In mid-May, not long after the Memphis Redbirds reeled off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak, I asked first-year manager Stubby Clapp about the secret sauce he’d concocted at AutoZone Park. Once a blue-collar player, the blue-collar manager responded with a blue-collar answer: “Our pitchers attack the strike zone and our hitters grind through every at-bat.”
It was an understated evaluation, to say the least. Using even fewer words, Clapp could have responded: “We have a lot of talent in this clubhouse.”
Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp is head over heels about his team's success. (This shot, of course, is from Stubby's playing days.)
Not since 2013 — when Baseball America ranked the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system the best in the business — has Memphis been stocked with the kind of talent we’re seeing these days at the corner of B.B. King and Union Avenue. You’ll recall that 2013 club included outfielder Oscar Taveras, second-baseman Kolten Wong, and a pair of top pitching prospects, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Taveras died tragically in 2014, but the other three are now regulars at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (If you read last week’s column, you’ll know performance this season hasn’t matched projection with the exception of Martinez.)
The 2017 Redbirds have featured three everyday players who will soon be seen in big-league batter’s boxes. Infielder Paul DeJong (who turns 24 in August) enjoyed a 12-game cup of coffee with St. Louis recently when Wong landed on the disabled list, returned to Memphis for less than a week, and can now be found again in the Cardinals’ dugout (Wong back on the DL). He became the sixth former Redbird to homer in his first major-league at-bat and has played stellar defense at second base. Here in Memphis, DeJong has it .299 and hammered 13 home runs, the kind of pop that increases a middle-infielder’s value exponentially. (DeJong homered 22 times and drove in 73 runs at Double-A Springfield last season.)
When I watch centerfielder Harrison Bader (23) play, I see a shorter (and whiskers-free) version of Charlie Blackmon, the Colorado Rockies’ All-Star. The former Florida Gator brings speed and a dose of power (12 home runs) to the Redbirds lineup. And he’s perfectly willing to crash into walls to rob opposing hitters of extra bases. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals manage Bader’s rise in light of the multiyear contract their new centerfielder, Dexter Fowler, signed last winter.
Then there’s catcher Carson Kelly. Yadier Molina’s presumed heir will turn 23 next month but handles backstop duties with the aplomb of a 30-year-old big-league veteran. Kelly’s offensive production — .290 batting average, 7 home runs — feels like a generous bonus package. He could be catching every day for a few major league clubs. Similar to Bader, Kelly’s rise is blocked somewhat by a Cardinal player with a multiyear contract manning his position. For now, he simply helps the Redbirds win baseball games, the man Clapp trusts with those pitchers tasked with attacking the strike zone.
And those pitchers? Three members of the Redbirds’ current starting rotation — Luke Weaver (24 in August), Marco Gonzales (25), and Jack Flaherty (21) — have been ranked among the Cardinals’ top-10 prospects (Gonzales topped the list in 2015). Among all position groups and across all levels of the farm system, the Cardinals enjoy their greatest abundance in starting pitching. Which means flexibility between Memphis and St. Louis and bargain chips should the Cardinals remain in contention when the trade deadline arrives in late July. (As noted in last week’s column, the Cardinals lack “The Guy” in their batting order.)
Prospects don’t necessarily translate to winning baseball. (The 2013 Redbirds finished 69-75.) But this year’s club has a supporting cast that steals the spotlight one win after another. First-baseman Luke Voit has been a right-handed-batting Matt Adams (and then some), belting 12 home runs while putting up a slash line of .322/.404/.572. Healthy and manning third base has been Patrick Wisdom (12 home runs, 41 RBIs). Through Sunday, the Redbirds are 42-27 and five-and-a-half games ahead of second-place Nashville in their division of the Pacific Coast League. Triple-A baseball may be about development first, but take this as gospel: Winning spurs development.