Bruce Caldwell (Springfield Cardinals FANatic Photos)

Weekly news from the St. Louis Cardinals’ Double-A Texas League affiliate

The Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate is back home in Springfield after a long, but successful 4-2 road trip. Bruce Caldwell is leading the league in hitting in the early going.

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This report covers the period from Thursday, April 7th through Wednesday, April 13th.

The long wait is the rearview mirror, as the minor league regular season is finally upon us! The Springfield Cardinals have been preparing tirelessly for their 12th season as the Double-A affiliate of the 11-time World Series Champion, St. Louis Cardinals.

On Thursday night, Springfield opened the start of the annual 140-game marathon against the Texas League South's own San Antonio Missions (SD), headed by ex-Cardinals hitting coach Phil Wellman. In his first series as Missions manager, Wellman's club dropped two of three games. Springfield then claimed two of three at the Corpus Christi Hooks (HOU) to finish the road trip at 4-2, the best mark in the North Division through the first week of play.

This season's club includes just nine holdovers from 2015. One of the returnees, RHP Mike Mayers, received the Opening Night start and flourished. RHP Trey Nielsen was tabbed the #2 starter with late-add RHP Daniel Poncedeleon next, as he bedazzled a Missions offense for a Cardinals series-clinching win.

Rounding out the first week's rotation are returnees Andrew Morales and Corey Baker. The right-handed pitchers struggled to keep the ball on the ground and to prevent hitters from generating solid lift on the ball.

Guided by a new hitting coach, Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz, Springfield also has a bunch of new faces, but potentially a high-powered offense, anchored by Harrison Bader at the top with a blend of speed and power and Paul DeJong for his bat. Both are former college standouts drafted last June who skipped over High-A entirely. While he is still here, Bruce Caldwell, who hit .270 with nine home runs and 50 RBI last year at Double-A, is poised to take his bat to an even higher level in 2016.

On defense, Springfield fans will get a long look at Carson Kelly, regarded as the heir to Yadier Molina if his bat gains enough traction. Kelly will also have the great opportunity to pick the brains of former MLB catcher and manager Dann Bilardello.

As is usually the case in the minor leagues, the field staffs experienced change. Bilardello and Jason Simontacchi are returning for their second seasons as manager and pitching coach, respectively, leaving Ortiz and T.C. Calhoun (fourth coach) as the freshest of faces.

“We’re looking forward to the season getting started, and anxious to see some of the young kids and see how they are going to handle this,” said second-year Springfield manager Dann Bilardello addressing his 2016 team on Media Day.

Thursday, April 7th, Springfield 3 at San Antonio 1

The Cardinals opened the minor league regular season on a high note Thursday night, as returning starting pitcher and Opening Night starter Mike Mayers tossed seven shutout innings, carrying the Cardinals to a 3-1 victory against the San Antonio Missions (SD).

Showing he was fully recovered from 2015 elbow thoracic outlet surgery, the right-hander retired his first ten batters and went on to allow just three hits in those seven complete innings. Impressively, he walked no batters and struck out five for a well-earned victory in his season debut.

In relief of Mayers were John Brebbia, and Kurt Heyer. Brebbia pitched a perfect inning in his Double-A debut while Heyer gave up two hits and an earned run, but held the lead intact for his first save.

At the plate, Bruce Caldwell was a double short of the cycle and produced all of the offense. Caldwell tripled home two for his first two RBI before going yard in the fifth inning, a solo shot. Top prospects Harrison Bader and Paul DeJong made their anticipated debuts, going 2-for-4 and 1-for-4, respectively. Carson Kelly went hitless in his debut.

Friday, April 8th, Springfield 4 at San Antonio 5

Springfield's starting pitching couldn't quite replicate the success of Opening Night. Up from Palm Beach, Trey Nielsen surrendered all five of the San Antonio Missions’ runs on Friday night. Nielsen failed to pitch out of the fourth inning as the loss set up the rubber-game match on Saturday.

