For an offense that was as power-packed and streaky as its big-league parent, three players performed at a level worthy of consideration as our 2016 Player of the Year at the St. Louis Cardinals organization's Double-A affiliate, the Springfield Cardinals of the Texas League.
Two of them jumped the High-A level entirely, 2015 third and fourth-round picks Harrison Bader and Paul DeJong. The former does not turn 23 until next June and latter will remain 23 until next August. The other, our winner, is one-time Missouri State standout catcher Luke Voit, 25, who moved to first base in pro ball.
Bader, the early favorite based on his draft position and the fact he reached Triple-A in his first full season, hit the ground sprinting after skipping Palm Beach.
The Bronxville, native NY center fielder hovering around a league-best .380 batting mark through the first month and a half out, prospering from the S-Cards leadoff spot. As opposing teams began to adjust to his "overaggressiveness" at the plate, .380 was not sustainable as Bader finished the first half with a .303/.368/.520 slash line, including 68 strikeouts to 18 walks over 64 games.
He did accomplish an impressive 16 multi-hit games along with three four-hit games, leading the Double-A club to a first-place first-half finish and its first playoff berth since 2012.
Bader credited his early success to finding a comfortable hitting zone and being a sponge. Nine days after his four-hit effort in the Texas League All-Star Game, the right-handed hitter was promoted to Triple-A Memphis.
As one of the youngest Pacific Coast League players, Bader held his own to the tune of a .231 average in 49 games before returning to Springfield for the playoff run on August 27th. After losing helium, he ended the season with a .283 average with 16 homers, 41 RBI, 12 doubles, four triples, and 11 stolen bases (caught ten times).
"One thing I liked about Harrison was he maintained (his performance) for a long time," said Dann Bilardello, Springfield manager. "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 is going to have to make, and he is going to have to continue to make those adjustments."
DeJong's first full season was like Bader’s in terms of power and swing and miss, but the third baseman required a longer acclimation period after skipping High-A. As evidence, the right-handed hitter drafted out of Illinois State had only 15 hits, including five doubles and no homers, in his first 76 at-bats over 20 games.
Many power hitters warm up with the weather, so too did DeJong and his bat. The third baseman finished the first half with a .230 average and .741 OPS but blasted 12 homers and 43 RBI while showing an ability to abuse the alleys of the outfield.
In addition, DeJong was named to the Texas League mid-season All-Star Team. Despite finishing the 2016 season among league leaders with 144 punchouts (three off the pace of the league-leader), the Orlando, FL native showcased superb all fields power, hitting seven of his 22 homers the other way and seven to center or left-center field.
DeJong collected 73 RBI and 29 doubles in 132 games, but still his 144 strikeouts was rather alarming coupled to only 40 walks. To improve his plate discipline, he said he is trying to swing at pitches in his zone early in the count and protect with two strikes.
Defensively, the 23-year old was more than steady at third base, while playing shortstop in a pinch.
"He's learning," Bilardello said. "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 will just keep getting better."
Ultimately, only one player performed at a consistently higher level than Bader and DeJong, Luke Voit.
"He was our most consistent player all year," Bilardello said of Voit, who hit below .250 just once in the six months that made up the regular season. "He was consistent throughout the year and really was our MVP."
At 25 and drafted in the 22nd round out of Missouri State in 2013, the 2016 campaign was a reunion of sorts for The Mayor (as he is known in Springfield) as both clubs share Hammons Field. The Cardinal Nation's choice as Springfield's 2016 Player of the Year had an accolade-filled season capped by rewriting the league's history books.
Voit claimed the Texas League's batting title with his .297 mark. That is the league's lowest season’s best since 1906 and the S-Cards first recipient of the honor since Matt Adams (2011) and the late Oscar Taveras (2012) took the crown in back-to-back seasons.
He attributes the results to a slight mechanical adjustment to his swing and well as his mental approach. Voit adjusted his hands on his bat heading into this past season and he also kept a more consistent, level head at the plate while not getting down when things go wrong.
“I think that's just me evolving as a player and getting more mature,” Voit added.
He also paced the circuit with 143 hits and was among league leaders in on-base percentage (.372, second), slugging (.477, sixth), OPS (.849, second), runs scored (70, third), and total bases (230, third) over a league-most 134 games played.
In addition to that, the Wildwood, MO native was a Texas League mid-season All-Star and ousted the future Texas League Player of the Year Matt Chapman to win the Home Run Derby in front of his home-crowd.
How does Voit reflect on his career year?
"It's something I can definitely build on going into the offseason," Voit said, who slugged 19 homers and drove in 74 in 2016. "It's a good mindset; I learned a lot from this past year. I can take that on into offseason workouts and preparation.
"I had a great year. It was a lot of fun; met a lot of great people. I'm ready for next year."
Voit will likely draw consideration for the organization's Minor League Player of the Year honors. What would that mean for the lifelong fan?
"It would be an honor," Voit said. "With what the Cardinals symbolize and watching the organization since I was a little kid, it would be a huge honor, a huge accolade. It'd be cool; I'd be really happy if I got that award."
Voit will spend the majority of this offseason playing winter ball for the Tiburones de Aguadilla in the Puerto Rican League. His hitting coach will be former MLB great Carlos Delgado.
The Springfield first baseman plans to soak in as much knowledge as possible.
"I'm super excited to learn what they have to teach us down there," Voit said. "It's a different game down there. I'll have to learn how they play it. I'll learn as much information as possible and talk to every guy that I can possibility talk to get information and take it into spring training.
"I'm really excited about it. I think it's a cool opportunity. I think it will just make my career better."
Congratulations to Luke Voit, The Cardinal Nation Springfield Player 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. That will include our selections as the system-wide Rookies and Players of the Year, coming after the Player of the Year for Memphis.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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