April has once again arrived, and so have the Double-A Cardinals for their 13th season in Springfield, Mo, commencing the 140-game Texas League marathon for 2017.
On Thursday night, Springfield opened the new season on the road for a six-game road trip through the Lone Star State with matchups against Frisco Roughriders (TEX) and the three-time defending league champions Midland Rockhounds (OAK).
Through the first week of action, the Springbirds took two of three each against the Roughriders and Rockhounds for a 4-2 overall record thanks to a league-best 27 runs produced by the offense while posting the second lowest ERA mark at 3.12 in the process.
Along with position players who possess plenty of athleticism and quickness, Springfield will be headlined by its stellar starting rotation which features five of The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospects, making skipper Johnny Rodriguez bullish about this year's bunch.
“They’re experienced,” Rodriguez said, addressing the media before the Route 66 Rumble on March 31. “You see a lot of guys on the roster who have been here before. That, for me, is beautiful. Some of the young pups that we’ve got, they can help, they know what it takes.
"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."
This report covers the period from Thursday, April 6 through Wednesday, April 12.
April 6: Springfield 9 at Frisco 3
The story of the regular-season opener for Springfield was Jack Flaherty, who bedazzled in his Double-A debut. Flaherty guided the Cardinals to a 9-3 Opening Day win, tossing 6 2/3 three-hit frames with only one walk issued to go with six strikeouts.
Returnees Jacob Wilson, Alex Mejia, and Luis Cruz accounted for seven of the nine runs, going a combined 7-for-14 with 7 RBI. Newcomer Oscar Mercado, who had three hits, added an RBI as did Bruce Caldwell.
April 7: Springfield 7 at Frisco 0
While some were still raving about Flaherty's outing from the previous night, Sandy Alcantara, who touched 100 mph, arguably topped him on Friday. Alcantara held the Roughriders to four hits over six shutout innings, striking out four batters in a winning effort in his Double-A debut.
His supporting cast banged out 13 hits, plating seven runs. Bruce Caldwell and Luis Cruz tallied three-hit games, each driving in one, while Alex Mejia had his second straight multi-RBI game. Blake Drake slugged the offense's first home run of the young season, a two-run shot in the fourth inning.
In his first official outing following Tommy John surgery, Jimmy Reed blanked Frisco over two innings of relief. Former MLB set-up man Daniel Bard gave up a walk and hit, but slammed the door in the ninth.
April 8: Springfield 2 at Frisco 10
Going for the sweep, Springfield came up short as Frisco returned the favor with the bats, routing them on offense. Left-handed starter Austin Gomber couldn’t finish the first inning, giving up five runs on five hits.
The Cardinals offense managed two runs on seven hits, which included a solo home run by Bruce Caldwell. Caldwell drove in the other Springfield run as well with a RBI single in the fifth inning.
April 9: Springfield 6 at Midland 3
Springfield came out on top of a see-saw battle, downing Midland in the road series opener.
Making his first Double-A start, Dakota Hudson held the Rockhounds to an unearned run until he exited after serving up a go-ahead two-run inside-the-park home run in the sixth. He finished with seven strikeouts and eight groundouts on the afternoon.
Nick Martini went 2-for-5 with two RBI while Bruce Caldwell knocked an RBI single. Jacob Wilson recorded a sac fly, and Adolis Garcia's first professional RBI came via a single.
Blake McKnight allowed just two hits in 2 1/3 innings, setting it up for Corey Baker, who picked up the save.
April 10: Springfield 1 at Midland 5
After taking the opener at Midland, the Cardinals dropped Game 2 Monday night. The Springfield hitting and defense struggled, managing only three hits, including a Blake Drake solo home run.
Starter and losing pitcher Matt Pearce yielded a pair of runs in the second on a pair of doubles and a single before settling down. The right-hander was removed with two on and two out in the fifth.
April 11: Springfield 2 at Midland 1
The Springbirds finished the road trip on a strong note, edging the Rockhounds in the rubber-game thanks to seven strong innings from right-hander Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty limited the opposition to a run on four hits. He struck out four and did not issue a free pass. Kevin Herget completed two solid innings of work for the save.
