Preliminary Cardinals Winter League Plans

The latest, but not final news on St. Louis Cardinals prospects' plans to play this winter in Arizona, Mexico, Colombia, Hawaii, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Cardinals Vice President Jeff Luhnow helps fill in the details.

In earlier articles, we looked into Cardinals prospects heading to the Arizona Fall League and Colombia this winter. While additional assignments in Hawaii, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are becoming clearer, they all have to be considered preliminary at this time.

 

With play at least a month away, plans can and will change. In fact, in several cases, they already have. Here's the latest, with a major jump start from Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow.

 

 

Arizona

 

I asked Luhnow if sending three left-handed pitchers to the Arizona Fall League signals that they are looking for one to emerge to help the major league club. The three are Brad Furnish, Justin Fiske and Tyler Norrick.

 

"We hope so. Furnish is interesting. Most times, when you send a pitcher to Springfield, you expect them to take a step back. He actually took a step forward. He pitched better in Springfield than he had been pitching.

 

"Dennis Martinez (Palm Beach pitching coach) called me and all year long I said, ‘Dennis, when Brad is ready to move, call me.' Every once in a while, Brad would have a great outing and I kept expecting Dennis to call me, but he didn't call. Finally he called me and said, ‘He's ready to go. Now, he is ready to go. I give you my word, this guy is ready to go.'

 

"He went and he had some success. I am looking forward to him continuing it in the fall league.

"Fiske, what can I say about him? This guy has been an incredible story. The light bulb turned on for me when I went to watch him pitch in Springfield this year. He came in for the seventh inning and stayed in for the eighth. I think he struck out four of the six guys he faced using his changeup and his breaking ball and spotting the fastball.

 

"I thought to myself, ‘Why isn't this guy starting? This guy could go through the lineup more than once.' And that was always the knock on him, because his stuff isn't spectacular. That the second time around they would probably hit him.

 

"So, I put that theory to test. ‘Let's see. Let's find out.' And he had a tremendous year. He is going to go back into relief (in the AFL) because he had a lot of innings this season.

 

"I don't know if he is going to start in Memphis next year because we've got starters, a full slate of starters. But, he's really turned himself into a prospect. That is something you can get excited about.

 

"Norrick. I was there in Memphis for Norrick's outing and he dominated against left-handers. He's got the stuff to pitch to both types but I think the safety net for him is left-handed specialist. I think he is very effective, but he could be a starter. He's a big guy. He's got a good fastball and a good complement of pitches.

 

"That outing in Memphis, he was as nervous as he could be, but he got through it. I think he struck out seven in four innings but he walked a bunch of guys. He knows that is what he needs to work on.

 

"Those three guys are exciting, but I'd like to have eight, instead of three, though," Luhnow said.

 

In addition, outfielder Shane Robinson will be the Cardinals "priority player", meaning he is assured of being a regular starter for the Peoria Saguaros.

 

Note: Full details on all eight Cardinals participating in the AFL under Springfield manager Pop Warner can he found here.

 

 

Mexico

 

The Mexican Pacific League previously announced that reliever Jason Motte will pitch for Hermosillo. However, as subscribers to this site already know, the MLB rookie may reconsider his decision depending on how he feels at the end of the season.

 

If Motte does head south, he will join his Memphis pitching coach Blaise Ilsley, who is going to be with Hermosillo in the same role, too.

 

"We like to send guys where we have our own people," Luhnow explained. It is a common thread throughout, as you will see in this article.

 

 

Colombia

 

As we previously disclosed, the Cardinals will be aligned with two of the four clubs in the Colombian Winter League. The Sincelejo Toros will be managed by Cardinals Minor League Catching Coordinator Dann Bilardello. Among his players will be closer Casey Mulligan. Outfielder Jon Edwards is also a possibility.

 

"Bilardello tried to do a land grab and take every player and convince them to go down there. I had to tell him to back off," Luhnow joked.

 

The other club, the Cartagena Tigers, will be headed up by another Cardinals employee, Neder Horta. The native Colombian is the Cards' head scout there and his club will also receive a complement of organizational prospects this winter.

 

Palm Beach players previously mentioned as Colombian probables are catcher Nick Derba and pitchers Davis Bilardello and Shaun Garceau. Memphis' outfielder Shane Robinson is listed on the club's preliminary roster, though he is already committed to the Arizona Fall League through mid-November.

 

Recently-released infielder Dan Nelson and Quad Cities first baseman Carlos Pupo are also listed on the Toros' tentative roster. We also have an unconfirmed report that Casey Rowlett will be playing there.

