The level of competition farthest away from the Major Leagues – in both distance and experience – is the Dominican Summer League. The St. Louis Cardinals’ club there opened its 12th season with promise and as the summer went on, the parent organization spent lavishly on international free agents, several of whom were activated in 2016.
Just two seasons after the 2014 club limped home at 22-48 (.314), their worst record since the Cards joined the rookie-level league in 2008, the 2016 team almost flipped that total over, winning 45 and losing just 26, for a .634 winning percentage. That represented an 11-win improvement over 2015.
Despite the team-record .634 winning percentage this season, the Cardinals fell short of the playoffs. In the reconfigured six-division DSL, the Cardinals ran into a buzzsaw assembled by the Rockies, which went 51-20 (.714), relegating the Cards to a second-place finish, six games back in the eight-team San Pedro Division.
The Red Sox, one of nine organizations that sported two teams in the DSL, brought home two of the six division titles, with the Red Sox1 club winning the league title over the Rangers1 squad.
With so many inexperienced players, won-loss records are de-emphasized as youngsters are tried defensively at different positions and in different situations. To explore this avenue – beyond the stat sheet - The Cardinal Nation members should look for an in-depth player development assessment from Cardinals director of international operations Moises Rodriguez later this week.
The DSL plays under a different calendar than other short-season leagues, opening their 72-game schedule at the start of June and finishing in late August.
To ease travel, each team played exclusively in its division. Series were always of two-game duration – one at home and one away. That meant three series per week with Sundays off.
In addition to the Cardinals and Rockies, other division opponents were the Angels, Tigers, Braves, Nationals, Yankees2 and Brewers.
It was a strange season for the Cardinals, making an amazing start and a strong finish but struggling in between.
After splitting their opening series and going 5-2 in their first seven, the Cardinals reeled off eight straight wins. After a pair of losses, the Cards then took seven of eight to close June with an excellent 18-5 record.
With two more victories to open July, the Cardinals came into July 4th at 15 games over .500 at 20-5. However, the club won just four of the next 10 to head into the All-Star break on July 16-17 at 6-6 for the month and 21-11 overall. The Cardinals struggles continued as the second half resumed, with the club going just 5-8 after the break to close July at 11-14.
When the calendar flipped over to August, the Cardinals of June returned to duty. Manager Fray Peniche, in his sixth year, and his staff got the team playing considerably better. In fact, the Cards ripped off a pair of five-game winning streaks in their first 11 games to go to 40-20, their high-water mark of the season at 20-games over .500. However, they logged just a 5-6 mark over the final 11 as the Rockies clinched. Still, the month of August was good for the club, as they finished 16-7 during the period.
A historical perspective
Though division configurations have changed over time, before the 2015 rebound, the Cards’ absolute position in the standings had slid in each of the prior four years. However, the second-place finish in 2016 tied the franchise’s best final placement in the standings, first set in 2009 and 2010.
As noted above, this season’s .634 winning percentage set a new DSL Cardinals record, edging out the 2009 team’s .630 mark. 2016 represented the second straight year of double-digit win improvement for the Cardinals.
Here are the DSL Cardinals records by year.
In recent seasons, the DSL Cardinals had relied in large part on their pitching. The results from the staff remained important in 2016, but took a secondary role to the offense.
The team ERA was almost identical to the two prior years, with the 2016 club coming in at 3.53 compared to 3.55 and 3.54 in 2015 and 2014, respectively. The 3.53 mark placed the Cards almost exactly in the middle of the pack, ranked 22nd in the 42-team league compared to 15th of 38 the year before. The Cards were only slightly worse than the league-average ERA of 3.47.
In terms of baserunners allowed, with walks plus hits per innings pitched, WHIP, used as a surrogate, the Cardinals’ mark of 1.322 was 16th, better than the overall league mark of 1.343.
The young staff averaged 18.2 years of age, significantly younger than the league average of 19.1 by almost a year.
Tutored by veteran pitching coach Bill Villanueva, back with the DSL club in 2016 after a stint in the US, the Cardinals pitchers threw the ball past their opponents with regularity. The Cardinals’ strikeout total of 599 was first in the entire DSL, up from 513 and 24th the year before.
