It is the ever-present riddle of minor-league baseball: Does winning matter? I’ve sat in AutoZone Park for a Pacific Coast League playoff game — featuring a Redbirds team that obviously did its share of winning — with fewer than 3,000 fans in the stadium. On the other hand, I’ve been in the same ballpark on a Saturday night — fireworks! — in June, the team well out of contention, and more than 10,000 fans in attendance.
So, no, the business of Memphis Redbirds baseball does not require the team to win for profitability. (The only guarantee of profitability in the minor leagues would be seventy Saturday games, all of them followed by fireworks.) With almost two months of the 2016 season now in the books, Redbirds attendance is up, by one measure 23 percent. The team sold an average of 3,631 tickets through the first 20 games of 2015 and through 20 openings this season, it was 4,487. (This year’s figure ranked 12th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. A year ago, Memphis was last with an average of 4,037.)
Better yet, on April 23rd (a Saturday, with fireworks of course) the Redbirds enjoyed their first sellout (10,171) since the dramatic stadium renovations prior to the 2015 season. Three Saturdays later, ticket sales hit 9,038, a figure the team never reached a year ago. Then 9,756 last Saturday. (In 2015, the Redbirds didn’t sell as many as 8,000 tickets to a game until July 3rd and never topped 9,000.) The increased attendance figures are also passing the eye test. Concession lines were uncomfortably long at times during each of those big Saturday nights. It’s one thing to sell tickets. The Redbirds have to get those ticket-buyers into the stadium and in line for hot dogs.
What about the baseball these larger crowds are seeing? Through Sunday, the Redbirds were 17-23, five games behind first-place Round Rock in their division of the PCL. Memphis is dead last in the PCL in runs scored (158 through Sunday), but pitching has kept the Redbirds in games (3.99 ERA, third in the PCL). If the AutoZone Park box office continues to hum this summer, on-field improvement would be merely a bonus.
• Redbird fans — at least those who track prospects — have been spoiled by recent Memphis rosters. Stephen Piscotty spent three months last year in the Redbirds outfield. In 2014, Randal Grichuk hit 25 homers for Memphis before earning a late-season promotion to St. Louis. Kolten Wong starred at second base for the 2013 Redbirds while Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez combined to win 10 games for Memphis. Matt Adams led the 2012 Redbirds with 18 home runs and Matt Carpenter hit .300 for the 2011 team. You can find all seven of these players currently filling prominent roles for the Cardinals.
But good luck identifying the next player to make the leap from AutoZone Park to Busch Stadium. Infielder Greg Garcia has already made an impact with the Cardinals — he had six hits in 10 at-bats off the bench in April — but lost his spot in St. Louis with the emergence of Aledmys Diaz, an early candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. When shortstop Jhonny Peralta returns from hand surgery, Garcia’s return to the big leagues will get that much steeper. Outfielder Tommy Pham is (again) rehabbing after an early season oblique strain, but Jeremy Hazelbaker has played the role of fourth outfielder quite well (seven home runs) for the Cardinals.
As for players like Dean Anna, Charlie Tilson, Anthony Garcia, or Mike Ohlman, there would have to be significant turnover in St. Louis for them to be considered big-league options. Among pitchers, only closer Sam Tuivailala and his radar-breaking fastball appear ready for prime time. Dean Kiekhefer made his major-league debut earlier this month when Seth Maness was placed on the disabled list. He’ll find innings hard to come by in a Cardinal bullpen packed with Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seung-hwan Oh.
The biggest name on the Redbirds’ roster is 21-year-old hurler Alex Reyes, just back from a 50-game suspension for marijuana use. Reyes is the seventh-ranked prospect in all of baseball (according to Baseball America), and the only Cardinal farmhand in the top 100. He struck out eight Fresno Grizzlies in four innings Sunday, while not allowing a run and teasing 100 mph on the radar gun. A few more outings like that — along with continued face-plants in the St. Louis rotation — and Reyes could find a promotion slip in his locker.