 

Luhnow explains that there has been a change of plans in Garceau's case.

 

"Shaun has really had a terrific season, but he is done. He is not pitching any more (this year). He could. I just don't want him to pitch any more. He wanted to, but I don't want him to. He's pitched a lot of innings this year (123 1/3)," Luhnow explained.

 

It seems the largest contingent of Cardinals prospects will be heading to the smallest league.

 

"We could end up sending a dozen players to Colombia if everything works out. That would be tremendous," beamed the farm director.

 

Some players and their families may be concerned about the crime rate in Colombia. Luhnow understands, but believes what the organization is doing is safe.

 

"The places where we play are the tourist resorts and they are very well protected. I go there myself and I would never send them there if I thought it was a problem," said the fluent Spanish-speaker.

 

 

Hawaii

 

The Cardinals will be participating in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League for the second consecutive season. This year, instead of sending middle relievers, the organization is planning to send as many as four higher-profile prospects. They will work under the direction of Memphis hitting coach Mark Budaska.

 

Three of the four come off the roster of A-Advanced Palm Beach. The exception is centerfielder Jim Rapoport, who began the season with Palm Beach, but ended in Double-A Springfield.

 

The versatile power hitter Tony Cruz, who missed the last half of the regular season due to a left hand injury, will play if permission is received from the Dominican club that drafted him. The two pitchers are not set, but they may be a pair of right-handers - Blake King as a reliever and Tyler Herron starting.

 

 

Venezuela

 

The Cardinals again have a key employee in an important position as super scout and manager of the Gulf Coast League Cardinals, Enrique Brito, is serving as the general manager of the Caribes team. 2008 Memphis Redbird David Freese will be their third baseman.

 

Another Venezuelan League club, the Margarita Braves, will also have a Cardinals presence. Minor League Hitting Coordinator Dan Radison will be their hitting coach and will take some St. Louis prospects with him.

 

A long-time relationship has been in place between the Cardinals and the Tigres de Aragua and one of their stalwarts from last year's championship series may be coming back for another season. Luhnow explains.

 

"(Springfield's) Jose Martinez may be the everyday shortstop for a major part of the season. We might have a couple of imports down there, trying to bring (Josh) Phelps and some other guys down there. We'll see," Luhnow said.

 

 

Puerto Rico

 

As we previously reported, Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo will be leading the Carolina Giants. Yadier Molina is deciding whether or not he wants to return to his hometown club for another winter. At this point, the Cardinals aren't ready to disclose who might suit up in the league, which is back to life after a one-year hiatus.

 

"We're working on that right now. We have a couple of position players that have been asked for permission and are negotiating right now," said Luhnow.

 

 

Dominican Republic

 

The Licey Tigers are typically the best team in the toughest winter league, the one in the Dominican Republic. Memphis outfielder Colby Rasmus along with Amaury Marti, who spent most of the last two seasons on loan to the Mexican League, were to play for Licey. The Mexican League apparently jumped the gun earlier in their announcement that Marti would be playing there.

 

The Cardinals have Nelson Norman, their Dominican Summer League skipper, placed as a coach with Licey, but he won't be guiding the Cardinals top prospect. In a bit of a surprise, Rasmus has declined to play winter ball, despite missing most of the last half of 2008 due to injury.

 

 

In summary

 

Luhnow is rightfully excited about the quantity and quality of players the organization is sending south this winter.

 

"We're really going to be sending to Latin America the largest group we've ever sent," he said.

 

I estimated it could be double last winter's take. The farm director agreed.

 

"It is and it doesn't even count the three instructional programs we have. We have one in Jupiter, one in the Dominican and one in Venezuela.

 

"Everybody who wants to get playing time is going to get it. Most of the guys from the draft, we are going to shut them down and tell them just to stay in shape (after instructs), Luhnow explained.

 

While winter league participation is voluntary, Luhnow makes it clear that the organization encourages it, especially for position players and in doing so, it distinguishes them from those who stay home.

 

"We're trying to place guys where we have staff, but mostly, we're trying to get guys opportunities – especially the position players... We do worry more about the pitchers than the hitters, but as far as I am concerned, every hitter who can get some at-bats should do it, because if they don't, somebody else is going to and they need to be ready."

 

 

As every year, stlcardinals.scout.com will be your leader in first-hand reporting on and from the fall and winter leagues. So, check back for reports on the Cardinals prospects all off-season long.

 

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

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