For the first time in three years, the Memphis Redbirds will not be participants in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Despite playing their best baseball in August — including a 16-6 stretch from August 7-28 — Memphis finished 2.5 games behind Omaha in the American Conference’s Northern Division. But try this stat on for size: Having finished with a record of 77-66, the Redbirds enjoyed their fourth straight winning season under manager Chris Maloney, a sustained trend unmatched in Memphis since the Chicks reeled off eight straight winning campaigns from 1950 to 1957. Whatever the economic or attendance woes may be (and attendance was actually up this season compared with last year), we’re enjoying a golden era of Triple-A baseball in Memphis.
I have two primary thoughts when I consider the last four seasons, during each of which the Redbirds won at least 75 games:
• Chris Maloney is a terrific manager and deserves a shot in the big leagues, at least as a bench coach. The last two seasons, Memphis needed to get hot precisely when it’s hardest to do so: in the stifling humidity of August. A year ago, the Redbirds managed to catch Iowa on the last day of the season and make the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker. This season, another team — the Storm Chasers — managed to play just as well when the Redbirds finally found their groove. (During that 16-6 stretch, Memphis only picked up two games in the standings.) A manager can easily inspire in April, when a season’s young and hope is abundant. But motivating a team in the dog days of summer? Exceptional. With 367 career wins now, Maloney is second only to Doc Prothro among Memphis managers.
• The winning trend also reflects the St. Louis Cardinals’ growing emphasis on player development. (Remember, it was this shift in philosophy that led to general manager Walt Jocketty’s ouster after the 2007 season, the year before the Redbirds’ streak began.) Look at the Cardinals’ current roster, and you’ll see seven players who were recently part of winning baseball at AutoZone Park: David Freese, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig, Jason Motte, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia. Others, like Mark Hamilton and Tony Cruz, have delivered big hits in St. Louis while shuffling up and down I-55. Whether or not an emphasis on player development can lead to world championships remains to be seen. (For all the hype of the “moneyball” practiced by the Oakland A’s, they haven’t seen the Fall Classic in 21 years.) But for now, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate is benefiting tremendously from the emphasis.
Some other season-ending notes on the Redbirds:
• Late in the season, an anonymous teammate taped up the number 25 on the bullpen wall, next to the franchise’s only retired number (Stubby Clapp’s 10). The gesture was a tribute to Nick Stavinoha, the 29-year-old outfielder/first baseman who played his fifth season as a Redbird this year. (If you want a face of the recent winning ways, it’s either Maloney’s or Stavinoha’s.) Stavinoha finished the season with a new Redbird record for RBIs in a season (109) and stands atop the franchise’s career list in games (479), hits (531), home runs (74), and RBIs (316). Perhaps some thought should be given to that taped number.
• Victor Marte broke Gene Stechschulte’s 11-year-old record for saves in a season with his 31, a figure that led the PCL. It’s an ironic achievement, considering the instability in the Cardinal bullpen all year. Marte will turn 31 in November, so you have to wonder if the Cardinals have any plans that might include him on the big-league roster.
• Two players you can expect to see fighting for a spot with the parent club next March: third-baseman Matt Carpenter and outfielder Adron Chambers. Carpenter almost made the big-league roster last spring, then hit .300 with 12 homers and 70 RBIs for Memphis. Chambers would bring something sorely lacking for years in St. Louis: speed. The centerfielder (who turns 25 next month) stole 22 bases and hit .277 in his first season at the Triple-A level. Chambers needs to improve his on-base percentage (.368) and cut down on his strikeouts (90), but seems to have the skills of a future big-league leadoff hitter.