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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Is not signing minor league vets really the Cards’ problem?

In recent days, I have seen several columns in the traditional news media that regularly cover the St. Louis Cardinals engage in what for them is a continuing theme – second-guessing the organization’s commitment to building from within.

What is currently stuck in my craw is a new variation on the theme – complaining over the Cardinals not having signed a gaggle of minor league veterans during the winter to have on the ready at Triple-A Memphis.

Certainly the rash of injuries that the Cardinals have encountered in 2009, already driving them to call upon 11 rookies, is beyond any measure of comfort. In other words, no matter what Memphis’ roster looked like, when you have to promote that many players in such a short period of time, the level of play is destined to diminish. After all, if the minor league players were better, they generally wouldn’t have been down there in the first place.

My fundamental concern is over what I feel is a very questionable assumption inherent in the basic complaint mentioned above. The implication is that when called upon to help out in the majors, a minor league veteran will outperform a younger product of the farm system.

Put aside for the moment the very valid question of whether the veterans would be blocking prospects from advancing up into the top levels of the system and just consider the veterans themselves.

The example of Ryan Ludwick is often trotted out as if he could be the norm, rather than the anomaly he is. (Ludwick joined the organization on a minor league contract for 2007 and by 2008 became a National League All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner.)

If only they all could be so good. Instead, here is a dose of reality.

Looking back 13 months, ten veterans that had been signed from outside the organization to minor league contracts made the roster of the 2008 Memphis Redbirds as they broke camp. They were:

Pitchers: Joe Rogers, John Wasdin, Hugo Castellanos, Ron Flores and Cliff Politte.

Catchers: Gabe Johnson and Mark Johnson.

Infielders: Josh Phelps and D’Angelo Jimenez.

Outfielders: Juan Gonzalez (temporary inactive list).

In addition, one could include an 11th player, third baseman Rico Washington (pictured). The then-30-year-old, in his 12th season as a professional, actually made the 2008 Major League club out of spring training as a non-roster invitee due to a training camp injury suffered by Brendan Ryan. Hitting .158, Washington didn’t last three weeks in the bigs.

A 12th veteran signing was starting pitcher Dewon Brazelton, but the right-hander didn’t even make it through spring training camp before being released.

Now, let’s step back for a moment and consider the situation in St. Louis last season to verify there was adequate opportunity for these veterans.

There was. After all, during the 2008 regular season, the Cardinals called up eleven different players from the minors for their first exposure to the big leagues. Washington and Rule 5 pick Brian Barton were the only two that didn’t come up through the Cardinals farm system.

Meanwhile, of the ten minor league vets that began the season with Memphis noted above, not a single one of them received a call to help the big league club last season. Not one.

Instead, the Cardinals selected the rookie every time in 2008 when help was needed.

Phelps and Mark Johnson, both over 30 like Washington, but different in that each had considerable past MLB service time, did receive promotions when rosters expanded in September. They did next to nothing and both departed shortly thereafter.

The others? Rogers and Politte were injured almost all year, Castellanos and Gabe Johnson were released before July was out and Gonzalez never played in the regular season after being injured during spring camp. Like Phelps and Mark Johnson, Wasdin, Flores and Jimenez stuck it out all season, but unlike them, they didn’t earn promotions. Not a one remains with the Cardinals organization today, nor are any missed.

In summary, here are grand totals of the 12 named minor league veterans’ results with the 2008 Cardinals. Johnson’s .627 OPS was the best of the three that made it.

2008 Cardinals Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Josh Phelps 30 19 34 4 9 1 0 0 1 0 2 11 0.265 0.306 0.294 0.600 60
Mark Johnson 32 10 17 1 5 0 0 0 2 0 1 2 0.294 0.333 0.294 0.627 68
Rico Washington 30 14 19 2 3 2 0 0 3 0 3 6 0.158 0.273 0.263 0.536 43

So the next time someone suggests the Cardinals should have signed more minor league free agents this season, ask him or her to show you which ones contributed last year.

If you didn’t know already, now you are aware there weren’t any.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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