Following on the heels of the establishment of their academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the Cardinals have further reinforced their investment in player development by becoming just the fourth major league organization with seven minor league clubs in the USA.
The Cardinals' newest affiliate will play in Jupiter, Florida at the organization's Spring Training complex and the site of the Florida State League's Palm Beach Cardinals. Their previous incarnation was located in Sarasota and competed in the GCL from 1964-1976.
The Gulf Coast League is a developmental league at the lowest level of the experience hierarchy among the US-based teams. The rookie-level league's season runs from mid-June until late August, with a 60 game schedule. The league is divided into three divisions, East, North and South, with a playoff structure.
The addition of the new GCL Cardinals allows the organization to look at more young players and moves the Cardinals Appalachian League club in Johnson City further up the food chain.
Jeff Luhnow, Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development, spoke about the organization's new addition in this exclusive interview.
Jeff, late this summer, we discussed the possibility of the Cardinals adding another minor league affiliate. What was the trigger to make the decision to proceed now?
We made the decision back in September, prior to the end of the season. Ownership approved the increased expense of having another team, which was good news.
Was the decision influenced in any way by the current escalation of major-league player contracts? If so, how much of a factor was it?
Many of our scouts and player development people have long thought we needed a Gulf Coast League team. The recent contracts were not a factor in that decision.
I am not going to ask you financial specifics, but this is clearly a significant investment by ownership in the Cardinals' future. Can you describe a general estimate as to what kind of total investment we are talking here - from facilities to players, etc...?
It's a sizeable investment, as you can imagine. It's another signal that our ownership group is committed to scouting and player development.
What is the ownership situation with the new club?
This league is different from the other minor leagues in that it's basically complex baseball, so there is no revenue. We incur the costs. The games are mostly played during the day (with some night games) in the back fields of the Spring Training complexes.
You could have added this club in Florida or in Arizona. Talk to me about the concept of "clustering" and how that played into this decision both financially and from a player development perspective.
We have a complex in Florida so it made sense to do it there. There are 15 total clubs in the GCL.
Could we see more clustering of Cardinals affiliates in the future? If so, when?
We are set for now. We've been in Johnson City for a long time. I recently met the group that runs the Batavia team and I'm excited about that location. Quad Cities, Springfield, and Memphis are all in the Midwest. Our Palm Beach team is at our complex now along with the GCL team and our extended Spring Training program, as well as our rehab program.
It has been many years since the Cardinals have added a net new affiliate. What are some of the major tasks the organization has to complete between now and next spring?
The most important task is to fill the teams with the best players who have a chance to become big league players. Of course there are many details to work out on the operations side, but we have very capable people who will do a great job in that area.
How will you leverage your experience in starting the Dominican and Venezuelan academies here?
The process is essentially the same. In this case, though, the fields and infrastructure are already in place so it's easier.
Please explain how this new club will fit into the organizational development chain.
The GCL will be for the younger, less experienced players. Many, if not most, of the Latin American players will start their U.S. careers at this level. Many of our younger high school drafted players will also start here. We will also use this level to get rehab players into game competition prior to sending them back out to their appropriate level.
At this level, I know the focus is player development, not necessarily winning pennants. But, establishing a winning culture in the organization matters, too, correct? How do you expect this decision to affect the competitiveness of the Johnson City club, specifically?
Players from the GCL who demonstrate progress will be promoted to Johnson City. Players that otherwise would have been overmatched in Johnson City will now go to the GCL. We will likely have more college players in Johnson City, so that should make the club more competitive. Having said all that, we now will have seven teams to fill instead of six in the US, so it could have a short term dilutive effect. Long term, Johnson City should be more competitive.
Next year's draft is said by some to offer one of the deepest high school classes in some time. Could I interpret this move to also signal a potential increase in the number of high school players that you may draft in the future?
We will take the best players. There are some exciting high school players in the 2007 draft, many of whom I have already seen and our scouts have seen multiple times. There are plenty of good college players too, though, so it's too early to tell how this draft will shake out.
Given this new GCL club is expected to be the first USA landing point in the system for a number of your most promising foreign players, are you incorporating any special programs to help indoctrinate these young men into playing in America? If so, please provide an example.
We are working on that now. We will definitely have some educational programs, especially English, to help with the transition. It's easier to come to Florida from the DR and Venezuela than it is to go directly to Tennessee, in general.
Do you have an ideal target mix of foreign and drafted players at this level? Or, in other words, talk to me about the always-challenging visa issue. Is it going to limit your flexibility to develop the players the way you want? Should we expect any changes in this area?
We will use our Visa cap for the first time. The Visa issue is always a challenge but we all face it so we make it work.
Are you giving serious consideration to hiring Latino coaches for this new club?
Yes. We should be making an announcement about the staff next week.
Based on your recent trip to the Academies, which players look like they may be top candidates to make this new GCL team in 2007?
There are quite a few. We will have them all in for extended and for mini camp before determining which players start at the GCL, Johnson City or Batavia.
We are still finalizing the list, but position players who are likely to travel include Wilmer Alvarado (C/3B), Ivan Castro (C), Luis De la Cruz (C), Francis Rojas (1B), Jose Garcia (2B), Jairo Martinez (OF), Edgar Lara (OF), Christofer Dumont (OF), Rainel Rosario (OF), Quincy Martina (OF), Edwin Conde (OF), Dognnt Bolivar (SS), Braulio Hiraldo (2B) and Guillermo Toribio (SS).
They may not all stay, but most of those guys should be coming over to Extended Spring with a chance to make a U.S. club.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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