The rookie-level Gulf Coast League is the lowest rung of the seven levels in the St. Louis Cardinals system in the United States.
The reality that the club plays on the back fields of the Cardinals complex in Jupiter, Florida in front of basically no fans, means information from the GCL is delivered mostly from box scores. However, the Cardinal Nation again has a local reporter, Paul Ivice, attending most home games, providing an insiders perspective that is available nowhere else.
The GCL roster always features an interesting mix of players – from non-drafted collegians to high school stars to first-time US players from the Dominican Republic academy, a few top draft picks thrown in, and now and then, even more experienced players on rehab assignments to complete the mix.
The 2016 edition of the Cardinals continued the regular-season success the club has enjoyed in the last six years of the 10 in which it has competed in the GCL. This summer, manager Steve Turco’s club played .611 baseball, winning 33 and losing 21. They crafted almost identical winning records both at home (17-10) and on the road (16-11).
The Cards won their five-team East Division by 2.5 games over the Nationals. It is their fourth division crown in the last five years.
In the one-game first-round semi-finals on September 4 in Jupiter, the Cards finally made it over the same hurdle that had stopped them in each of their prior three playoff seasons. They defeated their long-time playoff nemesis, the powerhouse Red Sox, two-time defending GCL champion. As a result, the Cardinals had finally reached the league championship round for the first time.
Now they are 1-for-1 in the finals. The Cardinals won their first league title, defeating the top-seeded Phillies in the best-of-three series.
Each club took one game at home, setting up the winner-take-all Game 3 in Clearwater on Wednesday, September 7. Down 2-0 in the first inning, the Cardinals came back in the sixth to take the decisive contest, 4-2. Left-handed reliever Colton Thomson was named series MVP after striking out six in 5 1/3 scoreless frames in the finals.
The GCL is a short-season league. The 56-game regular-season schedule began on June 24 and concluded on September 1. The 17-team league is made up of three four-team divisions and the Cardinals’ East Division, which has five clubs.
To ease travel, each team played exclusively in its division. That meant the Cards’ schedule included 14 games each against the Astros, Marlins, Mets and Nationals. In the five-team division, clubs played four games with the fifth day off.
With the Astros and Nationals building their new complex nearby in Palm Beach, bus time for road games should be considerably diminished in 2017.
The Cardinals got out of the gates well, winning four of six in June.
However, as the calendar flipped to July, the club hit what must have been its low point, opening the month with a 17-0 shellacking administered by the Nationals. In fact, the club dropped five of six to open the month, falling below .500.
In the second half of July, the club hit its stride, breaking off seven consecutive victories before dropping the final two. That left the club with a 13-11 month and a 17-13 mark overall.
Some clubs wilt in August, but that is when the Cardinals came into their own. They won eight of their first nine and 11 of 13 before finishing the month with 6-6 stretch that included three rainouts. Their final regular season contest, on September 1, was also washed away.
In the post-season, the Cardinals won three of four, outscoring their opposition 15-7.
A historical perspective
Looking at the big picture, the Cardinals’ decade spent in the GCL can be viewed as two clear groups. In the first four years, the Cards never logged a winning record. However, since 2010, they finished above .500 five of six years, including four division titles in the last five seasons.
Until finally breaking through in 2016, the Cardinals were partially stymied by GCL rules that continue to give division winners just one game in the semi-finals.
The 2016 Cards won one fewer game than in 2015, but had a higher winning percentage. That is due to a four-team division expanding to five requiring a move from 60 games to 56.
Most importantly, the Cards again took the East Division, then finally won the one-game first round of the playoffs, after dropping all three prior chances – in 2012, 2014 and 2015, before going on to win their first league title.
Following are the GCL Cardinals records by year.
As an organization, the Cardinals are known for their pitching and the GCL club finished sixth in the league in ERA at 3.16. This was especially impressive since their biggest names from the 2016 draft worked under a closely-monitored pitching plan (Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones, Zac Gallen), combining for less than two games total - just 17 2/3 innings pitched. Further, all three were gone by the post-season with the former two having been promoted and Gallen excused to return to college for the fall semester.
14 different pitchers started for the GCL Cardinals in 2016, including rehabbers Jacob Evans (Palm Beach – 1 start), Jeremy Hefner (Memphis – 2), Andrew Morales (Springfield – 2) and Arturo Reyes (Memphis – 2).
In terms of age, the pitching staff’s 21.0 average was tied for fifth-oldest in the league. Hudson and Jones are 21 and Gallen is 20.
The staff, tutored by new pitching coach Giovanni Carrera, up from the 2015 Dominican Summer League, logged that aggregate ERA of 3.16, which was more than a third of a run better than the 2015 club’s 3.53 mark. The league-average ERA in 2016 was 3.41.
The Cards’ strikeout total of 421 was in the middle of the pack, eighth-highest in the league. They were also tied for eighth in the circuit in walks with 181. That was 25 more than in 2015. The Cards had a league-low 27 hit by pitches.
