The value of focus on Cardinals conditioning

How the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system benefits during the season from an increased focus on off-season conditioning.

As the St. Louis Cardinals' season-opening player assignment decisions were communicated, some players always remain behind. Some are for performance reasons while others are rehabbing injuries at the organization's complex in Jupiter, Fla.

Late in spring camp, the list of rehabbing players included five pitchers: Ben Freeman, Steven Gallardo, Tyler Mills, Alex Reyes and Brad Watson.

A number of other hurlers who opened on full-season club disabled lists may also be continuing their preparation in Jupiter. They include Memphis' Jay Voss, Scott Gorgen, Chris Corrigan and Jordan Swagerty from Springfield and five hurlers on the nearby Palm Beach roster: Ryan Sherriff, Zack Russell, Aidan Lucas, Logan Billbrough and Kyle Barraclough. Memphis' Eduardo Sanchez joined the group of DLed pitchers last Sunday with Danny Miranda of Palm Beach following on Monday.

The entire system currently has only four position players on the disabled list – infielder Luis Mateo at Springfield, Palm Beach catcher Jonathan Keener and first baseman Jeremy Schaffer and outfielder Nick Martini at Peoria. The latter three were injured after the season began. Palm Beach outfielder Stephen Piscotty spent a week on the DL, but has since been reactivated.

A number of individuals can take solace in this relatively small number of players on the sideline. Minor League Rehab Coordinator Tim Leveque heads the organization's year-round efforts in Jupiter.

In addition to the training staff at each affiliate, coordinated by Senior Medical Advisor Barry Weinberg and Minor League Medical Coordinator Geoff Gabler, the Cardinals have established an increased focus on conditioning.

The latter program is under the direction of Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Rene Pena. The Cardinals have also put in place strength and conditioning coaches at all four full-season minor league levels.

The efforts of these men are not limited to the time when they are with the players each day in spring training and the regular season. The off-season has become more and more important in preparing the athletes for the grind ahead.

In recent comments from Cardinals Senior Advisor to Player Development Gary LaRocque about the placement of minor leaguers, conditioning came up more than once as one of the organization's decision factors.

"It was a process that really, when we think back, starts in the fall and carries itself right through to spring training," LaRocque said. "To see where we are at in terms of each player's conditioning – how ready he is to move up."

Even in this era in which players seemingly remain in shape all year long, now and then players report in less than tip-top condition, though it is rare.

"Part of the reason for that is that we put so much emphasis on the conditioning program for players," LaRocque said. "A player comes to camp now in February/March knowing that he is competing for a job, not getting himself in shape.

"There is a difference there," he noted

Educating the players on what is expected of them each winter is important, as is direct follow up by the staff.

"What we try to do is ensure the players have a complete understanding of what we want," LaRocque noted. "It is a special program in the off-season. We follow it with calls to ensure our players are on track. We have an automated system where they are reporting their workouts."

That means there should be few, if any surprises when the players report.

"In going through that four-month cycle, we are really able to monitor and expect how they might show up on March 1 in minor league camp," he explained.

Even more important than reporting in shape is being able to remain on the field all season long.

"All of this means we are placing a big emphasis on the conditioning program during the off-season," LaRocque said. "We have reduced our injuries, or days lost on the DL, significantly over the course of the last three years."

LaRocque noted that each of the players currently in the rehab program has a chance of playing this season. The plans and schedules for each are individually set and remain fluid based on progress made.

The Cardinals executive shares some very compelling data as to the bottom line benefit to the organization.

"In each year (of the last three), we have just about cut in half the number of days lost," LaRocque noted.

"So we feel very good about the direction it is going. It takes a lot of coordination for us during the off-season, but the players have responded well," he concluded.

It only makes sense that the healthier the players are, the better and faster they can develop. The results seem to indicate the increased focus by the Cardinals organization is indeed paying off.

Earlier related articles:
"Setting the Cards' Double-A, Triple-A rosters".
"How the Cards make minor league assignments".

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

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