For most of the Memphis Redbirds' 11-year history, the team has relied on "Four-A" players to put a competitive team on the field. These are the minor-league free agents -- usually in their late twenties, if not early thirties -- who haven't been able to get both feet inside the big-league door, but remain talented enough to make a difference in Triple-A. Some of these 'Birds have been forgettable (Chris Widger, Colin Porter, Todd Dunwoody), while others have starred at AutoZone Park (Ivan Cruz, Kevin Witt, Josh Phelps).
Minor-league free agents, though, are plug-ins for farm systems lacking the prospects able to climb the ladder from rookie ball to the majors. All those homers drilled by Cruz, Witt, and Phelps were fun to cheer, but they were razor cuts at the credibility of the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system.
The 2009 Redbirds appear to be a different story. On April 16th, in their last game of the season's opening home stand, all nine Memphis starters were drafted by the Cardinals, eight of them as recently as 2004. If this wasn't a first in Redbirds history, no one in the AutoZone Park press box could remember a precedent.
"You don't have to go back that far to see a team where the Cardinals didn't draft any of the players on the field," said team president Dave Chase. For that Thursday matinee, Memphis fielded four players from the 2006 draft (pitcher Adam Ottavino, third-baseman Allen Craig, outfielders Shane Robinson and Jon Jay), three from 2005 (shortstop Tyler Greene, first-baseman Nick Stavinoha, and catcher Bryan Anderson), a 2004 draftee (second-baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir), and the old man of the bunch, 2001 draftee Joe Mather. (The 26-year-old Mather played in 54 games for St. Louis last season and will likely return once he finds his hitting stroke. He started the season 2-for-21.)
Chase credits the revolution in the Cardinals' system to the franchise's vice president of scouting and player development, Jeff Luhnow. It was Luhnow's promotion -- and the authority for shaping the Cards' farm system that came with it -- that led to a philosophical fracture in the Cardinals' front office, one that ultimately had longtime general manager Walt Jocketty packing his bags. A farm system that was ranked dead last among the 30 major-league franchises in 2005 has risen to number eight in the same rankings by Baseball America.
It should be noted the 14 years Jocketty served as GM in St. Louis were hugely successful, with seven playoff appearances, two National League pennants, and the 2006 world championship. Jocketty was responsible for the acquisition of veteran stars like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, and David Eckstein, key components of the team's World Series winner, but expensive parts as well. Cardinal ownership (led by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.) chose to embrace a new approach, with emphasis on player development and -- importantly in these economic times -- cost control. Last year, the Cardinals had a team payroll of $99 million (11th in the big leagues). This year, it's down to $77 million (17th). With a roster built around homegrown talent -- Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Colby Rasmus -- St. Louis finished the first two weeks of the season tied atop the National League Central with the Chicago Cubs (payroll: $134 million).
Back down on the farm, the Redbirds won six of their first 10 games, all played against either the Oklahoma City Redhawks (part of the top-ranked farm system in baseball, that of the Texas Rangers) or the New Orleans Zephyrs (top club in the second-ranked system, that of the Florida Marlins).
In addition to being unusually young, the Redbirds have displayed an element sorely lacking in Memphis over the years: speed. Twice last Thursday, Jay scored from first base on an extra-base hit (one of them into the leftfield corner). Brian Barton came off the bench and stole a base, leading to an insurance run in the sixth inning of the Redbirds' 7-4 victory. Just how fast all the prospects make it to St. Louis remains to be determined, but for the first time in quite a while, the St. Louis Cardinals are tending their garden. In modern baseball, it pays to eat locally.