KSDK - By Jack Stephens, from Cardsblog.com
Things are just beginning to heat up at the Big League level. With the Cardinals clinging to a Wild Card spot, every player, coach, and umpire is under heightened scrutiny, as every game takes on an incredible sense of importance.
To put it conservatively, 98 percent of every fan's attention now lies with the St. Louis Cardinals, as we all watch anxiously to see their season unfold.
For the above reason, it goes largely unnoticed that the Minor League regular season just concluded. Amidst the chaos that is September baseball, is there even a reason to care? Put simply, the answer is a resounding yes.
The Cardinals have built their franchise on a certain culture, a culture that extends from Rookie Ball all the way to Busch Stadium. The minor league system creates a competitive squad year in and year out, developing talent in a way that is rivaled by few teams around the league.
As Cardinals fans who benefit annually from such skillful, consistent development, I believe we have a duty to value and acknowledge our farm system.
As such, I will briefly recap the season of nearly every Cardinals affiliate, highlighting team success as well as notable individual performances. Before advancing, it is worth noting that there will be no recap for the State College Spikes, the Cardinals Short-Season A team.
This level is perhaps the most fluid of all, as recently drafted players are constantly promoted and demoted after initial evaluations.
Rookie Ball - Gulf Coast League Cardinals and Johnson City Cardinals
Starting from the bottom, we will begin in Rookie ball, a level focusing the grand majority of attention on individual development. For this reason, I will all but ignore the records of both Rookie squads, placing attention on impressive personal performances.
Starting with the Johnson City Cardinals, several offensive players performed admirably, with six hitters finishing the season with averages north of .300. Most notably, Allen Cordoba, a Panamanian utility infielder, hit .362 in 196 at-bats. Furthermore, Cordoba smacked five triples and 16 doubles, showing impressive speed on the base paths.
Moving south, the Gulf Coast League Cardinals also give reason for excitement. As a team, the GCL Cards just captured the league crown, showing a depth of talent that should excite fans everywhere.
On a more individual level, the GCL affiliate is home for 2016 first-round pick Delvin Perez. An extremely raw, young player, the Cardinals wisely elected to keep Perez in Rookie ball, allowing the Puerto Rican short stop to maximize his immense potential. In 2016, Perez ended with a .294 average, with 8 doubles, 4 triples, and 12 stolen bases. At only 17 years of age, there is infinite reason for excitement after a solid first showing.
The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2016 season with a hopeful attitude. They had their ace Adam Wainwright back, an improved and healthy offense, and a dominant pitcher at the back end of their bullpen. While this season certainly has not been normal in any way, no one ever thought we would be dealing with a closer conflict.
Class A - Peoria Chiefs
Put plainly, the Peoria Chiefs had a successful 2016 season. Crowned as the first half division winner, the Chiefs clinched a playoff spot before the end of the regular season.
As a team, they led the entire Midwest league in hitting, recording 1,255 knocks on the season. After starting off the season red-hot, the Chiefs fell off slightly in the second half. Such is understandable, though, for promotions can drastically change the make-up of a minor league club (Dylan Tice).
With regards to individual performance, three players really led the charge. Eliezer Alvarez, Chris Chinea, and Magneuris Sierra posted averages of .323, .312, and .307, respectively. In terms of pitching, Ryan Helsley performed a cut above the rest. The 2015 fifth round pick posted a 10-2 record, boasting a minuscule 1.61 ERA to go along with 109 strike outs.
Advanced A - Palm Beach Cardinals
On paper, the Palm Beach Cardinals had a tough 2016 season. Specifically, they posted a 58-79 record, worst in the entire Southern division. While the pitching was no better than average across the board, the offense was the true weak point with this season's group. Palm Beach ranked second to last in team batting average at .239, while sitting third-worst in terms of overall runs scored, with only 457.
Despite little success at the team level, a few individuals performed admirably throughout the 2016 season. To start, Dylan Tice crushed it, especially considering the unlikely nature of his success. In 103 High-A at-bats, Tice finished with a .288 batting average, with 6 doubles and 18 RBIs. After being drafted in the 36th round of the 2015 draft, Tice was one of the sole offensive powers for the 2016 Cardinals.
