Baby Birds on the Mend

The beginning of a new baseball season is such a special time.  Not only does America’s pastime return to it’s almost daily cadence of pitching, hitting and spectacular plays on the field, but it also can wipe away the frustrations of a previous year that was lost to an injury or poor performance.  That is especially true for a handful of young players, learning their craft in the Cardinals minor league system.

Tyler Henley – Once a bright prospect in the Cardinals farm system, injuries have slowed the young outfielder’s progress.  A broken finger cost him some time on the disabled list in 2008, but he rebounded nicely, finishing with a respectable .284 batting average, mostly playing in high A with Palm Beach.

Henley would get in a full season with the Springfield  Cardinals (AA) in 2009, putting up some impressive numbers.   He would finish the season with a .303 batting average, but it is the 31 doubles in in 423 at-bats that catches your eye, basically matching his production at Palm Beach the year before.  That shows a good gap-to-gap hitting profile, and throw in 3 triples for some good speed from the young outfielder. His strikeout rate, especially compared to his walk totals,  is still a bit high, but there have been many major leaguers go on to a long and productive career doing far worse.  Maybe if new hitting coach, Phil Wellman, can get him to cut back on that wicked swing just a bit, he might be able to reduce that strikeout rate.  In one game in Frisco, it looked more like a weedeater on high speed than a controlled swing of a future major leaguer.

2010 was a hard year for Tyler Henley.  Another injury would cost him most of the season, but this is one that is a bit more serious.   He would have Tommy John surgery which is not nearly as common for a position player as it is for a pitcher.   Fortunately, the rehabilitation time is a bit shorter, so he won’t miss any time in 2011, although the club will ease him into the regular season with a cautious eye.

The biggest challenge facing Henley is not coming back from his injury.   It is a strong class of outfielders, some of whom have passed him by on the depth chart.    Adron Chambers, Andrew Brown and Daryl Jones join Shane Robinson and Nick Stavihona in the outfield for the Memphis Redbirds (AAA), which leaves Henley back in Springfield to start the 2011 season.   While that sounds like a good opportunity to get some much needed playing time, he will be pushed hard by Tommy Pham, Aaron Luna and Nick Castellanos.

The ladies of the Cardinal Diamond Diaries may be rubbing off on me just a little bit, but when I see Tyler Henley interact with the fans when he plays in Frisco, you have to root for the young man and wish him a successful comeback.

If you are not yet a Tyler Henley fan, you will be after you read this Yahoo Sports story: Couple roll with the up and downs of minor league life (tip of the cap to Jason for passing along the article)

Daryl Jones – If there was one word to describe Daryl Jones, it would be potential.  If we were allowed a modifier, it would probably be untapped.   Jones was another high school draftee and billed as the next Colby Rasmus.   As he came up through the system, you could see a little bit of that, but overall he fell short of that considerable hype.  The young outfielder was the most electric and exciting player to watch on the 2009 Springfield Cardinals, but stumbled a bit and then played in the shadows of Adron Chambers in 2010.  Side by side, Chambers has the look of a future major leaguer and Jones still wears the name tag that says potential.   It was Chambers and not Jones that got the promotion to Memphis in 2010, and he continues to light up the Pacific Coast League.  2011 will be an important year for Jones as he is now playing at the AAA level alongside some established players like Shane Robinson, James Rapaport, Nick Stavinoha and the aforementioned Adron Chambers.   If Jones fails to seize the opportunity, he might be watching Tommy Pham, Aaron Luna, or maybe even (optimistically) Tyler Henley.

Pete Kozma – The young shortstop was another of Farm Director, Jeff Luhnow’s, first round draft choices, this time in 2007.   We have heard the name Pete Kozma so many times since, it is hard to believe that he just turned 23 (on April 11).   Like Daryl Jones and Colby Rasmus, Kozma was drafted out of high school and has progressed through the system next to players drafted out of college that are more polished and mature.   While Colby Rasmus shot up through the system, Kozma hit a plateau in AA, much like teammate Daryl Jones.   A strong finish to his 2010 season may have given him another chance.   With Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene on the active roster, a spot has opened up in Memphis (AAA) and it will be up to Kozma to regain some enthusiasm that was once associated with his name.   To his credit, General Manager, John Mozeliak, singled out Pete Kozma as a young player to watch when talking to a group of Cardinals bloggers recently.    Thanks to a strong showing by Donovan Solano in spring training, Kozma will need Daniel Descalso to continue playing in St. Louis if he wishes to get the bulk of the playing time in Memphis.

Adam Ottavino – Like Pete Kozma, we’ve heard the name Adam Ottavino for so long that we start believing the big right hander broke in the league at the same time as Miguel Batista, but he’s still only 25 years old.   The former first round draft choice had an impressive showing at Palm Beach (High A) in 2007, which earned him a promotion to Springfield for 2008.   There he would see his strikeout rate drop, which is not good for a pitcher that gives up as many hits and walks as he does.   He would be promoted to Memphis for 2009 and would continue to struggle with his control.   He would eventually become the big workhorse for the Redbirds, trailing only Evan MacLane in innings pitched.

