The Springfield Cardinals concluded their 10th season of existence as St. Louis’ Double-A franchise just below .500 with 68-72 record. That mark placed them third overall among the four Texas League North Division teams.
Following a championship season two years ago and a season of coming up just short of making the Texas League playoff cut, Springfield had a tougher go in 2014. They battled and battled throughout the season to get themselves back into the postseason but came up four and half games short of winning the first half title and seven games from getting into playoff action in the second half.
At the beginning of the season, one would have thought the team would be a strong contender with a roster of well-known returnees. They included Zach Petrick, the organizational Pitcher of the Year in 2013 who made nine starts for Springfield late last season. Coming off an Arizona Fall League stint was pitcher Sam Gaviglio, from whom more was expected but who did pitch significantly better in the second half.
Seasoned Double-A bats in James Ramsey and Mike O’Neill were set as everyday contributors, then adding in Aledmys Diaz, signed for eight million dollars out of Cuba and power hitting third baseman Patrick Wisdom, made for a formidable offense. Finally, Jonathan Rodriguez had big shoes to fill in replacing Xavier Scruggs but reported to Springfield with a very good track record.
Although this roster would not be enough to get Springfield back into the playoffs, they were slowed by a long list of injuries, promotion of key role players, ineffective results, and July 31st arrivals that forced the team to rely on younger, more inexperienced players.
Every year, an advantage of watching minor league baseball is being able to witness not only what the future potentially holds for youngsters, but also the chance to see big-leaguers while on rehab assignments to prepare for their return to the show.
Springfield had many big-league rehabbers in 2014. They included relief pitcher Jason Motte, who appeared in five games and flame-throwing southpaw Kevin Siegrist, who also pitched in five games with the Double-A Birds. Another former Springbird was Michael Wacha, who made one rehab start, and multi-winning Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina even came down for a two-game stint late in the season.
As for future major leaguers, the Cardinals organization has made it known that they have no fear in calling up a prospect directly from the Double-A level. That situation happened only once this year with Marco Gonzales, promoted after having only seven Double-A starts under his belt. Gonzales shined in his most recent start on September 14th against his childhood team, the Colorado Rockies.
Power-armed reliever Sam Tuivailala, who pitched in 17 games and punched out 30 Double-A batters, also reached the majors. In between, he pitched a few weeks for the Memphis Redbirds during their playoff run.
Expected to have some of the biggest impact on the team and drawing considerable attention from fans was Diaz. The shortstop ended up appearing in just 34 games, half the time as a designated hitter, with a .291/.311/.453 slash line in his time with Springfield. Diaz’ ongoing shoulder problems kept him out for three long stretches and he finished the season rehabbing at the Cardinals complex in Florida after going on the disabled list of High-A Palm Beach.
Before being sent to the Cleveland Indians on July 31st as the centerpiece of the Justin Masterson deal, outfielder James Ramsey was the team's’ offensive leader. Ramsey clobbered 13 home runs and drove in 36 runners with a .300 average in 67 games in his second season with Springfield.
Losing Ramsey hurt in the clubhouse and in the middle of the lineup but opened the door for several outfielders at the High-A level. Another top ten prospect in Charlie Tilson arrived from Palm Beach and played his natural center field position for the last month of the season. The center fielder got in 31 Texas League games, batting .237/.269/.324 with two homers and 17 RBI.
The most improved second-year player on the team was the backstop Stanley, who greatly improved not only his receiving, blocking, and game-calling but also took a huge step forward in hitting. He finished with a .283 average with 12 home runs and 43 knocked in. Stanley will have to carry this over against more experienced arms at Triple-A, but he has shown the makeup to be up to the task.
The rest of infield went young due to a knee injury by Jacob Wilson and Diaz’ continued problems. That opened the door to new arrivals like Breyvic Valera. The slender switch-hitter hit .286/.329/.339 in 59 games with Springfield with no home runs and 20 RBI. I expect him to be the top-of-the-order catalyst for this squad next season and beforehand will keep a close watch on him in the Arizona Fall League. Alex Mejia replaced Diaz following his last shoulder setback, and hit .270 with three home runs and drove in 21 in 49 games as the regular shortstop from then on.
