Live from New Jersey…

Leonda Markee's first-hand report on the New Jersey Cardinals this weekend.

On Friday my husband and I took a road trip to New Jersey to watch our Short Season-A team in action for three games. Here is what I brought back…

Cautionary Tale
Joe Mauer is a highly-touted catcher on Minnesota Twins. He was their 2001 first-round draft pick, the guy chosen ahead of Mark Prior (mainly due to financial reasons). By every account he has the requisite "five tools" with possibly a few to spare.
I attend New Britain Rock Cats games, the Twins' Double-A affiliate, so witnessed Mauer in action during 2003 over three-to-four games spaced out over the entire season. Now Mauer struck out a total of only 25 times in 276 at bats that season or once in every eleven at bats. I must have seen him strike out twelve times. He did not hit, his catching was ordinary. I personally saw nothing that warranted him receiving a professional paycheck which is ludicrous given his talent level and performance that season, .341/.400/.453.
Keep Joe Mauer's example in mind when you read my impressions of the New Jersey Cardinals' players gleaned from only three games seen on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

The Park and Location
Skylands Park stadium is located at the intersection of routes 15 and 206 outside Augusta, New Jersey, approximately 20 minutes off Interstate 80. It sits next to a cornfield and across the road from a cow pasture. (When my husband heard that the ball diamond was next to a cornfield he was hoping the players walked out from the cornfield to start the game, a la "Field of Dreams". No such luck. The stadium also has real outfield walls and faces a stand of trees, not the cornfield.) There is ample parking which costs $4.00.
The stadium seats approximately 4,300 or so and I do not think there is a bad seat in the house. We had lower bowl box seats behind home plate for the games on the first and third which cost $12.00 each and upper bowl box seats behind home plate or reserved seats that cost $8.00 each. General admission tickets are $7.00 and standing room only, sold only after all regular tickets are sold, are $5.00 each. It is 330' down each line and 392' to dead center field, very symmetrical.
All of the souvenir and most of the food concessions are portable sites that are set up just before the game and lend a carnival-like atmosphere. The food is standard ballpark fare with a braut costing $5.00 each. Beer was $5.00 to $5.50, depending on manufacturer. (Now you know what I had to eat and drink.) One of my criticisms of the place comes with their selection of souvenirs. You can buy a number of different items with the New Jersey Cardinals' logo on it. You can purchase a New York Mets Major League hat. You can purchase a New York Yankees Major League hat. You cannot purchase a red STL Major League hat at the Cardinals' Short-A club. They do not stock them and do not intend to stock them. In fact the only item that tied to the major league club was a batting practice hat. I spoke to Bob Commentucci, the New Jersey Cardinals' Director of Marketing, and he explained that the company with whom they do business requires a minimum quantity per item that makes stocking the St. Louis Cardinals' red STL hat unprofitable. They also require that the season's order be placed by October 1st of the prior year. My reply to Mr. Commentucci, and later to General Manager Tony Torre, was that while I could certainly understand stocking Mets and Yankees hats, given the location of the club, I would at least purchase five or so STL hats by whatever means necessary and dust them off the entire season if they did not sell. They are, after all, affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. Mr. Commentucci did have the grace to look embarrassed. Mr. Torre did not. I did learn that the New Jersey Cardinals' logo will change next year. They are in the process of determining what the new logo will look like and will need to run it by the big club before proceeding.

The Atmosphere
I will start out by saying that I am a baseball purist. I want to go to a baseball game and watch the game. If I wanted to watch mascot races and audience participation contests I would go to a circus. That being said, I understand that many of the minor league clubs are trying to stay afloat while they run their business and needed sponsorships are acquired by such races and contests. The New Jersey Cardinals have the standard contests I find at New Britain Rock Cats games which occur every half inning such as dice toss and making yourself dizzy then running. They also have a "rally cow", a calf that is brought out during the seventh-inning stretch as needed. My only real complaint was that Cardinals staff stood in the section behind home plate while the action was going on and tossed t-shirts to the fans which was very distracting. I mentioned this to Mr. Torre and he advised that stadium personnel were not supposed to toss t-shirts while the game was on-going and thanked me for pointing it out to him.
The staff, including General Manager Tony Torre and Director of Marketing Bob Commentucci, were very accessible and friendly. They clearly enjoy what they are doing and want to do whatever is necessary, short of stocking red STL hats, to accommodate the fans.
Cardinals players were available for autographs for up to 20 minutes prior to game time and each game has an announced player at the information booth for autographs during that time period.

All games have two umpires at this level and those that I saw were pretty awful, especially behind home plate. The strike zone varied from pitch to pitch which really impacted on the Cardinals for reasons that are explained later. As is normal in a two-umpire game, the "field" umpire moved from along the first base line to standing on the infield grass near second base once there was a base runner. Therefore, his view of a whether a runner was safe or not on throws to first was often times blocked. From an umpiring perspective, I found the games something to be endured.

