Growing up around the game of baseball, it was always a treat to make the trip to Davenport right along the Mississippi River to watch potential future stars. This was back in 1994 when the Astros had their affiliate in the Q-C, and little lefty starter Billy Wagner was the next big thing. You didn’t know he would become a borderline Hall of Famer and honestly as a kid, how much of the game did you actually watch? But for much of that summer, it was normal to try and see Wagner as much as possible with the high-90s stuff and demeanor that was rarely seen at that level.
Fast-forward 25 years to the unknown that was the Midwest League or really any other lower level division of minor league baseball. The whispers of change, some forced and others needed, kept swirling around the game so much that it couldn’t be ignored any longer. MILB was never going to be the same but which cities were about to lose in the biggest way possible? For St. Louis and every other baseball city, there was a very real possibility that the farm system levels were about to get a huge makeover.
Then 2020 happened and with it everything we knew, including a certain sport, stopped.
Most if not all minor league baseball teams employ a majority of seasonal workers given the nature of the game. Summers are spent in the sun and if you are lucky some extra games in the fall but losing an entire year of revenue was just the beginning. A flood of information last fall brought everything into the open and then it sunk in for the first time. MLB wasn’t playing around, and plenty of cities would be without a team for the first time in decades if not longer.
Try as you might to ignore the noise, the rumors of how many teams and where they would be located dominated the offseason that had now stretched longer than any non-War time. Lost in that shuffle, however, was a plan that not only made sense but made you wonder why it hadn’t been done much sooner. The announcement on how the 2021 season would be organized caught the headlines as well as which cities received the 120 charters, but it was the flipping of levels that immediately stood out where the Cardinals are concerned.
Peoria has seemingly always had baseball in one way or another, and they have been a staple of the sport in Illinois for decades. They were pretty much an obvious choice to remain an affiliated charter club although the Chiefs are not owned by St. Louis while many other Midwest League clubs were not as fortunate. After touring many of those Ballparks back in the 90’s, the facilities were not great even then which makes sense why the re-organization was a massive one. Peoria no longer would be the lowest rung of the ladder so to speak and with that change, the Cards would have three clubs within driving distance.
The High-A Central and Low-A Southeast flipped for 2021, meaning newly drafted or signed players would start in Florida now for the most part where St. Louis keeps their Spring Training home. That makes things much simpler given the coaching down there as well as the facilities. While the level of play will slightly change, the biggest benefit is two-fold with hitters able to get away from the cavernous stadium and pitchers able to easily move back and forth from Springfield as needed. The Opening Day roster for the Chiefs is filled with a number of players already familiar with the location, an obvious boost given every other change.
Gone are a few of the closer bus rides for Peoria so the six game series format certainly helps that part of the equation. Joining the Chiefs in the West Division are Beloit (Marlins) and Wisconsin (Brewers) as well as South Bend (Cubs), Cedar Rapids (Twins), and Quad Cities (Royals). One visit to the East Division has Peoria trekking to West Michigan over Labor Day weekend, where it is possible a completely different roster will help lead the push for the playoffs.
If you have stayed with me this long, you may have noticed not a word about the roster has graced the article as of yet. No one truly knows what Chris Swauger’s squad will look like in a month or even sooner than that as prospect development and sore arms become the discussion of the day. It is easy to dream on Ian Bedell as a top-line starter or Jhon Torres as the future RF for the Cards but given the lack of reps, good luck betting on the unknown. Even for the 2020 draftees like Bedell who were able to play some games in the last year, health needs to be looked at more than results in the beginning.
Take Malcom Nunez as the perfect example after the 3B prospect burst on the scene in 2018 before struggling in Peoria as an 18 year old. He now returns and will get to show how much last summer at the alternate training site paid off while aiming to make it back to Springfield and maybe even replace Nolan Gorman following a promotion. The Cardinals finally have the makings of a pipeline again, something that the break and losing a pair of teams will force one way or another.
Attempting to break down the pitching staff again seems a task too great for a mortal man, so I’ll be watching this week’s games looking at patterns. Joining Bedell in the rotation will be a number of options, as thankfully every team in the High-A Central will be in the same boat starting today. That’s right, you read that correctly! The Chiefs made the trip to Iowa and take on the Kernels tonight (weather and COVID permitting).
It is finally the day to celebrate learning all about the next wave of talent that St. Louis hopes will bring a title or maybe Mad Max to the Arch, enjoy!