Spring has sprung, the south is covered in pollen, shorts are back in style and best of all, the boys of summer are back. The Memphis Redbirds will open up their season Thursday against the Oklahoma RedHawks at AutoZone Park. If you're a Redbird, there's plenty to play for this season including the ultimate goal, to make it to The Show. To be called up this year would be extra special, since any player on the Cardinals roster is playing for the defending World Series Champions. Let's take a look at the Redbirds' opening day roster and analyze some strengths and weaknesses.
There's a couple different ways to look at the catching situation for the Redbirds. Some will say there's depth that breeds competition and some will say there's just a glut of players, either way the Redbirds pitchers shouldn't have any trouble finding someone to play catch with.
Ryan Christianson is guy that spent last year with Tampa Bay's AA team in Montgomery, hitting below the Mendoza line (.195) but setting a career high with 14 home runs. Brian Esposito is a 28-year-old veteran who has bounced around between the Anaheim, Texas, Boston and now St. Louis organizations. In 55 games he batted .234 with two home runs and 12 RBIs. Esposito will provide veteran leadership as a returning player and stability to the catching situation and the Redbird staff.
Michel Hernandez was another catching candidate and would have been another returning player from last year's Redbird roster. In 90 games he hit .274 with two home runs while walking almost more than he struck out (27 BB/29 K). However, he was released as camp broke.
First base looks to be all Tagg Bozied's (pictured). Bozied, a former top prospect in the Padres organization, looks the part of a power hitting first baseman at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Bozied's track record shows he's a home run threat and not a bad contact hitter, although he is considered an average fielder and a rare right-hander masher who struggles against lefties. He has also had injury problems in the past, most notably rupturing his patella tendon in a game-winning celebration at home plate after he hit a grand slam. Bozied reportedly impressed in spring training this year with his defense and consistent hitting, if he keeps it up he could become a force in the middle of the order for the Redbirds.
At second base is Edgar Gonzalez, a career .295 hitter who will most likely bat second in the order behind shortstop Brendan Ryan. Gonzalez is the older brother of Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Although Edgar is not the power hitter his brother is, he has shown an ability to hit for extra bases and drive in runs.
The aforementioned Brendan Ryan is the likely starting shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Redbirds. He's a Birdhouse top 20 Cardinals prospect and he showed why in the Arizona Fall League by batting .310 while also leading his AFL in hits. Ryan played at four levels last year including Springfield before being promoted and he showed the ability to steal bases, swiping 14 between Springfield and Memphis.
Third Base is most likely Travis Hanson's. Hanson (pictured) struggled a bit last year after a fantastic 2005 in Springfield where he hit .284 with 20 home runs and 97 RBIs. The left-handed hitter has potential and the Cards see it in him, sending him to the AFL after his great 2005 season and also when he had four hits in 12 at bats for Team USA in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Also watch out for John Nelson, who hit 21 home runs for the Redbirds last year but struggled with his average hitting only .215, as well as going hitless in his brief call-up to the Cardinals. Rico Washington has been in the minors since 1997 but he has blossomed recently. Last year he hit .284 with 18 home runs and 76 RBIs between Springfield and Memphis. Nelson and Washington will surely see their fair amount of playing time and they provide solid back ups and pinch hitters for Memphis and new manager Chris Maloney. Versatile veteran Jolbert Cabrera fills out the bench as a late cut from the parent club.
John Rodriguez is the leader of the outfield and possibly the star of the team. In 2005, he played in 34 games homering 17 times and hitting a blazing .342. He was called up that year and stayed for the better part of 2006, only playing in 20 games for Memphis. Rodriguez will look to recapture the incredible bat he showed for the Redbirds in 2005 and he'll most like bat in the three hole or possibly be the clean-up hitter.
Everyone knows the Rick Ankiel story and now he's an outfielder, playing center in the exhibition game against the big league squad. Ankiel definitely has promise in his bat, hitting 21 home runs and batting .259 in 2005 but it's the ability to recover from season ending knee surgery he suffered in spring training last year that forms the big question mark for him.
Last year for Triple-A Toledo, Ryan Ludwick (pictured) hit .266 while pounding out 26 home runs and 82 RBIs. Ludwick has always been known for his plus power but injuries in 2004 and 2005 held his career back. Ludwick is a player that will bat in the middle of the order and be one of the top run manufacturers for the Redbirds.
Nick Stavinoha has been a hitting machine for the Cardinal organization and last year was no different as he hit .297 with 12 home runs and 73 RBIs. Although he struggled a bit in the AFL, he will be a strong hitting presence and valuable member of the Redbirds.
Also, Eli Marrero, a familiar face to any Cardinal fan, will contribute wherever he is needed, be it the outfield, behind the plate or the infield. He's the most versatile player on the roster, or at least will be once he is activated off the disabled list, where he begins the season due to elbow problems.
In recent years, the Redbirds rotation has produced big-league hurlers Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes, both of whom are in the Cardinals opening day rotation, and looks to be strong again this year. Blake Hawksworth (pictured) is the best prospect of the bunch and he held the Cardinals scoreless in five innings in the recent exhibition game against the big league squad. He had 121 strikeouts and went 11-4 between Springfield and Palm Beach. He was last year's Birdhouse Minor League Pitcher of the Year and with his plus fastball and good command he could follow in Wainwright and Reyes' footsteps soon enough.
Matt Ginter, a seasoned pitcher and former first round draft pick will help the Redbirds rotation tremendously with his major league experience and ability. Much like Ginter, starters Randy Keisler and Mike Smith have big league experience that is invaluable and they look to be solid and shore up the middle of the Memphis rotation. Chris Narveson will round out the rotation and after impressing last year with an 8-5 record and a 2.81 ERA. He was a late September call-up and is a candidate to step up this year and possibly get back to the bigs.
The bullpen will need to be strong this year and there is a plethora of arms to choose from. Troy Cate, a lefty who was stellar last year between Palm Beach and Springfield joins the club after posting 1.27 ERA and striking out 58 in 41 innings. A quality lefty who can strike hitters out will always be in demand and the Redbirds have one. Brian Falkenborg (pictured) is a towering reliever who joined the Cardinals for a cup of coffee last year and he's back in Memphis to close. He appeared in 47 games last year, posting a 4.18 ERA and becoming a valuable member of the bullpen.
Andy Cavazos is a righty who joined the club last year accumulating four saves while also garnering a 3.51 ERA. He is expected to contribute mightily to this years Memphis squad. Mike Sillman was a former closer in Single-A where he struck out an eye-popping 86 in 57.1 innings. Mark Worrell was Springfield's closer in 2006, where he had success, getting 27 saves and striking more than a batter per inning. Worrell was the minor league Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 2005 and the Redbirds have high hopes for him. Sillman, Worrell and two late cuts from the major league club, Kelvin Jimenez and Dennis Dove, will look to solidify the bullpen and get the ball to Falkenborg.
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