The Cardinals’ WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.34 was very close to the 1.35 mark from the year prior and placed them fourth from the bottom of the league.
Under first-year hitting coach Cody Gabella, the Cardinals offense was a top third of the pack group in terms of numbers, but it is also important to note that they were tied with two other clubs for the youngest squad in the league at just 18.8 years of age.
The Cardinals were eighth in runs scored per game at 4.13 and fourth in batting average at .251. The 2016 offense was also fourth in the league in on-base percentage at .330 and slugging at .349. It only follows that their .680 OPS was also in the top tier, also fourth.
In counting stats, the Cardinals were tied with the fifth-fewest doubles with 74 but were sixth overall with 18 three-base hits. They swatted 20 home runs, down from 29 the year before, good for eighth in the GCL.
An ongoing shortfall across the entire system, including St. Louis, is baserunning. The GCL Cardinals stole just 34 bases, third-fewest in the league and down from 49 the year before. Further, their success rate of 63.0 percent was below the league-average of 67.1.
Fielding was not a strong suit of the 2016 GCL Cardinals. The club tied for the fifth-most errors in the league at 78 and their fielding percentage of .961 was fourth from the cellar. Rookie shortstop Delvin Perez led the way with 17 miscues.
On the positive side, the catching allowed just five passed balls all season long, best in the league and one-third of the total of several other clubs. Further, the catchers threw out a league-best 46 percent of baserunners attempting to steal, 32 of 70. Dennis Ortega, Irving Wilson and Tyler Lancaster were the team’s backstops.
For the second year in a row, exactly 20 members of the initial GCL Cards were system returnees. However, three spent the season on the disabled list – pitchers Ronald Medrano, Blake Higgins and outfielder Nick Plummer – and a fourth, hurler Oneiver Diaz, did not pitch all summer, either, but was never placed on the DL.
The 20 returnees were augmented by all five of the organization’s top five picks, taken in the first three rounds. Along with Hudson (1st), Jones (2nd) and Gallen (3rd), the Cardinals also assigned top pick Perez (1st) and outfielder Dylan Carlson (1st), to the GCL.
Other new draftees placed in the GCL included infielders Brady Whalen (12th), Stefan Trosclair (20) and Andy Young (37), catcher Lancaster (16), outfielder Walker Robbins (5). Shortly after the season opened, infielder J.D. Murders (31) signed and Young moved up, finishing at State College.
Other 2016-drafted pitchers assigned to the GCL Cards included Sam Tewes (8th – injured), lefty Anthony Ciavarella (24), Mike O’Reilly (27), Jonathon Mulford (34), Robbie Gordon (36) and Robert Calvano (38).
A year after at least four non-drafted free agents were signed to augment the roster, the Cardinals added just one in 2016. It was a great choice, the aforementioned Thomson, who in addition to being the finals MVP, was The Cardinal Nation’s system-wide Relief Pitcher of the Month in August.
The Cardinals streak of two straight batting champions (Allen Cordoba and Magneuris Sierra) was broken. Interestingly, just four qualifying league hitters batted .300 or better, with Perez topping the Cardinals at .294, seventh in the GCL.
Perez led the club in on-base percentage at .352 and OPS at .745 while Carlson slugged his way to a team-best .404 mark. Perez’ 12 steals placed him in a share of 10th place in the league and Carlson was eighth with 30 runs scored.
Carlson’s 13 doubles tied for second-most in the league and his three triples led the Cardinals. First baseman Stefan Trosclair’s five long balls topped the Cards and tied for sixth-most in the circuit with a number of others.
Three players drove in the most runs for the Cardinals, with third baseman Starlin Balbuena first at 23, and Carlson and Trosclair right behind with 22 each.
Franyel Casadilla’s 2.32 ERA led the Cards pitching staff and was seventh among league qualifiers. Juan Alvarez was 10th at 2.63. Jonathon Mulford’s six saves tied for fourth-most in the GCL.
Another player earning an in-season promotion in addition to Hudson, Jones and Young was first baseman Hunter Newman to Johnson City. Also, at the very end of the GCL season and as the DSL schedule was ending, outfielder Wadye Ynfante joined the club.
Among the GCL Cardinals ranked in the most recent monthly top 50 prospect list compiled by The Cardinal Nation include Perez (3rd) Plummer (14th), Carlson (23rd), pitcher Alvaro Seijas (32nd), Gallen (33rd). In addition, the since-promoted pair of Hudson is eighth and Jones 18th.
The GCL has not yet not announced its 2016 all-star team.
As we move into the awards for the top position player, starting pitcher and relief pitcher on the 2016 GCL Cardinals, we will drill down further into individual player stats.
As a team, the 2016 Gulf Coast League Cardinals had a good offense and enough pitching to again win the division, but took it all the way to the club’s and manager Steve Turco’s first league title. From the development perspective, the club should provide a number of battle-tested players to higher-level organizational clubs in 2017.
A handful of GCL players have been invited to participate in the Cardinals fall instructional league camp that begins this month. More details on instructs is coming very soon, including first-hand reports from Jupiter, exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation.
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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