Under second-year hitting coach and former big-league catcher Erik Pappas, the 2015 Springfield Cardinals offense improved in many aspects, but still performed in the middle-of-the-pack in the Texas League, noted for its offensive prowess and spacious ballparks.
Pappas referred to his offense as "resilient" as they finished fourth in batting average (.259, improved seven points from 2014), third in runs scored (629, 76 more than 2014), fourth in total hits (1221, 43 more than 2014), fourth in extra-base hits (370, 58 more than 2014), tied for third in runs batted in (577, 75 more than 2014), drew the third-most walks (536, 83 more than 2014), second fewest strikeouts (933, 55 less than 2014) and ranked fourth in OPS (.729, 44 points higher than 2014).
The Double-A Cardinals offense as a group accomplished a mark achieved four other times in franchise history, most recently in the championship season of 2012. Springfield had six hitters with ten or more home runs in 2015, with Bruce Caldwell just one long ball short of making it seven.
For the collective view, we move to individual performances as we narrow down to our annual Springfield Cardinals Player of the Year. To be eligible, one must have accumulated 300 at-bats at a minimum, which establishes eight possible candidates.
Of them, one stood out after an incremental development season which led to one the league's best offensive seasons of any player. Our 2015 honoree is Springbirds everyday center fielder and leadoff man Charlie Tilson. It is his first team player of the year by The Cardinal Nation in just his second full healthy season as a professional.
“It has been a good year obviously," Tilson said with about a month remaining in the season. "You just try to build on the last. I’m just trying to keep making strides to improve my game and help out this team.”
Tilson, who turned 22 last December, was one of the youngest position players on the Cardinals roster for much of the regular season. He previously had a month’s taste of Double-A before the end of 2014 with 139 at-bats in 31 games. The 2011 second rounder had a .237 average and struck out 28 times against six walks, which gave indication his strike zone judgment needed improvement.
One year later, after an intense off-season of working with fellow Chicago native Pappas, Tilson walked a career-high 46 times, cut down his strikeouts substantially to 72 from 104 in 14 more games compared to his 2014 totals. As of result, Tilson was a more assertive hitter and ranked among league leaders in numerous offensive categories.
“Getting better and better each year, now he’s starting to drive the ball and with a little thump he’ll be scary with his speed," Pappas said. "Had him back two years ago, he’s better bunting and stealing.
"His hard work is definitely starting to pay off, we’ve been working on getting his swing flatter through the zone, he’s a little too steep to begin the season, and that’s why you see him starting to drive the ball in the outfield, especially the other way as he’s staying on the ball that has a lot to do with his swing path.
"Credit to him for making the change in-season versus during spring training or instructional league where you’re not really worried about the results," Pappas said.
“It has been a good year obviously. You just try to build on the last. I’m just trying to keep making strides to improve my game and help out this team.” – Charlie TilsonThe outfielder was the league's ninth best hitter in average (.295) and led the circuit as well as the entire Cardinals organization in total hits (159, next closest Cardinal farmhand was Luke Voit with 126). An exciting player with his speed and baserunning other assets, Tilson utilized them to their fullest by collecting the most stolen bases (46) and scoring the third most runs (85) in the league.
His stolen base total more than tripled his previous career high. That was a testament of picking the brain of former Cardinals great, team Hall of Famer and roving instructor Willie McGee.
To add to his sterling accomplishments, Tilson broke Springfield's all-time record for most single-season and career steals (53), was one of three Cardinals players selected as both a mid-season and post-season Texas League All-Star, was rewarded for his promising season with a Arizona Fall League opportunity as a taxi-squad player and looks to move into serious consideration as system's top positional player prospect.
“Obviously I want to continue to get stronger, continue a healthy season - knock on wood - and me and Papp (Erik Pappas) will continue to stick together and build on what we're working on," Tilson said of his goals in mid-August. "I think I could improve my game bunting for sure. That is something I’ll work on in the off-season. Obviously continuing with the stolen bases, try to clean up some things at the plate, and keep working.”
Seven other Cardinals qualified as honorable mentions, but could not oust Tilson as Player of the Year. They include: Jonathan Rodriguez, Michael Ohlman, David Washington, Nick Martini, Aledmys Diaz and Patrick Wisdom.
Manager Dann Bilardello's steady clean-up hitter Rodriguez got off to an excellent start through April but wasn't able to maintain his production and tailed off with a slow May for the second year in a row. He was, however, a good run-producing bat as the first baseman drove in 65 RBI's, four behind Ohlman in that category, and his leadership caught the eye of his coaches.
