As the season-opening player assignment decisions become evident to followers of the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, inevitable questions are posed each spring about the thought process behind the moves.
In the first part of this series, Cardinals Senior Advisor to Player Development Gary LaRocque provided insight as to how players are placed. While the primary focus was on the full-season Class-A clubs and the reasoning behind certain players potentially skipping levels, the general philosophies can also apply to the Double-A and Triple-A clubs as well.
One key difference, however, is the sheer number of returnees at Springfield and Memphis for 2013 seemingly made promotions difficult, especially on the pitching side.
15 of the 25 men opening on the Triple-A roster played there for some or all of last season. Four others signed during the offiseason as free agents appeared at the level in other organizations.
The other six initial Redbirds were promoted from Double-A for the first time. They are three position players in Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Greg Garcia and three hurlers: Michael Wacha, Eric Fornataro and Seth Maness.
Late last season, when Matt Adams was unavailable to play first base due to injury, the Cardinals signed Brock Peterson to a contract that included the remainder of the 2012 season and 2013 as well.
Over the winter, the organization added two catchers with Major League experience in Rob Johnson and J.R. Towles plus veteran outfielders Justin Christian and Chad Huffman. Utilityman Jamie Romak, acquired last season, became a free agent, but was re-signed.
These six free agent signings, all position players with no pitchers involved, indicated the organization felt a number of the other position player prospects in the system were not ready for promotion. Rather than risk another 30-games under .500 season at Memphis, the Cardinals took action in signing the above players.
This seemingly more aggressive approach was in contrast to 2012. Last season, as the Memphis offense struggled, a series of in-season additions were made in a futile attempt to shore up an offense that was at or near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League in most statistical categories.
Among those added to the Redbirds during 2012 that have since departed are Cedric Hunter, Lou Montanez, Aaron Bates, Lance Zawadzki and Matt Young.
At Springfield, 11 of the 13 season-opening pitchers for 2013 had already appeared with the club last season. Openings for the two promoted from Palm Beach (Seth Blair and Dean Kiekhefer) were likely created when three S-Cards incumbent hurlers opened the season on the disabled list (Scott Gorgen, Jordan Swagerty and Chris Corrigan).
9 of 12 current Springfield position players were returnees as well. One was added via trade (Jake Lemmerman), another was a free agent signee to fill an unexpected gap (Ruben Gotay for Matt Cerda), leaving room for just one in-system promotion, Starlin Rodriguez from Palm Beach. (Luis Mateo, up from the Midwest League, was also on Springfield's season opening roster, but has since moved to the disabled list.)
Given these dynamics, some questions that have been asked of me include:
"Why did the Cardinals sign minor league free agents?"
"How do the roles players fill in the upper levels of the minors relate to their potential use in St. Louis?"
LaRocque, the man in charge of player placement in the Cardinals minor league system, helped answer those questions and more.
Brian Walton: How does the organization decide where they need to make external signings?
Gary LaRocque: It is something that we look at every year. Some years, it presents itself better than others only because we may not have a player we feel can move up. When that occurs, we turn around and use all of our resources, which become out on the professional market, minor league free agents and such that might be able to help us on the upper levels.
BW: It seems to me that the organization was more proactive this year in filling these needs. Is that the case?
GL: It is pretty much the same every year. Some years, it might produce one or two more players. This year, we have a few players that went into Memphis to help out and it helps to support some of the younger players around them. That is a big thing.
BW: The external needs filled were exclusively position players this year. Did the wealth of pitching already in the system make signing pitching free agents unnecessary?
GL: It presented itself as position players this offseason because that is where the need was, but it was not as much at the pitching end, as you just alluded to. On the pitching end, players are moving up and we have more depth at that end. That is why it produced that result this year.
BW: On area that seems well-covered is the Memphis infield. What are the plans with Ryan Jackson?
GL: When he first came down, the first thing he said to us was that he was ready to go. He walked in the room and sat with them and said ‘I am ready to go and will play multiple positions to get at-bats.' Everything was positive.
We feel he has value in a lot of roles and yet at the same time, we understand that he has the ability at shortstop as he came up through the system that way. Everything is a positive there. His value becomes better in terms of what he brings to the table by being able to play multiple positions.
That is not different from a lot of our players who moved up through the years. Any time you can help out big-league club by having players who can play somewhere else if needed, it certainly becomes a real plus.
BW: Could we see Jackson even playing in the outfield?
GL: It could. He is not opposed to it at all. He is very excited about getting at-bats. But the reality is right now, most of that time will be in the infield. He understands that but we are not restricting him to just one spot.
BW: How much should we read into how relievers are used in Memphis and Springfield in relation to who might be the next to move up and how they may be deployed at the next level?
GL: Without getting into needs at the major league level because that is dictated from above based on need, one of our goals throughout our minor leagues is to ensure our relievers work multiple innings and not just be resigned to one inning.
When they get to the big leagues, odds are they are going to work multiple innings. That is the big, driving force - that and the ability to pitch in back-to-back days – things that go with being a reliever.
We haven't defined for any one relief pitcher at the upper levels that he has to serve in a certain role. More importantly, when any of those opportunities come for any of those relievers at Springfield and Memphis to move up and get a shot at it, we want to make sure they will give us what we need at the major league level.
If you look at history, when most relievers come up, they are going to be asked to give multiple innings. So if we train a guy into one inning, then we are not really serving the organization the best we can. So that is not how we do it.
That said, some guys do get an inning when needed here and there, but the reality is that the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues means the reliever is probably going to pitch multiple innings when he gets up there.
BW: We have seen with Memphis and with Springfield, especially with Keith Butler playing the closer's role last season and this year in the early going, an apparent willingness to set that assignment.
GL: We leave that flexibility to our managers and we talk about that with individual relievers in terms of closing a game out, finishing. The word ‘closer,' we steer away from in general. Other guys can fill that exact same role and we are comfortable in trying that.
Keith has done a good job in that role of finishing off games. We know that, but there are other guys who can also handle it as well. We just want to make sure those guys get appropriate innings.
Coming up: In a subsequent installment, we will look at the impact of off-season conditioning on disabled list time.
Earlier related article: "How the Cards make minor league assignments".
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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St. Louis Cardinals Senior Advisor to Player Development Gary LaRocque discusses factors that play into how rosters at the upper levels of the minor league system are built.
Cardinals Sr. Advisor Gary LaRocque explains what goes into player level assignments