The Peoria Chiefs (Class-A Midwest League affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) announced their preliminary roster five days in advance of the minor league regular season as skipper Joe Kruzel landed with his new squad in Illinois from Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, FL on Saturday.
On the active 25-man roster, the Chiefs will return eight players who played at some point on the 2015 club that reached the Midwest League playoffs. Most notably among them is one of the organization's top defensive outfielders in Magneuris Sierra, who will patrol center field for the 2016 Peoria team.
For the second straight season, it is evident the Cardinals are pushing their standout talents aggressively in their initial placements on the full-season roster in Peoria. Among the newcomers set for full-season debuts in the Midwest League include promotions of three marquee pitching prospects from 2015 Gulf Coast League - starters Sandy Alcantara, Junior Fernandez and Jake Woodford.
Along with Sierra, other prominent players jumping from short-season Johnson City include two Appalachian League all-star middle infielders in the second baseman Eliezer Alvarez and his double-play partner Edmundo Sosa at short.
All six are members of The Cardinal Nation top 40 prospect list for 2016: Sierra (10), Alcantara (17), Fernandez (18), Woodford (15), Alvarez (36) and Sosa (9).
The initial opening day roster includes 12 position players and 13 pitchers. Of the position players, five are infielders, four are outfielders and three are catchers. We will begin with starting pitchers and relievers.
For a pitching staff with firepower, there seems plenty of rotation options. There are six clear starting candidates, with all six to make their MWL debuts this season.
Headlining the rotation will be the trio mentioned above of Alcantara, Fernandez and Woodford battling it out at the top. Derian Gonzalez will join that trio up from the Gulf Coast League and promoted from Johnson City are right-handers Ryan Helsley and Brennan Leitao. Landon Beck will be the lone returnee with prior Midwest League starting experience. Though it appears Beck may transition to the bullpen.
Alcantara, a 20-year old July 2nd signee from the Dominican in 2013, had a 3.22 ERA in 12 starts for GCL Cardinals with a 51/20 strikeout to walk ratio in 64 1/3 innings pitched in his first season stateside last year. With a spring nothing short of dominant, Alcantara was primed for a full-season rotation spot. He continues to work in the upper 90s with a hard breaking ball and power changeup.
Fellow Dominican Fernandez, who turned 19 just a month ago, will be the youngest player on the entire Chiefs roster and probably one of the most youthful in the Midwest League this season. He pitched to a 3.88 ERA in the Gulf Coast League and struck out 58 batters in 51 innings. An arguably more polished version of Alcantara, Fernandez could make a jump as a top national prospect with a solid season in Midwest League.
Woodford's assignment to Peoria was a pleasant surprise for a prep pitcher with limited professional experience. The Cardinals must see advancement in the right-handed sinkerballer from a baseball hotbed in Florida who was taken with the 39th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Another pleasant surprise was Gonzalez, promoted after a decent showing in his stateside introduction. He made ten starts for the GCL Cardinals last year going 3-5 with a 4.24 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. Gonzalez is said to have a more well-rounded repertoire than his aforementioned peers from Latin America, but not big as stuff.
On a different note, it was not as surprising to see the 21-year old Helsley shipped to Peoria. He went 1-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 11 games and nine starts for Johnson City last season with 35 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. One Cardinals scout envisions him as a "exciting young power arm that has a chance to start."
Leitao could be in-and-out of the Peoria rotation, probably serving in a swingman-type role for the Chiefs. Overall, he was 1-3 between State College and Johnson City with a 4.06 ERA in 14 games and six starts with 30 strikeouts over 37 2/3 innings.
The bullpen includes seven arms, five from the right-side. As mentioned, Beck, the former starter for Peoria looks to be moving to the bullpen full-time. He relieved in seven games and made 19 starts over his two-year career to date, so there's versatility in his background.
Tyler Bray, another returnee to the Chiefs pitching staff, will bring additional pen experience. The 24-year old did not allow a run in three playoff games for the Chiefs. Steven De La Cruz was promoted from Johnson City after leading the Appy League Cardinals with six saves and also had a 3.21 ERA in 22 games.
Drafted in 2012, Steven Gallardo has missed the last three seasons due to injury including Tommy John surgery. Former Missouri State pitcher Cody Schumacher will also return to Peoria's bullpen. The 25-year old right-hander reached Double-A last year and went 3-1 with a 3.91 ERA in 21 games for the Chiefs in 2015.
The bullpen features two lefties: Chandler Hawkins and Sasha Kuebel. Hawkins, a 33rd round pick from Arkansas State, was brilliant in his first professional trial, logging a 1.99 ERA across High-A Palm Beach and Rookie-Ball Johnson City. He should settle into a left-handed relief role rather than solely situational as his splits suggest the reverse trend.
A returning lefty, Kuebel pitched for Peoria in August and the postseason as well.
Despite the Chiefs carrying three catchers, I see Chris Chinea grabbing the bulk of the time with his heavy bat, but the slimmer fit Brian O'Keefe returns to the Midwest League for a second go-around as a back-up. Jose Godoy is the third catcher and has once shown promise behind the plate and at the plate.
R.J. Dennard will be Peoria's first baseman after batting .250 with two homers, eight doubles, and 25 RBI in 42 games for State College in 2015. Dennard was selected in the 39th round from Armstrong State College last year and looked to have a strong spring.
Alvarez will be the everyday man at the keystone for Peoria after turning the most double plays of any Appy League second baseman last year. The potential five-tool talent will receive his first legitimate developmental test, and I'm hopeful he stays healthy and shows the ability to harness his raw tools into usable skills.
Down from Palm Beach, Casey Turgeon will play behind Alvarez at second and has dabbled at third base and left field in the past.
Edmundo Sosa finally will get his full-season opportunity after showing an ability to slow things down and have more consistency in his overall game last year. Sosa is expected to man shortstop on a regular basis for the Chiefs.
After being slowed by injuries, middle infielder Leobaldo Pina escapes short-season ball and will make his full-season debut in 2016. Pina will work around the middle infield and third base for Peoria.
With no true third baseman on this roster, Pina and Turgeon should battle for the majority of the playing time available.
As for outfielders, it was clear that Sierra will return to the Midwest League following his stumble there in the first half last year. He looks to be a breakout candidate if he can continue to "hit the ball up to his potential", meaning to be willing to drive the ball to all fields instead of slapping the ball in play and using his speed.
After stalling out the last two years due to injuries, the extremely athletic outfielder Vaughn Bryan should be the everyday right fielder for the Chiefs. Barring health, perhaps this is Bryan's year to piece things together and emerge as a prospect again.
Two promoted State College outfielders in Craig Aikin and Thomas Spitz are among the newcomers to the Midwest League. Both had moderate success with the Spikes in 2015.
As for the roster breakdown on where players ended the season in 2015: five were with Peoria, four were in the Gulf Coast League, four were with Johnson City, eight were with State College, and four were with Palm Beach.
So, that concludes it. The first look at the 2016 Peoria Chiefs, a club with a trio of power armed starting pitchers and major prospects at premium positions up the middle. On paper, the roster has the makings of being able to power another playoff run.
The Chiefs open the regular season this Thursday, April 7th against the Burlington Bees (LAA).
Stay tuned to The Cardinal Nation for more full-season roster information over the next week.
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