The offense banged out 12 hits but missed on 13 chances with runners in scoring position and stranded ten runners. Harrison Bader recorded his second straight multi-hit game, going 3-for-5 with an RBI single. Bruce Caldwell added two more hits with an RBI and walk. Carson Kelly's first hit against Texas League pitching was an RBI single.

The experienced Springfield bullpen silenced the Missions following Nielsen’s departure. Corey Littrell, Joey Donofrio, and Josh Lucas combined to shut out San Antonio over the final 4 2/3 innings.

Saturday, April 9th, Springfield 6 at San Antonio 4

Trailing 3-2 entering the top of the 8th inning, Springfield rallied for three runs and claimed a comeback victory and first series win of the season, taking two of three from San Antonio.

Daniel Poncedeleon dominated in his Double-A debut, logging seven quality innings, allowing three runs (one earned) on four hits. The right-hander walked one, struck out three, and induced 12 groundouts to seven flyouts. Of his efficient 76 pitches, 56 were strikes.

Chris Thomas and Ronnie Shaban pitched the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. Thomas set-up Shaban with a scoreless eighth while Shaban served up a solo shot, but kept the lead intact and notched his first save of 2016.

The top of the order amassed seven of the nine total hits banged out. Paul DeJong and David Washington went 2-for-4, with the former having an RBI double and latter an RBI double and RBI single. Collin Radack contributed across the board with two RBI hits, including the go-ahead single in the 8th. Radack also swiped two bags and walked.

Sunday, April 10th, Springfield 6 at Corpus Christi 4

Behind Carson Kelly's first home run of the season, Harrison Bader's two-RBI performance, and steady bullpen work -- Springfield held down Corpus Christi (HOU) for a 6-4 win Sunday afternoon, improving to 3-1 on the season.

Looking for a rebound in 2016, Andrew Morales threw a decent five innings of three-run ball against one of the Texas League's most prospect-laden lineups. In his winning effort, Morales struck out four and walked two.

Following Morales, Chris Perry worked two scoreless in relief. Corey Littrell faced the minimum in the eighth before giving way to Kurt Heyer, who retired two batters, but failed to execute the save.

With runners on the corners and two outs in the ninth, manager Dann Bilardello went to Josh Lucas. Lucas promptly struck out the only batter he faced for his first save.

Monday, April 11th, Springfield 4 at Corpus Christi 5 (12 innings)

In Springfield's first extra-inning contest of the season, the home club walked off with a 5-4 win in the 12th inning via a solo blast from Astros top prospect Alex Bregman. As a result, the Hooks evened the series at one apiece.

The home run was Bregman's second of the game; his previous was a two-run shot off starter Corey Baker in the first inning. Baker wound up going four innings. He later served a solo shot to Evan Gattis, who was on a Major League rehab assignment.

The sinkerballer walked three and struck out three, but was off the hook for the loss after a Luke Voit RBI double followed by a Bruce Caldwell RBI single tied it at 4-4 in the sixth inning.

John Brebbia pitched two innings of relief, allowing two hits and an earned run, walked one and fanned four before Chris Thomas tossed three scoreless innings and struck out five. Two and a half innings later, Joey Donofrio fell victim to the Bregman knockout punch.

Offensively, the Cardinals garnered 12 more hits, with Caldwell leading the way with three. The second baseman slammed two opposite-field round-trippers, his second and third of the season.

Tuesday, April 12th, Springfield 7 at Corpus Christi 3

The Cardinals finished up the opening road trip with two series wins (4-2), defeating the Hooks 7-3 on Tuesday night thanks to a four-run eighth inning that swung the visitors in front.

The offense’s late surge was sparked by two home runs - a solo shot from David Washington and a three-run blast by newcomer Chris Jacobs.

Mike Mayers left an out shy of earning a quality start, as the right-hander's leash was pulled after a two-out walk in the bottom of the sixth. However, Springfield’s relief corps silenced the Corpus Christi offense over the final 3 1/3 innings. Corey Littrell earned the win, hurling 1 1/3 scoreless in relief. Ronnie Shaban closed the door with two punchouts in the ninth.

The blow of the game proved to be Jacobs’ three-run dinger, but Paul DeJong's seventh inning two-run single was the pivotal hit that tied the game at 3-all.

