MEMPHIS—Just three years ago, Cody Haerther was one of the top prospects in the Cardinals organization.
Now, in his first season at Triple-A, the 25-year-old Haerther, a sixth-round pick out of a California high school in 2002, had found it difficult to even get on the field for Memphis.
Suddenly, the Cardinals are loaded with young outfielders. With their top prospect, center fielder Colby Rasmus, along with Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha and Jon Jay, in the Redbirds' outfield for most of the season, Haerther had been relegated to a backup role for the first time in his career.
For an organization that just a few years ago was considered to be devoid of minor league talent, the Cardinals have seen 16 of their top 30 prospects find their way on to the Memphis roster this season. That includes major league Rule 5 pick Brian Barton, an outfielder, who spent a rehab assignment in Memphis as he came back from a broken bone in his right hand.
Seven of those prospects made their major league debuts this season, and it's a stark contrast to recent years, when the Cardinals' Triple-A team was mostly made up of free agents. In fact, the Redbirds posted the two worst records in franchise history in 2006 (58-86) and 2007 (56-88).
This season, they were battling Iowa for the top spot in the American Conference's Northern Division. It would be their first postseason appearance since winning the Pacific Coast League championship in 2000.
Cardinals vice president of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow said the turnaround has been a blend of better scouting and drafting of players.
"After trying to find the right formula, this year we have the right mix of our own homegrown talent that we're excited about for the future, and a veteran presence that can teach those guys, and also provide a level of insurance for the big leagues," Luhnow said.
"Why didn't we find that mix the last two years? Part of it was we didn't have the prospects. Part of it was we brought in some veterans that didn't produce the way we thought they were going to. This year, there seems to be a good mix."
The Redbirds opened the season with most of the hype centered on the 21-year-old Rasmus, the 28th overall pick in 2005 out of Alabama's Russell County High. He batted .275/.381/.551 with 29 homers and 72 RBIs with Double-A Springfield in 2007.
But he found the going rougher at Triple-A. Rasmus struggled to .214/.313/.345 averages in April and May combined. In June, things started to turn around for Rasmus, who said he didn't do anything differently. His luck just began to change.
"I was in a place where I didn't know where I was," Rasmus said. "I've never hit that many balls that hard at people. I've been used to striking out a lot, which is not a problem. That's gonna happen. But hitting balls hard at people and getting out, and then trying too hard, you start struggling like I did."
Rasmus rebounded to bat .249/.346/.395 with 11 homers through 329 at-bats for Memphis. He earned himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but that's when misfortune struck again. Less than a week after being chosen, Rasmus sprained his left MCL while checking his swing. He was hoping to return before the season ends.
"It sucks, but there's nothing I can do about it, so there's no need to get mad about it, or anything," Rasmus said. "I just have to work hard to get it back right and get back out on the field playing. I think it would have been an unbelievable experience to go (to Beijing) and see something like that."
Learning On The Fly
Obscured by Rasmus' stature at the start of the year, 21-year-old catcher Bryan Anderson has since emerged as a top prospect in his own right. He was called up from Springfield at the end of April, bringing with him a .388 average.
In batting .324/.405/.429 for Memphis, the lefthanded hitter has shown the ability to hit to all fields. But what had yet to develop is his power. In 51 games with the Redbirds, he had only one home run.
Cardinals catching coordinator Dann Bilardello is more concerned about developing Anderson's leadership while continuing to work on his defensive skills. He was pleased with the progress Anderson was making.
"Leadership is key," Bilardello said. "That includes calling a game, reminding the pitcher to get over on a ground ball by lefthanders, all the little subtleties the average fan doesn't know about. To me, I look at those things and that shows leadership. In 2005, I had to remind him of those things. Now, it's becoming more of a normal thing, and that's a good thing."
Anderson admits he knew very little about catching when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Simi Valley (Calif.) High. In late July, he had thrown out 30 percent of PCL basestealers. He also has eight passed balls and seven errors.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Anderson said. "But I'm real happy with the way that I've improved, coming out of high school and not really knowing anything, and coming up here and dealing with older guys and working with an older staff. I put a lot of work into hitting, but most of my attention goes to defense. I try to work on it every day, just trying to get better."
"When you've got a lot of prospects in the organization, that means things are going well," Memphis manager Chris Maloney said. "You're scouting well, you're developing well. When you get them up to Triple-A, it means that everything is going according to plan.
"That's what you're here for. That's what you get joy out of, pushing guys up and helping them get better and getting them to the big leagues. Because that's what the goal is."
Marlon W. Morgan covers the Redbirds for The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal