"Why was this player moved ahead aggressively?"
"Why did that player remain at extended spring training instead of making a full-season club?"
It seems that the organization is continuing to challenge certain players with two-level jumps. Past such moves that drew attention were of top prospects like Matt Adams, Oscar Taveras and Trevor Rosenthal successfully skipping Palm Beach. That same concept is being deployed at the lower levels as well.
This spring, a handful of players have moved from the Appalachian League directly to the Midwest League. Others are progressing from the New York-Penn League to the Florida State League, with one, reliever Ronnie Shaban, leaping all the way from Johnson City to Palm Beach.
To help understand the organization's thought processes in making these kinds of decisions, there is no one better to ask than Gary LaRocque. With over three decades of on-field and executive experience with the Dodgers, Mets and now Cardinals, the Senior Advisor to Player Development makes the final organizational call on player assignment matters – with the input of the entire staff, of course.
Seemingly always on the road, LaRocque spoke to me this past week from Peoria, where he was monitoring the Midwest League club, before he headed to Double-A Springfield.
Brian Walton: At a high level, what factors are considered when making season-opening assignments?
Gary LaRocque: First of all, you take into account their body of work so far. Then you find out on March 1st – or in February for the players who come into early camp – what kind of condition they are in and what kind of spring training they have.
From scouting and evaluation, most of the players – outside of the players that we added last June – have been scouted extensively from within by all of us. When you add that all up, you have a good feeling from the player development side where a player should be placed.
BW: With a number of qualified candidates, do you end up with some players backed up, unable to move up a level, even if they may appear to be ready?
GL: It depends on the position. If you look at our starters, we have six-man rotations on our A-clubs, then the Double-A and Triple-A five-man rotations. So you are looking at 22 starting slots.
It can back up, as you referred to it. Sometimes during the course of spring training, it can work itself out by injury and whatever else influences final rosters.
Then we have the extended spring program, which has 57 players in it right now, guys who did not make the full-season clubs. They are trying to push to get onto a full-season club.
It is competitive, and when it becomes competitive like that, you get some back up as you referred to it. From an organizational standpoint the competition and the depth is good.
GL: If you look at our track record the last three years, we have done that both with pitchers and hitters. Most recent successes were Oscar Taveras and Matt Adams. Kolten Wong jumped from Peoria to Springfield. Trevor Rosenthal did it last year. So, we've established a track record of which guys.
It bases itself on an evaluation from a scouting standpoint, from a performance standpoint. When you add that up, it gives us a feel, an understanding of who we should make that attempt to jump and give that opportunity to.
For the Palm Beach level, the same thing applied. There were some players who were on a short-season club last year. Once we evaluated them, watched them, and tried to understand where they fit best, where they could be challenged the most, it produced that roster.
We feel good about how our process is. We certainly want to put players in a situation where they can succeed. It is important that we put players in a position to have success early. We always hope it works out that way. Certain factors influence that clearly.
Here at the front part of the season, the entire staff was included. It was a process that really, when we think back, starts in the fall and carries itself right through to spring training. To see where we are at in terms of each player's conditioning – how ready he is to move up. Everybody has been on board and we are pleased with our rosters.
BW: How important was last fall's instructional league in preparing for this season?
GL: Our instructional league program was really great. This past fall, we had 35 players in it. We felt it was very productive. A lot of the players were ones we brought in from the draft, the younger players we wanted to accelerate their progress.
We cut down the number of games and tried to re-define for ourselves as far as the coaching end and re-define specific skills. So it became a very individualized program. We played some games, clearly, but it wasn't built just for the games. It was built for if a player needed work on a certain pitch, we established the development of that pitch. If a regular needed work at a certain position defensively, we did that. Offensively, as well. We really tried to individualize it. We found it was very successful because of that and we are looking forward to it again.
GL: One of the things we discuss a lot as a staff is that we have an understanding. That is why we are here in April. If you take a look at just sheer numbers after a week, you don't draw any conclusions.
