Winners of three of the last four Gulf Coast League East Division titles, the Cardinals began their 2016 campaign with wins over the Marlins and Mets to immediately rise to the top of the now five-team division in the 17-team league.
For the uninitiated, the GCL is the bottom rung of affiliated pro ball on U.S. soil.
The Cardinals play most of their home games at noon on a back field of the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter. Admission is free, but there’s no beer or hot dogs.
The return of the Astros to the East Division -- apparently in anticipation of Houston’s move of its major-league spring training site from Kissimmee, Florida, to a new stadium in West Palm Beach that it will share with the Nationals starting in 2017 – complicates what had been a comfortable schedule the past few seasons.
Instead of playing with two three-game series Monday through Saturday with every Sunday off, the five-team schedule requires one team to be off every day. That means Sundays are back in play, and the schedule is shortened from 60 games to only 58 games, which is the maximum per team that could be squeezed into the same number of dates. The Astros get the worst of it, though, with not only the longest bus rides for every away game but to cut down on the number of their longest trips to Jupiter, they are scheduled for four doubleheaders – two each against the Cardinals and Marlins.
Heavy on 2016 Draft
The GCL Cardinals’ Opening Day roster had more players from this year’s draft and fewer Caribbean players than in recent seasons. Of the 36-man roster, including three players on the disabled list, 16 were from the recent draft, including nine pitchers. The Cardinals’ five top draft picks from the first three rounds – Delvin Perez (No. 23 overall), Dylan Carlson (No. 33), Dakota Hudson (No. 34), Connor Jones (No. 70) and Zac Gallen (No. 106) – have all been assigned to start the season in the GCL.
GCL Cardinals manager Steve Turco said specific plans for when Hudson, Jones and Gallen will appear in games haven’t been worked out yet, but will likely follow the “Wacha Plan,” which was developed for 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha after the 6-foot-6 right-hander from Texarkana, Texas, had thrown 113 innings that spring for Texas A&M.
Wacha didn’t make his first appearance in a game until July 11, 2012, and threw a total of just five innings over three GCL outings, two starts, before he was promoted to High-A Palm Beach at the end of July. Interestingly, in Wacha’s case at least, it did not stop there. After four more appearances with the Beach Birds, Wacha moved up to Springfield in mid-August, as he finished his whirlwind rookie season in the Double-A Texas League.
Since then, early-round pitchers Marco Gonzales and Mike Mayers in 2013, Luke Weaver, Andrew Morales and Jack Flaherty in 2014 and Jake Woodford and Ian Oxnevad last season were initially brought along slowly in the GCL under the “Wacha Plan.” The collegians were each promoted before the summer was out, however, while the high schoolers remained in the GCL the entire season. Gonzales (Palm Beach), Mayers (Peoria), Weaver (Palm Beach) and Morales (Palm Beach) each moved up after three to five GCL appearances while Flaherty, Woodford and Oxnevad stayed behind.
Coincidentally, Hudson threw 113 innings for Mississippi State this spring, while Jones worked 103 innings at Virginia and Gallen tossed 90 innings for North Carolina. They will play catch this week and perhaps throw a bullpen session while they get acclimated and do their workouts.
After that, they will probably pitch an inning a week for a few weeks, Turco said.
Meanwhile, lefty Anthony Ciavarella, the 24th round pick from Monmouth (N.J.) College, and righty Mike O’Reilly, the 27th round pick from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, had lighter workloads in college of 75 to 85 innings, so they have already appeared in a game in relief. Ciavarella picked up the win in his pro debut on Saturday.
The Cardinals added only one new non-drafted free agent to the GCL roster, left-handed pitcher Colton Thomson from the University of New Mexico, though Silas Bohannon and Champ Rowland, non-drafted free agent signees from previous years, are back in the GCL. After three games in the GCL, Rowland spent most of last season as a shortstop with State College in the New York-Penn League, but after hitting only .140 there, he is being given a second chance as a pitcher.
At 24 years old, Rowland is the oldest player on the opening day roster. The youngest is shortstop Delvin Perez, who won’t turn 18 until Thanksgiving Day. Center fielder Dylan Carlson is also 17, but one month older than Perez.
11 players on the roster are 19 years of age. Nine are from Latin America and eight of them played last season with the Cardinals team in the Dominican Summer League. Three were with the GCL squad last season: Carlos Talavera, Paul Salazar and Jacob Schlesener, the latter two signed from the 2015 draft.
The Cardinals defeated the Marlins 7-4 on opening day Friday and the Mets 5-3 on Saturday to rest on Sunday in first place, one of only three GCL teams to start 2-0.
Delvin Perez, first baseman Carlos Rodriguez and third baseman Starlin Balbuena each had three of the Cardinals’ 13 hits in the opener as the Cards also took advantage of three Marlins errors.
Opening day starter Franyel Casadilla, a 19-year-old right-hander from Venezuela, allowed two runs on seven hits over five innings to each the win. Casadilla threw 78 pitches, 51 for strikes. 60 were fastballs, sitting at 88 and topping out at 93. He also three 12 changeups in the 78-80 mph range and six curveballs around 75 mph.
Perez and Balbuena each had two more hits and Balbuena drove in three runs in the win over the Mets. Perez also drew two walks and stole two bases, increasing the leadoff man’s impressive on-base count to seven in his first 10 professional plate appearances.
Second baseman Stefan Troisclair, the 20th round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette, homered against the Mets in his first professional at-bat, then was hit by a pitch his next plate appearance. Welcome to pro ball, Stefan!
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