This is how the St. Louis Cardinals probably felt about their player development situation in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League in 2006.
Waning fan interest and declining facilities led the ownership of the New Jersey Cardinals to sell their team at the conclusion of the 2005 season. While a number of future Cardinals played at Skylands Park, the overall win-loss record was disappointing, with only three winning seasons having been registered in the 12 seasons there. The team made the League playoffs only once, way back in their first season, 1994.
With the change in ownership, New Jersey's existing four-year Player Development Contract (PDC) with the Cardinals, which had one year remaining, traveled 200 miles southwest from Augusta, New Jersey to State College, Pennsylvania. The Sussex Skyhawks of the independent CanAm league moved into Skylands to replace the Cardinals.
While there was great excitement over the new 6000-capacity ballpark on the campus of Penn State University, christened Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, there was this nagging feeling all along that the fledgling partnership wouldn't last.
The new ownership group, Curve Baseball LP, is headed by the principal partners of the Double-A Eastern League Altoona Curve. Curve Baseball and the Pittsburgh Pirates had developed a strong relationship over time, and with Altoona located just 43 miles away from State College, the Curve and Spikes even shared the same staffs.
While never stated directly, it was clear that once the 2006 season was over, the Pirates' New York-Penn League affiliation would move from Williamsport to State College and the Cardinals would be out.
Still, some believed that the Cardinals were interested in an extension of their Player Development Contract with the Spikes from the very start. However, Curve Baseball's public stance was that they were going to wait until the conclusion of their first New York-Penn League season before making a decision.
Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak comments. "We thought there was a chance that we might stay, but while ultimately you would have to ask them (Curve LP), I would assume it came down to geographics – where they're located and what they are trying to market."
It was understandable, as the Curve ownership wanted to establish a strong fan base in their new locale, not focus on a lame-duck relationship. They were successful, as the Spikes drew 138,619 fans to their 36 home games at Medlar Field. Their average attendance per game of 3,851 was fifth-best in the 14-team New York-Penn League.
The Cardinals organization allowed manager Mark DeJohn to put a good team on the field, with enough quality players to post a 39-36 record. Until the final week, the Spikes still had a chance to earn a spot in the four-team League playoffs.
Three of the top seven players the Cardinals selected in the June, 2006 First-Year Player Draft finished the season on the State College roster - pitchers Gary Daley, Eddie Degerman and Brad Furnish. Several others, including the Cards' top pick, pitcher Adam Ottavino and second-rounder, first baseman Mark Hamilton, were promoted to the Swing of the Quad Cities during the season.
As we are now at the time each year when clubs are allowed to revisit their minor league affiliations, it was confirmed this month that the Player Development Contract between the Spikes and Cardinals would not be renewed. As expected from day one, the Spikes will likely announce an affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates very soon.
An important point to remember is that the players who made up the 2006 Spikes remain under contract to the Cardinals organization. So, where will the ones who aren't promoted plus the new additions going to play in 2007?
While negotiations are actively underway and therefore, firm answers are still a couple of weeks away, Mozeliak was able to share information about the organization's general thought process.
Mo was very clear in denoting which league the Cardinals want to field their team next season. "Our goal is to stay in the New York-Penn League. It is just a matter of trying to find out what the best fit is."
As this article is published, team executives are actively in the midst of their search. Mozeliak continued, "We have traveled around to a variety of cities this past week and next week and will just try to make sure wherever we end up that it is the best situation for our players and staff."
Interest had been expressed in the Cardinals by other more distant leagues such as the short-season Single-A Northwest and rookie-level Pioneer Leagues, but the Cards want to stick to their knitting in the Northeast quadrant of the US at this time.
While the Cardinals have been successful in ownership of minor league franchises, specifically the Double-A Springfield club, they are not looking to purchase another team at this time. Instead, they expect to enter into either a standard two-year or four-year Player Development Contract to remain in the New York-Penn League.
Logically, it seems like we should initially expect a two-year deal as both sides gain familiarity with each other. Mozeliak more or less confirmed that thinking. "The reality is that you're going to be working with people. It's an unknown when you're bringing in two new parties, so I would say the comfort level would be more to chase a two-year type of deal, just to make sure it is the right fit for everybody involved. Once relationships are established, then you can look to extend."
Where there are about a half-dozen New York-Penn cities currently looking for new PDC's, my educated guess is that the front-runners to land the Cardinals are the Vermont franchise, formerly called the Expos, renamed to the Lake Monsters last season, and the Batavia, New York Muckdogs, previously aligned with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Notwithstanding their growing presence in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the Cardinals expect their current configuration of six minor league affiliates to remain constant for the foreseeable future. At this time, the Cardinals are not considering expanding their presence with a new entry into the rookie-level Arizona or Gulf Coast Leagues, for example.
Bottom line, the Cardinals' one-year fling with the State College Spikes is officially over, but both parties are fine with that. With all indications that the Cards will be remaining in the New York-Penn League, expect the announcement of their new home next month.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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