On Friday afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals came to Springfield for the first time since 2012 in the first annual Route 66 Rumble.
As part of the event, the Double-A Cardinals released their tentative roster, which features 27 players and therefore, is certain to change between now and Thursday's Opening Night game against the Frisco Roughriders (TEX).
At the helm for his inaugural season, manager Johnny Rodriguez is leading a rotation headlined by four of The Cardinal Nation's Top 10 prospects, including Austin Gomber, Sandy Alcantara, Dakota Hudson, and Jack Flaherty.
"(The guys) are experienced," Rodriguez said when asked to give his impression of the group. "You see a lot of guys on the roster that were here before. That for me is beautiful because of some of the young pups we got can get help.
"I think we should have success this first half. The experience we have with our position players. We do have a pretty good staff, but then that's on paper."
Interestingly, Rodriguez plans to implement a six-starter rotation with a piggyback program at the fifth and sixth spot. At the moment, there are four projected starters and two hurlers likely to serve in a hybrid starter and reliever type.
The tentative rotation includes four returnees who accumulated innings from 2016: RHP Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP Hudson, RHP Matt Pearce, and LHP Gomber plus two newcomers in RHP Alcantara, and RHP Flaherty.
Poncedeleon, a 25-year old drafted out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical in 2014, was TCN's 2016 Springfield Cardinals Starter of the Year. He was perhaps the most resilient and consistent starter throughout last year for the S-Cards, making 27 starts (tied for most in the Texas League) while leading the pitching staff with 151 innings.
He also 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.
Hudson, a 22-year old taken from Mississippi State in the first round last June, blistered his way through the season despite being under the workload-conserving "Wacha Plan". The hard-throwing right-hander finished with a 2-1 record, posting a 0.68 ERA over 12 games (13 1/3 innings) across stints with GCL Cardinals, Palm Beach Cardinals and Springfield.
The 6-foot-5, 215 pounder is TCN's #6 ranked prospect in 2017.
Pearce, who was TCN’s 2016 Palm Beach Cardinals Starter of the Year, anchored the Beach Birds’ rotation for five months with a Florida State League-best 0.94 WHIP, four complete games, and almost won his league-ERA title for the second consecutive season with his 2.37 mark.
With nothing left to prove in the FSL, Pearce received a promotion to Springfield on August 7, making three starts and one playoff start. He's TCN's #34 ranked prospect.
Gomber, a 23-year old southpaw, pitched at two levels during 2016 between Palm Beach and Springfield. He posted a 2.93 ERA through 17 starts against Florida State League competition with a 101-to-24 strikeout to walk ratio.
The big lefty, who ranks as TCN's #9 prospect, finished the season with a 1.40 ERA over four starts for the Springbirds in the Texas League despite missing most of August with a finger injury.
The newcomers to the pitching staff are right-handers Alcantara and Flaherty.
Alcantara, a 21-year old, will be making the jump over Palm Beach after an impressive spring in big-league camp. The flame-throwing righty, who can touch 102 mph on the gun, went 5-11 with a 3.96 ERA over 23 starts (Peoria and Palm Beach), racking up a whopping 153 punchouts.
He is TCN's #8 ranked prospect
Another first-time non-roster invite to major-league camp like Alcantara, Flaherty opened eyes there as well. In 2016, the durable righty compiled a 5-9 record with 3.56 ERA over 24 games (23 starts) through 134 innings with 126-to-45 strikeout to walk ratio.
He ranks as TCN's #7 prospect for 2017.
"(The rotation is) pretty special," Gomber said. "It's the best rotation I've ever been a part of. There's been some talk in the clubhouse about this is best rotation we've seen in the minor leagues for us. Like Simo (pitching coach Jason Simontacchi) said, 'We've got a chance to throw a shutout every night.'
"There are not a lot of teams that can say that."
Rodriguez reiterated that sentiment.
“(Having highly-regarded pitching prospects in the staff) makes you a better manager,” Rodriguez quipped. “Alcantara is proven at this level. He’s got the stuff. Flaherty the same. Gomber the same. Pearce, Ponce, and Hudson. They all have got presence. That’s what they’ve shown in spring training. They look like they handle themselves well. They have the stuff to be dominating every game.”
The tentative bullpen includes seven right-handers and two lefties. Jimmy Reed is one is of the latter, returning to official action after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season.
The 26-year old last pitched in 2015 across three levels - at Memphis, Springfield, and Palm Beach. At that time, the lithe-built lefty posted a 6-8 record with 4.10 ERA over 26 starts (145 innings).
