The Springfield Cardinals opened the 2016 season with a five-man rotation of Mike Mayers, Andrew Morales, Corey Baker, Trey Nielsen and Daniel Poncedeleon before Mayers received a promotion to Triple-A Memphis in May. J.C. Sulbaran filled his rotation spot for the remainder of the season and star-studded prospect Luke Weaver joined the club on June 5.
By the end of the summer, Weaver had reached the big leagues after a one-start cameo at Triple-A and Morales was hampered by shoulder issues for parts of the last three months. Up from High-A Palm Beach rotation came Austin Gomber, Matt Pearce, Johnny Walter and Ian McKinney, each making their Double-A debuts, with two of the four factoring into the club’s championship push in September.
Had Morales stayed healthy and Weaver remained in Springfield, both would have received serious consideration as our Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year. However, Texas League mid-season All-Star Poncedeleon was manager Dann Bilardello's most resilient and consistent starter throughout the 2016 campaign, making 27 starts (tied for most in the Texas League) while leading the pitching staff with 151 innings hurled on the season.
"Ponce gets the post all the time. He gets there. He makes his starts," Bilardello said during one pregame interview.
Poncedeleon, 24, led the Springbirds with nine wins and 122 strikeouts, finishing eighth among league leaders with a 3.52 ERA and sixth with a 1.22 WHIP. The right-hander was also the first Springfield starter to throw over 150 innings since lefty Nick Addition in 2010. Only seven pitchers have logged 150 innings or more in a single-season in the franchise's history.
Thus, Poncedeleon is our choice as The Cardinal Nation’s Springfield Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year for 2016.
"The 2016 season performance was a bit of mixed for me," Poncedeleon said, reflecting upon the season. "I was happy I pitched the entire season and made every scheduled start. I was not happy with my consistency of throwing strikes the whole year. If I was around the zone, I'd have a good game.
"If not, it was a battle to have a good game for my team. Altogether, I am happy with the final results. Also, this season taught me a lot about what I could handle and what I needed to do to succeed at a higher level pitching every five days," he said.
One of the roadblocks for Poncedeleon was learning to fine-tune his mental approach. The 6-foot-4 hurler, who sports the old-school style high socks, said he had to battle his mind because he would get caught up in pitch grips and mechanical aspects that affected his strike-throwing ability.
"I would find something that worked for one game, but didn't work for the next," Poncedeleon said. "I am happy with the way my mentality week in and week out progressed for being able to go out and compete with whatever I had."
Ultimately, The Cardinal Nation's #22-ranked prospect’s renewed mental approach aided his growth as a pitcher.
"I feel it forced me to grow and mature," he said. "I learned how to deal with failure and be able to go out every week and make good enough pitches to help put my team in a position to win."
Luke Weaver was relatively close in competition with Poncedeleon despite pitching only two months in the Texas League. Weaver, 23, took the league by storm, going 6-3 with a 1.40 ERA through 12 starts. The righty impressed the Springfield coaching staff with his strike-throwing ability, maintaining above-average velocity, and endurance. He struck out 88 batters against 10 walks over 77 Double-A innings.
Weaver won the Texas League Player of the Month and Cardinals organization Pitcher of the Month awards for June in addition to garnering a TL Post-Season All-Star nod.
“He has stuff between his ears that resonates when he’s on the mound,” Springfield pitching coach Jason Simontacchi said. "He’s kind of a silent assassin. He just came out of the gates running. When he's got his stuff working, it's fun to sit back and watch him compete."
The Cardinal Nation's #4 prospect made his MLB debut on August 13 against the Chicago Cubs, tossing four innings while allowing two runs on four hits.
Taking a back-seat to Poncedeleon and Weaver, Trey Nielsen went 8-8 over 23 games (19 starts) before making a late-season transition to the bullpen. Nielsen finished the season with a 3.84 ERA for Springfield over 122 innings of work. The righty converted to relief after missing 24 days due to fatigue in the month of August.
Nielsen is a classic sinkerball-changeup pitcher, who describes himself as a control pitcher. In his second full season, the 25-year old's biggest adjustment was "keeping the ball down" after yielding 13 home runs against Texas League batters.
"He needs to know when to keep the ball down and trust his stuff, "Bilardello recently said of Nielsen "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."
Andrew Morales looked like a legitimate candidate to be named the Springfield Starter of the Year after his stellar month of April, when the organization named him the Pitcher of the Month. Unfortunately, Morales' attempt at a rebound season went south as he dealt with shoulder issues for parts of the last three months of 2016.
When on the mound and healthy, the righty was effective as evidenced by a 3.35 ERA through 14 starts. Morales struck out 66 batters to only 18 free passes in 78 innings.
“He was a lot more aggressive and had a lot more competitive pitches," Simontacchi said of Morales. "Was down in the zone; worked ahead, and pitched in. It's was his second year, and he was just more aggressive and had more confidence in his stuff."
J.C. Sulbaran had a 3-4 record with a 3.95 ERA through 17 games (16) after being demoted from Triple-A Memphis. Sulbaran, a minor league free agent signing last offseason, fanned 78 batters in 95 2/3 innings pitched. The Curacao native was named Texas League Pitcher of the Week for the week of July 17.
Corey Baker went 4-8 with a 4.91 ERA through 23 games (20 starts) and 99 innings pitched, posting an 87-to-42 strikeout to walk ratio for Springfield this season.
Congratulations to Daniel Poncedeleon, The Cardinal Nation Springfield Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year for 2016.
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 Player of the Year.
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.