The St. Louis Cardinals' Class Double-A club, the Springfield Cardinals, is in its second season under the leadership of manager Dann Bilardello. With a younger team in the former MLB catcher’s first season at the helm in 2015, the S-Cards were off to a historically bad start in the first half before finishing a game out of a share of Texas League North Division title for the second half.
To start the 2016 campaign, the first half Springbirds were headlined by top position players Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader, and Paul DeJong before welcoming highly-regarded pitcher Luke Weaver in early June. The organization's next "Memphis Mafia" guided the franchise to its first Texas League First Half Championship (41-29 first half record) since 2009 while securing a playoff spot for the first time since 2012.
With a month left to go in the second half, Springfield has lost part of its core due to promotion and have been bitten by injury (eight players currently on the DL). After a slow 12-19 start, the Cardinals have claimed 12 of their last 19 games and are tied for second place with a 24-25 record, 1.5 games behind NW Arkansas (KC).
To this point of the season, the club has a run differential of +8 (499-491) with the offense slashing at an above league average mark .251/.319/.379/.698. However, they rank in the middle of the pack in nearly every one of those major offensive categories. As a team, they have relied heavily on the long ball (109 homers, third-best in circuit) while placing in the bottom in doubles (147), stolen bases (44), and triples (15).
The pitching staff, with a mix of returnees and additions, have posted the league's third-lowest ERA at 3.58. Two starters who have remained with Springfield have performed well all year with another starter rehabbing his way back for the GCL Cardinals. In the big picture, they have two other starters who have made their big-league debuts. The leaders of the bullpen have been strong, despite challenges and turnover.
In the exclusive interview, Bilardello discusses the season to date and touches on most all of his key pitching and hitting performers.
Derek Shore: Well, Dann, you are first half champs as your players secured a playoff berth for the first time since 2012. What growth did you see in that mix from the start of the season?
Dann Bilardello: "First half was good. Winning the first half was a positive thing. We had a lot of young players mixed with a few guys that have been here before. Our pitching staff had a mix of some older guys that had some experience here. That helped and the young guys performed very well.
"It's later in the season now, and all clubs throughout the organization have changed a little bit. I think the young guys performed. They've done well, and they've moved on. That's good, and the mix of the older guys really helped out."
DS: That group was headlined by Carson Kelly and Harrison Bader, who received mid-season promotions to Memphis. Player movement is always a part of the business, but your players here have made positive headway over the last week or two. What have you seen in their progression?
DB: "It's opportunity. We've had a lot of guys that have stepped up and struggled at times and shown some signs that they have belonged here. I think it's just allowed for an opportunity with younger players. The one mainstay was our pitching which has kind of remained the same. We've had help with guys who have come up and done a nice job in the starting rotation.
"Like I said, our bullpen has got some experience. Our pitching has been doing a good job of keeping us in games, and it always will be pitching, no matter what league you're coaching. They've kept us in games, and the young guys have gotten over the hump in the dog days.
"Everybody is kind of sore and beat up a little bit, but they have come through it really well. It's a combination of we're playing better; we're hitting the ball, and pitching a lot better. When that happens, you've got good opportunities to win."
DS: Your club seems to have been bitten by the injury bug of late. That said, you can't argue with the results, right?
DB: "Injuries are going to happen. Injuries just happen in this game and any athletic event. You play 140-games, and you play every day, and you get on buses. We do the best job we can on and off the field to keep the kids available and ready to go.
Our trainer does a nice job our strength and conditioning guy, Lance (Thomason) and Scott (Ensell), they do a good job keeping them ready to play and doing the best they can to keep them healthy, but sometimes it's just inherent to this game. You're going to get different types of injuries, but really what that means is other guys get opportunities.
"That's a good thing."
DS: A lot is mentioned around the organization about a player getting to a league, catching up to a league, and passing a league. How do you know when a player passes a league?
DB: "Good question. I think when the game slows down for him and then their performance kind of equates with that. You look at either Paul DeJong or Luke Voit, who are in this league for the first time. Early on, I think the game got to them a little bit in the sense of the speed of it, but as they kept playing, the confidence builds.
"You can see the transformation in both that they feel comfortable, they know they belong here, and I think a lot of it is mental. You can be an unbelievable pitcher or player that comes up from Palm Beach, but so much is said about Double-A being the biggest jump, and I agree that it is. I think that mentally for a player becomes more important than the physical part.
