Johnson City Cards Player of the Year: 2008

First baseman Curt Smith takes our annual award as the top position player on the St. Louis Cardinals Appalachian League club.

During 2008, the Johnson City Cardinals had a total of nineteen different position players. Sixteen of those players had the majority of their at-bats (AB) with Johnson City.  Of those sixteen, seven played for another team at some point during the season while nine played the entire season on the Johnson City roster.  Of the seven that played for another team, two were promoted late in the season to Quad Cities (Curt Smith and Niko Vasquez) and three others were promoted during the season to Batavia (Brett Lilley, Alex Castellanos, and Jairo Martinez). 


The three players that played for Johnson City but that were not considered for their Player of the Year Award all had the majority of their at-bats with the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Cardinals.  Second baseman Luis Mateo was the first promotion of the year.  Mateo, the 20th round pick in the 2008 June draft from a high school in Puerto Rico, had fifty-eight percent of his at-bats in Florida.  Ryde Rodriguez, a GCL All-Star outfielder from Cuba, and Yunier Castillo, a light-hitting shortstop from the Dominican Republic, were each late season promotions. 


The list below shows the names, primary position, number of at-bats (AB), batting average (AVG), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), fielding errors (E), and age in years (y) and months (m) for each of the sixteen qualifiers.  The list is ordered from top to bottom by the number of at-bats. 


Player Pos AB AVG OBP SLG E Age
Niko Vasquez SS 208 0.317 0.416 0.462 9 19y 7 m
Curt Smith 1B 193 0.378 0.418 0.585 5 22y 1m
Alex Castellanos 3B 181 0.298 0.354 0.536 16 22y 2m
Travis Mitchell CF 168 0.202 0.258 0.321 5 21y
Edgar Lara RF 161 0.267 0.337 0.429 2 19y 7m
Joey Hage LF 158 0.272 0.299 0.323 5 19y 8m
Osvaldo Morales DH 152 0.250 0.345 0.579 5 21y 3m
Guillermo Toribio UT 146 0.212 0.314 0.226 7 21y 7m
Ivan Castro C 139 0.237 0.296 0.360 2 20y 11m
Paul Cruz OF 131 0.183 0.285 0.260 2 23y 1m
Jarred Bogany COF 123 0.260 0.333 0.382 2 21y 9m
Brett Lilley 2B 119 0.319 0.445 0.387 5 23y 2m
Jack Cawley C 109 0.330 0.426 0.413 7 22y 7m
Jairo Martinez COF 85 0.247 0.369 0.412 0 21y 4m
Matt Rigoli 3B 83 0.205 0.343 0.337 8 22y 11m
Rickey Noland C 39 0.231 0.354 0.359 4 22y 11m


It was a very good year for the infield in Johnson City.  The top four in every category (AVG, OBP, and SLG) was from an infielder, catcher, or designated hitter.  The best outfield finishes were 5th in OBP (.369) for Jairo Martinez, 5th in SLG (.429) for Edgar Lara, and 6th in AVG (.272) for Joey Hage.  There were only six players of the sixteen that had batting averages above the .269 team AVG.  I will rank only the top five players for the purpose of this article but I will briefly discuss each player that didn't make the top five in reverse order of their at-bats.  The rankings are relative to the sixteen players listed above. 


Rickey Noland was one of only two American born non-drafted free agents and because of that and the fact that he was third on the depth chart at catcher, he really didn't get much playing time.  Noland appears to have good strike zone judgment (four walks, six strikeouts, and 7th in OBP) but he is challenged in the field (four passed balls and four errors), didn't show much power or average, and will be 23 years old next month.  Noland was invited to the instructional league this fall. 


Matt Rigoli was basically third on the depth chart at third base and first base so much like Noland, he didn't get much playing time.  He doesn't have very good range and he struggled in the field at both positions (eight errors).  Rigoli's bat showed some signs of power (two home runs) but not enough to displace any playing time from his competition at the positions he played. 


Jairo Martinez has some power (5th in SLG) but he doesn't make nearly enough contact (35% strikeout rate).  He has a tendency to be pull-happy and often struggles to keep his head down and on the ball.  Martinez was the only fielder on the team to not commit an error and he has a pretty good arm and quick enough release to be serviceable corner outfielder. 


Jarred Bogany was the only other non-drafted American-born free agent but he received some early playing time due to injuries and got off to a good start at the beginning of the year (.286 AVG through five games).  He has good gap-to-gap power and speed.  He finished 6th in doubles (10) and 5th in stolen bases (5).  Bogany was invited to the instructional league this fall, most likely to work on reducing his strikeout rate (34%). 


Paul Cruz was last on the team in batting average (.183) and is already 23 years old.  He hit .268 in August and .286 in his last ten games so his bat was improving at the end of the year.  He is left-handed and has pretty good speed in both the field and on the base paths.  He only had seven extra base hits in 131 ABs so, as you might expect, his outfield defense is quite good.  Cruz has good range in the outfield and an accurate and strong-enough arm.  He can play centerfield.   


Ivan Castro was, by far, the best defensive catcher.  He combines a strong arm and quick release with relatively accurate throws.  His struggles are at the plate.  He has good power when he makes contact (33% of his hits were extra base hits).  The only problem is that he doesn't make enough solid contact.  Many of his swings are late and the result is often a weak fly ball or pop-up to the right side of the field.  Castro is the fourth youngest on the team but will turn 21 years old next month.   


