Previewing the Memphis Redbirds – Pitching


In this first of a four part series, we will take a closer look at the 2012 Memphis Redbirds.  In addition to all of the roster changes, we will also suggest a few things to pay attention to as the season unfolds.  Thanks to a particularly strong 2009 draft, this young team will be a lot of fun to watch throughout 2012.

Starters

Gone: Adam Ottavino (RHP) and PJ Walters (RHP)

Adam Ottavino was removed from the Cardinals 40 man roster to make room for Scott Linebrink.  Since this was the second time for Ottavino, he had to clear waivers before the Cardinals could assign him to Memphis, which he could now refuse and become a free agent.  The Colorado Rockies claimed Ottavino and assigned him to their AAA affiliate in Colorado Springs.  Since he was claimed off waivers, he remains on the Rockies major league (40 man) roster.

PJ Walters is now pitching for the Rochester Red Wings, the Minnesota Twins AAA team in the International League.   Walters was part of the Colby Rasmus non-waiver deadline trade last July, and finished his 2011 season with the Las Vegas 51s.  He struggled in Las Vegas, going 1-3 with an 8.58 ERA in seven starts.  They did not resign him in the off-season, so the Twins signed him to a minor league contract.

Lance Lynn

The other starter from last year that did not return in 2012 was Lance Lynn.  He was promoted to the major league team in July, and is now a member of the rotation, filling in for Chris Carpenter.  In his first start of 2012, he pitched 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run (earned) on 2 hits.  He struck out 8 while walking just one – the last batter he faced.  The most impressive thing about Lynn’s start came after he gave up a mammoth home run to Corey Hart.  Instead of letting that get to him, he struck out the next four batters, two on a particularly nasty curve ball. For the moment, all chatter about the Cardinals needing to sign Roy Oswalt has gone silent.

Returning: Brandon Dickson (RHP), Brian Broderick (RHP) and Nick Additon (LHP).

This will be an important season for all three returning pitchers.  John Gast and Trevor Rosenthal have been impressive and look well positioned to be in the Memphis rotation next year, if not sooner.  That means that one of these pitchers will probably not return next year.

Brandon Dickson

Dickson is the veteran and this will be his third season in Memphis.   He was an undrafted free agent, signed by the Cardinals in 2006.  He has made steady progress through the Cardinals farm system, owning a winning record for each level except for part of a season in Palm Beach (High A).  The tall right-hander is not overpowering, but has better than average control.  His strikeout rate is at the low end of what you would like to see as a starter, but his walk rate more than makes up for that.

For Brandon Dickson, there will be two things to watch in 2012.  Historically, he has not gone deep into games, averaging just over 6 innings per start.  He needs to get deeper into his starts, either pitching more efficiently or keeping strong as his pitch count approaches 90.  He has also gotten into a bit of late trouble with the long ball.   That is not necessarily a problem, especially if they are solo shots while he is trying to be “efficient”.   Dickson reminds me a lot of Woody Williams and could be an effective back of the rotation arm.

Nick Additon

Nick Additon is the sole lefty in the Memphis rotation.  He was a mid-season addition last year, after adjusting to the offensively minded Texas League.   He struggled a bit at the higher level, primarily from a lack of control.  If he can regain the confidence (and control) he showed in Springfield, Additon could have a very good year, creating some tough decisions for the front office heading into next spring.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have another lefty to join Jaime Garcia ?  When he is on, Additon looks like a young Mark Mulder.

Brian Broderick is basically Brandon Dickson, just a year younger.  After a breakout season with Springfield in 2010 (11-2, 2.77 ERA, 7IP per start, 4 Ks per BB), the Washington Nationals took Broderick in the 2011 Rule 5 draft.  He spent first part of the season with the Nationals, but was returned to the Cardinals in May.  He would struggle with Redbirds in 2011, suggesting the Rule 5 selection and subsequent infrequent use in Washington has hurt the young right-hander’s development.   At only 25 years of age, there is still plenty of time for Broderick, and I look for some big improvement in 2012.

Added: Shelby Miller (RHP) and Joe Kelly (RHP).