Catcher Gabriel Lino produced the runs for Springfield, tripling home Blake Drake before scoring on a wild pitch.
Oscar Mercado - Mercado, the Cardinals 2013 second-rounder who netted a $1.5 million signing bonus, spent the offseason retooling his swing with hitting coordinator George Greer and so far the results have paid big dividends. The former shortstop, who last summer officially moved to center field full-time, has a team-leading .412 average (7-for-17) through his first five games and with continued production at the plate, could emerge as an intriguing prospect once again.
Luis Cruz - Repeating Double-A, Cruz’ sophomore season is off to a fast start, as he collected six hits over his first 16 at-bats at the dish. The 23-year old will see regular time behind the plate for Springfield.
Jack Flaherty - After his first two Double-A starts, Flaherty seems to have quickly acclimated to Double-A, as he has allowed only one earned run through his first 13 2/3 innings pitched. The right-hander has a 2-0 record with 0.66 ERA.
Alex Mejia - Back for his fourth go-around through the Texas League despite experience at Triple-A, the shortstop has sprinted out of the gates with a .370 average (10-for-27) while driving in a team-high six runs during the first week.
Sandy Alcantara - In his Texas League debut, Alcantara held a good Frisco lineup to four hits over six shutout frames.
Bruce Caldwell - An integral part of Springfield's first half division champs last season, Caldwell's potent bat continues to produce, as he went 7-for-21 (.333) with a homer and five RBI over the first week. The left-handed hitter will be employed mostly on the left side of the infield as newcomer Eliezer Alvarez takes the reps at the keystone.
Eliezer Alvarez - Not surprisingly, Alvarez, who has made the jump over High-A, is struggling in the early going at Double-A. He has three hits in his first 18 at-bats against the more advanced Texas League pitching.
Adolis Garcia - While being eased into professional action, the recent Cuban signee is off to a slow start at the dish with two hits in 14 at-bats.
Jacob Wilson – Despite having one of the more seasoned bats in the Springfield lineup, Wilson owns the lowest average among the hitters at .111 (2-for-18). Given his track record, he should recover quickly and with a bang.
Pedro Echemendia - Echemendia appeared in only one game this past week, giving up two earned runs on four hits over 1 2/3 innings of relief.
Austin Gomber – The left-hander lasted 2/3 of an inning in his first start of 2017, yielding five runs (four earned) on five hits against Frisco.
Before the Route 66 Rumble, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak labeled the Springfield rotation as one of the strongest at the level in his tenure, featuring top pitching prospects Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara, Austin Gomber, and Dakota Hudson.
Now, there is a competition brewing among the starters to see who can best one another outing by outing.
In fact, there has been talk around the Springfield clubhouse about the rotation being the best in the minor leagues with a chance to throw a shutout every night.
"You thrive from the competition knowing that every night someone can go out there and throw a shutout," Gomber said. "I think spending this time together will help all of us."
Manager Johnny Rodriguez likes his chances every night.
“(Having highly-regarded pitching prospects in the staff) makes you a better manager if you’ve got the horses,” Rodriguez quipped.
The longtime manager acknowledged it being a process, though, for his young hurlers.
"Alcantara is unproven at this level," he added. "He's got the stuff. Flaherty the same. Gomber the same. Pearce and Dakota Hudson as well. They've all got presences. 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.
"Gomber is more of a feel guy. The other guys can just dominate with the fastball. I believe, the whole staff, they are really testing the waters in Double-A."
First-half standings - Texas League North Division
Springfield is the current division leader (4-2 W-L), holding a one-game lead over Tulsa (3-3 W-L). Arkansas (SEA) and NW Arkansas (KC) are in the cellar with 2-4 W-L records, respectively.
4/10: RHP Daniel Poncedeleon to Triple-A Memphis from Springfield - With Luke Weaver landing on the DL due to lower back stiffness, Memphis needed an arm to fill his Tuesday start, and Poncedeleon got the call. The right-hander tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball against Colorado Springs in his Pacific Coast League debut.
The Cardinals have not yet announced a replacement for Poncedeleon on Springfield’s active roster.
Three Cardinals opened the season on the disabled list.
