GCL Cardinals 2011 Player of the Year

Luis Perez was the Gulf Coast League Cardinals' most consistent position player this summer. The catcher picks up his second consecutive top player award in 2011.

Like most of the St. Louis Cardinals system, the 2011 Gulf Coast League Cardinals featured solid pitching but offense that generally lagged behind the league leaders. Still, there were plenty of offensive highlights as manager Steve Turco led his youthful club to the best record in the Cardinals' five-year history of participation in the rookie-level league.

For much of the season, Ildemaro Vargas was the most consistent hitter on the GCL Cardinals, but the infielder tailed off in the season's final month. As Vargas' production slipped toward the end, catcher-designated hitter Luis Perez came on, hitting .309 in his last 10 games.

Perez also demonstrated more pop in his bat, driving 41 percent of his hits for extra-bases (14 of 34). For the season, Perez's 20 RBI and .843 OPS both led the team. And he ran well, especially for a catcher, stealing three bases without getting caught.

Earlier in the season, manager Steve Turco noted that Perez has gap power if not home run power, and praised him for making a correction after he became a little overaggressive at the plate in reaction to slow start.

Perez' highlight of the season may have been the July 8 game, when he went 5-for-6 with two home runs and a double in a 17-6 win over the Nationals in Viera. Behind the plate, Perez is athletic with a low center of gravity reminiscent of Benito Santiago or Tony Pena.

2011 marked the right-handed hitter's first season of play in the USA after he served as the primary catcher for the 2010 Dominican Summer League Cardinals and was named a mid-season all-star. Perez batted .302 that summer, seventh-best in the system, and his .409 on-base percentage was fifth-highest among all Cardinals minor leaguers. He was signed in August 2008.

The 20-year-old Perez receives the nod as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Gulf Coast League Cardinals Player of the Year for 2011.

Honorable mentions

Signed last year, Breyvic Valera, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound switch-hitting Venezuelan infielder, did not turn 19 until August 1. Valera "has surpassed any expectation I would have had," Turco said.

At the plate, Valera showed patience beyond his years, and the plus-runner is a threat to steal when he gets on. Though he hit for average early, his GCL marked dropped to .255. As a 17-year-old in the Venezuelan Summer League last season, Valera hit .325.

"A fairly complete player," Turco said, though his arm will probably keep him at 2B. "More headsy than I thought he was going to be," Turco said. "He just needs more reps and experience."

At the start of August, Valera was promoted to Johnson City, where he even saw time in the outfield. His line in 19 Appy League games was .397/.430/.479.

Though he batted just .245, 19-year-old catcher Gerwuins Velazco received rave reviews for his defense. Turco called his arm "plus-plus." The Venezuelan also showed his good eye by drawing more walks (18) than strikeouts (17).

Vargas, another 19-year-old from Venezuela, led the club with a .391 on-base percentage. He also took more walks than strikeouts (23:17). The switch-hitter needs to balance out his performance as he batted a scolding .424 during July, but barely .200 before and after. He probably lacks enough arm strength to remain at shortstop and his bat is short of power. Still, there is a lot to like.

"He plays with such enthusiasm and energy all the time," Turco said. "He loves to play and wants to be involved in every play. And when he's not playing, he still gets involved. He'll never have a letdown in his desire or intensity."

A number of Cardinals 2011 draftees also made their debuts in the GCL, but did not sign soon enough to provide a long enough body of work to be considered for this award. That group includes outfielder and third-rounder C.J. McElroy (.228, 8-for-10 in stolen bases), shortstop and fourth-round pick Kenny Peoples-Walls (.239), catcher and sixth-round selection Adam Ehrlich (.237) and Missouri-native outfielder and tenth-rounder Lance Jefferies (.256, 19 RBI).

Note: Link to article with links to all articles about previous award winners across the system club by club, schedule for upcoming announcements as well as 2011 team recaps, much of it exclusively for The Cardinal Nation subscribers.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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