On Sunday, the Springfield Cardinals (Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) held their annual team Media Day and exclusive Meet-the-Team Batting Practice event for season ticket holders and the media.
As part of the event, the Double-A Cardinals released their preliminary roster, which still may be changed between now and Thursday’s Opening Night.
At the helm for his second season, manager Dann Bilardello is leading a 25-man unit with nine holdovers from the previous season in the Texas League. In addition, Bilardello will welcome two of the brightest newcomers in the organization - 3B Paul DeJong and OF Harrison Bader - who both will bypass High-A Palm Beach and be asked to deliver as middle-of-the-order staples in the 2016 Springfield lineup.
With the lackluster offensive talent in the Cardinals pipeline, seeing both of these 2015 draft selections pushed should not be at all surprising. Coupled with the fact that they both have advanced approaches are the benefits of avoiding the Florida State League for any hitter looking for at least adequate offensive production.
One who did not avoid the Florida State League, Carson Kelly, will handle Springfield's everyday duties behind the dish under the watchful eyes of ex-MLB catcher Bilardello. Also promoted from Palm Beach are LHP Corey Littrell and RHP Trey Nielsen, who will experience their first taste of the upper levels after winning rotation spots thanks to convincing springs.
Including returnee RHP Andrew Morales (ranked 37), the Springfield roster contains six members of The Cardinal Nation top 40 prospect list for 2016: DeJong (16), Bader (13), Kelly (12), Littrell (34), and Nielsen (28).
The initial opening day roster includes a 12 position players and 13 pitchers split. Of the position players, five are infielders, four outfielders and two are catchers. We will begin with starting pitchers and relievers.
As is usually the case, this pitching staff looks to have versatility with several starter-turned relievers. At the moment, there are five projected starting pitchers excluding injured pitcher Luke Weaver and suspended flame-thrower Alex Reyes. Though both should make their way onto Double-A mounds during 2016.
The tentative rotation includes three returnees: RHP Mike Mayers, LHP Jimmy Reed and RHP Morales, plus the two newcomers up from Palm Beach, Nielsen and Littrell.
Mayers, a 24-year old drafted out of Mississippi in 2013 suffered an injury-derailed 2015 with a career-low 53 2/3 innings pitched. The right-hander eventually underwent thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last year but was on a regular schedule the spring and looks to regain his prospect luster.
Reed started for Springfield for the majority of 2015 and has limited Triple-A experience. The crafty lefty with good control hopes to improve on a 5.14 ERA in 16 Double-A starts last year.
A former compensation round pick, Morales is another looking to rebound after a tumultuous 2015 campaign. The right-hander out of UC Irvine did finish on a high note with two seven-inning outings of three earned runs or less. Morales told me over the winter that he will look for more consistency in his delivery and draw from his past experiences at Double-A for better success in 2016.
A non-roster invitee to big-league camp, Nielsen put together a strong bid for a rotation spot in Springfield. The right-hander with a heavy sinker had a 9-6 record for Palm Beach last year with a 2.59 ERA in 25 games (19 starts) over 111 innings pitched.
Another non-roster invitee, Littrell, opened eyes in his short time in big-league camp. Last season, the lefty went 9-9 with a 2.69 ERA and struck out 93 in 130 1/3 innings pitched in the Florida State League. Littrell works his way through lineups with five different pitches - two-four seam fastball, a curveball, change and slider.
The bullpen includes eight arms, but just one lefty. The latter is waiver acquisition Jayson Aquino from the Cleveland Indians, however, he was designated for assignment by the Cardinals on Sunday, making his immediate future cloudy. Aquino, a well-traveled 21-year old, has bounced around to five different organizations in the past year. He received a big-league invite this spring but was among the first cuts.
The righty relievers include returnees Corey Baker, Joey Donofrio, Josh Lucas, Ronnie Shaban and Chris Thomas. Also a righty, but new to the organization is John Brebbia.
Promoted to Springfield late last year, RHP Robby Rowland was projected to return to Double-A, but he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow during the spring. Rowland could return before the end of the regular season, but there's no timetable set.
Baker returns for his fourth go-around of the Texas League. The former 49th rounder will once again serve as the multi-purpose reliever - a swingman, spot-starter, long-man, and middle reliever.
Donofrio will be back for his third year at Springfield. A former closer, the former 31st rounder will likely help out in the late innings in some capacity.
