Several of these queries were inspired by discussion on our "Cardinals Insiders" premium message board among some of the most knowledgeable Cardinals fans anywhere. If you're not already a regular, be sure to check it out and join in!
The format of the article is as follows: My player introductions precede Vuch's comments. Most impressive to me was the depth of the Cards' exec's player knowledge, as each of his responses was delivered in a rapid-fire manner without supporting notes of any kind.
Ryan Meaux, pitcher, Springfield
Meaux was recently signed by the Cardinals after having been released by the San Francisco Giants organization. While not a top prospect, the organization sees the 28-year-old lefty as a possible contributor. Since being drafted in 2001, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder has posted a 3.49 ERA in 259 minor league games (including 30 starts), with a won-loss record of 25-27 to go along with 39 saves.
"Meaux started this year at Triple-A and didn't have so much success, but last year, he was effective at Double-A. We had a need for a left-handed reliever when we sent (Zach) Zuercher down (to Single-A Palm Beach) and added (Kevin) Ool to the rotation. Obviously, there are not a lot of these guys on the market. There were a few guys released during spring training, but were not in pitching shape. We wanted someone who could step right in and contribute pretty quickly. Meaux fit the bill. We talked with the Giants on his makeup and they said he is a good kid and he is healthy. We felt like his previous success at Double-A would mean he could help out at Springfield and maybe Memphis later on."
Allen Craig, third base, Palm Beach
Craig was the Cardinals tenth selection of the 2006 draft, their eighth-round pick from Cal-Berkeley. The 22-year-old hit .257/.325/.400 (BA/OBP/SLG) with four home runs and 29 RBI for short-season Class A State College before suffering a tear of the patella tendon in his knee, ending his season in August.
I wondered if the organization was disappointed in Craig's first professional season in contrast to his excellent start in 2007 – eight home runs and 26 RBIs and a .339 batting average in 115 at-bats this season – which are good for first, second and fourth, respectively in the Florida State League this season.
"Last year, I wouldn't say we were disappointed in Craig but he had the credentials to be a quality offensive player. He spent all off-season really getting into good shape. He came into spring training healthier and he had a good spring for us. We're very pleased with what Craig has done. He went high last year in the draft, so he is one we expected to do a good job for us."
Craig, who was a shortstop in college, has recently been seeing action at first base instead of his customer position at third. I asked Vuch if it was injury-related or was a move intended to increase his versatility.
"It's a little bit of everything, but I think they wanted to increase his versatility. With (Mike) Ferris out (moved up to Springfield), and (Mark) Hamilton as their only first baseman, they want to make sure they have another option at first base. (A.J.) Van Slyke can play some first as well, but he's been in the outfield."
My next question had to do with whether the organization has changed their view of Craig's future at the hot corner. The answer was clearly, "no".
"To me, if you've got a guy who can hit and play third base like that, having the defensive spectrum thing where he can play the most demanding position possible… I think he'll play at third base for the long term, unless he shows that he can't play there. Exposing him to first base is good. You never know where you are going to need the guy.
Joe Mather, first base, Springfield
I saw Mather as one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2007 minor league season through the first month. In his first 100 at-bats, the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder has blasted 11 home runs and driving in 21 runs. Mather's line is an impressive .320/.378/.720 for the Springfield club.
Vuch agreed with all of that, with the exception of my choice of the word "surprise".
"Mather was a guy that a lot of our guys coming into spring training felt was going to have a big year for us. His numbers were suppressed a little bit last year in Palm Beach due to the ballpark itself. But, he had a real good second half at Palm Beach - hit for some power in that league last season."
Vuch had already heard the inevitable comparisons to another player who came to prominence in 2006, only to be traded in mid-season.
"Yes, I know Terry Evans is a guy a lot of people talk about (in comparison to Mather), but really to me, I think of Mather as kind of a Chris Duncan guy. He had been in the organization five or six years and was treading water for a little while. And then, he broke out. It was kind of that way for Duncan where he languished in A-ball for a couple of years and then when he moved up, that is when he started to break out. That is kind of how it is for Joe."
Jon Edwards, outfield, Extended Spring Training
The Cardinals' 14th round pick in the 2006 draft out of Keller, Texas High School remains an intriguing prospect due to a promising combination of size, speed and power. At age 18, Edwards hit .266/.360/.461 with four home runs and 27 RBI in 48 games for rookie-level Johnson City, while battling a sore wrist and a hamstring injury.
I asked Vuch if the organization shared my concern about Edwards' strikeouts in Extended here in 2007, as he has fanned almost half the time - 19 times in his first 40 at-bats. That total is over 30% higher than any other player in camp.
"'Concern' is strong, but that is something we'd like to see him cut down on. He didn't strike out at that rate when playing at Johnson City (in 2006) so they will work with him on that. He is taking his walks, as well, so that is a plus. It is one of those things where he might be taking a few too many hittable pitches now when behind in the count and they will work with him on that."
For the record, Edwards also has walked 11 times, which is 36% more than any other player in camp. A very unusual and interesting combination, indeed. The name Adam Dunn came to my mind. Vuch continued.
"The thing we really worry about is when a guy is racking up big strikeout totals, but is not taking any walks. When you have a guy who takes walks and strikes out, that isn't as big of a worry as when a guy strikes out a lot and is not walking. That indicates he is chasing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. With Jon, it seems like he is taking hittable pitches as opposed to swinging at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone."
Tyler Leach, pitcher, Extended Spring Training
Coming off injury, the 39th-round draft pick from 2005 has struggled in early action, allowing 14 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings at Extended, while walking 17 batters. The right-handed Leach is experiencing his first game action after missing the entire 2006 season due to "Tommy John" elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Vuch didn't seem concerned about the numbers in this case.
"Leach is pitching and is healthy. It is just one of those things where he hasn't pitched. He had the time off and just has to get his sea legs back. The main thing is that he is not experiencing any pain. It is really just a matter of getting back into the swing of things. He hasn't pitched very effectively yet, but we feel that is going to come. Again, the main thing is that he is out there pitching without pain now."
Stuart Pomeranz, pitcher, Springfield disabled list
In this case, Vuch simply confirmed the bad news we already had received about the big righty's ongoing shoulder problems. Our number 7 prospect in the Cardinals system is on Springfield's disabled list.
"Stu is probably going to be out for a while. I don't think he will be throwing any time in the near future. He may not be out for the year, but he is a guy that is not going to be pitching competitively for a while."
Mark McCormick, pitcher, Extended Spring Training
The Cards' supplemental first round pick (43rd overall) in the 2005 draft is ranked as the organization's 11th-best prospect, more on potential than anything as he struggled with shoulder problems most all of last season before going under the knife.
The question here is a simple one – Is McCormick still on schedule?
"Yes, McCormick is making progress. All along the plan was for him to start throwing off the mound in mid-May. I don't think he has suffered any setbacks. He has been on his throwing program and doing all his rehab work, so his timetable is still looking pretty good."
Matt Lane, pitcher, free agent
A number of readers were surprised by the release of Lane from the Quad Cities roster last week. I asked Vuch what went into that thinking, especially considering Lane's stats didn't look bad at State College in 2006 or this season – a 4.50 ERA in eight innings. However, opponents did hit .323 against him.
"You have to look beyond the basic numbers here. Lane allowed a lot of inherited runners to score and became the odd man out in Quad Cities' bullpen. He was among the less competitive choices we had and we thought others offered more upside. Having said that, we wanted to release Lane now so he could catch on with another organization or perhaps an independent league team. We'll help if we can, as we are working to build those relationships (with selected indy teams). These deals can work well in all directions."
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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