Player Impressions
Note: I have great difficulty differentiating pitches so apologize for the lack of detail in some cases.
Pitchers – all righties except for Zuercher
Mitch Boggs - (5th round – 2005 draft) started July 3rd game, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 3 SO. High leg kick when delivering to the plate. Ball really popped the catcher's mitt during warm-up, seemed to be the hardest thrower of the three games. Hit 94 mph on his fast ball with other fast balls at 88 mph, change at 80 mph, slider at 84-85 mph. (I was befriended by the New York Yankees scout that attended all three games and he provided me with his gun's readings.) Walked first two batters and kept throwing the same pitch to the same part of the plate with it being called a ball during that time. Subsequent Cardinals pitchers, like Hearne, got that call for a strike. Had legitimate trouble w/control but worked both sides of plate. Hit a Cyclones batter who went face down and stayed there for a bit. Not afraid to come inside to the very next batter. Induced a DP ball w/bases loaded and no one out. Boggs' body language said he thought he was being squeezed. Struck out the final two batters he faced and was pulled with two outs in the third inning. May have reached a pitch count limit at that point and/or manager wanted to remove him on a high point. Possibly overthrowing early in contest, leading to his lack of control.

Jason Cairns - (8th round – 2005 draft. Note: Name pronounced like "Karen") pitched the 7th and 8th innings on July 11st, 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO. Promoted to Quad Cities on Saturday. Close to a side-arm delivery, very good move to first and nice awareness of the runner. Kept ball down, throws first pitch strikes.

Jessen Grant (43rd round – 2005 draft) pitched behind Hearne on July 3rd, 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO. Big Boy, 6'7", high leg kick, one of his pitches dives at the plate. Efficient, faced minimum batters.

Blake Hawksworth - (28th round – 2001 draft) started July 2nd game, 2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO, 0 HR. His start really took me by surprise. After I quit bouncing up and down in my seating saying "It's Hawksworth!!" over and over (got a few looks on that one, let me tell you), I took the following notes -
¾ delivery, deliberate to plate, takes time. Pitches called balls were either low or low-wide, not high. 91 mph fastball, change at 87 mph, curve at 72 mph. Very good composure in 1st to not let Yarbrough's catching performance rattle him (see Yarbrough's notes for details). Got out of a 1st and 3rd with none out situation with only one run given up. Looked rusty in first but better in 2nd. Threw first pitch strike to seven of eight batters faced.

Trey Hearne - (28th round – 2005 draft) pitched behind Boggs on July 3rd, 3.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO. Breaking pitch w/sink, works both sides of plate, pitches have movement – fooling batters. Getting outside corner call that Boggs did not get. Picked off runner at first on a 3-2 count as runner never thought he would come over there. Faced the minimum number of batters allowed due to a DP ball. Impressive.

Cory Meacham - (35th round – 2005 draft) pitched the ninth inning and took the loss on July 1st, 1 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO. I have to say here that my husband and I met Cory's parents while we were in New Jersey and if Cory is as nice as his parents, then this is one nice guy. The family drove up from Alabama for four games starting Friday. Stuff not overly impressive but composure was. With a runner on first and no one out, Meacham fielded a bunt towards first and stepped on first for an out. He then threw the ball to third attempting to throw out the runner but no one was covering the bag (should have been Nelson who was playing short as the third baseman came in on the bunt). His dad later related that Cory's view of third was blocked by the field umpire and he only saw that third base was not covered when the umpire ducked on his throw. I must say that his throw was dead-on perfect and nailed the corner of third base. The runner would have been easily out if there had been anyone to catch the ball. The go-ahead runner scored. The next batter doubles. Meacham then induces what should have been 4-3 ground out but first baseman Jon Skorupski (entered game as a substitute for Rodgers who was hit by a pitch), cuts in front of the second baseman, fields the ball and then throws it away. Another run scores. Meacham maintained his composure and induced a pop out to third before striking out the last batter. Cory's dad also mentioned that Cory has been a starter his entire career to this point so this is a change for him. That comment reminded me of the adjustments most of these players are making.

Nick Webber - (2nd round – 2005 draft) pitched third through fifth innings after Hawksworth and got the win on July 2nd, 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO. Commanding mound presence, 6'7", with frame to fill out but not thin. Walked first two batters faced that brought out Yarbrough and the pitching coach. (I noted that neither Yarbrough nor any coach visited Hawksworth when he walked the first two batters he faced. Interesting difference in how these two pitchers were handled.) A "wild pitch" by Webber that should have been a passed ball against Yarbrough, sent batters to 2nd and 3rd with none out. Seemed a bit disconcerted by Yarbrough's difficulty in cleanly catching his pitches to the point he missed a good opportunity for a pick off at 2nd. However, he escaped the situation without a run being scored. Good reflexes to field a come backer and instincts to come home for the second out. Took time, did not rush. Settled down after the third inning. Umpire gave him a very uneven strike zone. Impressed.