Shelby Miller is the top prospect in the Cardinals organization and Memphis should be just a brief stopping point in his bright career.

The more interesting story in 2012 might be Joe Kelly.  Kelly was an early draft pick in 2009, going in the third round.  A former closer, the young right-hander throws absolute heat, occasionally putting the radar gun into triple digits.   He is a far more effective pitcher in the mid-90s (in the mid-90s – sheesh – that’s still bringing some heat), so the Cardinals moved him into the starting rotation.   That move has paid dividends as Kelly owned the Florida State League in 2011, posting a 5-2 record with a 2.60 ERA in 11 starts.  In a couple of those, he flirted with a no hitter – he has that kind of stuff.  He reminds me of another hard throwing right hander who also wore glasses, Dick Hughes.

After an impressive spring training with the Cardinals in 2012, Kelly finds himself in the rotation alongside the Cardinals number one prospect, Shelby Miller.   After watching Miller pitch in Frisco last spring, I’m convinced he is the real deal.  Denied the opportunity to see Kelly last year, I am eagerly looking forward to each of his starts, hoping he might be the next big thing.

Relievers

Gone: Fernando Salas (RHP), Bryan Augenstein (RHP), Rich Rundles (LHP), Raul Valdes (LHP), Pete Parise (RHP), Cory Rauschenberger (RHP)

Fernando Salas was promoted to the St. Louis Cardinals in early 2011, and has been the one reliever that has managed to stay with the big club.  His experience as a closer will come in handy as he will be pitching in the late innings, setting up the actual Cardinals closer, Jason Motte.  Salas was a rock for St. Louis, settling down a very shaky bullpen until the cavalry arrived via the Colby Rasmus trade in July.  Salas is part an important core member of a retooled and vastly improved bullpen for 2012 and beyond.

Bryan Augenstein was released last year.  He is now in the Tampa Rays organization, pitching for the Durham Bulls of the International League.  He is expected to be just right handed pitching depth out of the bullpen, but his first appearance in 2012 was as a starter – an impressive 6 inning effort, striking out 8.  He did not receive a decision.

For the last three years, the Cardinals did not resign lefty reliever, Rich Rundles.  When faced with a bullpen essentially void of lefties, they resigned him in 2010 and 2011.  With the additions of Nick Greenwood, RJ Swindle and Barret Browning, the bullpen is suddenly swarming with southpaws.  As a result, Rundles was not resigned.  He is still currently unsigned.

Raul Valdes was released last summer.  The New York Yankees picked him up and he appeared in a few games for the Pinstripes, late in the season.  They opted not to bring him back, so Valdes now pitches for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Phillies AAA affiliate.

Pete Parise and Cory Rauschenberger were both released in March.

Returning: Eduardo Sanchez (RHP), Chuckie Fick (RHP), Maikel Cleto (RHP), Jess Todd (RHP), Adam Reifer (RHP), Victor Marte (RHP).

Eduardo Sanchez was another in a long list of amazing stories from the 2011 season.  His combination of velocity, movement and control made him almost unhittable until an injury sidelined him in June.

Many Cardinals fans were perplexed when he was sent back to Memphis to start the 2012 season, especially when they added Scott Linebrink and were unable to trade Kyle McClellan.  A closer look at his 2012 spring training performance shows a lack of control.  Rather than work that out in critical early game situations, it is better for Sanchez and the Cardinals for him to work on his control in Memphis, where he can get regular work.  In his first two appearances with the Redbirds, it appears that the Cardinals front office knew what they were doing.   He will eventually get it back together and start finding the strike zone with regularity.  Until then, he will get regular work in Memphis.

Chuckie Fick returns to Memphis for the third time.  2012 is a bit different for the lanky right hander, he has been added to the Cardinals 40 man roster.  That should signal a genuine long term interest in Fick, and we may see him in St. Louis sooner rather than later.

