The New York-Penn League is an interesting and challenging juncture in the St. Louis Cardinals system. It is neither fish nor fowl. On one hand, it is the first stop in the organization considered Class-A, yet on the other, it is the highest level of short-season play.
The Cardinals’ approach to assigning draftees in recent years has followed a pattern. Top pitchers, whether college-sourced or fresh out of high school, typically begin their professional careers in the Gulf Coast League, leaping past the NYPL later that season or the following spring. College hitters often do end up with the State College Spikes, though.
Generally, the Cards’ NYPL pitching staff consists of Latin Americans, slower risers in the system and later-round draftees. For example, all six starters who made up the talented Class-A Peoria roster to open the 2016 season skipped over State College entirely.
It is not a new phenomenon.
Current Cardinals home-grown pitching stars who passed over the NYPL entirely on their way up the development ladder include Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal.
Another data point is Baseball America’s top prospects by league. Despite the 2016 Spikes setting a new franchise record with 50 regular-season wins and the NYPL title, just one Cardinals prospect is among BA’s top 20 in the league, pitcher Jordan Hicks.
So, why are the Spikes consistently successful despite many of the Cardinals best and brightest young prospects not being assigned there?
My belief is that the team is stronger than its individuals. One key element is the mindset established by the coaches and manager.
If I had to identify the one word most frequently uttered by Spikes skipper Johnny Rodriguez, it is “grinder”. It is a variation on the theme espoused by Tony La Russa at one point in his St. Louis career, “Play a hard nine.”
The thinking is that hard work, preparation and execution can trump having the most talented players on the roster.
Repeating the mantra over and over, but truly believing it may be suspect coming from some others, but not Rodriguez, who is as sincere as he is enthusiastic. He is also very successful.
Just like his son, Pittsburgh’s valuable utility man Sean Rodriguez, Johnny has proven his versatility. In his seven years managing in the Cardinals system, the 59-year-old has taken his teams to three league titles – all at different levels.
In 2011, he led Quad Cities to the Class-A Midwest League championship, when he was first named our Manager of the Year. Three years later, Rodriguez helped take Johnson City to the rookie-level Appalachian League title before his State College club brought home the 2016 NYPL crown.
Five of his seven Cardinals clubs had winning records and four made the post-season. Rodriguez’ teams’ overall record is an impressive 420-346 for a winning percentage of .548.
L1=lost in first playoff round
For these successes, Johnny Rodriguez is The Cardinal Nation’s 2016 Minor League Manager of the Year.
Prior TCN Managers of the Year
Rodriguez joins Mike Shildt as our only two-time winners since we initiated this award in 2008.
|TCN Manager of the Year|
|2016||Johnny Rodriguez||State College||SS-A|
|2014||Steve Turco||Gulf Coast||rookie|
|2013||Oliver Marmol||State College||SS-A|
|2011||Johnny Rodriguez||Quad Cities||A|
|2010||Mike Shildt||Johnson City||rookie|
Click here to review the prior decade’s annual award winners in all categories.
Around the system
In his second year with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, Shildt juggled through the usual personnel changes driven by injuries and moves in St. Louis. On the field, the Memphis club slipped below .500, yet remained in playoff contention until late in the season.
Dann Bilardello managed Springfield to a first-half title in the Double-A Texas League. As injuries and player movement sapped the club’s strength, the Cards faded to third place in the second half and exited in the first round. Overall, the S-Cards finished the season 10 games over .500.
It was the roughest of seasons for Oliver Marmol’s Palm Beach Cardinals. With good pitching, but a weak offense, the high-A Cards stumbled home to a 58-79 mark (.423).
2015 TCN Manager of the Year Joe Kruzel’s Peoria Chiefs won their division’s first-half race, but also like Springfield, tailed off in the second half and was defeated in the first round. The Chiefs’ overall record was 73-66 (.525).
In his second season managing, Chris Swauger brought home the Appalachian League crown to Johnson City. The rookie-level Cardinals finished the regular season in first place, coming in 10 games over .500 (39-29, .574).
After falling just short in the finals the prior two years and three of four, veteran skipper Steve Turco’s rookie-level Cardinals won the Gulf Coast League title after a franchise-best .611 regular season mark. Turco was our 2014 Manager of the Year.
Through they are out of sight and sometimes out of mind, we should not forget the progress shown by the Dominican Summer League Cardinals. Manager Fray Peniche’s 2016 club won 11 more games than the prior year (after having improved 12 games over 2014) behind a better balance of pitching and offense.
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 St. Louis’ Rookie, Pitchers and Players of the Year, followed by a season recap.
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