Wednesday, April 13th, league-wide off-day

After a lengthy bus ride home, Springfield resumes Texas League action with their first of six games at Hammons Field on Thursday night.

Who's Hot

Bruce Caldwell - If you had to pick one individual who is swinging it early on, you cannot go wrong with Caldwell as your guy. The second baseman/designated hitter is currently the circuit's leading hitter with a robust .500 average (11-for-22) over his first six games. Caldwell has also only smashed three home runs and drove in seven, both league-tying numbers.

Six of those 11 hits went for extra bases, including two doubles and a triple. In addition, he walked five times and reached base 24 times. The next closest is Astros top prospect Alex Bregman with 17. Simply put, Caldwell is raking Texas League pitching.

Mike Mayers - Mayers was magnificent in his Double-A debut on Opening Night, posting seven shutout innings. The former third round pick followed that up by going 5 2/3 strong against a star-studded lineup in Corpus Christi. This is especially positive after a rough 2015 campaign.

At his best, Mayers can bring his heater up to the 97 mph range with a complimentary two-seamer for a ground-ball pitch. He has also deployed a slider and change-up in the past to make for a diverse arsenal. Though Mayers has suffered from control and command lapses in the past as well.

Who's Not

Breyvic Valera - Valera can ill afford a sluggish start to this season, especially after a down 2015 in which he hit a career-low .235 and saw his prospect status plummet as a prospect. In his first five games, the middle infielder/corner outfielder has just two hits in 18 at-bats.

Trey Nielsen - Nielsen's first introduction to Double-A didn't treat him too kindly, with a clunker in his Texas League debut. The right-hander was the only Springfield starter not at least to record four innings of work. Nielsen yielded five earned runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings against San Antonio.

Springbirds batting order

Replacing Charlie Tilson as the top-of-the-order catalyst is a large order for Harrison Bader as he led off in every game to start the season. Bader possesses more thunder than Tilson, but has less speed and base-stealing ability, but Bilardello will be getting another good all-around player at the top of the order in 2016.

Behind Bader, shortstop Breyvic Valera slotted at the two-spot for the four games this week when he was in the lineup. At the marquee three-spot, Paul DeJong brings an advanced, all-fields approach. DeJong was penciled there for all six games.

Deciding on an everyday cleanup hitter may still be in the works, though former Missouri State standout Luke Voit batted there for the most part this past week. Following Voit in the fifth hole is returnee David Washington, who cracked his first home run on Tuesday night while Bruce Caldwell saw time there, too. Caldwell also batted sixth with Carson Kelly and Chris Jacobs mixing and matching there as well.

Rounding out the order, outfielders Collin Radack and C.J. McElroy hit at the bottom of the lineup when the pitcher was in play earlier in the week. Without the pitcher, Kelly fell to the seventh spot most often.

With that said, at just six games in, the regular lineup is obviously going to be a work in progress, especially with a bunch of new position players. So far, so good on offensive production, though. The Cardinals have scored the second most runs (30) in the league thus far, behind only NW Arkansas Naturals (KC) with four more.

Team Transactions

4/07 RHP Robby Rowland was placed on the seven-day DL

Rowland contributed out of the Springfield bullpen last year in 10 games. The big-armed right-hander underwent elbow surgery to clean up two bone spurs in his right elbow in February. The California native is upbeat about returning at some point in 2016, but his timetable is uncertain.

4/07 LHP Jimmy Reed was placed on the seven-day DL

As of Wednesday night, the exact status and timetable for return of Reed is unknown. The lefty pitched to a 5.14 ERA in 16 starts (82 1/3 innings pitched) last year at Double-A. Reed struck out 59 and walked 18.

4/10 C Luis Cruz was transferred to AAA-Memphis from Springfield

Luis Cruz was summoned to Triple-A Memphis on Sunday after a lat injury took Redbirds backup catcher Alberto Rosario to the disabled list. Cruz struck out twice in four at-bats in his lone game for Springfield.

