In the following, the St. Louis Cardinals’ first-year Double-A manager Dann Bilardello answers a series of questions about his club and standout players.
Before he took the helm at Springfield, Bilardello was a MLB catcher in parts of eight seasons for four different organizations. Back in February, Bilardello said about his big-league career, "I wasn't a good hitter. In the minor leagues, I was pretty good. In the majors, I wasn't. That's why I bounced around. But I got to play a lot, and the reason I was able to play a lot was because I could catch”. He later stated that playing in the big-leagues was a very “humbling” experience and was not easy by any means.
His managerial career took off in the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations from 2002-2005. Bilardello began his Cardinals coaching career as Minor League Catching Coordinator from 2007-2009, before moving back into managing from 2010 to present. The last four years, Bilardello advanced one coaching level each year, starting with his third and final season with the Batavia Muckdogs (Short-A) in 2012.
The Springbirds (30-40, .429 first half winning percentage) struggled mightily throughout the first half of the season, finishing with the Texas League’s second-worst overall record. However on the flip side, Springfield (27-29, .482 second half winning percentage) is just two games behind the Arkansas Travelers (LAA) for the division-lead in the North Division, a tightly contested race for much of the second half. As of August 24th, the Cardinals have 14 games remaining on the regular season schedule.
After the rough start, Bilardello kept a low-pressured approach, remaining upbeat with his younger group of players and has seen a much more rewarding second half as of result. The following interview goes into depth:
Derek Shore: Your team struggled for much of the first half but showed some bright spots at times. Since then, you’ve dramatically turned things around with a .500 record for much of the second half. To what would you attribute that turnaround?
Dann Bilardello: “At that time, in April we had a pretty young team - had a lot of guys that hadn’t been in Double-A, and that transition from A-Ball to High-A Ball to Double-A is the hardest one to make. Obviously going from Double-A to the big-leagues or even Triple-A to the big-leagues is certainly a transition, but in terms of a young player and coming up from a year in the Florida State League and moving to Double-A, it is a tough transition and takes a little time, so I think early on that was what was going on.
“It took us a little while to get going, once we did we really started to play well about midway through May. Since then, we’ve played around .500 and were playing a lot better. Guys are having good years, and we’ve moved guys on to Triple-A, which is what it’s all about and hopefully they get to the big-leagues, as that’s the most important thing. Overall, it’s been a positive year so far.”
DS: A couple weeks are left to be played and you guys currently are in second place in the North Division, a significant improvement to your first half performance. Why do you feel your club is where they are?
DB: “We have gotten better pitching. We have become better offensively while scoring more runs than we were earlier in the year. That helps to not have your pitchers worry about, ‘I can’t make a mistake or we’re behind.’ Not to say that hasn’t happened enough to the hitters where they will have some nights were they are off too, but overall we have been more consistent offensively and we have gotten better pitching when we needed it. Those are the two reasons.
“We have always been pretty good defensively. We have actually caught and thrown the ball pretty well all year. When you add it all up, good pitching, timely hitting, pretty good defense, it usually adds up to some success, and that is what we have had.”
DS: This is your first season managing above A-ball. What have you seen that is different in the Double-A level compared to the lower levels where pitching plays more?
DB: “Baseball is baseball. You are going to have parks like the Florida State League where the parks are bigger and the ball doesn’t carry as well compared to Springfield, but that’s like that thinking of the big-league level, Triple-A level, or any league where ballparks are more conducive to pitching. Bottom line, hitting is really hard. You still have to be able to put the bat on the ball properly. If you make good pitches, you are going to get outs.
“Regardless of what the field factors are, you’ve just got to go out and do the best you can. I got to make good pitches. I got to make sure I’m swinging at the correct pitches, getting into hitters counts, etcetera. It’s not really a big-difference in a sense.
“It is baseball and obviously in a park where the ball doesn’t travel, you don’t want to hit a lot of fly balls that will go nowhere. Basically try to hit line drives. Once in a while, you’ll get some lift and they will go out.
“From the pitching side, you make good pitches, down in the zone to get ground-balls, once in a while they get up and get hit out of the ballpark. It is kind of the same everywhere, to be honest. When you really break it down, if you keep it that simple, it works in both ways.”
DS: You mentioned before the season you planned to run on anyone in the Texas League, given arms aren’t how they used to be. Do you feel this has been an effective approach for your players?
DB: “I’ve always been an aggressive third base coach. I feel like outfielders don’t throw as accurately as they have in the past, not to say we were great back when we played. I’ve always believed to be aggressive and force the defensive team to make a perfect throw. Occasionally, we have been thrown out, and other times, we get that run that is needed. I’m always going to be aggressive, but I think you’ve got to be smart and it’s not 100% of the time I’m sending a guy home. For the most part, my guys know I’ll be aggressive. They are going to go hard, and let me make the decision whether to stop them or not.”