"You can get over the mental part of 'Am I sure I can be here?' 'Am I good enough to be here?' All those things. Obviously having success matters, but I think mentally is the hardest part, and all the kid have gotten over that hump a little bit. They know they belong here and are having some success."
DS: Generally, the upper levels see regular player movement. What are some of the challenges in putting together a lineup on a daily basis?
DB: "I don't really call it a challenge. Like I said, it is an opportunity for different players to show what they got. Vaughn Bryan flew in today, and he's starting, so here's his opportunity to go out and play. I like giving guys chances and guys that have been here are going to play and pitch. I don't see it as a challenge more as an opportunity."
DS: While he was here, Harrison Bader led your club in several major offensive categories. What stood out to you among Harrison's attributes?
DB: "Harrison did a good job. One thing I liked about Harrison was he maintained (his performance) for a long time. He hit way beyond what he was going to end up doing earlier on and came down a little bit before his promotion.
"Overall, I think he learned about the league, himself, his adjustments he's going to have to make, and he's going to have to continue to make those adjustments. As far as offensively, those are the things he has to do.
"Defensively, he played a good center field. There's always ways to get better jumps, better reads off the bat, and all those types of things. That will come with experience."
DS: Coming off a Gold Glove a year ago, Carson Kelly has put together a good offensive year. What improvements did you see in him both offensively and defensively when he was here?
DB: "I think defensively it was more the mental side of the game. Controlling the pitchers and calling games. There's still an improvement for that. I don't think you ever stop improving on that side of it. I saw some improvement in being the captain on the field. (Defense) was probably the biggest thing for me. There weren't many worries when he was back there.
"Offensively, he had some difficulties at times at the lower levels, but didn't put up the big average many people thought he would coming out of high school. To his credit, he came out real aggressive, got after it, made some real quality swings, and I think with the some of the success it just kept building.
"Looking at it seems like he's continued that in Triple-A. Good for him. Really good for the organization."
DS: Paul DeJong has been a huge power source for your lineup and overall productive hitter in the league. What has he shown you this year?
DB: "You kind of said it, he's got power to all fields. The ball just seems to keep carrying off his bat. He's got something that a lot of people would like to have. I think Paul is just working on more consistent at-bats and making a little bit more contact, though I don't worry so much about contact with guys that have power, because you start worrying about that, it may take away from their power.
"He's learning. He's a real smart kid. I think he's made good adjustments. There are periods where I see, and I'm like 'Wow.' He's still learning, and he'll just keep getting better.
"Defensively, I think there has been some improvement there. I think the most improvement has been there. He's getting off the ball a little bit better. I've played him at short with people thinking 'Why would you play him at short?' He actually moves pretty well. He likes playing there.
"So, defensively that has been the biggest improvement. He's still improving and hopefully over the course of this year and into next he's going to get even better and when he does you've got a good player."
DS: Normally power hitters tend to strike out a lot. Do you think that will always be the case for Paul?
DB: "Good question. I guess, I'll put it this way, 'I hope not.' When you put up power numbers, and you drive in runs, I don't think people look at the strikeouts so much. He's one of the best RBI, clutch hitters we have on our team, and his average isn't the highest. When it comes to that situation, he's had a lot of success.
"I think eventually he will cut down on his strikeouts once he learns his swing even better. Like I said, when that happens, he's just a really interesting kid. He does have the potential to be a good player."
DS: Luke Voit has had a career offensive year for your ball club. What have you seen from him and where is he at this point?
DB: "Well, consistency. He's been our most consistent player all year. That's probably the best word I can put for him. I think when he came here and was on the club, I think everyone had expectations, and I think he did too. It was probably hard for him to get back to a place where he played; hometown kind of thing.
"Sometimes, that's hard. But, he's been consistent throughout the year and really been our MVP, to be honest. Pauly's had a fine year offensively, but consistently throughout the year Luke has been right on track.
“Good for him. Again, good for the organization. Keep playing and hopefully get better. It's been a pleasant surprise to some people. I'm glad to see it."
DS: Bruce Caldwell was a mid-season all-star in the first half, but has fallen off here in the second half. How can Bruce get going again?
DB: "He's swung the bat better before he hurt his side a little bit and that hurt the progress at that time. Bruce is kind of a streak hitter. He's going to have his ups and downs. He can be better in that, and he knows it too. He's striving to do that.