Over the course of six minor league season, Fick has turned into a very reliable middle reliever.  He slings the ball from a high arm slot, and that sidearm motion gives his pitches a lot, and I mean A LOT, of natural sink.  He’s able to throw the ball harder than a typical sidearmer, which might add to his effectiveness and longevity.   The knock on Fick is occasional wildness.  When he finds the strike zone, he is very effective.  His specialty is getting ground balls, and he proved to be particularly effecting in getting out of tough situations last season, inducing inning ending double play after inning ending double play.  He will eventually be the long reliever in St. Louis, as a cost controlled replacement for Kyle McClellan or Mitchell Boggs.  For Fick, the story of 2012 will be control, and making sure he keeps his cell phone charged at all times.

Maikel Cleto is the big hard throwing right hander that came to the Cardinals in the Brendan Ryan trade.  Cleto has a very live arm, perhaps too live at times.  If he can get that giant cannon under control, he might have a very bright future ahead.

Watching him pitch a few times in St. Louis and with Memphis, he has mechanics similar to Lee Smith.  The move to the bullpen for 2012 might be the best thing for his career.  Unlike Joe Kelly, who needed to pitch under a bit more control, the max effort role of a reliever might be just what Cleto needs.

It was not too long ago that Jess Todd was a top pitching prospect in the Cardinals system.  He was their minor league pitcher of the year in 2008 (with Daryl Jones the position player of the year) and pitched in the Florida State and Texas League All Star Games, as well as the 2008 Futures game.   He was a “can’t miss” prospect.

Todd was the player to be named later in the Chris Perez for Mark DeRosa deal with the Cleveland Indians in 2009.   That trade turned out disastrous for the Cardinals, as DeRosa played hurt for most of the season.  Perez went on to become the Indians new closer, and was invited to the 2011 All Star Game.

At the time, the addition of Jess Todd enraged Cardinals fans who had been following the youngster in the minor leagues.  His strikeout rates were astronomical, and he had developed into a dependable closer.   Unfortunately for Todd, that trend did not continue in the Indians organization.  After one full season and parts of two others, Cleveland gave up on the right hander, and designated him for assignment.  The Yankees took a quick look at Todd, but soon had to make room on their major league roster.  After a week, they too designated Todd for assignment.  This time the Cardinals claimed Todd off waivers.  They later removed him from their 40 man roster, but no other team put in a claim, so he was assigned to Memphis, the beginning of this very strange three year trip.

On the surface, Todd will be right handed depth for the AAA team, adding some veteran leadership to help a very young staff.  His strikeout rate is falling through the floor, and his walk rate it flying though the ceiling – not good when both of those happen at the same time.  He’s still relatively young, and has time to turn it around – but that would be a long shot.

Adam Reifer was to be the new Memphis closer when Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez were promoted to the Major League club.  All of that came to a grinding halt in late April, when a knee injury ended his season.  Up to that point, everything was positive for the hard throwing right hander.  He had a very good strikeout rate, his control was improving and he had demonstrated success as a closer.  At one time the Memphis bullpen had Salas, Sanchez and Reifer.  By the end of April, they had none of them.

Which brings us to one of the best stories from last season, Victor Marte.

Marte, a native of the Dominican Republic, came to the Memphis Redbirds by a most circuitous route.   He had been playing with the Hiroshima Carp, in the Japanese League.  After three years, the Carp released Marte.  At the age of 28, The Kansas City Royals signed him to a minor league contract in 2009, assigning him to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (AA).  He quickly mastered the Texas League and was promoted to Omaha (AAA).  He even made a few appearances with the Royals in that same season –  a most unusual journey.  After a good, but not exceptional season in 2010, the Royals seemed more interested in giving their younger arms the late inning opportunities.

When Adam Reifer went down in April, Memphis and Omaha made a deal, sending Marte to the Cardinals for future considerations.   The trade worked out well for both clubs.  Memphis desperately needed a closer and Omaha needed to clear out their bullpen of aging arms.  Neither team could have predicted what happened next.  Victor Marte became one of the best closers in the Pacific Coast League.  62 1/3 innings over 58 appearances, 31 saves and a measly ERA of 1.44.  Victor Marte had just become the Lee Smith of the PCL.  And nobody saw it coming.

Just when you thought the story couldn’t get any better, Derek Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the future considerations for Victor Marte – $1.  One dollar.  US.

