Opening Day is here. There’s nothing better than watching six games that matter at once. Add in the arrival of minor league games on Thursday and this week is one of the best weeks of the year. We’ll be looking at the minor league rosters in a wide variety of ways this week, but we’ll get it started with a question about the Cardinals’ Memphis roster.
Q:Will there be any minor league outfield better than the AAA outfield that the Memphis Cardinals will field of Grichuk/Taveras/Piscotty?
Tim Boozan, Sarasota, Fla.
BA:Not only will Memphis have one of the best outfields in the minor leagues, it is also the worst logjam you'll find anywhere in the minors. In fact, it's one of the worst logjams I've ever seen in my nearly 20 years of covering minor league baseball. Worst may be the wrong term—if you are the Cardinals, it's an outstanding problem to have. Usually when teams have more prospects than spots, it happens in Class A. A team might have three shortstops for two spots or two catchers they want to see get everyday action in Double-A. But the Cardinals have six legitimate prospects who all have solid claims to be getting everyday at-bats in the Triple-A Redbirds' outfield. All six are not far from being ready for the big leagues.
The candidates coming into spring training were:
Oscar Taveras, cf/rf
Team Rank: No. 1 Prospect
Top 100 Prospects Rank: 3.
He's been slowed by a hamstring injury this spring on top of the ankle injury that wiped out most of his 2013 season, but when healthy, Taveras is one of the best prospects in baseball. He was in Memphis last year before his injury, so the only logical spots were sending him back to Memphis or promoting him to St. Louis.
Stephen Piscotty, rf
Team Rank: No. 4 Prospect
Top 100 Prospects Rank: 70.
After hitting 15 home runs in a season split between high Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield, Piscotty has impressed the Cardinals with his hitting ability (he's a .295 career minor league hitter) and his knowledge of the strike zone (he struck out 46 times in 427 at-bats last year while drawing 37 walks). He was one of the standouts of spring training for the Cardinals.
James Ramsey, cf
Team Rank: No. 8
Ramsey spent almost all of last year at Double-A Springfield, where he showed surprising power (15 home runs) although he did strike out more than expected with 108 whiffs in 347 Double-A at-bats. In another system, that would be enough to get a promotion. With the Cardinals' depth, Ramsey heads back to Springfield.
Randall Grichuk, rf/cf
Team Rank: No. 10
The Cardinals already had a crowded upper levels outfield situation when the offseason began, then they went and added another outfielder by acquiring Grichuk in the trade that sent David Freese to Anaheim and brought Peter Bourjos to St. Louis to play center field. As deep as the Cardinals are in outfielders, it made sense to acquire Grichuk when they could—he was one of the few upper-level prospects in the Angels' system and he's coming off of a solid .256/.306/.474 season at Double-A Arkansas.
Mike O'Neill, lf/cf
Team Rank: No. 16
Scouts have been skeptical that O'Neill's walk-first, hit-second approach would work at higher levels. He's running out of levels to prove it does work. O'Neill is a .328/.435/.405 career minor league hitter who walked an amazing 71 times in 98 games at Double-A Springfield last year while striking out 26 times. He earned a July callup to Memphis last year and hit .295/.402/.321 with the Redbirds, so it's hard to say he's not ready for Triple-A. Eventually he profiles more as a fourth outfielder who can play all three spots in the outfield, but is best suited for left field in an everyday role. While he may be a fourth outfielder in the big leagues, he showed in his time in Memphis last year that he's ready for Triple-A.
Tommy Pham, cf
Team Rank: No. 23.
In another organization, Pham would be a resurgent bright spot. He's been part of the organization since 2006, but wrist, shoulder and eye problems had forced him to spent parts of three years in high Class A Palm Beach and parts of four years in Double-A Springfield. He finally earned a spot in Memphis last year with an excellent first half for Springfield. Pham has plenty of speed, a solid arm and plays good defense in center field.
So the Cardinals will have an outfield of Tavares, Piscotty, Grichuk, Pham and veteran Joey Butler (added on a waiver claim from the Rangers last October). At Double-A Springfield, Ramsey and O'Neill will return and will be joined by speedster Rafael Ortega (a big league with the Rockies in 2012) and David Popkins (who posted an .840 OPS with high Class A Palm Beach last year).
The glut has ramifications that have filtered down to Class A as well. St. Louis normally carries four outfielders on each of its full season minor league clubs. This year they decided to carry five outfielders on both Class A clubs and the Triple-A club to try to help handle the glut.
There are no good answers when you're trying to find space for six outfield prospects on one Triple-A roster, but Cardinals' farm director Gary LaRocque said the players handled it well when he told that they were heading back to levels they had handled well last year.
"We're fortunate. It's a good problem to have," LaRocque said. "It's a credit to players, that they handled it well. It's April and they need to get at-bats. We've never had that level of depth where you had to use the Double-A club to get at-bats.
"They all handled it exactly as it expected. April is one thing. Where you are in June-July-August is something else."
In Triple-A, the Cardinals will rotate multiple players through center field, but Pham and Grichuk will get the most time there. Taveras, who played primarily center field in Triple-A last year, will play more in the corners this season.