What we do understand as a collective group is that when players come to this level – Peoria – or Palm Beach or whatever level – most of the time – and not for a repeating player – but most of the time, I as a player would start under the level of the league.
If I move my way up to a league, I will usually start below the level of the league I am playing in comparison, which makes sense. By mid-season, what we find is that players usually catch up to the league. Pitchers catch up to the league and hitters definitely do as well.
Then what happens is, you usually find late in the season that when a player goes ahead of the league, then you really know that player is on the radar screen. If you look back, let's take Trevor Rosenthal. Two years ago, when he was in Quad Cities, he started off below the level of the league in April and May. He caught up to the league and by the time the playoffs began, he was ahead of the league. Everything beyond that took care of itself.
I think that is not an uncommon thing for a player. That is why patience is in order at the beginning. But if we are placing players so they can have some success, the key is not so much April and May. It is June, July and August.
We talk about that as a staff so we learn as a group about being patient with players. Some do it quicker than others and some never quite get there. At the end of the day, the players will tell us and that is what we understand.
BW: How do you avoid the risk of a player putting too much pressure on himself early in the season?
GL: It is a combination of things. We make sure the player understands it is a daily grind for everybody. It is 140 games. You are out here as a collective group in the minor leagues understanding that three or four games don't define what you are in either direction. And then we have staff members who talk about each individual player and what our expectations are for the player. The staff knows how to be patient.
One of the biggest things for young players is to understand how to deal with any subpar performance or what they might view as failure. It is part of development. There are going to be days when you don't click on the mound as a pitcher and your stuff isn't a good as you'd like it to be. Those are the days you have to learn how to pitch through it.
There are days as a hitter when you are 0-for-4 – it could be two or three days in a row – you just have to have the mindset for coming out of it and battling the next day. Those kinds of things will happen. They are going to happen to hitters. They are going to happen to pitchers. What you do is keep running the players out there. Put them in a position where they can understand how to handle the days that aren't perfect and yet keep it in perspective when the days are.
GL: That is true and it goes back to the thing we also talk about. April and May – or in this case, a drafted player in June – doesn't define the season. It is not where you are in April and May, it is where you are in July and August. You evaluate your whole year when it gets there. You can't draw too many conclusions in either direction right away because it is the front end of the year. As I said, most players will be below the level of their league when they get there.
There is very few. Even if you look back. Oscar obviously produced at every level right away. Matt Adams did. But there are not a lot of players that do that consistently. If you work off the theory that most players are going to be below the level – when will that be? That will be in April and May. What matters is where they are in July and August and fortunately, we have had enough of a track record to see that has worked.
But there are players you have to adjust with. Steve Bean, specifically – he bounced back and had a great month of August. He really did. For a short-season player, his June in Johnson City was like April-May for full-season players. He went down to the Gulf Coast League and everything clicked – everything came together. He walked away at the back end of the season with a level of success in knowing what he could accomplish certain things. And that is great.
BW: What do you tell competitive players who did not make a full-season club such as Carson Kelly or C.J. McElroy to help them deal with the inevitable disappointment of staying behind in extended spring training?
GL: We don't view it as "staying behind". We view it as part of the process of moving ahead. We explain it to them.
One of the good things about this group of players that I have seen is that they are quality young men that when you sit down with them and explain what the plan is, they buy in. They understand that we are all in this together and they have a plan for me, the player, and I am going to be a part of that.
Each of them, as competitive as they are, I want them to want to reach out to the next level. That is exactly what you want. They will get there. They are professionals about how they handle where they are going. So from that standpoint we are fortunate in that we have quality players. They are quality people.
That is an important factor for how we view character within the organization. I'd have to say that spring training produced that kind of result. Every time I sat down with players – we take a lot of time to do that – I felt they understood, they knew it. There is a game plan and let's go to work. They do know that how they finish the season is what adds up.
Coming up: In subsequent installments, we will look at season-opening roster considerations at the upper levels of the system as well as the impact of off-season conditioning on disabled list time.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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