The Memphis Redbirds — Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals — open the 2013 baseball season Thursday night at AutoZone Park when they host the Oklahoma City RedHawks. I spoke with Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch about the extraordinary growth of a system considered among baseball’s weakest not that long ago.
As recently as 2010, the Cardinals’ farm system was ranked 29th (out of 30 teams) by Baseball America. Last year it was ranked 10th, and now it’s the top-ranked system in baseball. How do you explain such improvement?
It’s the farm system getting the ranking, but it’s a combination of our managers, coaches, and instructors . . . and our amateur-scouting department getting us good players. And our international department finding guys like Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez. It’s an organizational effort, a combination of all aspects of baseball operations.
There was somewhat of a philosophical change, in terms of taking our lead from the major league staff, and developing continuity, doing the same things in St. Louis, Memphis, Springfield, and all the way down to our Gulf Coast League teams and our Dominican academy. Players go from level to level, and they know what to expect. No surprises. That’s helped a lot.
Do the Cardinals have a general philosophy for scouting and drafting players?
We put out a player-development manual for the first time in 2011. The major-league staff sat down with our minor-league coaches and put everything down in writing, how they wanted things done. It was teaching the teachers, you might say.
Are there certain traits or characteristics you and your scouts have come to look for in a prospect that distinguishes a future big-leaguer?
The one thing we’ve tried to increase our efforts on is high-character guys. We call it “good make-up.” Talent is the biggest thing, of course. There are a lot of good guys out there today driving trucks. We had some players [not long ago] who had talent, but they got to St. Louis and didn’t really fit in the clubhouse. We look more at the personality and work ethic. The primary focus is still the ability to hit or pitch. But tiebreakers could go to someone with a little less talent, but with good make-up. What kind of teammate that player will be is very important to us.
Is there a current Cardinal who personifies a high-character player?
In recent years, Jon Jay and Allen Craig fit that profile. They weren’t necessarily highly touted, or top-100 prospects. But they were always productive players. Guys have been raving about [pitcher] Michael Wacha, not just his stuff, but the way he carries himself, his demeanor. He should fit right in.
What’s a harder skill to measure for future success: pitching or hitting?
They’re both difficult. For a young player, the hardest thing to project is what kind of power a hitter is going to have. Strength comes later, as guys mature. With pitching, you can put up a radar gun and measure velocity, but what kind of command does he have? Can he develop a breaking pitch?
Physical maturity is one thing, and amateur players are often using metal bats, so you have to factor in that transition [to wooden bats].
Tell us about Oscar Taveras. He’s been compared with Vladimir Guerrero, even Roberto Clemente.
I hesitate to make comparisons. But Oscar’s a tremendous hitter. Even before the 2012 season, his [swing] was so advanced. We’d all like to take credit for his hitting ability, but it was a lot of natural ability and work on his part. Our coaches didn’t have to do a lot of instructing from the offensive side, but his defense and base-running . . . that had kind of lagged behind. He took it to heart and really worked hard last season. Our goal is to make him a complete player for St. Louis. He’s fun to watch. Loves to play the game.
He doesn’t get cheated at the plate. He swings hard, but he doesn’t swing at everything that comes his way. He’s getting more selective, the closer he gets to the big leagues. He loves to be aggressive, but he’s not going to chase a lot of balls. He uses the whole field; he’s not a dead-pull hitter. That’s a trait that usually takes a long time to master.
St. Louis has four pitchers (Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Martinez, and Wacha) among the top 100 prospects in baseball. Is this a farm director’s nirvana?
A few years ago, [former Cardinals pitching coach] Dave Duncan wanted us to develop more power pitchers. So we talked to our amateur scouting department and our pitching instructors. It’s one thing to have power arms, though. Dunc’s philosophy has always been quality strikes, down in the zone. It’s not so much what type of delivery a pitcher uses, as long as he gets results. We have five pitchers who could be headed to Memphis that can hit 95 mph in the zone. That’s Triple-A. And there are guys with power arms behind them.
For a market like St. Louis, there’s a premium on developing talent (as opposed to shopping the free-agent market). Does that put more pressure on the scouting department?
We feel a responsibility. If there’s a need at the major-league level, we’re not doing our job if there’s not an alternative at the minor-league level. Now, they may not choose to go that route. A couple of years ago, we needed a shortstop and we traded for Rafael Furcal. We don’t have the television revenue of some larger markets, so with free agency we have to be more selective. That’s why it’s important to have a farm system that can produce inexpensive talent for the big-league team.
It appears seven of the nine Cardinal starters on Opening Day will have come through the farm system. You must take some special pride in that.
The entire baseball operations department should be proud of that. It’s definitely not an individual thing. But it’s fun to be a part of it.
Do the facilities at AutoZone Park — generally considered the best stadium in the minor leagues — contribute to player development, or is it merely cosmetic enhancement?
There are times we go out and sign minor-league free agents, and the chance to play in a park like you have in Memphis is a big selling point. From the players’ perspective, they can get their work in and not worry about inferior facilities. We’re very happy to be there, and appreciative that our guys get to play in that environment.