For 2016, the parent St. Louis Cardinals are returning the majority of the coaching staff that helped a resurgent Springfield Cardinals club in its late-season playoff attempt last season.
The Cardinals announced on Tuesday evening that Dann Bilardello will serve a second term as the Double-A Cardinals skipper. Alongside Bilardello, pitching coach Jason Simontacchi and athletic trainer Scott Ensell also return. The newbies to Hammons Field will be hitting coach Ramon 'Smokey' Ortiz and fourth coach T.C. Calhoun.
"I'm always excited about managing no matter where it's at," said Bilardello. "Springfield is a great place to manage just because of the facility and (GM) Matt Gifford and his staff. It's a great place for an atmosphere for the players and coaches.
"It's another year managing. I enjoy managing and enjoy dealing with players and teaching them things along with my staff. It's just nice to be in a great facility like Springfield; it's first-class. I know the players enjoy being there and I know as a staff they enjoy being there."
Entering his seventh season as a manager within the Cardinals system, Bilardello has a wait-and-see approach for this spring training to see how things shake out with the construction of his opening day roster. With a younger team in 2015, the former MLB catcher reflected on a season in which the Cardinals finished a game out of a share of Texas League North Division title for the second half.
"(In 2015), we had a young team, and it took a while for us to catch up to the league," said Bilardello. "Gary LaRocque (Director of Player Development) always talks about players catching up to the league. As the season progressed, it took a while, but we started to play well at the end of the first half, and we were in it the entire time during the second half to come up a game short.
"It's a credit to we made a lot of changes and a lot of players moved on, which is great. After that, all the players to how they started the season and the improvements they made throughout the year was fantastic. Bottom line, that's what we do, that's what we try to do with our players, and ultimately the players show us what they can do, and they ended up doing that by the end of the year. I hope a lot of the players are moving on to Triple-A."
Last off-season, Bilardello said he would run on anybody with an intent of an aggressive managing style. In his second season in minor league baseball's smallest circuit in the eight-team Texas League, there is no letting up on the aggression for Bilardello, but later he added that it is ultmately about the development for the players as an organization.
"Each manager, no matter what level, there's a style you do like to play, but your style is dictated on the players," said Bilardello when asked if his style will change. "As a manager, you got to be able to adapt to different type of players you have.
"I'm always aggressive; I've always coached third base, so I'm always going to be pretty aggressive (chuckling) when it comes to trying to score a run and when to send a guy home. I'm aggressive defensively; I don't think that will change. I always force the opponent to beat us, meaning I play the infield in probably more than anybody. (The style) will dictate to what type of player(s) we have.
"From an organizational standpoint it is, “What do we want to accomplish for each of these players?’ I have a way I like to manage, but being able to adapt to the players is important."
As noted above, Simontacchi will return for his second season with Springfield in 2016. The inexperienced Double-A pitching staff last year have room to build off growing pains with a familiar voice in Simontacchi, who emphasizes the mental side of the game. The lack of strikeouts will be a mark to improve on, as the staff ranked sixth in strikeouts (989), the Cardinals’ lowest total since the 2011 season.
"Jason has got a lot of experience, now is his third year coaching," said Bilardello. "I think he's learned a lot. I heard a lot of things about how pitchers go about things and Jason's being doing that. Also, Jason has the experience of playing in the big leagues, and that's valuable.
"It's not to say you have to have it to be a good coach. Being able to be a part of that and pitch in the big leagues then relates to the players of what it takes in certain things, more of the mental side of it. The fundamentals of pitching are basically the same, but part of it's mental.
"Having Jason back is nice. He knows how I am and everything, so it's really good."
Under second-year hitting coach Erik Pappas, the Cardinals were an improved, but still middling offense in the Texas League last year. Pappas’ hitters did achieve a Springfield mark of six or more hitters with at least ten home runs, first since 2012. Pappas will be the High-A Baltimore Orioles affiliated hitting coach for 2016.
Entering his ninth season as a Cardinals coach, Ortiz will be in his first summer above High-A as Springfield hitting coach as he looks to carry the torch further this year.
"I've never had Smokey on my staff," said Bilardello. "I know he will work with the players, he will get his work in, which is crucial. It's going to be a learning experience for me. It won't take long; I know Smokey has good personality and the kids like him. I think that's important.
"I think he's willing to work, so when you have that, it is a good combination. I'm looking forward to having him on my staff, and he's very enthusiastic. I think he will bring a feel-good type of thing to the players. I am just looking forward to it. For him, it's nice step being the first time in Double-A and get out of A-Ball. I think he will do a great job."
In recent years, the Cardinals organization developed a position called a fourth coach. In case you are not aware, in short it is a hybrid coaching and scouting position to prepare for a possible full-time position in either role after the one-year assignment is up. Pre-game, they dress in uniform and assist in batting practice. For the actual game, they change into street clothes and scout the opposition sitting behind home plate.
The first of two Springfield fourth coaches remain in the game; Packy Elkins became a professional scout for the Cardinals while the Cleveland Indians recently hired David Compton as an area supervisor.
One of the newest additions to the organization is Springfield's 2016 fourth coach, T.C. Calhoun. Calhoun has a decade of coaching and scouting experience at high levels of baseball, making for an intriguing resume. He was an assistant baseball coach for Transylvania University (Lexington, Kentucky) in 2015 and has scouted for The Baseball Factory since 2011.
In addition, he has been an associate scout for Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees and held an assistant GM job for the Mariners rookie level affiliate Pulaski Mariners (now Yankees). In his time as a scouting and recruiting coordinator, Calhoun has apparently seen 19 of his players go on to play professional baseball.
"It's just good to deal with the players," said Bilardello of the benefits of the fourth coach. "It helps the workload of the manager and other coaches during batting practice. It's just nice to have a fourth coach to hit fungoes and throw batting practice. Then during the game, they are up in the stands. I'm proud of the fact both of the fourth coaches I have had on my staff have been hired full-time (Ricky Meinhold, a Cardinals professional scout, and Compton).”
"It's nice to be a support system for them. They are going to be learning and start in spring training. It's nice to have a fourth coach with another set of eyes in the stands. They talk about opposing pitchers and what they have, especially as the season wears on. It's nice in the Texas League where we play seven teams and four quite often, so it's nice to have another set of eyes in the stands and giving us help on scouting when we play these guys.
"Looking forward to meeting T.C. and we'll see what happens."
Springfield opens the new season on the road against San Antonio Missions (SD) on April 7th. The start of the first homestand of 2016 is scheduled a week later against the Missions on April 14th.
I will be back this season with my weekly notebooks from Hammons Field covering the new version of the Double-A Cardinals. I also hope to contribute interviews on occasion.
To see the entire Cardinals system by level and position, along with free agents and every transaction all year long, check out the Roster Matrix at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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