Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Cardinals.
JUPITER, Fla. -- There's that old axiom that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." And given the success the Cardinals have had in developing homegrown players who contribute, it would be understandable if the model never changed.
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Occasionally, though, things need to get tweaked. And the Cardinals did exactly that in alternating their offseason schedule. Gone is instructional league play in the fall at the end of the Minor League season. Now there's an instructional camp in January, so instead of capping off a year, it's being used to start things off.
"We've been very fortunate, a lot our affiliates made the playoffs and were playing into September," said Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque, referring to the fact that four of the organization's minor league clubs played postseason games in 2017. "Instead of coming with a two-day rest and suddenly they're in instructional league, now they're here in January. They go home, they get their rest and they start all over here in January. Development-wise, it's all about the teaching time, and January is a wonderful teaching time. It's a good time to find out where they are physically. The front end of this camp has been good, it's so competitive because of what the preparation did."
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That instructs camp, which had around 45 participants this year, combines nicely with the performance camps the Cardinals run throughout the offseason for strength and conditioning. It's gotten to the point where the digs at Roger Dean Stadium are open year-round, and the Cardinals are just fine with that.
"The chance to become a 12-month facility, we clearly are doing that, with many different systems in place," LaRocque said. "The performance camps have worked very well because from a physical standpoint, if you're on rehab, you're clearly coming through it. If not, one week a month, we have X amount of kids who come in, who we want to make sure are doing their work. And they are.
"We've had a very good offseason, the players are here ready to compete. Health has been good up to this point, due to the great offseason they had. We want to be a winning organization and we recognize it has to be about preparation. We have to do that and the kids have responded to that."
The system, in many ways, is split into two tiers. There is a distinct group of prospects who are either expected to make the big league roster or are at least knocking loudly on the door. Catcher Carson Kelly, pitcher Jack Flaherty, outfielders Harrison Bader, Randy Arozarena and utilityman Yairo Munoz have all gotten a lot of playing time in Grapefruit League games.
"This has been a good spring for them," LaRocque said of the players who have spent considerable time in big league camp. "They are very competitive and they've been able to be seen by the Major League staff."
The impressions prospects have made for manager Mike Matheny and company go beyond just those upper level players. Every year, opportunities are given to younger players, at lower levels, to show what they can do in Major League games. That's a win-win, as the Major League staff gets to know what the next wave looks like and the player development staff gets a sense of how that group handles the slightly hotter spotlight.
"We've been able to filter a lot of guys over from the step camp that our Major League staff has gotten to see, which has been very beneficial for us," LaRocque said, pointing to a recent split-squad day when 21 players from the Minor League side got to join the Major League teams. "The exposure, it works to different degrees. Harrison, Carson, they're playing almost every day. It's the next wave of guys we try to get exposure for and make sure the Major League staff gets to see them. And the players know what the expectations are.
"That's exactly what we tell them is going to happen. Be prepared, be ready, everything is going to happen quickly. You're only 30 seconds away from the stadium. They've all responded well."
Delvin Perez righting the ship
Delvin Perez got off on the wrong foot before his pro career even started. A positive drug test for a performance-enhancing drug knocked him from a potential top 10 selection in 2016 and the Cardinals rolled the dice by taking him No. 23 overall. His pro debut in the Gulf Coast League went well enough, but he struggled in his first full season and then broke his hand in early August. But when LaRocque talks about prospects -- Perez is still No. 25 on the Top 30 -- who had successful offseasons, Perez might be near the top of that list.
The shortstop played for Puerto Rico in the World Games in Panama, not only making up for competitive at-bats lost, but getting a head start on what the Cardinals hope will be a resurgent 2018 campaign.
"He had Yadier Molina as a manager, Jose Oquendo as a coach, it doesn't get better than that, right?" LaRocque said. "They were here working out for a period of time, which was great as well. His offseason got started well and that's important for a young player to get. Now he comes to spring that much more readied to compete and do what he has to do.
"He's right in the middle of that process. I was watching him on the back fields working with our field coordinator Mark DeJohn, working on some infield work, and it was excellent. I think he's seeing the idea of how to grind it out every day. His tools are solid all the way around. Like most young players, it's going to take time and at-bats. We're going to be patient. All things are pointing in a good direction and we'll see where it goes as we get through the next couple of weeks. So far, so good after the winter he's had."
Traded prospects gone, but not far away
The biggest offseason move the Cardinals made was the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins. It cost the system four Minor Leaguers, three of whom are now among Miami's top 15 prospects. Any trade like that will impact a system, but the player development staff feels the organization is still on very solid footing.
"Yes, you do lose some prospects whenever you do this, but we feel we have some depth," LaRocque said. "I don't go out on a limb too much, but this is a really solid group coming through the system, particularly pitching, which is no secret either for us."
You don't often see prospects you've traded away during the offseason. Sometimes they're dealt to teams whose Spring Training homes are in Arizona, or the other side of Florida. In this case, however, the former Cardinals who are now Marlins are just on the other side of Roger Dean Stadium.
"They come over to see us on our fields to say hello," LaRocque said. "All of their friends are here. It's great. We wish them well. They're a great group of players who have moved on. But they do come back."