The Memphis Redbirds exist with the mission of developing baseball players in the interest of the parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals. The cruel math for minor-league baseball fans is such that the better a player performs in the bushes, the less those fans are going to see the player in the home team’s uniform. Particularly at the Triple-A level, patience takes a back seat to big-league potential. Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina barely had to shave in Memphis before becoming stars in St. Louis.
But every now and then, the decisions made by Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak and manager Tony LaRussa directly impact the Redbirds in a positive way. As the 2010 season shapes into form, it appears those decisions up I-55 may keep the local club in a playoff hunt well into summer.
LaRussa has historically preferred a veteran presence on his bench. Players like Willie McGee, Eric Davis, Shawon Dunston, Marlon Anderson, Orlando Palmeiro, and Scott Spiezio have played significant supporting roles for the Cardinals under LaRussa. The Hall-of-Fame-bound skipper isn’t one to lock into a single lineup, making players who can handle multiple positions — with loads of experience — particularly valuable.
On Opening Day, St. Louis counted Joe Mather, Allen Craig, and Nick Stavinoha among its reserves. The trio entered this season with a combined 122 games of big-league experience. An injury to shortstop Brendan Ryan necessitated the promotion in late April of Tyler Greene from Memphis (48 games in the majors). Another injury in St. Louis — to Felipe Lopez — led to the April 26th big-league debut of outfielder Jon Jay.
Cut to June 4th, though, when Jay was optioned back to Memphis and four of these rising stars are still rising, in theory, at the Triple-A level. (Stavinoha remains in St. Louis as a primary pinch-hitter.) The Cardinals brought back infielder Aaron Miles (a utility player for the 2006 world champs) and signed outfielder Randy Winn (released after hitting .213 in 29 games for the Yankees this season) to fortify their bench. Winn (age 36) and Miles (33) fit the LaRussa mold for seasoned backups, even if they postpone the big-league careers of the franchise’s top prospects.
The silver lining, of course, is the level of play here in Memphis. With all four teams in the American-North division separated by a single game, one hot slugger (or hurler) can make a difference. After struggling to find his stroke in St. Louis, Craig is hitting .297 for Memphis and has driven in 41 runs in just 46 games through Sunday. Add Mather (.316), Greene (.294), and Jay (.315) to the mix and Memphis manager Chris Maloney can fill out almost half his lineup card with players one Tony LaRussa away from being major leaguers.
And it’s not just the Redbirds’ offense benefiting from the parent club’s taste for veterans. With the signing last week of 35-year-old pitcher Jeff Suppan (another member of the Cardinals 2006 championship squad), Adam Ottavino was optioned back to Memphis, where he rejoined P.J. Walters. Neither Ottavino nor Walters distinguished himself in brief stints in the Cardinal rotation, but they’ll comprise 40 percent of a Redbird rotation that aims for a rarity in Triple-A: consistent starting pitching. The emergence of Brandon Dickson (seven wins and a 2.93 ERA through Sunday) has supplemented the performances of Lance Lynn and Evan MacLane, giving Maloney a reliable starter every night.
Big picture, the Cardinal brass will happily exchange any Triple-A success for another post-season appearance. And even with the return of so many prospects, the Redbirds’ influence on the 2010 Cardinals will be felt as long as Colby Rasmus, David Freese, and Jaime Garcia continue to help win games. (To say nothing of Pujols, Molina, and Adam Wainwright.) Ironically, though, the Cardinal influence in Memphis could mean another postseason opportunity for the local club. With both teams’ interests in mind, here’s hoping all those veteran comfort blankets in St. Louis play their roles as envisioned. In the meantime, enjoy the big-league talent you can see at Third and Union.