Even though the Springfield Cardinals fell short of the playoffs in 2015, this year's team was not affected. The 2016 unit did not waste any time, winning the franchise's first Texas League North Division title since 2012 based on a 41-29 first half record.
"Winning the first half was a positive thing," manager Dann Bilardello stated in August. "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."
Springfield started the 2016 season with 16 returning players in the fold, including second-year coaches Bilardello and Jason Simontacchi (pitching coach). Three new Cardinals were headliners - among the system's top position players in catcher Carson Kelly, third baseman Paul DeJong, and outfielder Harrison Bader. Former first rounder Luke Weaver joined on June 5th after recovering from a broken left wrist suffered during spring training.
Roster turnover regularly affects upper-level minor league teams - and the Springbirds were no exception. The club had a total of 166 player moves for the season, including 16 different players hitting the shelf, helping lead to an ever-changing 25-man roster.
Bilardello looked beyond his club's under-.500 second-half record logged after Bader, Kelly and Weaver were promoted to Triple-A Memphis.
"It's opportunity," Bilardello said of his club, who finished third in the North Division with a 34-36 second half record. "We had a lot of guys that stepped up and struggled at times; shown some signs that they belong here. I think it allowed for an opportunity with younger players.”
The Divisional Series
Springfield opened the Texas League North Division championship last Wednesday, falling 9-6 in the opener against Northwest Arkansas (KC) at Hammons Field after the Naturals knocked out starter Daniel Poncedeleon after just two innings. The second half champs pounded out 16 hits to take a 1-0 lead. In a game that was finished in Springdale, Ark due to rain, Springfield squeaked past the 'Nats, 12-11 to even up the series.
In the full road game played last Friday, Springfield did not fare as well offensively despite a Luke Voit home run. The Naturals diced up Matt Pearce in an abbreviated four-inning outing and continued the home run barrage to win 8-3, giving them a shot at advancing on Saturday – which they accomplished. Springfield fell to NW Arkansas in a tough extra inning defeat, losing on a walk-off squeeze bunt.
"They played better than us the whole series," skipper Bilardello told reporters following his team's elimination. "They swung the bats great for four games.”
The Naturals' victory in Game 4 abruptly ended the Cardinals Double-A club's season.
After a season as exciting as this, there were many highlights worth mentioning in 2016. Listed below are the ones that stand out in the overview of the team's success:
- Springfield captured the Texas League first-half crown for the first time since 2009, securing its first guaranteed playoff spot since the 2012 season, a club that won the franchise's lone league championship.
- Springfield hosted the best of the North Division and South Division in the Texas League All-Star Game on June 28, before the largest crowd at Hammons Field recorded in 2016.
- Springfield sent seven players to the TL All-Star Game, including Bader, Voit, Kelly, second baseman Bruce Caldwell, and pitchers Daniel Poncedeleon and Josh Lucas.
- The TL named two Springfield players to its annual Post-Season All-Star Team on August 31 - Voit and former Springfield hurler Luke Weaver.
- Springfield produced three big-leaguers - Kelly, Weaver, and Mike Mayers - who first contributed at the Double-A level in 2016 and later made their MLB debuts for St. Louis, all in one season.
- Springfield had a large MLB rehab contingent that included Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter, Ruben Tejada, Brayan Pena, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Moss, Seth Maness, and Lance Lynn, all of whom appeared in Texas League action in 2016.
Springfield opened the season with a 3-1 victory over San Antonio (SD) on April 7 but ended the month of April with an 11-10 record as the club was still searching for its offensive identity. The S-Cards recovered from that meager start, posting a 17-13 record over the month of May while plating 34 more runs on offense than allowed.
From May 12, the Cardinals held onto the first-place ranking until losing on June 3. Springfield fell 2.5 games back with a 6-0 loss to Arkansas (LAA) on June 8 before seizing the division for good six days later with a 7-6 victory over Tulsa (LAD). They went on to clinch a playoff berth with a 5-2 win at Tulsa on June 19th, finishing the first half on a five-game win streak.
The S-Cards went 3-3 to begin the second half and concluded the month of June with a 16-9 record, their best month of the season. After that point, results turned mediocre as they dropped 18 of 31 games and fell into the cellar in the North. The Cardinals played .500 ball in August, going 14-14 before taking four of their last five games in September and finishing the second half 34-36, still just two games back.
Through the regular season, the Cardinals ranked sixth in the league with a 4.35 ERA, almost identical to the pitching staff's mark of 4.36 last year. Pitching coach Jason Simontacchi's hurlers finished fourth in hits allowed as well as walks issued, while posting 1058 strikeouts (the second-fewest in the eight-team league).
"I would say we moved in the right direction," Simontacchi said of his staff in late June. "I think the league opened a lot of eyes - positively and negatively. The guys struggled at the beginning, but they started to catch up to the league. They got more confidence and realized what they need to do as pitchers.
"I think it was a staff which included pitchers in different stages of their careers. They stuck together and picked each other up. We failed here and there, but they were a hard-working group."
The Springfield offense slashed at an above-league-average mark, posting a line of .256/.325/.385 in 4661 at-bats through 140 games. Collectively, the S-Cards bashed 125 homers (third-most in the league) and scored 598 runs, averaging 4.27 runs per game (fourth-best).
However, the Cardinals finished dead-last in doubles (188) and stolen bases (57) on the season. Even when they did try to steal, their success rate was just 54 percent.
Springfield opened the regular season with 16 returnees, including 11 pitchers - Joey Donofrio (released), Chris Thomas, Corey Baker, Kurt Heyer, Josh Lucas, Mike Mayers, Andrew Morales, Chris Perry, Ronnie Shaban, plus Jimmy Reed and Robby Rowland (both DL). The five returning position players were Bruce Caldwell, Luis Cruz, Andrew Sohn, Breyvic Valera and David Washington.
As mentioned, top prospects Kelly, Bader, and DeJong headlined the 2016 Opening Day roster. Trey Nielsen, Corey Littrell, and Daniel Poncedeleon headlined the pitching newcomers while Luke Voit, C.J. McElroy, Collin Radack, and Chris Jacobs (released) also made their Double-A debuts for Springfield.
Amid significant roster turnover, 14 of those 16 Opening Day returnees did not crack Springfield’s postseason roster primarily either due to injury or being assigned to a different level.
On the postseason roster, the Cardinals had 13 pitchers, two catchers, seven infielders, and three outfielders. Among them was 2016 supplemental first rounder Dakota Hudson, promoted from Palm Beach.
In 2017, the Springbirds will return for their 13th season as the St. Louis Cardinals' Double-A affiliate. As announced last Tuesday, Springfield and St. Louis will play an exhibition game at Hammons Field on Friday, March 31 at 5:05 PM CT.
The S-Cards will embark on their 2017 regular season on April 6 at Frisco (TEX) for a three-game set. The Cardinals’ home opener will be the next week on April 13, also against the Roughriders.
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 Springfield Cardinals Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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