The ’Birds are Back


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It’s been five years since the St. Louis Cardinals last played their Triple-A affiliate in an exhibition game at AutoZone Park (as they will this Friday night). It’s been a fruitful five years for the franchise, both at the big-league and Triple-A levels. With the Cardinals’ purchase of the Redbirds’ baseball operations over the winter, change is in the air at Third and Union. Before we consider what’s to come, though, let’s measure a few developments since the Cardinals last took the field at AZP.

• The Redbirds won the Pacific Coast League championship in 2009, the last season that opened with a Cardinals exhibition game (St. Louis won two that April). Among the stars for that club — the second to win a title since the franchise moved to Memphis in 1998 — were David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Dan Descalso, and Mitchell Boggs. Those five players would each contribute to the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series victory, Freese becoming a folk hero with his epic Game 6 performance at Busch Stadium.

• Memphis returned to the PCL championship series in 2010, only to be swept by Tacoma (all three games, cruelly, at AutoZone Park). The ace for those Redbirds — Lance Lynn won 13 games and led the PCL in strikeouts — can now be found in the Cardinals’ starting rotation, where he’s won 33 games over the last two seasons.

• The Cardinals have reached the postseason four times in the last five seasons, winning that 2011 World Series, falling a game short of a National League pennant in 2012, then losing to the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic last October. Only two current Cardinals were in uniform for St. Louis in 2009 at AutoZone Park (Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina). A former MVP (Albert Pujols) and Cy Young winner (Chris Carpenter) have moved on, a Hall of Fame manager (Tony LaRussa) has retired, yet the baseball bond connecting Memphis and St. Louis has never been stronger.

Among the 25 players on the Cardinals’ World Series roster last fall, only five never wore a Memphis Redbird uniform: Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate, and John Axford. (Three of those players have since departed.) The pipeline from AutoZone Park to Busch Stadium has reached gushing stage, the rewards to the Cardinal franchise being twofold. First, these prospects are winning, both in Triple-A and in the big leagues. Secondly, young talent means affordable talent in modern baseball. Last season, Matt Carpenter became the first player since Pete Rose in 1976 to lead the majors in runs, hits, and doubles (while learning a new position, it should be noted). For his All-Star season, Carpenter was paid $504,000 . . . pocket change for the Cardinal brass. This winter, Carpenter signed a healthy contract extension that will earn him $52 million over the next six years. A lot of money, but still not silly on today’s scale.

As for 2014, Memphis fans will get a second chance to watch minor-league baseball’s third-ranked prospect, outfielder Oscar Taveras. The 21-year-old Dominican prodigy missed 98 games last season after injuring his right ankle in mid-May. Still searching for confidence with his surgically repaired wheel, Taveras was optioned to the Cardinals’ minor-league training camp in early March. While he seems destined for the St. Louis outfield, for now he’ll likely be one-third of the strongest trio of outfielders AutoZone Park has seen in years (perhaps ever).

Stephen Piscotty is a cannon-armed 23-year-old with what Baseball Prospectus describes as a “high-contact approach with emerging power.” Then there’s 22-year-old Randal Grichuk, acquired last November in the trade that sent Freese to the Los Angeles Angels. Grichuk hit 22 homers at Double-A Arkansas last season and was named the minor leagues’ best rightfielder by the Rawlings Gold Glove committee. You might say the Cardinals’ outfield is in good shape for the near future.

Exhibition baseball is more about the presentation than the outcome, of course. With the St. Louis Cardinals’ presence in Memphis only growing, Friday night should raise the curtain on yet another season of bright hopes in this region of the franchise’s vast following. Makes it easy to invoke the late, great Jack Buck’s three favorite words: “That’s a winner.”

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