THE HAND WE'RE DEALT
Part Two in a three-part, midseason look at the Memphis Redbirds and their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals. (To See Part One, click here, or go to http://www.memphisflyer.com/content.asp?ID=2958&onthefly=1)
The St. Louis Cardinals have long been the Major League team of choice in the Mid-South, and they will supply Memphis with a competitive team to provide fans a quality baseball experience every time out. So writes Memphis Redbirds president Dave Chase in the clubs 2004 yearbook. And my guess is hed be the first to confess: Its wishful thinking.
Major League Baseball has become an organization of haves and have-nots. The Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Mets, and to a degree, Cardinals, are the franchises with ownership (and fan support, and media contracts) that allow free-spending and the annual pursuit of expensive veterans via trades and free agency. A select few (read: the Yankees) manage to shape their rosters around expensive veterans they lure to town while at the same time cultivating the likes of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada on the farm. But for most of the big-league haves, when you look at a Triple-A roster you find more have not. Such is the plight of the Memphis Redbirds, it would seem, year in and year out.
If you want a tidy parallel between the Cardinals and Redbirds and the way the former shapes the latter with their business strategy, take a look at the corner infield positions. The Cardinals two best players, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, occupy first base and third base, respectively. And theyre each signed to contracts that will keep them in St. Louis through 2010. So when you turn to the local Triple-A outfit, what do you see? A pair of tough, veteran minor-leaguers in Kevin Witt (first base) and Scott Seabol (third). These two happen to be among the offensive leaders for the 2004 Redbirds, but will you find them among Baseball Americas top prospects? Not a chance. Simply put, with Pujols and Rolen locked up, the Cardinals have no incentive -- beyond trade potential -- to develop talent at these positions. Baseball fans in Memphis have to hope players like Witt and Seabol are good enough to win games, while not being quite good enough to secure a spot on a big-league roster (some might call them Four-A players). Its a tough line to walk for an operation that would like to field a winner, to say nothing of the road ahead for Witt and Seabol.
When a legitimate big-league prospect does land at the Triple-A level -- as Pujols did ever-so-briefly late in the 2000 season and catcher Yadier Molina did earlier this season -- the spotlight from St. Louis grows ever brighter, and their ticket north tends to arrive sooner, rather than later. End result? A band of players reaching just beyond their peak level (see Pop Warner, Luis Saturria, or Steve Bieser) and those Four-A types (Stubby Clapp, Keith McDonald, Lou Lucca) we all grow to love, but who will never win games by themselves.
So is it time to point fingers at St. Louis management and their neglect of our beloved Redbirds? Hardly. The fact is, the Cardinals priority is for the Cardinals to win, period. And since the Redbirds came to town in 1998, its hard to argue with the results at Busch Stadium: three trips to the playoffs and only one losing season (1999).
The one area both Cardinal and Redbird brass would agree has been a disappointment is perhaps the same reason, with all their success, the Cards havent returned to the World Series over the last seven years: pitching. With the exception of Rick Ankiel in 2000 (what a sad case thats become) and Bud Smith for a few months the next year, the Cardinals have yet to develop a starting pitcher through Memphis. Whether its poor drafting, injuries, or merely a flameout or two (see Ankiel), St. Louis has been terribly inept when it comes to judging pitching talent. Hope may be on the horizon with this years Redbird ace, Dan Haren. Particularly with Matt Morris becoming a free agent this winter, Harens spot in a future Cardinal rotation seems his to lose.
John Guinozzo has it exactly right when he says a minor-league operation cant control the quality of its team much more than it can the weather. For local baseball fans, though, its a sizable leap between the rooting interest we have in thunderstorm percentages and that we harbor for our favorite nine.