That should tell you a little bit about the Kansas City Royals organization.   They did not stick it to the Cardinals when they could have.  They had no further interest in Marte, knew Memphis was in a world of hurt.   And made what amounts to a Gentleman’s Deal, in an age when we thought those sorts of things had become long extinct.    The last deal like that I can remember was when the New York Mets came into town in July 1967, days after Bob Gibson broke his leg.  In a similar gentleman’s agreement, they sent over right handed reliever, Jack Lamabe.  The future considerations in that case turned out to be Al Jackson, but that is only because the Cardinals chose to keep Lamabe for the following season.

The Victor Marte story continues to get better.   Just one game into the 2012 season, the Cardinals placed Scott Linebrink on the disabled list.  Victor Marte was called up to take Linebrink’s place.  His first outing was a bit shaky, but that will pass.  Marte has good enough stuff to pitch in the major leagues.

Added: Barret Browning (LHP), RJ Swindle (LHP), Nick Greenwood (LHP)

Is there a pattern here ?  There are a couple of very exciting lefties coming up in the Cardinals farm system, but most of them are a year or more away from AAA.  The closest is Samuel Freeman, who will begin the season in Springfield.  If he begins the season on fire, don’t be surprised if he is called up to pitch for the Redbirds.

Barret Browning was a minor league Rule 5 pick up from the Los Angeles Angels.   He’s a fastball/slider pitcher that has spent most of his career in the bullpen.   A declining strikeout rate to go with an unusually high walk total doesn’t suggest a promising future, unless there is a LOOGY (Left handed One Out Guy) in there somewhere.  And there may be.

For a 28 year old, RJ Swindle has already spent time in a lot of major league organizations: Boston, New York (AL), Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Tampa and now St. Louis.   And he has been traded more than a penny stock in that time.   RJ is another slinger and has maintained a high strikeout rate to go with pretty good control.  That suggests a future LOOGY, but that has yet to happen for the veteran portsider.  A few appearances with the Cardinals in spring were less than impressive.  This really feels like Rich Rundles 2.0.

Until now, the name Nick Greenwood conjures up memories of some fantastic music.  Greenwood was the bassist in Arthur Brown’s Crazy World of Arthur Brown band.  Greenwood would go on to record a classic album, Cold Cuts, as well as play on an important progressive rock album, Kahn’s Space Shanty.

This Nick Greenwood is a soft tossing lefty, and he came to the Cardinals as part of the Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook deadline deal in July 2010.  Outside of some good control, there is very little to like about Nick Greenwood, except for the arm that he uses to throw the baseball.   Certainly, there is little rationale beyond that to explain his rise in the Cardinals organization.  Yet, we have seen junkballers to on to long and productive careers in the major leagues – it just doesn’t happen often.  Of the three lefties in the Memphis pen, Greenwood probably has the biggest upside.  Even with that, our lefty future hopes rest on continued development and health of Samuel Freeman.

What to look for in 2012 ?

Shelby Miller will be a big story in 2012, especially if he can repeat what he did in Springfield last year – but that is no surprise.  Beyond that, look for Brandon Dickson to get deeper into games, Brian Broderick to return to his earlier form, and the continued development of Joe Kelly and Nick Additon.

The real story will take place in the bullpen, but not in a way that we usually see.  The Memphis pen will truly be used as a feeder for the major league team.  With a closer clearly in place with Jason Motte, and a capable backup in Fernando Salas, look for the Memphis relievers to pitch multiple innings, simulating the situations they will be facing should they be called up.  Victor Marte, Eduardo Sanchez, Adam Reifer and Chuckie Fick will be stretched out and every appearance will be as it if were the sixth inning in St. Louis.   It might not make for a traditional bullpen, but that will help the big club when the injury bug decides to make a visit.   As it already has.

In a few days, we will return with a look at the Memphis outfield.   Until then, a quick poll, if you don’t mind.   Since there are so many great Cardinals bloggers out there, and new ones are coming one by the truckloads, I would like to know what you would like to see in the future from this one.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read these articles.  Your support is always appreciated.

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