Minor League Opening Day Preview

Starting on Thursday, the St. Louis Cardinals full season minor league affiliates will try to better their 2008 when all finished above .500. The system is no longer filled with journeyman minor leaguers but homegrown prospects that now put the Cardinals in the upper echelon of minor league systems.

With the season about to kick off, here is a quick look at the Cardinal affiliates and their opening day opponents.

Down on Beale Street

The Memphis Redbirds will take the field against a highly talented Oklahoma City team. The Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers, the Redhawks feature two of the top pitching prospects in all of the minor leagues. Twenty-year-old Neftali Perez (28th on Scout's Top 100) and southpaw Derek Holland (35th) feature high-90's fastballs and are possibly the best duo in all of the minor leagues. The team also features two interesting bats in Max Ramirez and Julio Borbon. Ramirez failed to break with the big league team due to the Rangers envious catching depth at the big league level. Borbon is a speedy outfielder with pop that reminds some of former big leaguer Kenny Lofton.

Probable starter for the Redbirds is listed as P.J. Walters. The 24-year-old made quite an impression this spring training with an ERA of one in nine innings of work. With his performance, he appears to be the Cardinals' sixth starter.

In the Ozarks

The Springfield Cardinals will host Frisco, the Rangers' Double-A affiliate. The match up will feature two of the most highly regarded hitters of the 2008 MLB draft, the Cardinals' Brett Wallace and the Rough Riders' Justin Smoak.

On the team's website, Kendy Batista was listed as Frisco's probable starter but is not listed on the team's roster. Anyway, he went 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA in 17 Texas League relief appearances in 2008. The home team will counter with one of the more overlooked pitchers' in the Cardinals' system, Kyle Mura. The son of former St. Louis pitcher Steve posted a 2.74 ERA in 11 Double-A appearances, 10 starts, last season.

The Rough Riders feature one of my favorite prospects, Omar Poveda. Usually young for his level, Poveda features some of the smoothest mechanics and easiest deliveries I have seen. The team also features an electric middle infielder, Marcus Lemon. The son of former big leaguer Chet, I had a chance to see him at Class-A Clinton where he went from home-to-third as fast as any player I have seen. I have to call catcher Manuel Pina one of my favorite minor league players. Not for his play on the field but for the way he teased and joked around with my son Zachary. Left-hander Kasey Kiker played high school ball with super-prospect Colby Rasmus.

On the Beach

Palm Beach might be the home team but the Jupiter Hammerheads don't have far to travel as the teams share the Roger Dean Stadium complex. The Cardinals will feature two of the systems breakout pitchers from 2008, Nick Additon and Richard Castillo. The two went a combined 20-9 and a 2.29 ERA. The Palm Beach squad will feature the team's shortstop of the future, Pete Kozma. Also watch for left-handed reliever Samuel Freeman whose athleticism and fastball should fast-track him through the system.

The Hammerheads will feature one of the more intriguing stories in baseball. Jeff Allison was once heralded as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. The 16th overall pick in the 2003 MLB First Year Player Draft was blessed with a mid-nineties fastball and the look of a future All-Star. But his off the field issues have gotten the better of him causing him to miss the entire 2004, 2006, and 2007 seasons.

On the Road

The Quad Cities River Bandits is the only Cardinal affiliate that will start its season on the road. The team is expected to send one of my sleepers, Adam Veres, to the bump. A 49th round pick in last year's draft, he posted a combined 3.32 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. Their foe will be the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Low Class-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Rattlers will send Cody Scarpetta who was a combined 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA split between two levels in 2008. Wisconsin will feature three of the 54 picks from last June's draft, Brett Lawrie, Evan Fredrickson, and Cutter Dykstra. Lawrie, the 16th overall pick, is a highly touted high school bat that is honing his craft at second base after originally trying his hand at catcher. Fredrickson, the 35th overall pick, a 6'6 southpaw can reach the mid-nineties with his fastball. The son of former big leaguer Lenny, Dykstra is an athletic outfielder that reminds scouts of his famous father.

The River Bandits will feature many of the players from the Batavia team that won the 2008 New York-Penn League championship. Also on the team is Niko Vasquez who is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

On Friday and Saturday, I will be at Hammons Field to watch the Cardinals and the Rough Riders. Follow me here on the Birdhouse message board or on twitter at www.twitter.com/whiteyball.

Dustin can be contacted at dustin@whiteyball.com.

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