photo: Lane Thomas, Tony Ferreira, Gary LaRocque (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
As minor league camp opens each March, the St. Louis Cardinals make a series of special announcements and award presentations at the organization’s spring training orientation meeting in Jupiter, Florida.
One piece of very important recognition that remained secret until then is the winner of the George Kissell Award for excellence in player development across the Cardinals organization.
That well-deserving selection for the 2018 season is an unconventional choice. The winner is also the leader of the player development staff – Director of Player Development Gary LaRocque. He follows former Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp, the 2017 winner, who is St. Louis’ new first base coach.
About the winner
Think of LaRocque, also known informally as the “farm director”, as the CEO of the Cardinals minor league operations – but a very hands-on leader. His staff take newly-signed players and help all of them improve, with the best of them becoming major leaguers.
The fact his managers and coaches selected him for this honor – the first time a non-uniformed individual has received the Kissell Award in the last 20 years and the first executive selection ever – speaks volumes to the level of respect he commands.
Now in his 44th year of professional development and scouting, LaRocque has seen it all and has performed many of the major jobs he oversees himself. He joined the Cardinals in late 2008 and assumed his current role for the 2014 season. Prior to that, the Connecticut native spent 19 years scouting and coaching in the Dodgers organization and a decade in various executive positions with the New York Mets, including leading both player development and scouting.
Though development is always job no. 1, it is also important to instill in players a winning culture.
In 2018, St. Louis’ 492-402 (.550) overall organizational record placed them second behind Tampa Bay (539-345, .604) in total wins among all minor league systems in 2018, per the Cardinals.
However, because not all systems have the same number of affiliates, total wins can be a bit misleading. According to data compiled by Baseball America, the Cardinals’ .534 winning percentage for its US-based clubs ranked a still-respectable sixth of 30 organizations in 2018.
To reinforce the commonly-accepted view that the Cardinals get more from less than do their peers, prior to last season, Baseball America ranked St. Louis’ farm system just 13th in their annual talent rankings.
LaRocque has championed a system that challenges prospects at a higher level than their current skills might suggest. The best can develop more quickly as a result.
On the field, five of nine St. Louis Cardinals affiliates made post-season play in 2018, including one league championship. That is the organization’s best showing since 2016, when five of eight teams reached the playoffs (and the three US-based short-season clubs won league titles).
In 2018, Memphis (Triple-A) won its second consecutive Pacific Coast League crown, followed by winning the Triple-A National Championship Game and Peoria (Class-A) reached the Midwest League Championship Series. The high-A Palm Beach Cardinals plus rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Dominican Summer League Blue teams also made their circuits’ post-season tourney.
Affiliates posting their best-ever winning marks in 2018 include Palm Beach (.534) the Gulf Coast League Cardinals (.714) and Dominican Summer League Blue (.708).
The contributions of a number of key contributors at each level helped build this foundation of success across the system in 2018. This group included 42 All-Stars, one league Pitcher of the Year (Dakota Hudson – Pacific Coast League), two Most Valuable Players (Elehuris Montero – Midwest League and Andrew Warner – GCL) and one Triple Crown winner (Malcom Nuñez – DSL).
Despite their consistent regular season success placing them in the back half of First-Year Player Drafts annually, the Cardinals continue to crank out standout players, ready for MLB duty. Scouting director Randy Flores and his scouts find them and LaRocque’s crew takes it from there.
Nine Cardinals made their Major League debuts last season, including the first in MLB – Jordan Hicks and Yairo Muñoz on Opening Day – and the last – Edmundo Sosa on September 23. Across the National League, only Atlanta, Miami and the Mets had more players take the field in their first major league game during 2018.
Other Cardinals who appeared in their initial MLB contest in 2018 are Adolis García, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Patrick Wisdom. Of the nine, all except trade acquisitions Muñoz and O’Neill are homegrown Cardinals.
Further, two more players developed in-house, Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader, finished fifth and tied for sixth, respectively, in the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
LaRocque and his team, including top assistant Tony Ferreira, can take great pride for their role in every one of the aforementioned points becoming reality.
The George Kissell Award
The Kissell Award is the top recognition any member of the player development organization can receive and remains an annual reminder of the importance of George Kissell to generations of Cardinals.
Through his teaching, Mr. Kissell essentially wrote the book that was later labeled “The Cardinal Way” as a player, manager and teaching leader of the organization from 1940 until he passed away in the fall of 2008 due to injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
The Cardinals recognized Kissell’s importance long before his untimely passing, first establishing the Award in 1995 to recognize a member of the organizational staff for excellence in player development. In the most appropriate nod, Kissell himself received the first Award.
The winner is chosen through voting by the Cardinals minor league field staff, with the peer recognition making it especially meaningful.
Congratulations to the George Kissell Award winner for 2018, Gary LaRocque.
More about George
Among Kissell’s many other honors is a plaque outside the Cardinals Jupiter clubhouse highlighting his numerous accomplishments as well as the naming of the team’s minor league quad in his honor.
The inscription on the plaque says it all.
“Every player in the Cardinal organization since 1940 has had contact with George Kissell and they all have been better for it. One of the most respected people in the game of baseball at any level, George has worked in all areas of the Cardinals’ baseball operations. He was a scout, minor league manager, major league coach, and, as senior field coordinator for player development, he has coordinated the team’s minor league affiliates.
“Well known for his emphasis on fundamentals, George taught several generations of Redbirds how to play baseball. In recognition of his teaching excellence and personal example, the George Kissell Award is presented annually to the Cardinals outstanding player development staff person.
“George Kissell is one of the true foundations of the Cardinals tradition.”
Though Kissell was not eligible in the fan voting for Modern Era players to the Cardinals Hall of Fame, he was chosen as an “owner’s selection” and entered the Hall in 2015. For 2019, you can vote for several hitters who were once among Kissell’s students at cardinals.com/hof.
George Kissell Award winners
Two-time Kissell Award honorees include Steve Turco, Chris Maloney and Mark DeJohn. Turco is now retired, but was a long-time manager and scout. Maloney was formerly St. Louis’ third-base coach and DeJohn is the organization’s minor league field coordinator.
Five members of the current St. Louis staff are prior winners, starting with manager Mike Shildt, plus bench coach Oliver Marmol, Clapp, third base coach Ron “Pop” Warner and bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd.
|2018||Gary LaRocque||Player Dev. director||2006||Chris Maloney||Springfield manager|
|2017||Stubby Clapp||Memphis manager||2005||Ron “Pop” Warner||Palm Beach mgr.|
|2016||Steve Turco||Gulf Coast Lg. mgr.||2004||Blaise Ilsley||Tenn. pitching coach|
|2015||Randy Niemann||PB pitching coach||2003||Mark DeJohn||Tenn. manager|
|2014||Derrick May||Minors hitting coord.||2002||Danny Sheaffer||Peoria manager|
|2013||Oliver Marmol||State College mgr.||2001||Dyar Miller||Mem. pitching coach|
|2012||Bryan Eversgerd||Sgf. pitching coach||2000||Gaylen Pitts||Memphis manager|
|2011||Steve Turco||Gulf Coast Lg. mgr.||1999||Mark Riggins||Minors pitching coord.|
|2010||Mike Shildt||Johnson City mgr.||1998||Joe Pettini||Minors field coord.|
|2009||Chris Maloney||Memphis manager||1997||Mark O’Neal||Mem. athletic trainer|
|2008||Mark DeJohn||Batavia manager||1996||Bo Milliken||Minors pitching instr.|
|2007||Dan Radison||Minors hitting instr.||1995||George Kissell||Senior field coord.|
Bold=currently in the organization
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