Cardinals return to fall instructional league

A "modernized" program awaits a hand-picked group of St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers this fall. Farm director John Vuch provides all the details.

After a three-year hiatus, the St. Louis Cardinals will again be holding their minor league instructional camp in Jupiter, Fla. starting next month. The vast majority of other MLB organizations had continued with their versions of annual fall camp while the Cardinals sat out.

Among the reasons stated by the organization at the time fall camp was discontinued in 2009 were not wanting to further fatigue young players, a scarcity of external competition in the area and other programs making fall ball less needed, such as early spring camp and improvements in in-season training.

It was not driven by money, says Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. He expected to study the details of a new approach early in the year before making a decision as to its merit.

"I wanted to modernize the program," the GM said. "You can't do that in July or August. I want to see the plan in January."

Vuch
The man responsible is farm director John Vuch. While the instructional league program has been updated, the basic focus remains the same as before.

"It gets back to our goal in player development and that is the teaching aspect of it," Vuch said. "That is the most important thing we do on the player development side – the instructing and teaching."

One of the benefits of the new focus is more hands-on time with the players.

"We do much more individually in a camp like our instructional league," the farm director noted. "The student-teacher ratio in a camp like that is much better than in spring training and even during the season."

The mix could be as low as one staffer for every three players.

"We are probably going to have three pitching coaches and three hitting coaches, two or three guys that were managers, plus our rovers," Vuch said. "So there is a lot of instruction that is going to be going on around a relatively small number of people."

In the past, fall camp had as many as 50 players. Last year, the Cardinals brought a half-dozen players into St. Louis for special conditioning training. In 2012, instructs will include about three dozen – in the 35 to 40 range.

"One of the things we are trying to do is get back to a more traditional instructional league camp," the farm director explained. "We had it a few years ago, but camp got swollen up a bit - too many guys to accomplish what we really needed to accomplish. This will be a smaller camp than what we had in the recent past."

Mozeliak summarized what he is expecting from instructs.

"It will be part baseball, part media focus, social media, as well as strength and conditioning," the GM said.

There is no formula for player selection. Invitations are being issued on a case-by-base basis.

"Each guy is an individual," Vuch noted. "We had a conference call with the rovers and we talked about who they thought would be the best fits. One of the goals we had is that when we invited a guy to instructional league it was with a purpose for that guy, not just, ‘This guy was a this-round pick'. It has got to be, ‘Is there a reason for him to go there?' Each guy that is going has something in particular that he is working on."

Players will report to Jupiter on September 19 and take the field the next day. The camp will run between three and three-and-a-half weeks in duration. The Cardinals players will play three to four games each week during the time their camp overlaps with those of the nearby Mets and Marlins.

Despite the importance of external competition, Mozeliak said its availability was a secondary factor only. The key was ensuring the Cardinals camp would be more valuable to the players.

The last few years, the Mets first held their camp in the Dominican Republic, then moved it to the Gulf Coast of Florida, to Ft. Myers, so they would have adequate external competition. Now, they will be back in Port St. Lucie, with the Marlins alongside the Cardinals in Jupiter.

The baseball aspect of camp sounds familiar.

"The first week we are down there, we will just have everybody on the field, sort of like when we have spring training," the farm director explained. "We will have morning workouts then we will play games once we have guys stretched out."

Vuch explains in further detail the non-baseball-playing elements of instructional league.

"In the afternoon when we are not playing games, we will have more of an educational component - whether it is social media or media training or strength and conditioning - all sorts of aspects that will help them on the field and off.

"That is an equally important part of the game. Guys can get themselves tripped up doing things off the field as easily as on the field," Vuch noted.

Some of the earlier-selected position players from the 2012 draft class should be among the prominent invitees.

"There will be pretty good representation from the guys drafted this year," Vuch said. "Probably more so with the upper level draft picks and position players more than the pitching. A lot of the pitchers had a pretty heavy workload to begin with, so a guy like a (Michael) Wacha or a (Kurt) Heyer wouldn't go to the instructional league.

"Not because of any lack of ability, but because they've already had a long season and the best thing we can probably do for them is rest them at that point. So you will more of the high picks come from the position players rather than the pitchers," he said.

While rehabbing players will continue to do their work out of the Jupiter facility, those unable to play will not be part of this fall camp.

"We are not going to treat it like a rehab camp," the farm director said. "We will have our rehab program going on like we do year-round, but this is going to be a camp for guys who are ready and can actually do things. It is not going to be a guy who was out for the year, but maybe a guy who was out some - like a (Kevin) Siegrist could be a candidate."

As care is being taken with the potentially tired arms of high-workload starters, more bullpenners may be invited to instructs.

"You will see some relievers there, but the guys who took the ball every fifth day - or sixth day in some cases - would probably not be good candidates because of the number of innings they already would have had," Vuch said.

In terms of level of play, expect mostly players from Palm Beach on down to the Gulf Coast League, with a few exceptions.

"There will definitely be a skew to the younger side," Vuch explained. "You may see an isolated guy or two from Double-A. I don't think we will have any from Triple-A. Primarily from the A-ball clubs and short-season clubs."

The Dominican academy, with its own program, isn't going to be a major supplier of players to this instructional camp.

"Maybe a couple of guys will come over, but it isn't going to be a widespread thing," Vuch replied. "It won't be 10 or something like that."

Player invitations have already begun being delivered. When the names are finalized and made available, The Cardinal Nation subscribers will know, too.

Helping a small, hand-picked group of players get a leg up on the on the others is one expected benefit of the revitalized instructional league.

"It is sort of like what we did with early (spring) camp," Vuch said. "Give some guys a little extra advantage over the competition.

"It will be good for them," he concluded.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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