As the 2016 regular season opened for the four St. Louis Cardinals’ full-season affiliates – Memphis (Triple-A), Springfield (Double-A), Palm Beach (A-Advanced) and Peoria (Class-A) – there were some surprises in the starting rotations at each level. Some were related to injury, while others were in recognition of performance and potential.
Here is the detail, with my analysis by team following. Starters are listed in original scheduled order of appearance.
|T Lee||Morales||Evans (L)||Fernandez|
|McKinney (L)||D Gonzalez|
|Cooney (L)||Reed (L)||Weaver||no starters|
|Al Reyes (RL)|
The two left-handed pitchers expected to battle it out to be the number six starter in waiting for St. Louis – Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney – both opened the season on the disabled list. Of the two, Gonzales’ situation seems the most dire, with rumors of Tommy John surgery possibly ahead. Then again, Cooney’s issue being with his shoulder is not all that comforting, either.
Three of the organization’s veteran free agent signees made the rotation, including the Opening Day starter, Deck McGuire. The others are J.C. Sulbaran and Jeremy Hefner. The first two are 26 years of age with Hefner already 30.
The fourth and fifth starters are home-grown hurlers Thomas Lee and Arturo Reyes. It would be interesting to see which would have lost out had the pair of lefties been available. Before spring camp, I wondered whether all of the free agents would block prospects, but as it turned out, having the veterans around helped avoid what could have been a numbers problem.
The Cardinals’ decision to promote top prospect Alex Reyes from Springfield to Memphis was interesting. It has no real impact on the right-hander’s return from suspension, as both clubs reach their 40th game at almost the same time. One has to assume this is a signal as to where Reyes will be activated when allowed, around May 20.
Though no active starters from the end of the 2015 were promoted from Double-A to Triple-A to open the season, I don’t think any were ready. Even with Reyes, last year's Springfield pitching staff had the second-worst ERA in the Texas League at 4.36.
Mike Mayers essentially lost a year due to injury, as he seemed the most ready to take the step to Memphis one year ago. If the right-hander is right physically, he could quickly return to that point.
Two in the Springfield rotation are promotions from Palm Beach in Trey Nielsen and Daniel Poncedeleon. In a bit of a surprise, their 2015 rotation mate, lefty Corey Littrell, was moved to the pen.
Along with Mayers, Andrew Morales returns from 2015. Originally, lefty Jimmy Reed was slated to be back as well, but apparently suffered a late-camp injury that put him on the shelf to open the season. That seems to have opened up a rotation spot, claimed by veteran Corey Baker ahead of Nielsen. With Springfield last season, the 26-year-old Baker made five starts along with 32 appearances out of the bullpen.
The result of the injuries to Gonzales, Cooney and Reed means there are no lefties in either the Memphis or Springfield rotations. Also note that Cooney and Gonzales out, there are no active starters on the 40-man roster anywhere in the minors (bolded names). If an immediate need in St. Louis exists, one would have to think that either Rule 5 addition Matt Bowman or Tyler Lyons would get the start rather than the Cardinals promoting a starter from Memphis or Springfield and a reliever would be called up instead (Miguel Socolovich or Sam Tuivailala, perhaps).
As has been the convention for the first month in recent years, the Cardinals are opening with six starters at both Class-A teams in 2016.
The initial Palm Beach six includes four members of the 2015 Peoria rotation in Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Matt Pearce and Ian McKinney. Gomber and McKinney are lefties.
Swingman Blake McKnight claimed another spot. Though the 26-year-old was a full-time reliever at Peoria last season, he started six of 11 appearances while with Palm Beach.
One starter received a larger promotion, as Jacob Evans made the leap over Peoria from State College. The Cardinals’ sixth-rounder from last June looked very good for the Spikes last summer. Evans opened in the State College pen, but the former University of Oklahoma lefty was starting by season’s end.
Though the Cardinals decline to confirm on which team’s disabled list the two are assigned, both Luke Weaver and Will Anderson are on the shelf. Since both last pitched for Palm Beach, that is the DL on which I placed them. Anderson has been out since mid-season 2015, while Weaver is expected to return from his hand fracture in about a month.
The Chiefs’ rotation had the big surprises, with youth the prevailing theme. Four young starters are all making the big leap from the Gulf Coast League in Jake Woodford (age 19), Junior Fernandez (19), Sandy Alcantara (20) and Derian Gonzalez (21).
To complete the starting six, they are joined by two 2015 draftees - Ryan Helsley (age 21) from Johnson City and Brennan Leitao (22), who split his rookie year between JC and State College.
Landon Beck, who was a starter for State College last summer and made three starts for the Chiefs after his August promotion to the Midwest League, has been moved to the Peoria bullpen to open the 2016 season.
Among the many starters who did not make the Peoria roster include Dewin Perez, who made 16 starts for the Chiefs in 2015. Others from the Spikes are Carson Cross, Josh Wirsu, Jorge Rodriguez, Juan Perez, Dailyn Martinez and David Oca. From Johnson City, standouts include Ronnie Williams and Bryan Dobzanski and from the GCL, Ian Oxnevad and 2015 third-rounder Jordan Hicks, who is coming back from injury.
All of these young men should be competing to be the first starter called up from extended spring training when a need is presented in Peoria.
For roster and player information
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To see the Cardinals’ entire system by level and position on one page along with every player transaction for every club all year long, check out the newly-refreshed Roster Matrix at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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