September is an exciting time for baseball. Teams who are in the postseason picture play every game like it is surrounded in a playoff atmosphere. Struggling teams call up their top prospects and showcase them for the future utilizing the expanded roster that September brings.
On the other side of the ball, Palm Beach is loaded with top talent. Between Austin Gomber, Jack Flaherty, and Rowan Wick, their is excess reason for excitement. In 2016, though, this was sometimes hard to see.
For Gomber, he started off hot, yet finished the season with a 6-8 record and 2.93 ERA. For Flaherty, perhaps the most talented pitching prospect outside of Alex Reyes, 2016 was full of ups and downs. Honestly, however, I welcome such struggles, for Flaherty must learn to adjust in mature and efficient manners. Put simply, he will benefit from a tough year.
AA - Springfield Cardinals
Perhaps the most talented team in the entire farm system, the Springfield Cardinals finished the 2016 season with a .500 record at 70-70. As you will see, though, this squad was especially affected by big league promotions hijacked a couple of their best pitching talents. As an offense, the Cardinals were solid, posting a .256 team average, second best in the Texas League.
At the individual level, Springfield has, or had, some players that project to thrive at the big league level. Of these prospects, perhaps the least known is Luke Voit, a power-hitting first basemen. A 25-year-old out of Missouri State, Voit just may be the MVP of the entire league. He mashed all season, hitting for league high .297 through 482 at-bats.
Even more impressive is Voit's home run count, which closed out the season at 19, a top ten total in the Texas League. In a modern game dominated by the long ball and strikeouts, Voit's ability to hit for average and power is encouraging moving forward.
Aside from Voit, Carson Kelly is another exciting prospect. Considering his position, the implications of his development are much larger than most other position players. As the apparent heir to the legendary Yadier Molina, Kelly is widely scrutinized. So far, everything is going according to plan. He has improved drastically as a defensive force, while performing offensively both in AA and AAA after his promotion. Just a couple days ago, in fact, Kelly doubled in his MLB debut.
Mike Matheny has received a lot of flack this season for his decision making, especially when it comes to managing the bullpen. That makes this question of whether or not Alex Reyes belongs in the bullpen even more of a controversy.
In terms of pitching, Springfield was home to both Luke Weaver and Mike Mayers prior to their promotions. Without going into further detail, it is safe to say that this AA affiliate, at certain points in 2016, was loaded with talent.
AAA - Memphis Redbirds
One of the most fluid levels of minor league baseball, it is incredibly difficult to judge the true worth of a team amidst constant promotions and demotions. Even so, we will continue with the overview.
The Redbirds finished 64-78 in 2016. As a team, the Redbirds finished in below average league positions in both offensive and pitching statistics. Throughout 2016, though, the Redbirds experienced many exciting debuts and subsequent big-league promotions.
Specifically, top prospects such as Alex Reyes, Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, and Mike Mayers made appearances in Memphis. Aside from these big name players constantly pushing and surpassing the brink of the Major Leagues, one player stood out consistently for the Redbirds all year long.
To put in plainly, Breyvic Valera deserves significant recognition. Despite his low profile, Valera had a phenomenal year, hitting .341 in 217 at-bats. A utility player from Venezuela, Valera has been solid since his start with the Cardinals organization in 2010. This year, however, he took the next step, pushing nicely for some time on a big league roster.
Overall, the 2016 season, at the minor league level, was a success. As fans, we were fortunate to see top prospects flash their potential on a consistent basis. In an opposite manner, certain players, such as Dylan Tice or Harrison Bader, exceeded expectations completely.
While it is extremely easy to solely follow the Major League club, the Cardinals consistently operate a deeply talented farm system. For this reason, the Cardinals consistently plug holes in their roster, staying competitive in the MLB on a yearly basis. After over viewing the entire system, it appears that such a trend will continue. The state of the Minor Leagues is strong.
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