"It's just going to take confidence in the sense of putting consistent at-bats together. In this last road-trip coming off the DL, he had some good at-bats and hit the ball hard, so I don't worry about Bruce a whole lot.”
DS: On the pitching side, Daniel Poncedeleon has been your staff's horse. What has made him so successful this year?
DB: "Ponce gets the post all the time. He gets there. He makes his starts. I think what helps Ponce and what he needs to work on is consistently being in the zone. I think at times it helps him being a little bit out of the zone and finally getting back in the zone.
"They say effective wildness, but I wouldn't call it wild when he's all over the place, but sometimes he's not getting in the zone as consistent as he would like and he needs to improve on that. I think that has also helped him."
DS: Trey Nielsen has had a bit of an up-and-down season, but when he keeps the ball down, his sinker seems to play well. Despite being on the DL, what do you feel Trey has accomplished this year?
DB: "Well, I think that. He needs to know when to keep the ball down and trust his stuff. I could say that about any pitcher, 'You gotta trust your stuff.' 'You better keep the ball down.' I don't care if you're in the Dominican playing right now or in the big-leagues you better keep your stuff down unless you’re 97 plus because guys hit fastballs.
"He's learned that. He needs to learn to be sharper with his secondary pitches. When he's down in the zone, and his secondary pitches are working, he's a pretty good pitcher."
DS: Andrew Morales was organization's Pitcher of the Month in April and really got off to an excellent start before hitting the DL. What's been the difference for him repeating this level?
DB: "I think repeating the level helped him. He's throwing more consistent strikes, working ahead in counts, and keeping the ball down. Like I said, you can say that about every pitcher, but it's kind of a redundant answer. It should be for every pitcher. Keep the ball, work ahead.
"Also, his secondary pitches are sharper this year. He learned a lot from last year and it kind of carried over. Andrew has had a pretty good year until his time off here."
DS: Luke Weaver had an excellent Triple-A debut, and now he is in the big leagues. What did you see in Weaver from the 12 starts when he was with Springfield?
DB: "I know this is boring, but he keeps the ball down and throws strikes. He's got some movement, and he's got pretty good stuff. He's got a good changeup that almost reacts like a slider. He's got a cutter that works real well and a fastball that has movement down in the zone.
"He throws consistent strikes. He's down in the zone, and he knows how to command even up and in and out. You have a pitcher that does that, you are going to have success. I don't care where you are pitching."
DS: Do you think Weaver can overcome his fly ball tendencies at the highest level?
DB: "Without looking at the numbers, I'm not sure he's that high of a fly ball pitcher, to be honest. To me, he's more of a groundball guy because he keeps the ball down. Yeah, you don't want to be a fly ball guy. I would say he's more of a groundball pitcher."
DS: "Austin Gomber has stepped up from Palm Beach before hitting the DL with the thumb issue. What are your thoughts on the big lefty so far?
DB: "He learned a lot from the last time he came up. He pitched okay last time. He was more down in the zone and worked ahead. This game isn't hard. It's real simple. It's hard, but it's simple for a pitcher right now. No matter your velocity, if you command the strike zone - in and out and down, especially you've got a chance to be successful.
"You've got to have good stuff too. It does help. That's what he's doing. He's working ahead. He's got a good angle to his pitches, especially his fastball, and when he's down, he's real good. It's a shame he had that injury. Hopefully, sooner than later, he'll be ready. It's going to be a tough one to come back from.”
DS: You have received contributions from Chris Perry, Ronnie Shaban, Kevin Herget and Josh Lucas in late-innings. Who has stood out among that group?
DB: "I think they've all stood out. They've all been standouts. Here's a way to put it, I don't care who finishes the game out of those four. They all can, so I trust them all, and they all have (finished games). That's the best way I can put it. I trust them all in late-game situations, so whoever is ready that day gets it."
DS: Rowan Wick was promoted here at the end of June. Now that he is off the DL, do you envision him progressing to higher leverage situations down the stretch?
DB: "Nope, I think we have our four guys. If it comes up, fine. Rowan's new to pitching and to throw him into high-stress situations wouldn't be good for him at this point. He needs to build confidence. Listen, the sixth inning, or the seventh inning, or the eighth inning are just as important as the ninth. To me, it's all important, but it's different in the ninth.
"I need to put up zeroes in the sixth, seventh, and eighth, so that's where he'll throw and that's what he needs to do."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
© 2016 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.