Position players report on Wednesday, March 5 and have their first workout the next day, on Thursday, March 6.
In past years, the Cardinals minor league staffs prepared "working rosters" to begin to slot players onto one of the four full-season club rosters – Memphis (Triple-A), Springfield (Double-A), Palm Beach (A-Advanced) and Quad Cities (A).
The challenge in such an arrangement is that at the start of minor league camp, as many as 60 players are typically still in major league camp. With only 25 ultimate roster spots available at the big league level, this means at various points over the next four weeks, up to three dozen players will be reassigned to minor league camp.
Almost every move down from the major league level then drove a series of related moves through the four levels of the minor league system, almost like dominoes falling. Establishing continuity on the minor league rosters was an ongoing challenge during March.
These moves occur in spurts as Tony La Russa and his coaches prune those players who will not be coming North with the big club. The first cuts are easiest, as there are a group of young pitchers in major league camp solely for additional instruction, not because they have a chance to make the team in 2008. Extra pitchers require extra catchers, too.
The remainder of the cuts will become evident throughout the month of March as players eliminate themselves from consideration for the major league roster.
All these gyrations demand the ultimate in flexibility for those running the minor league camp. For 2008, the Cardinals are embracing this inevitable change by adjusting how they organize their minor league rosters during spring training.
Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch explains. "For the first four days, we're simply splitting the pitchers into four evenly balanced groups for the purposes of establishing their throwing days."
That is dramatically different from establishing set rosters from the get-go.
"There is no real rhyme or reason in terms of who is in Group 1A, 1B, 2A or 2B. We are just balancing the groups. We've done that the last few years and it has worked pretty well," Vuch said.
The new changes affect more than just the pitchers, as the position players are also being segmented into groups from the very start of camp.
"When the position players arrive, we're not going to go straight into working rosters. Instead, we'll have them broken into Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4, etc, so that our staff can spend more time with the players that will be competing to make their particular club," he explained.
The changes are designed to enable the coaches to get a better read on those players who might be candidates for their clubs earlier in camp than previously and to minimize the domino effect noted above.
Vuch continues. "In prior years, when we've broken teams down by "Memphis", "Springfield", etc, we end up having many players working with the staff of a team that they're not realistically going to be playing for when April rolls around. This gives our staff more flexibility to see and work with the players they need to make decisions about.
"With this year shaping up to be extremely competitive with tough decisions to be made before the end of the month, it makes more sense to break players up this way rather than creating "artificial" teams that bear little or no resemblance to the teams that will be heading north at the end of the month."
The new approach was driven by management listening to suggestions from their coaching staffs and taking action, a very encouraging set of events.
Vuch explains. "The change was inspired by a meeting that I had with several of our managers, who felt that they wanted to be sure that they had ample time to evaluate the players that were most likely going to wind up with their club, rather than spending most of the spring with players who would be sent down a level or two by the end of the month. After discussing it with them, their idea certainly made a lot of sense."
Eliminating some of the churn should also have a positive impact on the players themselves. This approach gives them more continuity in drills and avoids some potential disappointment, too. After all, these young men have to contend daily with both the physical and mental aspects of the game.
"We avoid giving players the false perception that they're being "sent down" a level or two when players inevitably begin to return from Major League camp. Additionally, that allows the staff to better drill the fundamentals/signs, etc with their own players, rather than teaching one group and then having to work with another group shortly before the end of the spring. Even though the fundamentals are run the same from top to bottom within the organization, it's always good for the manager to spend as much time with his club as possible," Vuch said.
With the first minor league games starting on March 12, some semblance of rosters will need to be established by then. I asked Vuch how these early minor league games will be manned.
"When the games start on the 12th, we'll have a team of our more experienced players playing against the opposing AAA team, so there will be a certain element of AAA/AA, etc. Depending on how many players we have returned from Major League camp by that point may impact which of our staffs we have running the team that plays against the opposing AAA team," he said.
Still, the minor league staffs will do their best to keep players playing together, even if it means entire teams are "playing up" a level early in the March game schedule.
"If it is still predominantly AA players with many of the likely AAA players still in Major League camp, we may have the Springfield staff handling the top game – in other words, rather than having 20-25 players being listed as a level higher, we may simply just shift the staff up a level for the first few games," Vuch concluded.
Next week down in Jupiter, I will check in on some of the principals from the player, coaching and management sides as to how this new arrangement is actually working out.
While this means everything with regard to Cardinals minor league rosters will be written in pencil during March, at this point, all indications are that the new twist on spring roster management should be a winner for all parties involved.
Note: To access the 2008 Cardinals minor league spring training game schedules, click here.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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