The 2014 Memphis Redbirds have been a perplexing team. Stacked with just enough veterans and an outfield a few major-league teams would be happy to field, the club has been scratching and clawing to reach break-even for three months now. After opening the season with three wins, the team has never been four games above .500, and never more than five below .500 (as they were through Sunday). The good news? Memphis is tucked in the Pacific Coast League’s version of the World Cup’s “Group of Death,” four teams within five games of one another with two months left in the regular season. A return to the postseason after four years is within reach. But will this team ever find traction?
Last Thursday at AutoZone Park, the Redbirds opened a critical 18-game stretch against their three division rivals: Round Rock, Nashville, and first-place New Orleans. Game-time temperature was in the mid-80s, there was a reasonable crowd to open a homestand, and veteran John Gast was on the hill for the ’Birds. The Redbirds’ second through sixth hitters in the batting order — Randal Grichuk, Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty, Scott Moore, and Xavier Scruggs — each entered the game with at least 38 RBIs. (Memphis and New Orleans are the only two PCL clubs with four 40-RBI men.) The table seemed to be set for something fun.
Gast didn’t last four innings. Unable to hit the upper 80s on the radar gun, the 25-year-old lefty took a step back in his climb back from surgery last July, allowing 10 hits, four walks, and nine earned runs while retiring only 10 batters. (This is a pitcher who opened the 2013 season with a franchise-record streak of 32 scoreless innings.) Angel Castro relieved Gast and didn’t allow a hit in 3 2/3 innings, but the damage had been done. As for the potent Memphis offense, they outhit the Express, 13-10. Alas, every Redbird hit was a single, four of them by uber-prospect Taveras. Memphis left 13 men on base and fell four games under .500 for the first time this season.
Joe Kelly was no better Friday night. Making his first rehab start after a lengthy stay on the St. Louis Cardinals’ disabled list, Kelly lasted only two innings, allowing a pair of runs and three walks. The Redbirds’ offense awakened for seven runs, one shy of those scored by the Express.
Despite the presence of Taveras, Grichuk, and Piscotty (that all-prospect outfield), the Redbirds’ offense (ranked 10th in the 16-team PCL in batting) has been schizophrenic. Memphis has scored seven or more runs 29 times (winning 24 of those games), but has scored fewer than three runs 21 times (losing all but three). In the run-happy PCL, the Redbirds are seventh in scoring and 11th in home runs. Only four PCL teams have allowed fewer runs than the Redbirds, yet Memphis has yet to build so much as a four-game winning streak.
Starting pitching, of course, is the lifeblood of any winning streak. Redbird manager Pop Warner has called upon nine different pitchers to make multiple starts this season. Thirteen were needed last season, and that’s with current Cardinals Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez combining for 28. That team finished 69-75 (though the Redbirds weren’t eliminated from the playoffs until the season’s final game). Who is the ace for the 2014 Redbirds? Tim Cooney (15 starts) and Angel Castro (14) have had lockdown outings — and each has been lit up. The Cardinals’ minor-league Pitcher of the Year last season, Zach Petrick is 4-3 with a 4.48 ERA in his first Triple-A season. In 23 starts, Scott McGregor and Boone Whiting have combined for a 1-11 record. When the Cardinals needed a starter to fill the newly disabled Wacha’s spot in the rotation last week in Colorado, they called upon Marco Gonzales, who has starred this year for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals.
Without steadier starting pitching, it’s hard to envision these Redbirds playing post-season baseball. The continued growth of Taveras (.318 batting average), Grichuk (.283), and Piscotty (.315) will draw the attention of fans at AutoZone Park (and scouts, as the July 31st trade deadline nears). If Wacha (or Jaime Garcia) regains his health in St. Louis, Gonzales may be assigned to the Memphis rotation. It would be the most productive demotion in recent Redbird history, perhaps just enough to win the PCL’s Division of Death.
Next week: A midseason look at the St. Louis Cardinals and how recent (and current) Redbirds may impact their playoff chances.