The staff was also stingy with free passes, logging the ninth fewest walks at 227. This represented an improvement over their 258 total in 2015, 16th lowest.
Under third-year hitting coach Erick Almonte and assistant John Matos, the Cardinals offense had its best showing ever, creating a more balanced attack than in recent years.
Outscoring the opposition is the way to win games and the 2016 DSL Cardinals did that 45 times. The team was tops in the DSL in runs scored with 438. That is up 66 from the year before and a whopping 189 runs more than in 2014, when they were second to last.
The Cards jumped up from 20th in batting average to third this summer at .265. That was 12 points of improvement from 2015 and a 53 points higher than the in 2014. .265 is also the team’s best BA since joining the league 12 years ago.
The Cardinals led the league with 134 doubles, four more than in 2015. They paced the DSL in home runs with 35. Both were new highs for the Cardinals in their 12 DSL seasons.
Taking the third-most walks at 347, meant that in OBP, they were second at .363. That was actually down from .370 the year before.
When they did reach base, the Cards were not standouts. They stole just 39 bases, dead last in the league for the second straight year. When they did try, their success rate was a good 73.6 percent.
In three-base hits, the power in the bats overcame the apparent lack of speed with the team’s total of 34 three-baggers ranking fourth in the circuit.
Putting it all together, in OPS, the Cardinals again led the 42-team league at .756.
The Cardinals were in the middle of the pack in fielding percentage with a .959 mark, ranking them 19th.
Only 64 stolen bases were attempted against Cardinals batteries in 2016, fourth-fewest in the DSL. Of them, 37 were nabbed stealing, for a 37 percent success ratio that was 17th-best and just above the league average of 35%.
A year after the Cardinals featured three DSL All-Stars, all position players, one pitcher and one position player were chosen in 2016.
Outfielder Brian Sanchez, 20, the league leader in home runs, RBI, slugging and OPS, was a very rare repeat all-star. Representing the Cards’ pitching staff was reliever Brian Pirela, 18. Both participated in the mid-season All-Star Game.
In what may be an emerging trend, two 2015 DSL Cardinals players were promoted to the Gulf Coast League during the summer. They are right-handed pitcher Alvaro Seijas and outfielder Wadye Ynfante.
The two bookended the season with their promotions.
The 17-year-old Seijas, ranked 32nd on The Cardinal Nation top prospect list, was promoted to the Gulf Coast League in late June, after just four starts. This was likely the Cardinals’ plan coming in. Since the DSL began three weeks ahead of the GCL, it gave Seijas a good head start on the latter.
On the other hand, Ynfante, 19, spent almost all summer in the DSL, before being promoted to the GCL on August 23. At that point, the center fielder stepped into the GCL lineup as that club went on to win its league championship.
The Cardinals have signed 18 youngsters to date after the July 2nd signing period, with 13 of them inking 2017 contracts. The five who played in the 2016 DSL are two Cubans, a Mexican, a Dominican and a Venezuelan.
Cuban outfielder Jonatan Machado and right-handed pitcher Johan Oviedo received $2.3 million and $1.9 million, respectively. Mexican catcher Carlos Soto picked up a $400,000 signing bonus. The other two signees are outfielder Diomedes Del Rio and right-hander Enmanuel Solano. Oviedo and Del Rio are 18 years of age with the others 17.
As we move into the awards for the top position player, starting pitcher and relief pitcher on the 2016 DSL Cardinals, we will drill down into individual player stats and highlights.
In a preview of potential promotions to the US extended spring training in 2017, a number of select DSL players are likely to be invited to participate in the Cardinals fall instructional league camp that begins later this month.
The other 2016 DSL Cardinals should compete in the Dominican version of instructs, which will commence at the Cardinals academy in October. Joining them will be the remainder of the 2017 international signees who have yet to appear in regular-season DSL games.
The offense-heavy DSL Cardinals will hope to build on their improved 2016 experience and progress to an even better 2017 performance in the standings, including what would be their first-ever division title, along with graduating a number of standouts to play in the States.
Link to master article with all 2016 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that will include our selections as the DSL Cardinals Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
Bonus for members of The Cardinal Nation: The Cardinal Nation August Starting Pitcher of the Month
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