A few observations after the first weekend at home for this year's Memphis Redbirds:
The most talked-about player in the St. Louis Cardinals' system is Redbird centerfielder Colby Rasmus. After hitting .275 with 29 homers last season at Double-A Springfield, the 21-year-old Rasmus is targeted for the top of the Cardinals' batting order, possibly sometime in 2008. As far as his comportment and swing are concerned, Rasmus appears to be legit. Batting from the left side, he's similar to the Phillies' Chase Utley, in that there's no wasted motion, with a smooth cut that will gain power as Rasmus gains strength and experience. No position in recent Cardinal history has been as rich as centerfield, with three All-Stars -- Willie McGee, Ray Lankford, and Jim Edmonds -- manning the spot for most of the last quarter-century. The next decade appears to be in decent hands with Colby Rasmus.
The Redbirds will almost certainly score more runs than they did a year ago, when they were near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League in hitting. In addition to Rasmus, a full year from second-baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir, outfielder Joe Mather (currently injured), and big Josh Phelps at first base should produce more crooked numbers on the scoreboard. But the added offense may come at the expense of the club's defense. I counted at least three players on Opening Night -- Phelps, shortstop Brian Barden, and rightfielder Nick Stavinoha -- who are in the lineup with little consideration for their glove work.
If the rehabbing duo of Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter are able to return to the St. Louis starting rotation this season, the Cardinals will find themselves with that rarest of commodities: a surplus of pitching. And with the need for another bat in the Cardinal lineup -- a corner outfielder would be nice -- that pitching may become the franchise's chief trade bait. All of which will make the Memphis starting rotation a compelling story, as young arms like Mike Parisi (24), Mitchell Boggs (24), and Blake Hawksworth (25) could find themselves either part of a big trade package, or promoted to St. Louis to fill the void from a current starter moved for a big hitter.
It's hard to understand the Cardinals' philosophy in having catcher Bryan Anderson -- the third-ranked prospect in their system, according to Baseball America -- start the season at Double-A Springfield. Anderson finished fourth in the Texas League a year ago with a .298 batting average and, despite some defensive shortcomings, has a big-league future. That can't be said for the trio of backstops on the Memphis roster: Mark Johnson, Gabe Johnson, and Matt Pagnozzi. With Yadier Molina entrenched behind the plate in St. Louis, Anderson's development is another trade chip the Cardinals can use to their benefit. But less so, the more he's hitting Double-A pitching.
The Redbirds' record for saves in a single season is 26, by Gene Stechschulte in the 2000 championship season. Look for big Chris Perez to shatter that figure this year. The 23-year-old righty saved 27 games at Double-A Springfield last season (then another eight after a promotion to Memphis). Perez picked up three saves in the Redbirds' first 11 games.
When I walked into AutoZone Park last Friday night, the red carpet treatment -- literally, from the front gate to the concourse -- was less impressive than the aroma of the stadium's newest concession: German roasted nuts. With your choice of pecans, almonds, or cashews, these are the sweetest ballpark treats since Cracker first met Jack. I overheard fans in the second deck wondering, "Where are the cinnamon buns?" Don't take your seat until you have a warm bag of this nutty goodness in your hands. And yes, they're worth the steep price ($7).