In selecting The Cardinal Nation’s annual Manager of the Year for the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, I begin with how their teams performed on the field. While that is not the number one job of every coach and manager - player development is - differentiation in the latter area is very difficult to assess, even from my vantage point.
Fortunately, the Cardinals announce the George Kissell Award winner each spring. It fits that need perfectly – peer-selected recognition of the most respected player development individual in the system.
The 2013 winner, announced this March, was State College Spikes manager Oliver Marmol. It was an excellent choice. The 28-year-old is one of the most promising coaches in the organization and he did nothing but enhance that standing by taking his 2014 Spikes to the New York-Penn League title.
Marmol was our Manager of the Year in 2013 and it would be easy to stop here and recognize him again, but I am not going to take the quick route.
Looking around the system, 2014 was a very good year at many levels.
At the top, Pop Warner juggled through a myriad of personnel changes, keeping St. Louis stocked, while his Memphis club went 14 games over .500 and won its division. His Redbirds were back in the Pacific Coast League playoffs after a three-year absence.
Dann Bilardello kept Palm Beach in second-half playoff contention until the final weekend. Finishing 13 games over, the A-Advanced Cards snapped a three-year skid of losing seasons while posting their best record since 2008.
Our 2011 winner, Johnny Rodriguez, wrote his chapter in the Johnson City winning tradition log, leading the rookie-level club to a wild card berth. The Cardinals went on to take another Appalachian League title, the team’s third in five years.
Any of those individuals, as well as several others, could be justified as our Manager of the Year, but my selection, a first-time winner, works in the most anonymous stop in the chain, the Gulf Coast League.
Manager Steve Turco guided the US-entry level Cardinals to a .617 winning percentage (37-23) and their second division title in the last three years.
Perhaps only because the GCL has just a one-game first-round of the playoffs were the Cards eliminated. The club entered the post-season on a roll, having won eight in a row, including a final-day 19-1 shellacking of the defending champion Nationals. Their magic ran out in a 7-4 loss to the eventual title-winning Red Sox.
That .617 regular-season mark was second in the system only to Marmol’s Spikes at .632 and was St. Louis’ best showing in its eight seasons in the GCL.
Turco, 56, has been through the wars and is back for more. 2014 marked his sixth year guiding the rookie-level Cards and his 14th as a manager in the organization. In between his first and second managerial stints, Turco spent nine years as a scout and is now right where he wants to be – teaching youngsters.
The challenges of managing in the GCL are quite different. Games are played in the Florida early afternoon heat (and sometimes, rain). There is no feedback from the stands, as the only people usually present are players, coaches, umpires, a few scouts and the official scorer (who doubles as our reporter, Paul Ivice).
While the proximity of the GCL Cards to the organization’s Jupiter facility has its advantages, players are often pulled away to help out the Palm Beach club. That is nice recognition for the individuals involved.
The 60-game schedule presents an ongoing trial. Due to the geographic dispersal of the 15 MLB teams that still call Florida their home away from home, the Cardinals play all of their games in-division. That means they see the Mets, Marlins and Nationals 20 times each – and those clubs get a very good look at the Cardinals as well. Patterns are exposed and ongoing adjustments are needed.
The mix of players to be melded into a team is quite diverse, ranging from teenaged international players who have come over to the USA from the Dominican Republic academy, to high-school draftees away from home for the first time, to free agent signees, to even the occasional collegiate-trained top draft pick.
Speaking of which, though the organization has assigned its pitchers taken early in the draft to the GCL in recent years to manage initial workload in a more controlled environment (The Wacha Plan), those are not the arms which carried the Cards to the 2014 division title.
The team’s leader in innings pitched and strikeouts, Frederis Parra, 19, was in his initial US season. Same with all three of the staff tri-leaders in wins with four each - Julio Mateo, Yeison Medina and Jorge Rodriguez. The latter is TCN’s GCL Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year.
Our top reliever on the club is a non-drafted free agent signee, Jery Then, who did not join the team until late July. The 19-year-old was discovered by former St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin in a summer American Legion game in Oklahoma.
Among the offensive leaders were two more non-drafted free agents, outfielders Derek Gibson and Michael Pritchard. GCL All-Stars along with Pritchard are returning second baseman Malik Collymore, a 10th-round draft pick in 2013, and league Most Valuable Player and TCN Player of the Year Magneuris Sierra, yet another first-year US player.
These young men and many others came together to take the 2014 GCL East Division crown under the leadership of Turco, first-year hitting coach Kleininger Teran and second-year pitching coach Darwin Marrero.
To bring the topic full circle, the Cardinals already recognize Turco’s player development acumen. They named him their Kissell Award winner in 2011.
Now, Steve Turco is also The Cardinal Nation Manager of the Year.
Link to master article with all 2014 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That will include our selections as St. Louis Pitchers and Player of the Year, coming this week.
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