The rookie-level Gulf Coast League is the lowest rung of the seven levels in the St. Louis Cardinals system in the United States.
Partially because of its location, at the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Florida, the club ends up with an interesting mix of players – from non-drafted collegians to high school stars to first-time US players from the Dominican Republic academy, a few top draft picks thrown in, and now and then, even more experienced players on rehab assignments to complete the mix.
The 2015 edition of the Cardinals continued the regular-season success the club has enjoyed in the last five years of the nine in which it has competed in the GCL. This summer, manager Steve Turco’s club played .576 baseball, winning 34 and losing 25. They crafted winning records both at home (18-12) and on the road (16-13).
The Cards won their four-team East Division by 1.5 games over the Marlins. It is their third division crown in the last four years.
Unfortunately for them, in the one-game first-round semi-finals on August 30, the Cards fell on the road to the powerhouse Red Sox, 4-1. The Red Sox had compiled the league’s best regular-season record at 41-17 (.707). In the three-game finals, the Sox swept the Blue Jays for their second straight GCL title.
The GCL is a short-season league. The 60-game regular-season schedule began on June 22 and concluded on August 29. The 16-team league is made up of four four-team divisions.
To ease travel, each team played exclusively in its division. That meant the Cards’ schedule included 20 games each against the Marlins, Mets and Nationals. Series were usually of three-game duration – with an interesting twist. Either one or two games in each set were at home and the remainder away. Clubs played two series per week and took Sundays off.
With the Astros and Nationals building their new complex nearby in West Palm Beach, this arrangement should change for the positive in the next two years.
The Cardinals stumbled out of the gate, with Sandy Alcantara getting blown out in the opener, 14-1. By the end of June, the team was five games into a six-game losing skid, finishing the month at 2-6.
In July, the club alternated losses and wins, with a couple of rainouts before the extremes hit mid-month. The Cards ran off six straight wins, with five consecutive losses immediately following. The team had another four-game winning streak only to drop four of five to close July at 15-12. Cumulatively, they were just under .500 at 17-18.
August was when the GCL Cards shifted into overdrive, starting by winning four of their first five. The highlight was an eight-game winning streak from the 10th through the 20th as they finished by winning 12 of the final 16. Overall in August, the Cards won 17 and lost just eight. In a battle that came down to the very end, the Cardinals won the division by a game and a half.
The team entered the one-game semi-finals on the heels of four victories in their last five contests. As the fourth seed, the division winner with the worst record, the Cardinals traveled to face the top-seeded Red Sox from the South Division, and fell 4-1 in the elimination semi-final contest.
A historical perspective
Following are the GCL Cardinals records by year. The nine seasons are in two clear groups. In the first four years, the Cards never logged a winning record. However, since 2010, they finished above .500 four of five years, including three division titles in the last four seasons.
It is unfortunate that the GCL rules continue to give division winners just one game in the semi-finals after 60 regular-season outings. This has definitely hurt the Cardinals in recent years.
The 2015 Cards won three fewer games than in 2014, but as noted, still took the East Division. However, they have yet to win the one-game first round of the playoffs, dropping all three chances – in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
As an organization, the Cardinals are known for their pitching, but with their biggest names from the 2015 draft either under a closely-monitored once-per-week pitching plan (Jake Woodford, Ian Oxnevad) or out entirely (Jordan Hicks), the GCL Cards’ pitching was average at best.
The staff, tutored by new pitching coach Cale Johnson, logged an aggregate ERA of 3.53, placing them 10th in the 16-team league. It was a step backward compared the 2014 club’s 3.01 mark, which was second-best.
The Cards’ strikeout total of 441 was seventh-highest in the league. As usual, the pitchers did not beat themselves with walks. They were very stingy with free passes, logging the second-fewest walks at 156 (tied). That was almost 100 less than the worst staff.
The Cardinals’ WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.35 was a ho-hum 11th because they allowed the most hits in the entire league at 528.
Under first-year hitting coach Roberto Espinoza, the Cardinals offense was impressive. They finished first in runs scored (287), 10 more than the second-place squad, and third in batting average (.260). The latter was down 23 points from 2014, however.
The 2015 offense was also third in the league in on-base percentage at .336 and fourth in slugging at .354. It only follows that their .690 OPS was also in the top tier, at third.
In counting stats, the Cardinals were fourth in doubles with 83 and tied for fifth in home runs with 29.
An ongoing shortfall across the entire system, including St. Louis, is baserunning. The GCL Cardinals stole just 49 bases, tied for third-fewest in the league. Their success rate of 65.3 percent was below league-average. All was not lost, however, as the Cards legged out a GCL-best 22 triples.
20 members of the initial GCL Cards were system returnees. They were augmented by four of the organization’s top five picks, outfielder Nick Plummer (round 1), pitchers Woodford (1s) and Hicks (3) and third baseman Bryce Denton (2).
Other draftees assigned to the GCL included infielders Andrew Brodbeck (9) and Dylan Tice (36), catcher Stephen Zavala (37), outfielder Orlando Olivera (38) and infielder Joey Hawkins (40). The latter two were later promoted upward, to State College and Johnson City, respectively.
At least four non-drafted free agents were signed to augment the roster. They included pitcher Brady Bowen, catcher Riley Drongesen and infielders Dylan Becker and Allen Staton. Staton was quickly promoted to Johnson City, then later to Palm Beach to close out the season.
The Cardinals boasted their second batting champion in two years. Shortstop Allen Cordoba hit .342 to receive the crown from 2014 winner Magneuris Sierra. Plummer led the league in walks by a considerable margin with 39. In OBP, Cordoba was fourth and Plummer eighth. In slugging, Cordoba was sixth, and he finished fourth in OPS (.822).
Lefty David Oca, promoted from the Dominican Summer League after four starts, finished second in the GCL with a 1.70 ERA in 63 2/3 innings and was first in the league in wins with seven.
Among the GCL Cardinals ranked in the most recent monthly prospect list compiled by The Cardinal Nation include Plummer (10th), Woodford (11th), Denton (26th), Alcantara (34th) and three honorable mentions – Hicks, Oxnevad and Fernandez.
Update: The GCL did not announce its 2015 all-star team until September 16. Oca, outfielder Bladimil Franco and league MVP Cordoba were the Cardinals named.
As we move into the awards for the top position player, starting pitcher and relief pitcher on the 2015 GCL Cardinals, we will drill down further into individual player stats.
Out of the penalty box
Reliever Yeison Medina rejoined the Cards on August 21 after sitting out the first 50 games of the 2015 season. Last fall, the 21-year-old tested positive for the banned stimulant heptaminol under baseball's minor league drug program.
Upon his return, the 22-year-old right-hander, a native of the Dominican Republic, threw 5 1/3 scoreless frames on two hits, one walk and six strikeouts.
Six 2015 GCL players have been invited to participate in the Cardinals fall instructional league camp that begins this month. They include five pitchers – Alcantara, Fernandez, Estarlin Arias, Derian Gonzalez and Rowan Wick along with shortstop Cordoba.
Alcantara and Fernandez have drawn attention for 100 mph gas while the former power-hitting outfielder Wick missed most of the GCL season with a sore arm.
The 2015 Gulf Coast League Cardinals had a good offense and enough pitching to again win the division. From the development perspective, it should provide a number of battle-tested players to higher-level organizational clubs in 2016.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that will include our selections as the GCL Cardinals Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
Not yet a member?
Join The Cardinal Nation for the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system. Take advantage of our seven-day free trial.
© 2015 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.