Cardinals minor league program gets in STEP

St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training Early Program will get underway on February 22 with 24 recruits.

2014 marks the St. Louis Cardinals organization's fourth consecutive year of holding an early camp for selected minor league prospects. This is the first with a new name, however, STEP Camp, for Spring Training Early Program.

Two dozen hand-picked players will report to Jupiter, Florida on February 22.

Pitchers (10): Seth Blair, Kurt Heyer, Cory Jones, Rob Kaminsky, Dixon Llorens, Mike Mayers, Alex Reyes, Sam Tuivailala, Boone Whiting, Logan Billbrough.

Catchers (2): Steve Bean, Jesus Montero

First base (1): Jonathan Rodriguez

Infield (6): Juan Herrera, Alex Mejia, Oscar Mercado, Greg Miclat, Breyvic Valera, Jacob Wilson

Outfield (5): Anthony Garcia, C.J. McElroy, Kenny Peoples-Walls, Tommy Pham, Charlie Tilson

"We have some young players there that are projection and we want some more time with them and there are others there, quite frankly, that are insurance for the major league (team)," said Cardinals Director of Player Development Gary LaRocque.

14 of the 24 are members of The Cardinal Nation top 40 prospect list for 2014, including two of the top seven and four in the top 14. They are Kaminsky and Reyes at five and seven, respectively, with Tilson and Jones at 13 and 14.

Three made their professional debuts last summer – Kaminsky, Reyes and Mercado. Others are coming off injury-interrupted seasons, including Pham and Billbrough, while others are recent additions to the Cardinals system – Miclat and Herrera.

Additional exposure

While these two dozen individuals are not invited to big league camp, many of them will end up on the big league fields at some point during spring training. That is all part of the plan.

Each morning, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will tell LaRocque what types of minor league players he needs for that day's game to augment his roster. The major league staff gets a much closer look at a number of youngsters, who will almost certainly never forget their first opportunity to play on a big league field.

"It is really fun for me to be able to tell three or four kids each day that Mike needs you up in the big league game, so make sure at noon you are in the major league clubhouse to get your uniform. It is an absolute thrill," LaRocque shared.

What will make this even more exciting for minor league watchers this spring is the expanded television schedule from FOX Sports Midwest. Never before have so many early contests been televised. The schedule includes the Cardinals' first three Grapefruit League games and four of the first five on the way to 15 in total. They get underway on Friday, February 28 with the full schedule, including three additional TV games on other networks available at The Cardinal Nation blog.

From a coaching standpoint, the Double-A and Triple-A staffs will still be helping major league camp during STEP Camp due to the numbers of players invited. The three Class-A managers, Dann Bilardello (Palm Beach), Joe Kruzel (Peoria) and Oliver Marmol (State College) will be in charge of the STEP program. Palm Beach pitching coach Ace Adams will direct the hurlers.

Though I don't yet have the specifics for Minor League spring training camp, typically the STEP Camp players have about a 10-day head start on the other invitees. The full group should be arriving the first week of March. A number of them will also be given the opportunity to suit up with the big club upon occasion this spring.

Check back with The Cardinal Nation for more details on regular spring training very soon.

Distribution

By looking at the highest levels at which the 24 STEP Camp players competed last season, one can clearly see the sweet spot. 15 of the 24 finished last summer at the Class-A and A-Advanced levels.

Triple-A (3) Double-A (1) A-Adv. (8) Class-A (7) SS-A Rookie (5)
Whiting Blair Heyer Jones none Kaminsky
Miclat   Billbrough Llorens   Reyes
Pham   Montero Mayers   Bean
    Rodriguez Tuivailala   Mercado
    Mejia Herrera   Peoples-Walls
    Wilson Valera    
    Garcia McElroy    
    Tilson      

They are nearing the most challenging leap for a minor leaguer, both in competition and expectations.

"Our players in the lower levels - at the A-level, Peoria, Palm Beach and below – those levels, you usually see a lot of projection. We project what they might be, based on tools or what not," LaRocque said.

"But we take that projection when they turn the corner to Double-A. I often tell them, ‘Life is different now. Life has gone from projection to performance or production.' That has to happen," the farm director concluded.

For the majority of these 24 players, they are about to make a big STEP in that direction.

Updates 2/22: Kurt Heyer and Boone Whiting joined Major League camp as non-roster invitees, with pitcher Scott McGregor and catcher Luis Cruz becoming STEP campers.



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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