First let’s get the good news out of the way early. Minor League baseball has returned with a complete makeover that starts right at the top. Memphis will need to learn some new directions, however, as they now play in the Southeast Division with only the Nashville squad a familiar opponent. Gone are the traditional names and faces of the Pacific Coast League that have been replaced as part of the new realignment.
As the Redbirds learn some new parks and pitchers, the Opening Day lineup included some surprises as can be expected following a summer of zero competition. St. Louis must balance the traditional model of prospect growth against the more realistic model of having players ready to step in at a moment’s notice. This was especially apparent on the pitching side of the ledger as the shortened 2020 campaign has already seen a number of moves needed one month into the big league schedule.
Five hurlers with a few more on the taxi squad reside on the 40-man roster meaning there will be plenty of trips back and forth the I-55. The two biggest names for Memphis also are included in the Top 4 of the 2021 list now with both lefties aiming to make their MLB debut. Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson will anchor the rotation, skipping Springfield altogether with eyes on playing under the Arch.
Besides both highly touted southpaws, the rotation could include two more depending on how the schedule impacts how the pitching staff is used. Another change that will dictate how St. Louis manages minor league innings might end up having a bigger impact than losing a couple of teams. No scheduled games on Mondays plus six game series instead of the normal three seem to lead to squads employing six-man rotations. Bernardo Flores Jr. just joined the organization on April 1st, coming over on a waiver claim from the White Sox. His best pitch is the change-up with great control, so he could factor in this summer for the Cardinals in a variety of roles.
If Flores ends up in the bullpen, another newcomer in Garrett Williams figures to factor in an important swing role. He is joined by fellow lefties Evan Kruczynski and Austin Warner on the initial roster as manager Ben Johnson will have a wealth of options. The other potential starters to watch include Angel Rondon, the reigning Pitcher of the Year, and Thomas Parsons who turned heads this Spring. Once you factor in Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo with potential reinforcements from Springfield – the Redbirds offer a rotation any team in baseball would like to have.
Turning to the offense might be where things get tricky at least the first month. Only Evan Mendoza from the MLB Top-30 list makes the Opening Day roster, but he will have Lane Thomas and Scott Hurst looking to get another call-up. Ali Sanchez figures to get most of the playing time in Memphis once Molina returns so who else steps up certainly will be the game to watch early. Most eyes will be on Springfield for offense where a number of top prospects are aiming to make it harder to ignore while the temperature rises.
Joining the revamped Triple-A East Southeast Division along with Milwaukee (Nashville), fans will get to know prospects from Atlanta (Gwinnett), Tampa Bay (Durham), Chicago (Charlotte), Miami (Jacksonville) and Baltimore (Norfolk). Those seven clubs make up one of the three new Divisions, as the Playoff rules are also to be decided depending on a number of factors. The schedule also has multiple match-ups with Louisville which brings back a former farm club of the Cardinals. Given that the Reds call Louisville home and with the Pirates in Indianapolis, the NL Central opponents will not miss a beat getting a look at their rivals outside of the Iowa Cubs.
Been a long time since Minor League box scores became a part of the daily schedule, and I look forward to bringing you the good as well as the not so much all summer long!