A strong start to his 2010 campaign in Memphis put him on the short list, in the event that the Cardinals would need a starter or long reliever.   By the end of May, they would need not one, but two starters.  Ottavino would get one of the those two phone calls.  He would make three shaky starts, but would pitch well enough to win one, maybe even two of them.  Unfortunately he would be shelled in his other start as well as two relief appearances and he would finish his short season with an 0-2 record.   His season was shortened due to a shoulder injury that, at the time, appeared to require surgery.  He was able to rest the shoulder and is now pitching for Memphis.

In his first start of the 2011 season, he threw 95 pitches and seemed to have good life on his fastball.   For now, he appears to have recovered, and that is good news for Cardinals fans.

In order to make roster spots for some new acquisitions, Ottavino was removed from the Cardinals 40 man roster at the end of the 2010 season.  He will be fun to watch in 2011 as he has a bit of extra incentive – proving the front office wrong when they outrighted him back to AAA.

PJ Walters – Who can forget the Cardinals spring training in 2010.  All of the enthusiasm of a new season with Matt Holliday signed for the next seven years went by the wayside when we learned of the tragedy that struck the Walters family.   PJ and Brittany’s first child was born three months premature.   For weeks we anxiously read every news report, hoping for the best.   Of all the journalists, Brian Walton at The Cardinal Nation provided the best reporting, keeping us updated on the condition of Annabelle Grace as well as her mom and dad.  That chapter would come to a sad conclusion on April 3, when Annabelle passed away after a long and courageous battle.  All Cardinals fans cried a little that day.

The Cardinals gave Walters a lot of support through the ordeal, as would any of the other major league organizations.  He would go back and forth between the spring training facilities in Jupiter and his home near Mobile, Alabama.  Before long, the Walters family did as many do in similar situations, try to return to some form of a normal routine.   For PJ, that meant pitching for the Memphis Redbirds.

The young right hander would get the call to return to the big leagues, following the loss of Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny to injury in May, 2010.   Who can forget that courageous start in San Diego, when PJ drew his daughter’s initials (AG) on the back of the pitchers mound so that the camera caught them every time he threw a pitch.   PJ would fight through 5 innings, not allowing a run, and his team would pick him up by scoring 8 runs, giving him his first major league win.  That one was for Annabelle Grace.

He would shortly return to Memphis where he would pitch the best baseball since his days at the A level in 2007.   It felt good to cheer for him as Memphis roared their way to a second consecutive division title, largely due to Walter’s strong effort down the stretch.  He would be rewarded following the conclusion of the PCL season with another chance to play in the big leagues.   His last start of the year would be a dandy.   On September 29, he would hold the Pittsburgh Pirates to just three hits over seven innings, including 4 strikeouts.   The Cardinals would hold on to win that game, and give the young man his second victory.   This one was for PJ.

A season that started in tragedy, ended on a high note, or at least something he could build on for 2011.

Pete Parise – Not to be confused with Mike Parisi, who was a starter for Memphis in 2008 and 2008, this Parise is a former outfielder turned reliever that roared through the Cardinals minor league system and ended up in Memphis for 2009 and part of 2010.    With all of the fanfare surrounding Fernando Salas and his amazing 2010 season, it is easy to forget that it was Parise, not Salas, closing out games for the Redbirds at the start of the 2010 season.  Salas was the setup man, until a shoulder injury sidelined Parise.   He would have surgery to repair his torn shoulder in June, ending his 2010 season.

Parise is expected to return in the middle of the 2011 season, perhaps as early as June.   Although the club will ease him back into games with a light load at first, a full recovery will present the Cardinals management with a problem that most clubs would dream about – 3 legitimate closers in the bullpen: Pete Parise, Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez – who might be the best of the three.  With Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez in the lower farm system, there is a lot to like about the Cardinals pitching prospects for the latter half of the decade.

Shane Robinson – The David Freese of the outfield ?  Perhaps.   Injuries have certainly been a big part of the Shane Robinson  story to this point.  When not on the disabled list, the y0ung outfielder has been somewhat of a Jeckyll and Hyde, making it hard to tell which Robinson to root for.   For most of his career, he has been a light hitting singles type of ballplayer, but the first half of his 2008 season in Springfield tells a bit more optimistic tale – almost Curt Flood like.   A .352 batting average over more than 60 games is nothing to ignore, but at the same time it should generate a much higher on-base percentage than .396 (that’s where the Flood comparison comes in).

Regardless of which Shane Robinson steps into the batters box, there’s never been any question about his abilities as a defender.  In large part, that’s why he was brought up for 11 games in May 2009 when Rick Ankiel ran into an outfield wall awkwardly and injured his neck, back, shoulders – well, basically his whole body.

2010 was supposed to be a comeback year for Robinson, but it would end abruptly on May 8.   He would separate his shoulder while sliding into second base, and it would require surgery to repair the damage.   He would miss the remainder of the season on the disabled list.  As a result, he was taken off the 40-man roster following the 2010 season.  His spot was immediately taken by Bryan Augenstein, who the Cardinals claimed off waivers from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Robinson got off to a blistering start to the 2011 season with the Memphis Redbirds, providing some hope that the Curt Flood version has returned.

Time for another poll.

I’m not going to vote, because I want them all to bounce back and go on to long and productive careers.   Please don’t let that stop you though, I really want to know which of the Baby Birds you want to see fly out of the nest.

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