Given another shot with Springfield, Curt Smith made the most of it. The utilityman came back from independent ball to hit .262 and jack 11 home runs and 52 RBI. It is hard to speak about his future with the Cardinals, but you have to respect his contributions after being so well-traveled.
Jonathan Rodriguez probably underperformed compared to what was anticipated at the start the season, but there was pressure in replacing Xavier Scruggs, who shattered the franchise's’ all-time home run record. Rodriguez had very much an up and down season but still managed to hit over .260 with 11 home runs and the second-most RBI on the team.
Springfield stuck with an inconsistent third baseman in Patrick Wisdom, as when he was going, he could quickly turn around a game with his raw power. But that didn’t happen consistently. Pitchers figured out his overly-aggressive tendencies at the plate which led to soft contact and piles of strikeouts.
What did impress about Wisdom was his ability to continue to get better as a defender. For example, earlier in the season, he would attempt to make a routine play look fancy, which resulted in fielding errors and wild throws. Wisdom committed himself to get better and by the end of the season, everything looked more in sync in the field.
Moving on to pitching, it was a rather obvious strength of this team’s success. The arms carried them through long stretches of play, especially in mid-August when they fought back into contention before dropping off the last week.
Zach Petrick was expected to be the rotation’s dependable workhorse but that was put to rest when he was promoted to Memphis after just three starts. Two unheralded lefties stepped up to provide innings and wins in Jonathan Cornelius and Kyle Hald. Cornelius’ goal out of spring training was to become an innings eater and that was the case as he tossed a staff-leading 144 1/3 innings. Hald wasn’t on the opening day roster but held the rotation’s lowest ERA among starters with at least 100 innings pitched.
Kurt Heyer was another expected to carry a large workload and did pitch the second-most innings. However, he was very inconsistent throughout the season, despite deceptiveness that generates some ugly swings. Seth Blair made 11 starts before he was shifted to the bullpen due to worsening control issues. Mike Mayers was a late-promotion to the roster but finished as perhaps the team’s strongest and most advanced starter.
This rotation was quite solid but the relievers, especially at the back-end of games, made it nearly impossible for opposition to score - when the bullpen was at its strongest. Joe Donofrio compiled a 0.87 ERA as the closer with 16 saves. He struck out 65 working off a filthy back-door slider that will help him as he advances.
Relievers Chris Thomas, Mitch Harris and Tuivailala were a part of the back-end in August, making a tough trio to face when Springfield was ahead. Also assets were lefty relievers Ryan Sherriff and Justin Wright, who could come in and get multiple outs. Sherriff held a 2.64 ERA in 40 games while Wright posted a sub-1.00 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 31 games.
Six players represented the Springfield Cardinals as mid-season Texas League All-Stars including Stanley and Hald. The catcher claimed the All-Star Game MVP award for his clutch two-run home run to help the North Division team prevail while the lefty Hald allowed an earned run in two innings of relief. First baseman Rodriguez also played in the game.
Ramsey had been named an outfield starter but could not participate due to injury. Pitchers Gonzales and Donofrio had also been selected, but were promoted upward in the interim.
On the 19-man Texas League post-season All-Star Team, the Cardinals were represented by Stanley and Ramsey.
Also, watch for Springbirds Tuivailala, Wilson, Harris, Stanley, and Valera, among the Cardinals representatives selected for the Arizona Fall League, which starts in a few weeks.
2014 was a season of positives and negatives but nonetheless offered players opportunity to grow and learn. Despite the talent that graduated and departed over the past two years, plus the injury bug and dependence on young players later in the season, Springfield could still compete around .500.
With these younger players now acclimated and time for the injured to heal, there are good reasons to be excited for the Springfield Cardinals going into their 11th season in 2015!
Link to master article with all 2014 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that will include our selections as the Springfield Cardinals Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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