DS: Your bullpen has been a staple of your success this season. Who has stood out among your relievers?
DB: “We’ve had a lot of guys go up-and-down. It has been kind of a bullpen-by-committee, to be honest. Right now Ronnie (Shaban) has been closing some games for us, Rowland (Robby) came up from Palm Beach, who’s got some pretty good stuff and looks like he could close out some games. I always tell my guys to be ready for any situation, we kind of have a jack of all trades down there with our pitching staff, which is sometimes a benefit.
“Most guys like to fit into a role, but right now it is all hands on deck as we are trying to get to the end here in first place. We would like to. It is whoever is available, whoever is throwing good at this time is going to get opportunities. We will see how this plays out, and everyone has contributed in a certain way.”
DS: A couple of your starters have had very strong years, Arturo Reyes (now with Memphis) has been one, leading your entire staff in innings pitched and starter’s ERA. What has been the difference for Reyes?
DB: “Here is a guy who was trying to feel his way through the first couple of starts. There is a transition period as the fish pole gets smaller each time you move up and the fish get bigger. For him (Reyes), he had to trust what he was doing down at Palm Beach, trust his stuff, and soon as he realized his stuff plays, he has done a great job. Here is a guy who has four quality pitches, holds his velocity throughout the game. He is a smaller guy but holds mid-90s pretty consistently.
“Then he’s got a curveball, slider, and changeup to be able to throw for strikes. He has made a lot of improvements, come a long way, was a 40th round pick and God bless him. I think it is great, he’s got an opportunity. That is what is great about the Cardinals. He has taken advantage of the opportunities, and good for him.”
DS: Alex Reyes has faced some troubles in his short time in Springfield, but he is still racking up plenty of strikeouts. What has been his adjustment to Double-A?
DB: “I don’t it is an adjustment to Double-A. He has plus stuff across the board. All his pitches work - they are major-league quality pitches - and if you asked him (Alex Reyes) or anybody, it is commanding the strike zone. For him, right now it is commanding the strike zone with his fastball, working ahead, because he’s got a plus curveball and changeup, which is really good.”
DS: Moving on to position players, your forte is catchers. Offensively and defensively, how has Michael Ohlman improved since he has been with you?
DB: “He has gotten a lot better. He is receiving the ball so much better now. He has put some work into it. Fortunately or unfortunately - you could ask him - he’s got two ex-catchers that played in the big-leagues (as coaches – Bilardello and Erik Pappas). Sometimes that is a blessing or a curse. We have been hard on him at times, but it is a good hard. We want to work with Mike on his game-calling, being a leader on the field, and all those types of things really need to come into play.
“I have thought his throwing so far has been one of his biggest improvements over the course of the year. When I saw him in spring training, he had a little bit of a long arm, now he has shortened it up and is throwing the ball pretty good. When you see that, plus he has been swinging the bat good, good for him, good for the organization, and we will see how far that takes him.”
DS: As far as constructing the lineup on a daily basis, how do you factor in exactly who hits where, whether going with the hot hand or just playing by the match-ups?
DB: “When you look at our lineup, Charlie (Tilson) leads off. He is leading the league in stolen bases and he will be there on top. The fourth guy, Jonathan Rodriguez, has been there pretty much all year, been a consistent guy in the fourth-hole for us and that is what we like. Other than that, it is a little bit of who is hot at times, Anthony Garcia - before he went up -was hitting third a lot, so that was kind of a main lineup with Tilson one, Garcia third, Rodriguez clean-up. Ohlman has been hitting fifth a lot because he swings the bat good. After that you move around the lineup, maybe depending on who is throwing, lefty or righty.”
DS: Three guys who have had successful seasons at the plate doing a little bit of everything are Charlie Tilson, Anthony Garcia, and Patrick Wisdom. Among the three, who has shown the most improvement?
DB: “Tilson has probably been the most consistent. He has been around .280 to .300 the whole year. He has been the most consistent. I know you mentioned Ohlman, but he started off slow, but he has really maintained his offensive numbers. Garcia started off real slow, struggled through his first month and half, but really came on, and was swinging the bat great. Wisdom was sent down to Florida to work with George Greer on some hitting stuff, came back got hot and was Player of the Month for the Texas League.
“There have been some improvements. You want to see that in guys. You need to see it and it goes to show you they have worked at it. As coaches, we guide them, but it is up to the players to apply what is given to them, and all of those three guys you mentioned have done that.”
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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