Zach Zuercher - (9th round – 2005 draft) started July 1st game, 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO, 0 HR. ¾ or so delivery, one of his pitches breaks w/very good movement, nice breaking stuff, keeps ball down. Threw a 71 mph curve which set up his other pitches that ranged from 83-86 mph. Quick reflexes – fielded a hard chopper in front of the mound for an out With a little better defense by the Cardinals, he does not give up two earned runs. The second hit he allowed was scored a triple to left when the batter would have been out with a throw to third instead of home plate and would not have subsequently scored (see comments on Rowlett for clarification). The third hit he allowed was a chopper to first base that Adam Rodgers, the first baseman, came in too far on and it ate him up. Could easily have been scored an E3. Initial hit was a clean double when he grooved one on a 3-1 count. Excellent pick off in the 2nd inning.

Position Players –
Most Impressive
- Jonathan Sivira.
Biggest Disappointment - Brandon Yarbrough

Notes – players listed alphabetically
Sean Danielson - (Free agent signee – 2005) pinch runner on July 1st, started in left on July 3rd, 0-for-2 with a walk and 2 strike outs. Physically tiny – listed as 5' 8". Extremely fast, worked count on July 3rd and took a walk. Needs to take advantage of his tiny strike zone. Lots of motion when on base paths. Really agitated the Cyclones pitcher.

Carlos De la Cruz - (obtained during spring training 2005 for Mike Myers, free agent signee in 2001 by the Boston Red Sox) started in right on July 1st and 2nd, 1-for-8 with a walk, a run scored and 3 strike outs, from the nine hole and lead off. Good running catch to right-center on July 1st, very conservative base running cost Cardinals a run on July 1st. Strong accurate throw home on July 2nd kept runner at third. Batted w/bases loaded and swung for the fences the whole way, K'd swinging.

Jose Delgado - (24th round – 2004 draft) started at second base on July 1st and 2nd. 1-for-6 with a walk and a run scored from the eight hole. Works count well, generally solid defensively but had two errors in July 1st game – one on a ball he tried to field to his side and the second when he bobbled a ball and got no one out.

Sean Dobson - (40th round – 2005 draft) started in left on July 1st, 1-for-5 with a RBI and 2 strike outs in the lead-off position. Slow to a ball hit to left in the second inning, better speed on the basepaths.

Chad Gabriel - (20th round – 2004 draft) designated hitter on July 2nd and started in right on July 3rd, 2-for-7 with a walk and a run scored. Good contact hitter. Outs were "hard" outs, smashes but right at defenders.

Tyler Greene - (1st round – 2005 draft) did not play but was there. Only July 2nd he was the announced player at the information booth that was signing autographs. I hustled over there, got his photo and told him that Cardinals fans had been waiting for him. He blushed, ducked his head and got a big grin as the Cardinals' Director of Community Relations laughed and said "So have we!" Did not dress on July 2nd but did on July 3rd and participated in pre-game fielding drills. Physically, I looked at Greene and immediately thought Cal Ripken, Jr. although Greene is listed at 6'2" and 190 lbs while Ripken lists at 6'4" and 220 lbs. Definitely has a bigger frame and a rocket of an arm than the rest of those player short for New Jersey. Excellent lateral movement during drills, came in on the ball well.

Jose Mendez - (signed 12/2004 as a released free agent – originally with Twins organization) started as designated hitter on July 2nd and at catcher on July 3rd, 1-for-7 with a walk in the six and seven hole. good lateral movement defensively, had two passed balls charged to him, first could have easily been a wild pitch against Boggs, second passed ball was earned. Accurate arm on throw to 2nd. On July 3rd left runners in scoring position twice by making the third out. Only hit of series was a double with no one on base on Sunday.

Adam Morris - (47th round – 2005 draft) started at third base on July 1st and 3rd, 2-for-6 with a walk and 3 strike outs from the seven and eight hole. Tall muscular build. Strong accurate arm, excellent diving stop-and-pop throw on July 1st

Daniel Nelson - (13th round – 2005 draft) pinch hit and took over at short on July 1st, started at short on July 2nd and 3rd. Slightly stocky build. Sent a sacrifice fly to warning track on July 1st – most fly balls hit during the three games I saw did not go out to the warning track so this was noteworthy. His failure to cover third in the 9th inning after a bunt sealed Cory Meacham's error (see Meacham's notes for further information) and may have cost the Cardinals a run. Strong accurate arm at short.

