For the first time in 11 years of writing this column, I’m incorporating the sports world’s most distinct qualifier — an asterisk — in the title. Sporting a less-than-impressive record of 65-71 through Sunday, the Memphis Redbirds will conclude their 2013 season on Labor Day, having played their final 13 games away from AutoZone Park. Yet the team finds itself merely two games back of Omaha (with eight games to play) in the race for a Pacific Coast League playoff berth. Consider this column a wrap-up . . . unless it’s not.
On one hand, the 2013 season has been the most disappointing since the franchise arrived in Memphis in 1998. On the other, it will be among the most memorable. The reason for each view, it turns out, is essentially the same.
First, the disappointment. The top farm club in a system ranked number-one by Baseball America will likely finish the season under .500 for a second straight year. Having suited up four of the top 100 prospects in the minor leagues, the Redbirds never truly took flight, never winning five straight games (and winning four in a row only three times). Playing in the Pacific Coast League’s weakest division, Memphis found itself in first place as late as July 27th, but with a losing record at the time (52-56). The Redbirds returned home on August 16th for a five game series against the team — Omaha — two games in front of them in the standings, then proceeded to lose the first three games of the series. (They won the last two.) The Storm Chasers may end up with a losing record themselves . . . and a division championship. Wins and losses aside, the underlying story throughout the five-month season was the ankle injury that limited outfielder Oscar Taveras — minor league baseball’s third-ranked prospect entering the season — to 46 games, and only 20 at AutoZone Park.
But the season’s had its rewards, especially for local St. Louis Cardinal fans looking for previews of coming attractions. If you picked your outing carefully, you could have seen seven starts by Michael Wacha, the big righty from Texas A & M now pitching out of the Cardinals’ bullpen. Wacha’s line for the season: 5-3 record, 2.65 ERA, and 73 strikeouts in 85 innings. Ranked even higher than Wacha (#76) by Baseball America, Carlos Martinez (#38) made eight starts at AutoZone Park, flashing signs of being the “Baby Pedro” [Martinez] many have started calling him. The soon-to-be 22-year-old Martinez is a raw talent. In his last start at AutoZone Park, he held Omaha to one hit over the first four innings, then failed to get an out in the fifth before being removed by manager Pop Warner, the Storm Chasers scoring runs via walk, hit-by-pitch, and even a balk.
Appearing more regularly for the ’Birds was second-baseman Kolten Wong (#84 in B.A.’s ranking), a player bound for everyday duty at second base in the big leagues. Wong hit .303 for Memphis and became the seventh player in franchise history to hit 10 home runs and steal 20 bases. He’s now complicating Cardinal manager Mike Matheny’s life, taking playing time from stalwart third-baseman and World Series hero David Freese. (When Wong starts for St. Louis, Matt Carpenter generally moves from second to third base, the position he played for the Redbirds in 2011.)
In terms of the players we saw on the field in 2013, the season was a bold reminder that Triple-A baseball exists to serve the parent club. No fewer than eight pitchers made their debuts with the Cardinals this season: Wacha, Martinez, Seth Maness, John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Kevin Siegrist, Keith Butler, and Michael Blazek. When you add Trevor Rosenthal to this list — Rosenthal essentially skipped Triple A by making the Cardinal roster out of spring training — you have what amounts to an entire pitching staff that would have made the team in Memphis that much more competitive, had they not been pitching so much in big-league stadiums. Imagine a Redbird rotation of Wacha, Martinez, Maness, Gast, and Lyons all season long. (Gast set a franchise record with 32 straight scoreless innings to start the season, but has been sidelined since May with a back injury.) Scott McGregor (5.08 ERA), Nick Additon (4.10), and Boone Whiting (4.42) at times appeared to be punching above their weight class. The 2013 Redbirds, bottom line, suffered for the needs of the Cardinals.
• If we’re naming a Redbirds player of the year, it has to be first-baseman Brock Peterson. As recently as 2012 an independent-league reclamation project, Peterson leads the PCL with 24 home runs and has driven in 82 runs. He also had the most heart-warming moment of the season at Busch Stadium, drawing a standing ovation from a packed house for an RBI ground-out in his big-league debut. One Crash Davis who finally made The Show.
• The Redbirds sold a total of 498,362 tickets this season, their average of 7,223 per game ranking fifth in the PCL (behind Sacramento, Round Rock, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake). The ticket total was higher than 2012 (493,706), but still considerably lower than the last pre-recession season of 2008 (569,172).
• As speculation continues about a potential purchase of the Redbirds franchise by the Cardinals, keep your eye on AutoZone Park’s luxury suites (all 44 of them). The suites were originally leased — to local power players like AutoZone, FedEx, and First Tennessee — for 15 years, which means they expire after the 2014 season. With each suite bringing in upwards of $40,000 a year, one of the Redbirds’ largest revenue streams is essentially up for negotiation. You can count on some renovations (flat-screen TVs?) before any renewals are signed. The percentage of those suite renewals — or supplementary income from suite rentals — will determine much about the short- and long-term health of the Memphis Triple-A franchise.