Roster churn is a way of life in Triple-A baseball.
The 2017 Memphis Redbirds won a franchise-record 91 games and the Pacific Coast League (PCL) championship despite suiting up 62 players over the course of the five-month season. (The active-roster limit in Triple-A is 25 players, just like the major leagues.)
That said, the 2018 Redbirds have become essentially an extension of the St. Louis Cardinals’ maligned bullpen. Still three weeks shy of the big-league season’s midpoint, nine pitchers have taken the mound for both Memphis and St. Louis this year. Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp and pitching coach Dernier Orozco spend a portion of their pregame routine evaluating that night’s bullpen options, starting with who, exactly, is in that bullpen for the next nine innings.
Stubby Clapp and Oscar Mercado
“A lot of it is scripted,” says Clapp, “depending on who we’ve used the last couple of days. What’s the situation if things blow up on us? Going through that before the game paints a picture for us. [Roster fluctuation] is what this level is about. I understand this now more than I ever did as a player. Sometimes you wish you could have something more consistent, but that’s not the nature of the beast here. I take what I get, and we go play.”
Even with the bullpen carousel, the Redbirds find themselves leading their division of the PCL with a record (38-26) almost identical to the same stage last season (39-25). Holdovers like third-baseman Patrick Wisdom, shortstop Wilfredo Tovar, and infielder Alex Mejia have helped retain the culture of winning, even as the club has fallen a notch in the hitting department. (The Redbirds batted .278 as a team in 2017 but this year are hitting .265 through Sunday.)
“Different characters, different egos, different personalities to handle,” says Clapp when asked about any adjustments he’s found himself making in his second year managing at this level. “Last year we had a lot of young, hungry guys, who could smell their opportunity. This year, we have those young and hungry guys back with experience, and we have to handle that dynamic: When am I gonna get my
Originally projected to play centerfield in Memphis, Harrison Bader received a promotion to St. Louis before Opening Day when Cardinal infielder Jedd Gyorko landed on the disabled list. That merely opened a slot for 23-year-old Oscar Mercado, a midseason candidate for the team’s player of the year. In his first season at Triple-A, Mercado has hit .311, and leads the team with 44 runs and 13 stolen bases.
“He had to learn the league a little bit,” says Clapp. "Pitchers aren’t just going to give in to you. He’s learning the catchers, when he can run, when he can’t run. And he’s not forcing opportunities. He’s already got a mature presence about him in the clubhouse.”
Second-baseman Max Schrock — acquired in the December trade that sent Stephen Piscotty to Oakland — has been another seamless addition to the winning ways at AutoZone Park.
“Schrockie wants to put a good foot forward, this being his first year in the organization,” says Clapp. “He’s quiet, goes about his business . . . just plays. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss what he does.”
The 2017 PCL Manager of the Year deflects any notion that his presence has helped keep the Redbirds aloft. Clapp emphasizes a philosophy that’s as simple as it is profound for a team of players one phone call from their childhood dreams: “Make sure everybody gets enough playing time, and that they know they’re part of the big-league equation.”
When the Redbirds lost eight of eleven games in May, cracks of tension may have formed in a clubhouse so accustomed to winning. But Clapp didn’t allow it.
“Last year was not the norm,” he emphasizes. “This is more of a normal season. Keep your heads up and keep rolling. They did.”