Adam Rodgers (25th round – 2005 draft, Note: "Rodgers" is the spelling on both his jersey and the game day rosters) started at first base all three games one of only two players to start each game at the same position, center fielder Jonathan Sivira was the other player. 4-for-11 with 2 strike outs and a run scored, in the fourth, fifth and sixth hole. Close second to Sivira as "Most Impressive". Good stretch and some excellent picks at first. On July 1st, caught one high pop foul ball (which defensively may put him ahead of Chris Duncan) but missed a second one that occurred at twilight – hard to pick up ball then. Good power to left on a double.

Casey Rowlett - (32nd round – 2005 draft) started at short then moved to third on July 1st, started at third on July 2nd, started at second on July 3rd, 2-for-12 with 2 walks, 2 RBIs and three strike outs, all in the two hole. Only Cardinal to start at three different positions while I was there. Closed batting stance, pull hitter, stocky body. In second inning on July 1st threw home on a relay from left when he had no chance for the out instead of going to third for the sure out. Cost Zuercher a run when the third base runner subsequently scored. Otherwise, solid defensively. While at short saw accurate throws to first with no bounce from shallow outfield during toss around. On July 2nd nice bare-handed grab and throw on a slow roller. Good hustle on base paths, forced poor throw in 8th inning that was scored an E4.

Jonathan Sivira - (Free agent signee in 2002 out of Lara, Venezuela) started all three games in center, one of only two players to start each game at the same position, first baseman Adam Rodgers was the other player. 3-for-11 with 2 walks and 2 strike outs, twice in the five hole and once in the three hole. While not hitting for average, made solid contact with good level stroke. Did not look overmatched, worked counts well. Made pitchers throw strikes before he swung which was unusual for Cardinals hitters. Thin, wiry build. Strong, accurate arm, threw out runner at home on a moderately deep fly ball to center. Very good speed, tracked down all fly balls. Made an excellent sliding side grab in left-center to record the first out in the 9th inning on July 2nd. Plays it safely on balls in front of him, saw no attempts at a diving grab. Let the ball drop and limited possible damage. Goes back on fly balls well.

Matt Wilkerson - (free agent signee – 2005) started in left on July 2nd and was the designated hitter on July 3rd, 2-for-9 with a home run and 2 strike outs in the clean-up spot. Tall (6'4") and muscular (220 lbs) build. The home run was a high blast that kept carrying. Impressive since balls did not carry well during the three games I attended. Outs were mainly fly outs. Slight upper cut swing (a la Edmonds). Yankees' line-up on July 2nd had 8 of 9 batters from left side so got only one defensive opportunity which he handled fine.

Brandon Yarbrough - (5th round – 2003 draft) caught July 1st and 2nd games, 1-for-7 with 2 walks and 3 strike outs from the three hole. Slim, Eli Marrero-like build. Maybe my expectations were too high but I expected more from a player with professional experience, although somewhat limited, going back to 2003. Very poor lateral movement. On July 2nd, both Hawksworth and Webber were charged with "wild pitches" when both balls dribbled between Yarbrough's legs. A third passed ball actually charged to Yarbrough again dribbled next to him. (Hawksworth's "wild pitch and Yarbrough's passed ball occurred in the first inning.) Another dribbler was finally retrieved by Yarbrough in a timely fashion and he recorded a caught stealing in the second inning, mainly because the Yankee runner – having witnessed Yarbrough's first inning performance – thought he could get to second as his predecessors had. (The Yankee runners were very aggressive against the Cardinals' defense on both Friday and Saturday and took extra bases on hits.) With Webber on the mound, yet another dribbler sneaks between Yarbrough's legs. Fortunately, it also sneaked between the home plate umpire's legs and the field umpire ruled interference and made the runner return to first base. My notes say "needs a map to catch".

Most impressive opposing player - Staten Island Yankees' catcher Joseph Burke, their 18th round selection in the 2005 draft. This is based solely on defense. He caught the July 2nd game, the one where Brandon Yarbrough had such a poor game behind the plate. Burke may well have stood out in contrast. Very good baseball instincts, he backed up first on throws to first and prevented Cardinals runners from advancing on poor throws. Rifle of an arm to 2nd. Wish we had him although he did not hit at all.

General Thoughts - This is a team that contributed to both losses I saw this week-end. In contrast to both the Yankees and Cyclones (Mets) batters, the Cardinals batters swung early in the count and did not force the opposing pitchers to throw strikes. Their swinging early may have sent the home plate umpire the message that these pitchers were throwing strikes because there were number of questionable strikes called when the Cardinals finally became more patient. The pitchers need to learn to attack the zone better. All in all, a typical Short-A team.

Editor's note: If you liked this report, consider subscribing to and read Leonda's report, "This Week in the Minors" each and every week. Also coming from Leonda are the Birdhouse Pitchers and Players of the Month awards. Don't miss out. Join now!

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