VOL. 132 | NO. 179 | Friday, September 8, 2017
Redbirds Not Just Developing Players, but Winning Players
By Don Wade
When Gary LaRocque, the St. Louis Cardinals’ director of player development, came to AutoZone Park in mid-August, the Memphis Redbirds were just days away from clinching a playoff berth.
By that point, they had a large and impressive body of work that included a franchise-record 11 straight wins in April and May. Turns out, that winning streak was just the start of a special year.
When the regular season ended on Labor Day, their resume featured a franchise-best 91-50 record. Their .645 winning percentage ranked fourth all-time in Memphis’s professional baseball history, and that’s a story that has its beginnings way back in 1877.
So when LaRocque passed through in August – and that’s the stage in the Triple-A season when teams are on fumes – he was amazed at the Redbirds’ mental and emotional endurance and the physical results that followed.
St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Pham, left, and Paul DeJong congratulate each other for scoring on a single by Yadier Molina, as San Diego Padres starting pitcher Luis Perdomo, center, watches the field during the fourth inning of a baseball game in San Diego, Monday, Sept. 4. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
“They get to August, and night after night they’ve been competing,” he said. “They’ve done it with clean baseball, fundamentally sound baseball.”
The Redbirds began their best-of-five Pacific Coast playoff series vs. the Colorado Springs SkySox with a 4-1 victory at AutoZone Park on Wednesday, Sept. 6. The teams were to meet here again Thursday night and the series shifts to Colorado Springs for the weekend.
Maybe the Redbirds win it and advance to the championship round and maybe they don’t. It was great to post a franchise-record 3.77 ERA and equal the best fielding percentage in Redbirds history (.984) and hold the third-highest batting average in team history (.278); it also guarantees nothing going forward.
Truth is, for the organization the playoff result will be a footnote in comparison to what the Redbirds and first-year manager Stubby Clapp accomplished through the long haul. Consider: Seven of the nine players in the Redbirds’ starting lineup when the season opened on April 6 are now with the Cardinals.
And some are making a major impact. Shortstop Paul DeJong, through Sept. 5, led the Cardinals with 21 home runs and outfielder Tommy Pham had the top batting average at .311. Pitcher Luke Weaver had a 4-1 record and 2.50 earned run average over 36 innings.
Other players who were in the Memphis lineup on Opening Day and are now with the Cardinals: outfielder Harrison Bader, first baseman Luke Voit, catcher Carson Kelly (labeled a top prospect), and infielder Breyvic Valera.
Even just since Aug. 13, when the Redbirds clinched their playoff berth, they lost three other players, plus Valera, that were in that day’s starting lineup: infielder Alex Mejia, outfielder Stephen Piscotty and catcher Alberto Rosario.
In all, 21 players have gone from Memphis to the Cardinals this season with nine making their major-league debuts. As of the first playoff game, 61 different players – everyone from Tyler Bray to Josh Zeid – have suited up for Memphis.
As the numbers indicate, odds of getting a call-up have been good – a better than 1-in-3 chance, or 34.4 percent (21 out of 61) to be exact.
“Everybody has a story, right,” said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. “And clearly when you’re in Memphis, anything can happen. Sometimes that’s the hard part about playing in Triple-A, because you know you’re so close, but yet you’re not in the big leagues.
“One great thing about this place, it’s a major league environment, beautiful ballpark,” Mozeliak said when the Cardinals were here to play the Redbirds in an exhibition game. “You think about Aledmys’ story, you don’t ever want to give up.”
About that. Last year, an injury created an opportunity for Aledmys Diaz to join the Cardinals two games into the season. He then was selected to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement for teammate Matt Carpenter. Dias finished the year batting .300 with 17 home runs and 65 runs batted in. He had made it.
But this game is fickle. When he faltered this season and was sent back to Memphis, DeJong got the call. Now he’s the rookie sensation in the majors. Diaz, meanwhile, hit two home runs in the Redbirds’ Game 1 victory.
“I want to see these guys succeed and get to the big leagues,” Clapp said. “That’s the number one thing. I want to see the (Cardinals) do so good just because of what they’ve been through this year. I’ll take whatever’s left after that.”
Some leftovers. Those 91 wins are the 10th-most in 119 years of professional baseball in Memphis and the .645 winning percentage is the best in history by a team above the Class A level.
Player development goes deeper than improving individual skill sets. All those Redbirds going up to the Cardinals has created opportunities for other players to move up to Memphis, and to be part of a team that even as the names and faces changed, kept making a habit out of shaking hands after the last out was recorded.
“We want to produce winning players … we want our players to know that it matters,” LaRocque said. “We also don’t want to take our eye off the target, which is players have to go to the big leagues and help us.”
For the 2017 Memphis Redbirds, consider the bull’s-eye hit many times over.