If you’re selective about the trips you make to AutoZone Park to cheer on the Memphis Redbirds, you’d be wise to visit Third and Union this week. The biggest star you’re likely to see this summer will be appearing through Friday’s game against the Round Rock Express. Sadly for the last-place Redbirds, the star stands but two feet tall, weighs about 30 pounds, and has no arms or legs.
There’s an ironic twist to the 2011 World Series trophy being displayed this week by the Redbirds. The parent St. Louis Cardinals — the club that earned the trophy, after all — has been so decimated by injuries this spring that what’s left of the Triple-A outfit appears to be a larger, better-paid version of the Bad News Bears. Through Sunday, the Redbirds sport a record of 17-33. Not quite two months into the season, Memphis has had two nine-game losing streaks, a five-game losing streak, and has lost 17 of 21 since May 6th. Twelve-and-a-half games behind first-place Omaha in their division of the Pacific Coast League, the Redbirds are virtually eliminated from playoff contention before Game 1 of the NBA Finals has been played. That, friends, is a short summer.
Bumps, breaks, and bruises to the likes of Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Lance Berkman, and Matt Carpenter have done enough damage to the Cardinals, who last weekend fell out of first place for the first time this season. But the impact has been felt directly in the Memphis batting order, where the absences of three everyday players — first baseman Matt Adams and outfielders Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson — has first-year manager Pop Warner doing essentially what he did the five previous seasons: direct a Double-A team. And the veterans St. Louis has brought in for damage control are unrecognizable. (Three players in Warner’s lineup Sunday night have played fewer than ten games for Memphis.)
The Redbirds’ most recent loss is middle-reliever Chuckie Fick. The major-league debut of a 26-year-old career minor-leaguer is worthy of a salute. But Fick’s promotion has less to do with his overpowering PCL hitters than it does with the struggles of Cardinal reliever Fernando Salas (a 6.32 ERA this season after leading St. Louis with 24 saves in 2011). The demoted Salas will at least get to revisit the trophy he helped win last October.
And what about the Cardinals’ top prospect, Shelby Miller? The Cardinals’ 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year has been underwhelming over his first ten Triple-A starts: 4-3 record, 4.38 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 20 walks in 49 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .308 against a young man forecast to pitch in the Cardinals’ rotation in 2013.
It’s hard to lose 100 games in the minor leagues. The five-month season includes a total of 144 contests. At their current pace, the 2012 Redbirds would finish 49-95. (The most losses in franchise history were the 88 suffered in 2007, another season following a Cardinals’ world championship.)
The Memphis offense will get a boost when Craig and Jay soon rejoin the Cardinals. Perhaps Miller will find his groove and prove to be the antidote to losing streaks this team desperately needs. In the meantime, head to the ballpark this week, while the shine of a World Series trophy is still bright. By the time it returns for one more photo op (August 24-26), the team on the field may not be worth watching.