"Jonathan Rodriguez is a player who shows solid leadership qualities, good power, and an improving glove," Cardinals minor league hitting coordinator Derrick May said. "He is a great teammate and no one has worked harder."
Ohlman was another of the three Cards who earned mid-season and post-season All-Star nods. Springfield’s primary catcher reaffirmed himself as a catching prospect by batting .273/.356/.418 with 12 home runs - the league-high for catchers - and plated 69.
On Ohlman’s ability behind the dish, his manager (Bilardello) and hitting coach (Pappas) are former big-league catchers convinced his catching took a huge leap forward. "I have thought his throwing so far has been one of his biggest improvements over the course of the year," Bilardello said in late-August. "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.”
"Ohlman has been a nice addition to the organization in my opinion," May added on the waiver acquisition this past off-season. "He showed a very consistent approach at the plate and some potential for more power."
After batting .253 through the first 43 games, Washington was demoted to Palm Beach in early June and subsequently declined to a .143 clip with the Beach Birds. The 6-foot-5 first baseman/right fielder with huge power was recalled on July 4th and came back with a vengeance by hitting .290 with 11 of his 16 home runs (all with Springfield and a new career-high) and 30 RBI after his return.
Overall for Springfield, Washington slashed .274/.338/.471 with 45 RBI in 97 games. Although his biggest knock throughout his career has been alarming strikeout issues, he struck out 121 times this year.
"David Washington has plus power to all fields that only a few possess and an improving approach at the plate," May said of Washington. "He also does a nice job at first base and right field."
A Texas League mid-season All-Star, Nick Martini was a .294 first half hitter, but the seven opposing teams found an exploitable weakness and held the outfielder to a .218 second half average over 37 games for the Double-A Birds. Martini did perform exceptionally well in his short time with Memphis. Over 22 games, he hit .393 with a home run and 14 RBI in Triple-A.
'Short-stroke player, not a lot of tools, contact hitter, was on the verge of being released, but he's just a baseball player," said a professional scout I spoke with this summer.
Aledmys Diaz had a tale of two seasons. After being designated for assignment in early July by the organization thanks to a slow start, Diaz responded with the best month of his career in August and even won the Player of the Week award in the Texas League for August 10 - 16.
With Springfield, Diaz logged a .264/.324/.421 line with 10 home runs and 46 RBI in 102 games. The Cuban ended his season by getting his feet at Triple-A Memphis and is seeing Arizona Fall League pitching this fall.
"Diaz has made some very good strides offensively," said May. "He improved his mental approach gaining more and more confidence as the season went on finishing very strong. I am hoping he can pick up where he left off during the season carrying it to the fall league and next year."
The last of our honorable mentions is Patrick Wisdom. Wisdom got off to a rocky start to the 2015 season and was reassigned to extended spring training in an attempt to find consistency at the dish and to clear his mind.
The flashy third baseman returned and won the Texas League Player of the Month award in June, but couldn't maintain his approach, finishing the second half at .215 compared to a .268 first half mark. However, he was able to use the middle of the field more often than not and cut down his strikeouts by a wide margin from 2014.
"When I see him taking breaking balls out of the zone I know he’s going to have good days. One of his weaknesses is his plate discipline," said hitting coach Pappas. "Wisdom runs really well for a big man. When you talk about tools in a ballplayer - he has got them all, strong body, great arm, runs very well, got power to all fields, he’s still young, things look good for him and once he puts it together he could be quite a force."
Corner outfielder Anthony Garcia and middle infielder Bruce Caldwell had productive bats for Springfield in 2015 but fell short of qualifying. Garcia missed time for the Pan-Am Games while Caldwell was a midseason promotion from Palm Beach.
“Really happy for Anthony (Garcia),” said May. “He has come so far this season. He has some special ability with the bat, but he hadn't cashed in on it. But now he is showing that ability.
“A couple of years ago he showed the bat, last year he was the MVP in the Puerto Rican Winter League, this year the Pan Am Games and now he's returned a more mature player. He's worked hard and has done a great job with the help of Erik Pappas of staying on the ball and maintaining his approach.”
“I find Bruce (Caldwell) to be a very gifted offensive player,“ said Pappas. “I think he’s got a gift as far as his swing. I think he can hit for power, hit for average, and I’m really kind of intrigued by him to see how far that can take him.”
To conclude, congratulations to Charlie Tilson on a successful 2015 and hopefully that leads to an even better 2016.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that includes our selections as the Springfield Cardinals Relief Pitcher and Starting Pitcher of the Year.
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