There are two ways to measure the success of a Triple-A baseball team's season. The first is obvious: Look at the record of the 2008 Memphis Redbirds — who concluded their 11th season on Labor Day — and you see a final mark of 75-67, the franchise's best record in eight years. Alas, the team again missed the postseason. Among Pacific Coast League squads, only three — Colorado Springs, Fresno, and Omaha — have longer playoff droughts than the now-eight-year drought suffered by Memphis.
But if you look beyond the record and second-place finish in their division, you might find the 2008 Redbirds a success in the area of player development in ways many of their predecessors — including the 2000 PCL champs — were not. It doesn't necessarily help the local brass — winning baseball teams sell tickets — and the Redbirds fell to fourth in the PCL in attendance this year. But considering the team takes the field with the success of its parent franchise in St. Louis foremost among priorities, Cardinal fans — here in Memphis and elsewhere — may be looking back fondly on the summer of 2008.
But the story of this Redbirds revival really began with the 2007 edition.
You have to go back 49 years in Cardinal history to find a team that turned over its entire outfield from the previous season. (Who will ever forget the 1959 trio of Bill White in left, Gino Cimoli in center, and Joe Cunningham in right?) And the 2008 St. Louis outfield is made up entirely of players who earned the second bird on their jerseys with their play at AutoZone Park.
Rightfielder Ryan Ludwick was clinging to his pro career before hitting .340 over 29 games with Memphis at the dawn of the 2007 season. Rick Ankiel established himself as a legitimate, everyday centerfielder — and slugger — by hitting 32 homers and driving in 89 runs in but 102 games for the '07 Redbirds. Leftfielder Skip Schumaker paid his dues in Memphis, batting .306 in both 2006 and 2007 before taking a permanent spot on Tony LaRussa's roster this season. (With multiple walk-off, game-winning hits, Schumaker has established himself as one of the best clutch hitters on the Cardinal team.)
Looking at this year's club, you need a deep breath before reciting the names of players to impact the Cardinals' extended stay in a pennant race they weren't supposed to join: Joe Mather, Chris Perez, Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, Kelvin Jimenez, Nick Stavinoha.
Perez, in particular, has been a godsend since the demise of longtime Cardinal closer Jason Isringhausen. Armed with a slider that would make Bob Gibson proud, Perez has saved six games in 31 appearances for St. Louis and looked like a legitimate 2009 Rookie of the Year candidate on August 27th, when he struck out Milwaukee's Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder to clinch the Cardinals' biggest win of the season to date (one that salvaged any lingering playoff hopes the team had before a weekend sweep at Houston).
With the emergence of Ludwick and Schumaker (not to mention Ankiel) in the Cardinal outfield, this year's Redbird prospects may become next winter's trade-bait, as St. Louis is lacking a productive bat in the middle infield and, like every team not named Angels or Cubs, will be in the market for more starting pitching. Mather, Stavinoha, and David Freese — this year's third baseman in Memphis — will be among names Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak hears when his counterparts start calling.
Freese, in particular, is a great story. Having never played above Class A in San Diego's system before this season, he was considered less a prospect than merely a ticket for a Jim Edmonds homecoming in Southern California. One Triple-A campaign later, he has 26 home runs and 91 RBIs on his resume. Only 25, Freese could end up succeeding Troy Glaus at the hot corner for St. Louis.
Here's one more name to remember as you consider yesterday's Redbirds and tomorrow's Cardinals: Jason Motte. The flame-throwing relief pitcher — a converted catcher — struck out 110 batters for Memphis in only 67 innings. He'll likely join Perez in a much younger, presumably more effective bullpen at Busch Stadium next year.