The other southpaw, Chandler Hawkins, looks to get his first full year of opportunity at Double-A. Hawkins, 24, pitched effectively last year against Texas League hitters with a 4.13 ERA over 14 games (24 innings) for the club.
The righty relievers include returnees Corey Baker, Kevin Herget, Blake McKnight, and Pedro Echemendia in addition to former elite MLB set-up man Daniel Bard.
Baker returns for his fifth go-around of the Texas League. The former 49th rounder and Team Israel starter in the World Baseball Classic will once again serve as a multi-purpose reliever - a swingman, spot-starter, long-man, and middle reliever.
Coming off a fantastic 2016 season, TCN's Minor League Reliever of the Year Herget will settle back into Springfield's late-inning relief corps, vying for closing opportunities.
While he only appeared in limited action, McKnight was hit around in his brief stint with the Springbirds last summer. He is looking to right the ship and become one of their most versatile relievers.
Echemendia, a Cuban defector, had a 4.25 ERA while striking out 20 batters over 29 2/3 innings last year with Springfield. He has experience in high-leverage situations and can pitch in middle relief as well.
Perhaps the most interesting story and oldest pitcher on the staff, Bard went from being one of the MLB's elite set-up men in 2012 to the minor leagues. After signing a two-year minor league pact with the Cardinals last summer and lowering his arm slot, the 31-year old, who touched as high as 96 mph during spring training camp, is looking to make a comeback.
At the moment, the Springbirds are carrying three catchers, but Dennis Ortega is likely to be sent down following Friday's game, leaving the catching duties to Gabriel Lino and Luis Cruz in 2017.
Given the quality catching prospects are a level or so away, to help shore up the catching position the Cardinals signed minor league veteran Lino, who saw a bit of time in big-league camp this spring.
Cruz could serve as the regular backstop or share time with Lino.
The six-man tentative infield includes a mix of returning and fresh faces.
The star of the group is second baseman and new 40-man roster addition Eliezer Alvarez, who will make the leap over the FSL after ranking among Midwest League leaders in many major offensive categories. This move is not at all surprising since Alvarez is now on the three-year option years clock.
The roster also features three other second basemen - Jacob Wilson, Bruce Caldwell, and Alex Mejia. It appears Wilson should be in the mix for reps at first, short, and third. Caldwell will be the regular third baseman while Mejia will round his work with duties at short.
At first base and filling the shoes of promoted Luke Voit is TCN's 2016 Palm Beach Player of the Year Casey Grayson.
In addition, Dickie Joe Thon, who is the son of former MLB stalwart Dickie Thon, will act as the super-utility option with the versatility to play second, short, third, left field, and right field.
Including Oscar Mercado, Springfield has five outfielders listed on its initial roster.
Obviously, Adolis Garcia is the most-know after signing out of Cuba for a reported $2.5 million dollars. Garcia is set to be the primary center fielder with Mercado behind him on the depth chart. Mercado will also see time on the corners as well.
That leaves Nick Martini, Blake Drake, and physical specimen Austin Wilson. It appears Drake will be the everyday right fielder while Martini will fill the left field spot. With his raw athletic ability, Rule 5-addition Wilson can play all three outfield positions and should garner a lot of at-bats as well.
So, that concludes our look at the new version of the 2017 Springfield Cardinals, a club with versatility, experience, and upside in its pitching corps and a potentially speedy offense as they seek to zoom towards the first half title in the Texas League North.
Springfield opens the new season on the road against the Frisco Roughriders (SD) on April 6. The start of the first homestand of 2017 is scheduled a week later on Thursday, April 13 versus the Roughriders once again.
I will be back this season with my weekly notebooks from Hammons Field covering the Springfield Cardinals, every Thursday morning all season long. I also plan to contribute interviews on occasion.
Stay tuned to The Cardinal Nation for more full-season club roster information over the next week. The full tentative Springfield roster can be seen here. Any players without uniform numbers are 2016 S-Cards whose current status is TBD.
The Roster Matrix
To see the full 2016 season-ending rosters by level and position and every transaction across the entire Cardinals system on one page, check out the Roster Matrix, always up-to-date and free at The Cardinal Nation blog.
Not yet a member?
Join The Cardinal Nation for the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system, including Derek Shore’s reports on the Double-A Springfield Cardinals. Take advantage of our seven-day free trial.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
© 2017 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.