Gulf Coast League Cardinals Notebook: Week 1

The Cardinals' Gulf Coast League season is underway with a new schedule twist in 2012. Three players are profiled.

Overview
With the Mets out of the Gulf Coast League, at least for this year, the four remaining teams in the East Division are employing a strangely symmetrical schedule for this season. Sundays are off days, which would make Branch Rickey proud, and from Monday through Saturday each team plays two-game home-and-away sets against its three opponents.

The first two weeks, the Cardinals play two against the Astros, then two vs. the Nationals and then the Marlins on Friday and Saturday. The Cardinals play the Marlins EVERY Friday and Saturday, while the Nationals play the Astros, so the only variation from week to week is whether the Cardinals play the Astros on Monday and Tuesday and the Nationals on Wednesday and Thursday or vice versa.

For the uninitiated, the GCL is the bottom rung of pro ball in the United States. Though you'll see an occasional early round pick in the First-Year Player Draft, the rosters are mostly filled with a combination of later-round signees, mostly fresh out of high school, and Caribbean players making their debut on U.S. soil.

The Cardinals play most of their home games at noon on a back field of the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla.

Comings and goings
Michael Wacha, the Cardinals first-round pick and 19th overall selection in the draft earlier this month, is working out with the team, but the Cardinals are letting him rest his arm before he makes his professional debut. Manager Steve Turco said he doesn't know yet when the 20-year-old, who was selected with one of the two draft picks the Cardinals received as compensation for the Los Angeles Angels' signing of Albert Pujols, will pitch in a game.

"We have no definite plans yet; he may not pitch for a time," Turco said. "He threw a lot of innings in college, 113 innings is a heavy workload." Wacha was 9-1 with a 2.06 ERA in 16 starts as a junior at Texas A&M this season. The 6-foot-6 righthander from Texarkana, Texas, yielded 95 hits and struck out 116 while walking 20. Baseball America named Wacha to its All-America second team. Turco said Wacha played catch on Wednesday and "that was the first time I ever saw him throw."

Michael Swinson and Zack Russell, both on rehab assignments from the Palm Beach Cardinals, participated in games this week. Russell threw one inning, allowing one hit, as the starter in Friday's win over the Marlins. Swinson was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly on Friday, then hit the Cardinals' first home run of the season to help them to a 5-4 win Saturday.

Only outfielders Jem Argenal and Yoenny Gonzalez have played in all six games. Argenal leads the team in hits with five singles in 16 at-bats (.313).

Reliever Cole Brand's only strikeout so far was notable. It was the first whiff in the professional career of Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, the 17-year-old form Puerto Rico who was No. 1 overall pick in the recent draft.

Though 21-year-old Dominican right-hander Norge Paredes earned the team's first save in the win Tuesday over the Astros, 20-year-old Nicaraguan right-hander Jhonny Polanco seems to be Turco's choice as the primary closer. Polanco has two saves in three appearances, allowing two hits in five innings while fanning six without a walk.

Weekly Recap
Before ending the week with two wins over the Marlins, the defending division champions, the Cardinals lost to the Astros and Nationals when they batted first and won when they batted last. The reason I cannot say they won at home and lost on the road is that Wednesday's home game against the Nationals was postponed by rain and made up the next day in Viera as part of a doubleheader of seven-inning games. The Opening Day loss to the Astros in Kissimmee was disheartening because the game's only run scored in the bottom of the 13th on an error with two outs and the bases loaded.

A Closer Look at …
By the end of the season, we will have at least one report on every player who appears in a GCL Cardinals game. This week, we start with reports on three of the players who with the club last season as well. Most of these analyses are based on interviews with GCL Cardinals manager Steve Turco.

Cesar Aguilar: The 6-foot-3, 250-pound right-hander just turned 20 in May and has pitched a total of 55-2/3 innings in two previous seasons in the GCL since he was signed as a 14th-round pick in 2010 out of high school in Fontana, Calif.

Turco is looking for Aguilar to show some leadership among the younger relievers. "He's starting to figure things out," the manager said. In 16 relief appearances last season, Aguilar had an excellent 2.05 ERA and allowed only 14 hits with 24 strikeouts in 22 innings. But he also walked 17.

"If he gets better fastball command, it will make his other two pitches more effective," Turco said. So far, Aguilar is doing that. In 3-1/3 innings over his first two appearances this season, he hasn't walked anyone and has allowed only two hits while fanning four.

Cole Brand: Four days younger than Aguilar and the 42nd-round pick in 2010, Brand is also starting his third season in the GCL. The 6-foot-2 pitcher came to camp around 265 pounds, which the Cardinals thought was too heavy. He lost 15 pounds fairly quickly, but it sapped velocity from his fastball, he said.

Turco said Brand "did what was asked of him" and is now in better shape. His fastball is back on the 89-92 range, but Brand "should not give hitters so much credit at this level," Turco said. He expects Brand and Aguilar to be mainstays in his bullpen, but added, "I'd like to see these guys be more assertive and challenge hitters more with their fastball."

Unlike Aguilar, Brand does not walk many batters (only nine walks in almost 52 innings in the GCL since 2010). But he's been hittable, allowing 30 hits in 19 innings in his first year, then cutting that to 23 hits in 28 innings last year. In four innings over his first two appearances this season, he's allowed three hits and a walk.

Corderious Dodd: Another 20-year-old, who hails from Jackson, Tenn., on the opposite end of the Volunteer State from Brand, Dodd also came to camp too heavy. Turco said Dodd was close to 280 pounds when he arrived but has lost weight. "He has tremendous raw power, maybe more than anyone else in the organization," Turco said, "and when he gets that big body moving he's faster than a lot of smaller guys." Turco said Dodd can get from home to first in 4.4 seconds.

Between injuries and the GCL Cardinals' crowded outfield, Dodd was able to get a total of only 104 plate appearances in his first two GCL seasons. "He struggled this spring with his confidence and making consistent contact," Turco said, "but he's now in a good spot mentally and more confident than he's been in a long time."

Dodd has been working with the GCL Cardinals' 22-year-old hitting coach, Kleininger Teran, who played for the GCL Cardinals in 2008-09. Dodd is off to a decent start this season, reaching base once in each game he has played, including a double on Tuesday that hit midway up the left-field wall.



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