4/10 C Jesse Jenner was transferred to Springfield from High-A Palm Beach

To backfill Cruz, the Cardinals promoted Jesse Jenner from Palm Beach. The 23-year-old, taken in the seventh round last June, has yet to make his full-season debut. Jenner's placement on the roster is temporary.

4/14 SS Ruben Tejada was assigned to Double-A Springfield from (MLB) St. Louis

Tejada is reported to join Springfield on Thursday as he begins a rehab assignment back from a left quad strain suffered late in spring training. The shortstop is expected to rejoin the big-league club by Sunday if all goes according to plan.

Texas League North Division Standings (first half)

Club W L Pct GB Home Away DIV L10
Springfield Cardinals (STL) 4 2 0.667 - 0-0 4-2 0-0 4-2
NW Arkansas Naturals (KC) 3 3 0.500 1 3-3 0-0 0-0 3-3
Arkansas Travelers (LAA) 2 4 0.333 2 3-3 0-0 0-0 3-3
Tulsa Drillers (LAD) 2 4 0.333 2 0-0 2-4 0-0 2-4

The Cardinal Nation Top 40 Prospect Watch (rankings proceed players’ names)

#12 Carson Kelly - While in the early stages of the acclimation process to Double-A, Kelly went 3-for-21 in his first five games this past week. The former third baseman launched his first Double-A home run on Sunday against Corpus Christi. His other two hits were singles, one for an RBI while he has struck out six times.

Behind the dish, the backstop has helped the Cardinals pitching staff to a Texas League-best 0.99 WHIP in 46 1/3 innings caught of the 55 1/3 total innings hurled by the staff.

Kelly, 21, in his fifth professional season, is the ninth-youngest player in the Texas League, so it seems there will be some growing pains adapting to more advanced arms coupled with adjusting to a smaller league.

#13 Harrison Bader - Bader is among several Cardinals hitters off to a fast start on the new season. The outfielder had a five-game hitting streak snapped on Tuesday night after an 11-for-25 stretch in his first five games, all of which were for two hits or more.

Bader, 21, who jumped over High-A, is the 10th youngest player in the Texas League. It will be interesting to see how well he will be able to hold down the center field position following Charlie Tilson while monitoring his strikeouts at the plate.

#16 Paul DeJong - DeJong, the Cardinals 4th round selection last year from Illinois State had a sub-par first week at the Double-A level. The third baseman was 6-for-26 in six games, including a whopping 12 strikeouts. Though, DeJong is well-regarded for his feel for the barrel and making lots of hard contact, so the strikeouts should not continue at that rate.

#28 Trey Nielsen - As mentioned above, Nielsen had a clunker in his Double-A debut. Good thing the sinkerballer will get a shot to redeem himself with the call on Opening Night at Hammons Field on Thursday.

Nielsen, 24, a Tommy John survivor, can ramp his fastball up to 95 mph with heavy sink. He will mix in a slider and changeup that both need improvement, but he mostly relies on the sinker as a high-groundball guy.

#34 Corey Littrell - In a rather surprising move, Littrell has been shifted to the bullpen to start the season. It is unclear if this is permanent, but he has taken to it quite well in his first three outings on the road-trip. The lefty tossed four scoreless innings.

Littrell, 24, had improved results last year and finished as a notable prospect. With a sharper slider, there is a belief within the organization that this bullpen move will lead to increased velocity, crisper off-speed stuff and the development of a non-traditional lefty specialist the Cardinals now advocate.

#37 Andrew Morales - Looking for a rebound year, Morales had a decent season debut against Corpus Christi on Sunday. The right-hander pitched five innings of three-run ball and struck out four against two walks.

Morales, 23, was a former compensation round pick, who told me over the winter he will look for more consistency within his delivery and draw from his past experiences at Double-A for better success in 2016.

What's Next

With a 4-2 record over the six-game opening road-trip, Springfield returns to their friendly confines at Hammons Field for the start of the first home-stand of 2016. The Cardinals will face off against San Antonio and Corpus Christi once more.

Following the homestand, Springfield will pack up and head to Arkansas next Thursday for the start of a brief four-game set against the Travelers.

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