Lucas pitched in a brief four-game stint with Springfield last year. The 25-year old posted an impressive 1.29 ERA with nine saves in 12 save opportunities over 56 innings at Palm Beach in 2015. He's another late-inning arm or middle reliever.
The reigning TCN Springfield Cardinals Reliever of the Year, Shaban converted 10 of 15 saves at Double-A last year. He figures to be one of the prominent figures in high-leverage situations for the 2016 Springbirds.
The oldest pitcher on the staff, Thomas continued to produce solid numbers despite being 28-years of age. The deceptive reliever was one of my runner-ups for Springfield Reliever of the Year but fell short because of his Triple-A time.
A former New York Yankees farm product, Brebbia has no Double-A experience to his credit. The former 30th rounder has pitched successfully in a steady rise though the Yankees organization, logging a career 3.37 ERA in 128 1/3 innings.
Rounding out the bullpen is Heyer, who made the transition to a reliever last year. The right-hander drafted in the 6th round out of Arizona pitched to a 4.09 ERA between Memphis and Springfield (41 games, 6 starts) in 83 2/3 innings as mostly a middle reliever and occasional spot-starter. Heyer should do more of the same in 2016 as he returns to Double-A with a cutter added to his arsenal of pitches.
The Cardinals are carrying two catchers, but it is hard to see Luis Cruz taking away any significant playing time from the Rawlings Minor League Baseball Gold Glove Award winner at his position in Kelly. It should be also noted that Cruz is making the jump from Peoria, so his bat may not yet be fully ready for Texas League pitching.
Originally drafted for his offensive potential, there was a feeling around Cardinals minor league spring training camp that Kelly could be bound for a breakout offensive season at the plate.
He is already there defensively. A Cardinals official told me in the off-season, "He (Kelly) could catch in the big leagues currently."
Chris Jacobs and Luke Voit could split time at the first base position, but also can share designated hitter duties when in effect. It is interesting to note Voit is returning to Hammons Field where he played collegiately at Missouri State University.
Surprisingly, David Washington will also return to Hammons Field as an apparent result of a roster crunch at Triple-A Memphis. Even Washington's productive showing in big-league spring training camp was not enough to forge him a Triple-A roster spot. The tall, lanky lefty hitter is listed as an outfielder, but he could also see minimal time at first base.
Springfield lists returnees Bruce Caldwell and Breyvic Valera as second basemen on the initial roster. With Caldwell holding the most productive bat recently, I see him logging the majority of the innings at the keystone while Valera fills in on occasion when he is not playing other positions as a utility man. Caldwell has also stepped into the DH role in the past.
The need for an every-day shortstop was significant enough that Alex Mejia, a steady .275 hitter at Memphis last year, was asked to drop back from Memphis. Barring any need a level ahead, where Aledmys Diaz is slated to hold down the job, Mejia will provide a steady influence up the middle for Springfield.
Also, Valera will be working around the middle infield in particular at shortstop as well serving as Bilardello’s super-utility man.
DeJong skipping High-A comes as a surprise to no one. The former Illinois State standout is a polished hitter and should put up some of the better offensive numbers on the club in the hitter-friendly Texas League environment. The only question is how well he will handle third base defensively in a full season? He will certainly get those repetitions over the course of the long summer.
The already-mentioned Caldwell, Valera and Mejia could spell DeJong at any point in time at the hot corner if needed.
Including Washington, Springfield has four outfielders on its initial roster. Obviously, Bader is the most well-known, having skipped High-A along with DeJong. With newcomer and speedster C.J. McElroy set to debut at Double-A, it is uncertain which one of the two will be the everyday center fielder with McElroy arguably one of the fastest runners in the organization. Based on the pure upside and all-around ability, my guess would be Bader as the regular in center for Springfield.
That would leave McElroy, Washington and another newcomer in Collin Radack to share playing time at the corners. Washington fits best in left field with his bat and agility, but he has played very little there in his professional career. That means right field may be his primary option besides first base for playing time and at-bats.
As for the roster breakdown on where players ended the season in 2015: along with the nine holdovers, two are new to the organization, three are down from Memphis, eight up from Palm Beach and three skipping a level from Peoria.
So, that concludes it. Our look at the new version of the 2016 Springfield Cardinals, a club with versatility, experience in its pitching corps and potential potency with its offense as they seek the title in the Texas League North.
Springfield opens the new season on the road against the 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 Springfield Cardinals. I also hope to contribute interviews on occasion.
Stay tuned to The Cardinal Nation for more full-season roster information over the next week.
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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