Checking the Cardinals minors playoff races

Half of the St. Louis Cardinals minor league affiliates are in the playoff hunt as seasons' end nears.

With two of the St. Louis Cardinals eight minor league affiliates starting their final week of the 2012 regular season on Monday, it seems an appropriate time to review the playoff status of all.

Yes, the overwhelming priority of the minor leagues is player development. It has been and always will be. However, developing and maintaining winning ways is a contributor to developing winning players. You won't often hear organizations that consistently field losing teams saying that, though.

In recent years, the Cardinals have improved both top end prospect quality and team records. The former rightfully gets all the attention nationally, with the latter more a reflection of breadth and depth than high-end talent.

After logging just two winning seasons in the nine years through 2007, the Cardinals system has compiled three winning years in the last four. That included an aggregate .530 winning mark in 2011.

The Cards have won at least one league championship in each of those last four seasons, with 2011 being a high-water mark. Johnson City repeated as Appalachian League champs while Quad Cities took home the Midwest League title.

That will be a tough act to follow here in 2012.

Through Sunday, the eight clubs have an aggregate record of 365-371 (.496). In other words, a third-straight winning season across the system remains possible, but is hardly assured. Two of the eight teams are in good post-season shape with another at 50-50 and a fourth considered a long shot.

Memphis Redbirds
Triple-A Pacific Coast League, American Northern Division
Record: 47-82 (.364 is the worst among all 30 Triple-A teams)
Standings: Fourth of four, 30 games back

How bad is it? Very close to historically bad.

My records go back to 1966. Since then, only one Cardinals Triple-A club had a lower winning percentage than the 2012 Redbirds, and the current crew is very close to eclipsing them. The 1991 Louisville Redbirds limped home with a .357 mark.

The 2012 pitching staff, while not leading the PCL as in 2011, is in the middle of the pack. The offense, on the other hand, is among the worst two or three in the 16-team circuit.

Only five position players from the opening day roster are still with the Redbirds. Injuries and lack of depth have led to eight position players having been added from outside the organization.

Of the full-season Redbirds, two of them, Bryan Anderson and Pete Kozma, have been offensive black holes. The two rank second to last and third to last, respectively, in OPS across the entire 16-team PCL this season.

Eugenio Velez leads the team in counting stats including RBI (54), doubles (30), triples (5), stolen bases (31) and runs (60). The fact that the journeyman infielder also has the team's highest batting average at .278 and best slugging percentage (.456) should tell you all you need to know.

While the PCL does not have first-half, second-half standings, it wouldn't matter for the 2012 Redbirds. Their season will mercifully end on Labor Day with a handful of players destined for a final-month call up to St. Louis.

Springfield Cardinals
Double-A Texas League, North Division
Second-half record: 35-19 (.648)
Standings: 6.5-game lead

After playing .500 ball in the first half, the Cards have really come together in the second. On the heels of two straight titles at Johnson City, first-year Springfield manager Mike Shildt has his club positioned to enter the post-season as the second-half division champion, though they have yet to clinch.

While aggressively promoting pitchers, the organization has been more cautious with hitters. Springfield standouts Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong were skipped over Palm Beach this season and it appears Cardinals player development will keep the core of the S-Cards together as they prepare for their playoff run. Likely Trevor Rosenthal would still be in Springfield as well had a need not arisen in St. Louis, but the Cards still have top prospect Carlos Martinez and steady Seth Maness at the top of their rotation.

Springfield has 15 games remaining over the final 15 days of the regular season, including eight at Hammons Field.

Palm Beach Cardinals
A-Advanced Florida State League, South Division
Second-half record: 25-32 (.439)
Standings: Fifth of six teams, 5.5 back

Palm Beach has seen extensive roster turnover this season while dealing with numerous pitching injuries and keeping Springfield stocked. During a first half in which the Port St. Lucie Mets ran away while playing .721 ball, the Cards came in at 31-36.

For some time, Palm Beach was in the thick of the second-half hunt. That is, the Cards were looking healthy until a recent 2-8 skid put them on the outside looking in. To make matters more challenging, offensive sparkplug Mike O'Neill was promoted to Springfield over the weekend.

13 games remain in the season with Palm Beach not yet officially eliminated, but it would require a major turnaround for them to be playing beyond September 2.

Quad Cities River Bandits
Class-A Midwest League, Western Division
Second-half record: 27-28 (.491)
Standings: Fifth of eight teams, seven games back

The 2012 Bandits' prognosis is guarded. They are four games out of second place and a second-half playoff berth, but the defending champs need to put together a good winning streak to pass three other teams. Time is tight with just two weeks remaining.

On the season, Quad Cities is exactly at .500, having won one more game than lost in the first half.

Batavia Muckdogs
Short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, Pinckney Division
Record: 31-28 (.525)
Standings: Second of six teams, five games back

Before losing a Sunday double-header at first-place Auburn, the Muckdogs were surging, having won seven of eight. With 17 games remaining, Batavia must make up five games, either to win the division or to capture the league's lone Wild Card. Dann Bilardello's club is currently second in both races.

Johnson City Cardinals
Short-season Rookie-level Appalachian League, West Division
Record: 31-25 (.554)
Standings: Second of six teams, eight games back

While only nine calendar days remain on the regular-season schedule, the Cardinals have 11 games to play due to a very unlucky summer with the rain. Though capturing the division crown seems unlikely, Johnson City is clinging onto a ½ game lead for the playoff spot that comes with finishing in second place. However, the Greeneville Astros are right on the Cardinals' tail, with one of the two clubs sure to be disappointed come the 28th. This one is too close to call. The Cards are two-time defending league champs, but the players and manager Oliver Marmol are new.

Gulf Coast League Cardinals
Short-season Rookie-level GCL, East Division
Record: 32-22 (.593)
Standings: First of four teams, up by six games

Though the GCL Cards are just 4-6 over their last 10, skipper Steve Turco's club has built up a nice lead. With just five games remaining, their magic number to clinch their first division title since joining the league in 2007 sits at two. However, it could still end very quickly. The GCL has a unique sudden death playoff format in which the first "round" is just one game, scheduled this coming Sunday. The best-of-three finals between the two survivors follows.

Dominican Summer League Cardinals
Short-season Rookie-level DSL, Boca Chica Northwest Division
Record: 36-30 (.545)
Standings: Fourth of eight teams, 10.5 games back

With five games left in the season, the Cards are assured of their second winning record in the last three years and second in their six DSL seasons. While eliminated from the playoffs, the club has played well recently, winning seven of ten. Pitching continues to lead the way. The Cards can set a new team record with four wins in their final five games. Three wins would equal the Cardinals' best DSL record of 39-32, set in 2010.



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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