The Cardinal Nation blog

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

Cardinals minors won-loss record backslides


Just mentioning minor league team won-loss records can often elicit a response from player development types.

“The team records don’t matter,” they say. “It is all about building players’ skills and preparing them for the next level.”

This is especially what is heard when the standings don’t look so hot.

On the other hand, when a system has a good year as did the Cardinals in 2008, those same folks point out the winning baseball being played and take some deserved credit. Such was the case last season when the top six clubs in the St. Louis system all came home with winning records and in aggregate, finished 60 games over .500.

Nothing at all wrong with that, mind you. I believe there is a middle ground where establishing winning habits plays a significant role in complementing individual development.

Focusing on the positive is only natural.

This past week, I read a happy column from the Post-Dispatch’s Jeff Gordon that highlighted the churn that the Memphis Pacific Coast League champions (pictured) endured this season and equated it with having “a real farm system”, instead of having to rely on minor league veterans.

I got the lack of minor league vets but lost him in equating that to system-wide strength.

Minor league win percentage declines from 54% to 49%

Turning over the coin, it is only fair to note the records of these same highest six clubs in the Cardinals system in 2009 returned to a territory comparable to past years prior to 2008 – below .500.

Memphis (Triple-A), Springfield (Double-A), Palm Beach (A-Advanced), Quad Cities (A), Batavia (SS-A) and Johnson City (SS-R) in total lost 16 more regular season games than won for a winning mark of .489.

That is the system’s second-lowest mark in the last five years – the Jeff Luhnow years. Only the 2007 clubs finished worse in aggregate (.481) since the current farm director took over.

2009 2008 YTY
Win Loss Pct. Playoffs Win Loss Pct. Pct.
Memphis 77 67 0.535 yes 75 67 0.528 improve
Springfield 71 69 0.507 yes 76 63 0.547 decline
Palm Beach 61 77 0.442 no 75 62 0.547 decline
Quad Cities 61 78 0.439 no 68 66 0.507 decline
Batavia 37 39 0.487 no 46 28 0.622 decline
Johnson City 37 30 0.552 no 36 30 0.545 improve
Top six 344 360 0.489 376 316 0.543 decline
2007 337 364 0.481
2006 348 349 0.499
2005 347 358 0.492

This year’s decline occurred in the middle levels of the system as all four of those clubs dropped in win percentage this season compared to 2008. Of the quartet, only Springfield delivered a winning record in 2009. While they made the Texas League post-season, the S-Cards were swept in the first round.

The Double-A club was the only one of the declining group that reached the playoffs, and that was entirely due to a strong start. During the second half, Springfield tied for last place, though they were only four games out of first. Had the Texas League used full-season standings, Springfield would not have made the post-season.

The other three mid-tier clubs, Palm Beach, Quad Cities and Batavia, not only had the largest year-to-year declines, they also posted the poorest 2009 records.

The two clubs showing year-to-year improvement, Memphis and Johnson City, are organizational bookends representing the highest and lowest rungs, respectively. Before one celebrates too boisterously, it is worth noting that in total, they won just three more regular-season games than in 2008.

It is not all gloomy, as Memphis’ first post-season appearance and first league championship in nine years is noteworthy and deserving of praise as Gordon dished out in generous portions. In addition, the Cardinals clubs are among the youngest, if not the youngest at most every level.

Not loading up the Triple-A club with going-nowhere Quad-A players was a change I fully supported from the start. Still, Memphis was able to supply reinforcements to St. Louis when called upon this season.

While the organization made some high-visibility trades of top prospects this summer, they came from the top of the system. In fact, almost all were sourced from Memphis. Yet because of the sheer number of good players at the upper levels of the organization, replacements were often available from Double-A without having to rush players up before they seemed ready.

When there weren’t ready arms, the Cardinals went outside the organization for what ended up being 2/5 of the Memphis rotation. During the season, they added independent leaguer Oneli Perez and minor league veteran Evan MacLane, a trade acquisition from the Arizona organization.

There didn’t seem to be ready answers for the struggling middle levels of the Cardinals system.

It only stands to reason that when players are called up to Triple-A, Springfield would then require quality reinforcements from Palm Beach and so on down the line. This is how all minor league systems work, or at least should. In-season churn is inevitable and is planned for.

Yet I read that Springfield’s downturn has been attributed by some to the loss of players upward whose productivity could not be replaced. Add to that the fact that the three clubs immediately below Double-A experienced the biggest yearly decline in wins in the system and there seems a hole.

It is also worth noting that the act of adding minor league veterans is usually restricted to Triple-A, and to a lesser extent, Double-A. The lower levels are almost exclusively staffed by home-grown players. Other than A-Advanced all-star outfielder Shane Peterson, part of the Matt Holliday trade with Oakland, the Cardinals traded away no players below Triple-A this season.

I find myself wondering from where the next groups of standout players will come as each set looks to move up in 2010. For example, does the core of returning Springfield players plus the best from Palm Beach equate to a playoff-caliber Double-A team in 2010? Same questions on down the line.

To sustain winning baseball year after year, the pipeline needs to flow without interruption yet the jury remains out on many of the top players from the most recent drafts.

With a strong core of returning players, Memphis should again be competitive in 2010. Beyond that, I am not so sure.

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