Guillermo Toribio was an absolute terror at the plate (.375 AVG) and on the base paths (eight stolen bases) in June but it all came apart after that as he finished the year 13-for-98 with just three more stolen bases.  He is a switch hitter and pretty good groundball fielder.  Toribio hit .318 last June in the GCL but also finished with a much lower overall average.  His game is that of a "slap" (opposite field line drive type) hitter with above-average speed. 


Osvaldo Morales started the year with Quad Cities and really struggled (48% strikeout rate).  After arriving in Johnson City at the start of the Appy League season, he soon found his normal first base position blocked by hot-hitting Curt Smith.  Morales missed some playing time and played mostly as a designated hitter.  He was essentially an all-or-nothing hitter.  His strikeout rate only marginally improved (43%) and 66% of his hits were of the extra-base variety.  Morales led the team in home runs (12).  Unfortunately, he combined the team's 2nd best SLG (.579) with the 8th best OBP (.345) and 9th best AVG (.250).  Morales' only defensive position would seem to be first base. 


Joey Hage spent his second year in-a-row with Johnson City and the 19-year-old improved slightly in many aspects of his game.  He raised his average from .208 (2007) to .272 (2008) but he appeared to do that while walking less and striking out more.  It doesn't seem that power or speed will be a big part of Hage's future game so his average will have to continue to climb in future years.


Edgar Lara has a cannon for a right arm.  He, like Hage, is also just 19 years old.  Contact is where he needs to improve (37% strikeout rate).  He hit .364 in August to improve his AVG to .267 but he really struggled with runners on-base (.218) and runners in scoring position (.170).  Lara finished 4th in home runs (5) and 5th in SLG (.429) and doubles (11).


Travis Mitchell spent his third consecutive season playing for Johnson City and many fans will miss his outstanding defensive range in centerfield.  Mitchell can just flat go get about anything that has a chance to be caught.  He almost always gets very good reads and breaks on line drives and usually combines that with a very good route to the ball.  Unfortunately for Mitchell, his big improvement in AVG from 2006 (.207) to 2007 (.293) could not be maintained in 2008 (.202).  He just turned 21 years old and will look to take his excellent defensive skills to another league next year. 


The finalists


Jack Cawley, 5th – Cawley had a very good year at the plate despite getting to play in only half of the games.  Cawley finished 2nd in AVG (.330), 2nd in OBP (.426), and 6th in SLG (.413).  He, like many catchers, has an excellent eye at the plate (18 walks and just 20 strikeouts).  Cawley doesn't have much speed and he struggled defensively (13 passed balls and 7 errors) but his ability to keep base runners in check is at least average. 


Brett Lilley, 4th – Lilley was on-base machine (.445 – 1st).  He also ranked as the toughest to strike out (12%).  He was the oldest at 23 years old but his defensive range and ability to turn the double-play at second base was excellent.  He has good, but not great speed, and bats left-handed.  He finished 3rd in AVG (.319) while striking out fewer times (14) than he walked (16).  Lilley went on to post an encouraging .296 AVG in 54 AB with Batavia at the end of the season. 


Alex Castellanos, 3rd – Castellanos started the year poorly but put together an incredible mid-season stolen base and hit streak.  Castellanos was hitting just .252 with two stolen bases on July 23 (Game 36).  Just fifteen games later, Castellanos had improved his AVG to .313 and his stolen bases to eighteen.  He was soon promoted to Batavia where he hit .269 in 26 AB.  Castellanos finished 1st in stolen bases (20), triples (4), and runs (42) with Johnson City.  Castellanos is very athletic and has above average speed.  His Achilles heel with Johnson City was his throws from third base to first base.  They tended to be wild.  Castellanos led the team in errors with sixteen.  Castellanos should get several games in the future at second base. 


Niko Vasquez, 2nd – Vasquez started the year playing some of the smoothest and unflashy shortstop I have seen in a long time in Johnson City.  His great hands, quick release, and accurate throws were a real pleasure to watch.  Vasquez had a .989 fielding percentage and just one error through 21 games.  He then began to give up a few hits by looping a few weak throws to first base.  Getting used to more speed on the base paths was an improvement opportunity for Vasquez.  He finished the year with just nine errors. 


Vasquez doesn't have a lot of speed and his strikeout rate (25%) could use some improvement but he is only 19 years old.  His .317 AVG (4th) would have been ten to twenty points higher with a little more speed.  Vasquez led the team in games (55), AB (208), runs (42), doubles (16), and walks (29).  He also finished 4th in stolen bases (8), OBP (.416), and SLG (.462).  With a little more arm strength, he should be able to continue to play shortstop for a few more full season minor league years. 


Curt Smith, 1st – Smith was the key that kept the Johnson City offense running all year long.  Smith squared the ball up better than any other hitter on the team and continually demonstrated an advanced approach to hitting.  Smith won both the Appy League batting title (.378) and the Appy League Player of the Year Award so there was really very little doubt about this decision.  Smith also finished first in the Appy League in OBP (.418) and RBIs (49).     


Smith's biggest future challenge will be establishing himself in the field.  He is not very fast, not very quick, and often has trouble with his footwork and his hands at first base.  He only committed five errors at first base but there were several instances of missed double plays that were not errors. 


Smith led the team in six offensive categories (hits, RBI, total bases, SLG, AVG, and OPS) while finishing in the top five in virtually every other offensive category except walks and stolen bases.  He is 22 years old now so he will likely be challenged next year with a full season assignment.  Establishing himself in the field while maintaining his hitting and slugging performance should be his goal for 2009. 



Note: Master article with all 2008 Cardinals Minor League Players of the Year and the schedule for daily announcements: link. (This link is also permanently located at the lower left of The Birdhouse home page.)



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