What is the Cardinals' position?

While the organization was not stingy in signing bonuses given to players in this June's draft, their decision to not hold instructs might seem contrary to an increased focus on player development.

Cardinals vice president Jeff Luhnow disagrees, while offering detailed insight into the organization's thinking behind their decision.

"The September instructional league has always presented some significant challenges," Luhnow explaned. "Many years ago, the idea was to bring in a select group of prospects who needed to work on specific areas in order to jump to the next level. Now, it has morphed into more of an extension of the minor league season for first and second year players.

"A few things have changed in the overall environment that make the instructional league concept something that we have questioned in the past two years and thus decided to not pursue for the time being.

"To start, first and second year pitchers tend to be either young high school or recently drafted college pitchers. The first year players have completed not only long college and high school seasons but typically a full short season in pro ball. For the vast majority, it represents the highest innings load of their life and definitely the most intense. We are very cautious about extending their innings to the point of risking injury in these young pitchers. The second year players typically start throwing in January or February, go through spring training and then a full season, so by September they have also typically thrown more than they ever have before.

"Most of our players have very robust training programs and facilities during the off-season, supplanting some of the need for us to oversee their program in September and October. Many of them work out in groups in state of the art facilities across the country or have access to their former institutions and those facilities. The sophistication and access to training facilities has improved dramatically over the past ten years. In the past, guys might not have access to weight rooms, batting cages, etc once they got home... today that is very much the norm.

"Another reason for instructional league in recent years has been to teach the new players "the Cardinal way" of playing baseball. Over the past few years we have made a concerted effort to make sure all our managers and coaches and rovers are doing this during the season so there is less of a need to do it after the season.

"Our Latin players all get a chance to play in our program in the Dominican in November. Several of our A ball players have a chance to play in Latin America (Columbia, Nicaragua). We have used these programs to make sure players who need more playing time have the opportunity.

"Finally, the teams available close by on the east coast of Florida has diminished. Florida runs a short mini-camp. The Dodgers left. Washington is far enough away that the travel is a problem. That leaves the Mets as the only competition that makes sense. Last year the Mets held their program in the DR.

"We are planning to bring selected minor league players in early to Spring Training in order to accomplish some of the goals of our former instructional program. As always, we will be evaluating this on a year by year basis and if we feel that we are missing something by not having an instructional league, we will have one in the future. As you can see, there are many variables in making this decision," Luhnow concluded.

What do others think?

A minority of organizations may share the Cardinals' view that players can be adequately indoctrinated during the season or they may even be concerned about expense. Detroit Tigers Director of Player Development Mike Rojas is among the majority across MLB who see it differently.

Speaking to the Detroit Free Press earlier this month, Rojas emphasized the need to increase the importance of fall ball within his organization.

"You would like to get everybody into Instructional League," Rojas said. "Instructional League is for prospects in the organization that deserve to come. Make it competitive. Show the organization: 'Yeah, I am a guy.' We need to get back to that."

The Tigers and 23 other MLB organizations have opened their fall camps this past week while the Cardinals' Jupiter fields remain devoid of players.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at Follow Brian on Twitter.

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