A transition period in the Minors has to be expected as prospects graduate, and the Cardinals find most of their question marks just down the I-44 from St. Louis. Our last February middle of the week post centers on Springfield and all the new faces that are expected to contribute. Headlining that group will be a new skipper, as Dann Bilardello will bringing needed young blood with him from Palm Beach.
The SCards will also be looking for more consistency from a staff that surrendered 611 runs last season. One starter from last year’s staff was traded, and one possible replacement now resides on Atlanta’s top prospect list. That leaves plenty of room for another hurler or two to step up and possibly make multiple trips to either Memphis or St. Louis before the summer is over. Before looking at the pitchers, though, a number of hitters deserve some positive press.
One area that should not be overlooked is just how difficult the Texas League is on a daily basis. That will also change for the first time in many years, as the Dodgers moved their Double-A franchise to Tulsa. Because there are only eight teams spread over two divisions, many top prospects are pushed to the Texas League in order to struggle for the first time. The best hitting typically comes out on top, and that will be where Springfield will look to take advantage.
With a new staff used to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, the SCards will field a fast club that does have the potential to shine with power as well. Patrick Wisdom should get another crack at leading the team in most offensive categories with a glove that can carry him to the majors. If he can cut down on the strikeouts, a mid-season promotion is well within reach for the third baseman. Who takes the field next to Wisdom will ultimately come down to health and how things shake out in Memphis, but my money is on Alex Mejia.
Both infielders on the left side will be comfortable throwing to incumbent first baseman Jonathan Rodriguez, who looks to get back on the prospect track. Rounding out the infield to play everyday should be Breyvic Valera, my early pick for a call-up if and when injuries happen. All he does is hit, and I was selfishly glad no one snagged him in the Rule 5 draft back in December. Valera more than likely will see playing time all over the place, fitting in nicely as another Secret Weapon!
A strong offense is just what the doctor ordered to keep the pitchers happy. The last campaign was really the first in recent memory where there wasn’t an ace anchoring the Springfield rotation. That appears likely to be the case this season as well, since not one of the top five pitching prospects is slated for Texas League duty. It makes sense not to rush the baby birds, however, and that leaves the door ajar for someone to take the leap up the ranks.
Nick Petree starred at Missouri State and is coming off an impressive first full season. It helps that he was the best pitcher for Palm Beach as well, so the manager knows what he can do. It is a big step up in competition for a control guy, as Kurt Heyer found out the hard way, leaving more questions than answers early in 2015. The real breakout performer last year was lefty Kyle Hald, who honestly should have been rewarded with an appearance or two for the playoff-bound Redbirds.
It is the bullpen where things are less clear and as I pointed out last week, the moving pieces for Memphis will determine plenty. Two spots that should be in heavy pencil if not ink go to Dixon Llorens and Chris Perry. They combined to put up massive strikeout figures but don’t project to be the initial SCards closer. That honor needs to fall to Lee Stoppelman in order to see if the magic from two years ago can be found again.
One area was left out on purpose until now, just because I’m torn about whether it should be listed as a positive or negative. Charlie Tilson cracked most top-10 lists and honestly projects as a true center field prospect. He struggled in his first go-around with Springfield but was rewarded with selection to the Arizona Fall League after an overall solid season. It is the injury bug that took the AFL away and casts a serious doubt on what the future holds.
This is an important season for both Tilson and the SCards, and he can move all the way up to the top of the lists especially with playing everyday. Of course with plenty of outfield depth above him, Tilson’s name is sure to come up in trade talks in the very near future as well (hello Philly). On a side note, if you haven’t been to a game in Springfield, I highly recommend making the trip this summer. They made more improvements that will only put the rest of the league on notice.