Monday, April 6, 2020

Your 2020(?) Memphis Redbirds

Posted By on Mon, Apr 6, 2020 at 10:22 AM

If the Memphis Redbirds play a 2020 season (granted, a tremendous if these days), it's bound to be successful. Sure to have moments we'll remember a generation from now. And almost certain to culminate with a playoff appearance. Why such optimism in such uncertain times? Well, the history books don't lie. And Memphis baseball loves the start of a new decade. Check this out:

click to enlarge Dylan Carlson - TAKA YANAGIMOTO/ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  • Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
  • Dylan Carlson
• In 1970, the Double-A Memphis Blues (a New York Mets farm team) finished only two games over .500 (69-67) but won the Texas League's Eastern Division.

• In 1980, thanks largely to the pitching of Charlie Lea (9-0, 0.84 ERA), the Double-A Memphis Chicks (Montreal Expos) went 83-61 and won the Southern League's Western Division.

• In 1990, despite going only 73-71 in the regular season, the Chicks (then the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals) burst to life in the playoffs and won the Southern League championship.

• In 2000, sparked by a back-flipping second-baseman named Stubby Clapp and an epic walk-off home run by Albert Pujols, the Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) won the Pacific Coast League championship in AutoZone Park's inaugural season.

• In 2010, Lance Lynn won 13 games and led the PCL with 141 strikeouts, enough to fuel another division title for the Redbirds. (Memphis lost to Tacoma in the league championship series.)

Five straight decades of Memphis baseball with a playoff season to get things started. And there's every reason to believe a 2020 Redbirds club would be armed with the tools to make it six in a row.

Outfielder Dylan Carlson earned Texas League Player of the Year honors last season with Double-A Springfield, where he posted an .882 OPS and slugged 21 home runs before a late-season promotion to Memphis. He's the Cardinals' highest-ranked hitting prospect (10th on the Baseball America chart) since the late Oscar Taveras, the last Cardinal farmhand to win POY in the Texas League (in 2012). Based on his stellar play in spring training, the 21-year-old Carlson may end up in the Cardinals' outfield. Should he appear at AutoZone Park, he will be the Redbirds' ringleader.

Even minus Carlson, though, Redbirds manager Ben Johnson should have some thunderous lumber at his disposal. Third-baseman Elehuris Montero (like Carlson, 21 years old) endured an injury-riddled 2019 season, but drove in 82 runs and hit .315 with Class-A Palm Beach and Peoria two years ago. If he mans the hot corner for Memphis, he'll have to hold off another Baseball America favorite, Nolan Gorman. Playing as a teenager in Class-A last year, Gorman posted a .765 OPS and hit 15 homers. He'd all but certainly start the season no higher than Springfield, but Gorman could find some at-bats in a playoff push come August. Catcher Andrew Knizner hit .276 with 12 homers in 66 games for Memphis last season and should be a middle-of-the-order presence for the Redbirds unless he's called up for reserve duty in St. Louis. (The ageless Yadier Molina will be the Cardinals' Opening Day catcher for the 16th season in a row.)

It's the pitching mound where the 2020 Redbirds could separate themselves from the rest of the PCL. Lefty Genesis Cabrera (23) was dominant at times last season, once striking out nine straight batters in a game at AutoZone Park. Zack Thompson (22) — a 2019 first-round draft pick, another southpaw — will be in the mix for a rotation spot, as will yet another lefty, Matthew Liberatore (20), Baseball America's 42nd-ranked prospect who came to St. Louis in the deal that sent Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay in January. Jake Woodford (23) started in last season's Triple-A All-Star Game and again hopes for a top-of-the-rotation role with the Redbirds.

Needless to say, this is roster speculation in its purest form. Here's hoping Memphis does get professional baseball in 2020. Whenever the new decade does arrive at AutoZone Park, it will feel special in ways we never fully appreciated before.

The Memphis Redbirds' opening game — originally scheduled for April 9th — has been postponed indefinitely during the coronavirus shutdown.

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