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Cardinals fall ball changes may not be for the better

The St. Louis Cardinals have canceled their yearly fall instructional league camp for 2009 with future plans to be determined, reports the Post-Dispatch. General Manager John Mozeliak offered up this vague explanation:

“I’m not sure the old model works with what’s going on down there.”

The P-D article partially rationalizes the decision by noting that some members of the organization, including Major League manager Tony La Russa, have questioned assigning players to Instructs after they have competed over a full summer season.

Fair enough, but I don’t see that being the purpose of Instructs. The players primarily on La Russa’s radar screen are Triple-A and perhaps Double-A players. These older, more experienced players are not the Instructs’ target group.

The organization drafted and signed 43 brand new players between mid-June and mid-August, some fresh out of high school. These newbies were dropped onto various rosters from Quad Cities to the Gulf Coast League in the midst of those teams’ seasons. Allowing coaches to work with the new players in the less-formal environment of Instructs before their first winters off as professionals offer advantages that may become evident the next season.

It is true that some of the 2009 draftees also played a full high school or college season before signing. Those players viewed to have reached maximum levels of innings pitched, for example, could still benefit from instruction, conditioning and drills.

A number of players already in the system missed considerable portions of the 2009 summer season due to injuries. Instructs offers them the opportunity to get more innings or at-bats, again in a controlled environment.

Finally, Instructs could provide players ready to graduate from the Latin American academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela a vehicle to begin to be oriented into play in the USA.

The P-D article notes the Cardinals’ Jupiter partners, the Florida Marlins, have also canceled their instructional league camp. That leaves the New York Mets as the only spring training club within roughly 100 miles and two hours.

I am in the midst of conducting an informal poll of my publisher peers covering other MLB organizations to learn if the Instructs cancellations are widespread. Responses from at least seven Arizona clubs and three Florida Gulf Coast teams indicate their fall programs are continuing as planned.  Other than Florida, St. Louis and the Mets, nearby in Port St. Lucie, I am unaware of any cancellations.

For the Cardinals, the geography concern is real.

With the relocation of the Los Angeles Dodgers from Vero Beach to Arizona, the next nearest team to the Cardinals after Florida and New York is Washington. Their home in Viera is 110 miles and 1:55 away from Jupiter. The minor leaguers do not travel that far in the spring, so there is no reason to expect they would in the fall, either.

This is a real problem, one that is much larger than Instructs. With only two teams against whom to compete in the spring (and fall), the Marlins and Mets, one of the three clubs’ minor leaguers have no one to play other than themselves on any given day.

As Major League teams continue to vacate Florida for the greener pastures of Arizona, the problem can only worsen. In contrast with Arizona, where at least a dozen teams are within a reasonable drive from one another in the Phoenix area, Florida clubs remain scattered all over the state. For example, to play the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Cardinals would have to take a 208-mile bus ride of four hours and 45 minutes each way. That is totally impractical.

While the Major League Cardinals, Marlins and Mets seem firm in their current locales, they have seen the nearby Dodgers and Orioles depart in the past two years with no prospects of replacements coming in.

In terms of Instructs, despite the valid geographic concerns, the decision to cancel camp feels more financially-motivated than player development-oriented.

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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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