Andrew Morales - Morales opens 2017 where he finished last year. It has not yet been confirmed that he is dealing with shoulder issues again, but now that the club is home, we are working on getting clarity on his status.
Trey Nielsen - No word yet on the nature of his injury.
C.J. McElroy - At last check in late-March by TCN, McElroy was having continued problems with his recovery from a torn ACL last summer and left minor league spring training camp to return home for further evaluation by his personal physicians.
When contacted by TCN last week, McElroy's representatives did not reply.
The Cardinal Nation Top Prospect Watch
#6 Dakota Hudson - Hudson returns to Springfield as a starter after being limited to relief duties last season, concluding in the Texas League playoffs. In his first Double-A start, the right-hander pitched much better than the line indicates as his defense had several lapses behind him.
Hudson had a stretch of 10 straight batters set down, missing barrels with a 90-95 mph fastball, 86-87 mph slider, 85 mph changeup, and 81-82 mph curveball while showing impressive resilience to pitching out of tight jams.
#7 Jack Flaherty - After falling off a bit on prospect industry rankings, Flaherty has stepped right into Double-A and has been untouchable through his first two starts. In his Texas League debut, the right-hander was sitting 90-93, touching 94 while generating swings and misses off all four of his pitches (fastball, change, slider, and curve). A scouting source lauded his mound presence, ability to change the eye level of hitters, and pitching with a purpose.
"That kid can pitch," he said. "No single pitch will probably ever grade out as double-plus or maybe even plus, but all four are usable. Looks like a possible back of the rotation innings-eater."
A significant developmental key for Flaherty in 2017 will be in learning how to better sequence his pitches.
#8 Sandy Alcantara - Yet another top starting prospect, Alcantara, who touched 100 mph on Friday, has the biggest stuff on the Springfield staff and showcased it in his six-inning dominance against Frisco. The biggest takeaway was his ability to sustain upper 90s velocity and most importantly avoid too many deep counts.
Command will be the area Alcantara emphasizes this season to make a smooth transition to Double-A.
"Everybody in this organization feels that his stuff is good enough to get guys out in the strike zone," Springfield pitching coach Jason Simontacchi told MiLB.com. "We just need to get him to command the strike zone.
"Every pitcher needs command. It needs to be consistent. Just being a more complete pitcher and maturing as the competition gets smarter and tougher. You have to grow with them too and make adjustments."
#9 Austin Gomber - While the three above started off the season strong, Gomber had a forgettable first start of 2017. Needing 34 pitches for two outs, the big lefty was pulled in the first inning of his season-debut and will look to get back on track Friday night against Frisco.
#16 Eliezer Alvarez - Alvarez is the most recent example of the Cardinals jumping their top offensive prospects over High-A with an aggressive assignment to Double-A. While the second baseman will have to learn to adjust to more advanced pitching on the fly, the No. 2 hitter's calling card is his hit tool and he has the skill-set to flourish in the Texas League this summer.
#34 Matt Pearce - Don't let the four bigger names in the rotation make Pearce an overshadowed prospect. Despite not having the swing and miss stuff of his peers, the 23-year old relentlessly pounds the strike zone and fits the mold of a Seth Maness type.
The development of his slider will be crucial against upper-level hitters this season.
Soon to join the rankings: Adolis Garcia - After sitting out of live baseball for six months, Garcia is being eased into action while receiving enough at-bats to regain his timing in the process. When the outfielder gets going, the Cardinals expect him to be a fast-mover.
Sleepers: Oscar Mercado - While playing a new position up-the-middle in center field, Mercado, who has changed his stance and hand position at the plate, looks like a completely different player so far than the one seen in the past.
Blake Drake - According to some in the Cardinals organization, Drake is considered the best outfield defender, coupled with a strong arm and sneaky right-handed power which has already been on display. Can he hit consistently?
After a 4-2 road-trip to start the young season, Springfield will play its home-opener on Thursday night with 100 mph arm Sandy Alcantara on the bump against Frisco. It is the first of three games followed by another three games versus Midland.
Following the six-game homestand, the Cardinals began intra-division play with eight games at Arkansas and NW Arkansas.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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