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 clearly is – true differentiation in the latter area among a number of hard-working staffers is very difficult to assess, even from my vantage point.
Looking around the system, 2015 was a very good year at many levels. Three of the eight minor league affiliates reached the post-season.
Our 2014 Manager of the Year, Steve Turco, again guided his rookie-level Gulf Coast League Cardinals to a division title, finishing the regular season at 34-25.
In his initial season at Palm Beach, TCN’s 2013 Manager of the Year Oliver Marmol also reached the playoffs. The Florida State League Cardinals won their division in the second half with a strong 43-25 finish. It was the A-Advanced Cards’ first playoff berth since 2008.
Our choice as The Cardinal Nation’s Cardinals Minor League Manager of the Year led the third playoff club, the Peoria Chiefs' Joe Kruzel.
After managing the Johnson City Cardinals in 2013, Kruzel took over as the Chiefs' leader in 2014. The long-time University of Toledo manager knows the territory well, as the 49-year-old spent five years as the Cardinals’ Midwest League hitting coach from 2008-2012 after two seasons in the Reds organization.
After Peoria fell short of the playoffs last year, Kruzel and his staff led the 2015 club to a 75-63 overall record, including a 42-28 second half showing that sent them into the Class-A Midwest League post-season. The Chiefs advanced to the semi-finals before being eliminated.
Kruzel’s boss, Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque, commented on the Chiefs season.
“The Peoria club had a really super year development-wise,” he said. “The kids came along really well. It is a real accomplishment when a young player can step into the Midwest League, come up to the level of the league and go by it and all the good things that go with that in terms of development.
“And of course, the club played well and went right into the playoffs, as well. So it is a real compliment to Joe and his staff. What he allowed them to do to teach and develop those players and at the same time a compliment to Joe in the confidence he gave the young players. It does take time. It takes patience.
“He really enjoyed the season. It was a really memorable season in Peoria as they got into the second round of the playoffs and a lot of it is really a testament to the job Joe and his staff did,” LaRocque said.
”It was a really memorable season in Peoria as they got into the second round of the playoffs and a lot of it is really a testament to the job Joe and his staff did.” – Gary LaRocque
The 2015 Chiefs started slowly as they concluded the first half with a 33-35 record. The starting staff evolved with an opening day injury to Jack Flaherty and later promotions of Will Anderson and Daniel Poncedeleon, along with all-star reliever Robby Rowland. Offensive leaders Collin Radack and Danny Diekroeger were among others called up to Palm Beach.
The team kicked their play into another gear in the second half, highlighted by a franchise-best 21-8 record in July. Starters Austin Gomber and Matt Pearce and dependable closer Kyle Grana continued to anchor the staff, even after Futures Game pitcher Luis Perdomo joined the list of those promoted in early August.
The second-half offense was rejuvenated with the arrivals of two 2015 draft picks with strong collegiate resumes, outfielder Harrison Bader and third baseman Paul DeJong. They joined the spark plugs up the middle in Darren Seferina and Oscar Mercado.
As might be expected, the team finished among the Midwest League leaders in ERA, fourth at 3.22. The offense was a middle of the pack group, coming in ninth of 16 teams in runs scored, 12th in batting average and seventh in OPS.
Kruzel and his staff – hitting coach Jobel Jimenez, pitching coach Dernier Orozco, coach Brian Pruitt, trainer Brent Neuharth, and strength and conditioning coach Kevin Schmalzried - kept a steady hand through the personnel changes and ups and downs in the won-loss column.
When contacted about this award, Kruzel gave the credit to them.
“I am honored, but the staff’s work with the players was the key, and hopefully the players continue to benefit down the road,” Kruzel said. “Dernier, Jobel, Brian, Brent and Kevin deserve a lot, if not all, the credit for their work with the players.
“This should be more of a staff award,” Kruzel suggested.
“I am honored, but the staff’s work with the players was the key, and hopefully the players continue to benefit down the road.” – Joe Kruzel
If Mercado is a good measure of how the players feel, they agree.
“I had a really good time playing for the coaching staff and they taught me a lot,” Mercado said. “We struggled in the first half, but we knew we had the talent on the team. It was a matter of coming around and we did just that.”
The shortstop also recognized his team’s leader.
“He (Kruzel) has definitely been around a long time and he knows a lot about the game. He not only helped me, but a lot of the guys out. I was very fortunate to be able to play for him this year,” Mercado concluded.
”He not only helped me but a lot of the guys out. I was very fortunate to be able to play for him this year.” – Oscar Mercado
Our new Manager of the Year summed up his feelings this way.
“I am grateful that Mr. DeWitt (chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.) and Mo (GM John Mozeliak) along with Gary allow me the opportunity to work in this organization,” Kruzel said.
Around the system
At the top, in his initial year with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, Mike Shildt juggled through the usual personnel changes driven by injuries and moves in St. Louis. On the field, the Memphis club was unable to replicate its 2014 division title, finishing two games over .500 but remaining in playoff contention until the final week.
Dann Bilardello kept Springfield in the playoff hunt until the final weekend. Through the Double-A club was 14 games under .500 for the season, it was a tale of halves. After a very rough start, the Texas League Cards finished in contention, with a second-half record of 34-36 and just one game out of a tie for first.
In his State College debut, our 2011 winner Johnny Rodriguez led his Spikes to a six games over .500 record. The 2014 New York-Penn League champions just fell short of a wild card berth.
First-time skipper Chris Swauger and the defending Appalachian League champion Johnson City Cardinals had a down year in the standings, finishing at 27-38, in fifth place.
Through they are out of sight and sometimes out of mind, we should not forget the progress shown by the Dominican Summer League Cardinals. Manager Frey Peniche’s 2015 club won 12 more games than the year before behind a better balance of pitching and offense.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That includes our St. Louis Players of the Year, up next.
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