In part due to their revived focus on the Latin America prospect market, the Cardinals announced a decision last fall to enter the Gulf Coast League starting in the 2007 season. The GCL Cardinals slipped under Johnson City of the Appalachian League as the new entry-level rung in the Cards' US organizational hierarchy.
Once the decision was made, there wasn't all that much time to put the new team together. But since the Cardinals own both the club and the real estate upon which they would play, they had a leg up on preparation. Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow explains.
"Last October we made a decision to join the GCL and add the ninth minor league team. We had to scramble to get everything organized to make it happen, but it was worth it," he said.
This long-time minor league, founded in 1964, is labeled rookie level, considered a peer with the Arizona League. The GCL clubs operate out of Florida at the minor league spring training complexes of their parent clubs, who own the GCL teams. The GCL Cardinals play their games on the back fields of the Jupiter complex.
With the relentless summer sun beating down on the players, and especially those not in the game on any given day, Luhnow told me some facility updates represent one major change planned for the 2008 season.
"We are going to build a shaded area behind home plate so I don't have to sit in the hot Florida sun every time I watch a game," joked Luhnow. "Actually, it's not for me, but we are building an area for the players, scouts and others to watch the games in comfort."
The 16-team, three-division circuit runs on a 60-game, short-season schedule from mid-June through late August. Though GCL games are open to the public for free, generally there are few attendees.
Because of the short length of the regular season, GCL players also usually have begun their year earlier on by participating in Extended Spring Training from April into early June, also held in Jupiter. Following the GCL season, many of the prospects remain to participate in the Winter Instructional League from September until mid-October.
It is interesting to note that restrictions are placed on organizations designed to ensure prospects are challenged and not under-leveled. Specifically, no GCL player aged 20 or older may have two or more years of prior minor league service, excluding rookie leagues outside the United States and Canada. Players under 20 who have already been credited with two years of minor league service may play their third season in the league, however.
GCL roster sizes are limited to 35 active players, only 30 of whom may be in uniform and eligible to play in any given game. As of July 1, at least 10 must be pitchers.
There were plenty of contenders for those roster spots even in the Cardinals' initial season participating. Luhnow had this to say about the value this new club provided the organization.
"The most important aspect of the GCL team for us is that it provided a good place for many of the Latin players and high school players from the draft to play against competition that allows them to adequately develop – they weren't overwhelmed and yet they faced very good baseball teams," he explained.
Full team batting and pitching stats for the 2007 GCL season can be viewed here.
Team batting leaders (minimum 50 at-bats):
|Home runs||8||Lara, Morales|
|Steals||17 (of 22)||D'Marcus Ingram|
Team pitching leaders (minimum 30 innings pitched):
|Home runs||4||Pablo Ortiz|
In the won-loss column, the Cardinals' initial season results were middling – 24-30 (.444), putting them in third place in the GCL East, 15.5 games behind the first-place Dodgers.
The 2007 GCL Cardinals were led by a pair well-known from other successful baseball endeavors. Top scout Enrique Brito served as manager and the pitching coach was a man who won 245 games in the Major Leagues, Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez. That twosome may be evolving to a threesome in 2008.
"We will probably add a dedicated, experienced hitting coach for the GCL level which we did not have this year," Luhnow announced.
Under Luhnow, the Cardinals have named top pitchers and position players in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues in past seasons. I asked Jeff if they had established the same practice in the GCL this year.
"We have not named those players yet but it is a good idea. (Outfielder) D'Marcus Ingram probably deserves some consideration, but there were several good performances. The Gonzalez duo (Carlos and Reynier) deserve some consideration among the pitchers," Luhnow offered.
I asked about some of the other standout players. From the stat sheet, that seemed to include first baseman Osvaldo Morales, catcher Luis De La Cruz, outfielder Edgar Lara and pitcher Deryk Hooker.
The Cards' farm director also appropriately reminded me that the aggressive upward promotion actions during the season meant several other players that didn't end up in the GCL still contributed.
18-year-old outfielder Hage began with a flourish in the GCL, hitting .393 in 28 at-bats, but only .203 with Johnson City. Third baseman Cruz may have set a record after being taken right after Hage in the 26th round of the 2007 Draft. He played at four levels this season, with a majority of his at-bats at Quad Cities, batting an impressive .299 overall.
Luhnow also pointed out that defensive progress cannot be measured from the stat sheets and from afar, which is an important consideration that many in The Cardinal Nation sometimes forget.
"Besides the obvious hitting and pitching stats, many guys improved defensively and in other ways that aren't obvious to the fans who don't see them play. Many of the Latin guys – Frederick Parejo (17 in July), Romulo Ruiz (18 years old) and others made strides in this area. Given their youth, we have reasons to be excited about their future," he said.
However, on a club that hit .243 overall, only 12th in the league, and was 14th in runs scored, some players did not progress. Two outfielders, one from Nicaragua and the other from El Salvador, were casualties.
Luhnow explains. "We have released Edwin Conde (.175 BA) and wish him well in whatever he chooses to do going forward. He is a fine young man with a good head on his shoulders and this experience has been good for him.
"We also released Carlos Schonenberg (.143 BA), but we are trying to hire him as a scout and coach. That is the toughest part of the game but a necessity," he stated.
While Ruiz may have made strides defensively, a .190/.247/.241 batting line (BA/OBP/SLG) did not stand out for the right reasons.
"Ruiz will continue to work this winter and he is improving. Remember that he is very young still and he has very impressive tools,' Jeff said.
The 2007 GCL Cardinals pitching staff was an interesting lot, showing serious gas, but also a healthy dose of wildness. Specifically, their 480 strikeouts were third-best in the entire league, but their 259 walks were second to last. Too many baserunners meant their 4.33 ERA was 12th among the 16 squads.
I asked Jeff about some of the pitchers whose numbers were subpar.
Since being drafted in the third round in 2006, right-hander Gary Daley, Jr. has yet to consistently show his stuff. The 22-year-old started five games for the GCL club and 12 more with Palm Beach, posting a 6.97 ERA overall.
"Daley is working hard back home to harness his stuff, which is big league caliber, and keep focused on the strike zone," Luhnow observed.
Francisco Samuel's 40 strikeouts in 34 innings were washed out by his 30 walks and 9.43 ERA, but Luhnow hasn't lost faith in the 20-year-old Dominican.
"Samuel has an electric arm and simply needs to mature as a pitcher," he asserted.
Reliever Rigoberto Lugo was also a charter member of the GCL wild bunch, walking 19 in 19 1/3 innings pitched, which led to a 6.98 ERA.
"Lugo has a ways to go but and simply needs playing time. We are sending him to the DR instructional program so he can get more innings," Jeff explained.
In closing, Luhnow made it clear he looks at much more than the .444 win percentage, individual batting averages or ERAs when evaluating the 2007 Gulf Coast League Cardinals season.
"I was very pleased with the outcome and our staff there did a superb job of allocating playing time and helping the guys get better," Luhnow said in closing.
That is what it is all about, after all.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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