photo: Ben Johnson and Justin Williams (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)
2019 was a tale of two halves for the defending Triple-A National Champion Memphis Redbirds (69-71), a club that was 21 games under .500 (38-59) on July 17, but picked up the slack tremendously to conclude the year with a 31-12 burst. Still, the losing record overall was a huge difference from last year’s 84-57 squad.
The Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate fell just short of beating out the Iowa Cubs for the division title, still alive heading into the last series of the year. To clinch the division, they needed a four-game road sweep, after having done the same at home the week before, but the fairy tale comeback fell short.
While it was an unfortunate ending for the ‘Birds, who were looking to defend the National Championship on their field at AutoZone Park (Memphis hosted the game on September 17 with the Sacramento River Cats defeating the Columbus Clippers 4-0), first-year Memphis skipper Ben Johnson’s primary goal for the season was to develop players for the next level.
That was successful despite 67 different players donning a Redbirds jersey this year (matching the franchise record set in 2018), and 22 of those individuals made their Triple-A debuts.
Johnson did not seem as fazed during the team’s first-half slump as he noted that everybody wants to win, but what matters was for St. Louis to have players ready for “The Show.” 20 players were promoted to the Major Leagues, including bullpen stalwart Giovanny Gallegos, and eight of those made their St. Louis debuts, including Cardinals spark plug Tommy Edman.
By the Month
The Redbirds finished April with a respectable 13-12 record, going 6-5 at home and an even 7-7 on the road. That is also the only time during 2019 that the ‘Birds did not have a losing record at home or away.
The live Triple-A baseball was the Redbirds’ friend in 2019. It began with 28 home runs in the month, tied for third-most in the month of April in team history. Memphis was just six dingers shy of matching the 2000 team, which bashed 36 long shots in the opening month.
LHP Austin Gomber was stellar in his five April starts (3-0, 2.54 ERA), and he earned PCL Pitcher of the Week honors in the week of April 15-21.
May was the start of the turmoil for the Redbirds as they barely finished with double digit wins (10-21). It was their second time posting a losing record in a month since 2017 (also in August 2018). Not even home runs could lead the team to wins as they hit 35 long balls, tying for second-most in franchise history in the month of May.
Rangel Ravelo turned things around in the second month with a .384/.460/1.066 mark after he batted just .173 in April.
Memphis earned an 11-16 record in June with a 3-12 record at AutoZone being the major downfall. Again, home runs were the main highlight with 39 (second-most in June in franchise history)
John Nogowski was Mr. June, batting .410 alongside a .479 OBP and 1.081 OPS, and the 26-year-old first baseman ended the month with a career-best 15-game hitting streak.
July marked the beginning of the turnaround for the ‘Birds, as they posted a 13-13 record. The major factor that led to the change of direction was the improved bullpen. The relievers outperformed the starters in the month despite just 4 2/3 less innings pitched. They had an overall 3.16 ERA (6.02 by starters), gave up 38 earned runs (89 by starters) and struck out 121 batters (95 by starters).
August was a historic and exciting month for the Memphis Redbirds. They set a franchise record with 22 wins and became the second team in Redbirds history to accomplish the feat in any month (along with July 2017). Memphis led the PCL in various categories throughout August, including on-base percentage (.393), slugging (.527) and on-base plus slugging (919). They were nearly in the top with home runs (second with 54) and were third in batting average (.307).
On the mound, the Redbirds were first in various categories including ERA (3.25), hits (200), runs (96), earned runs (91), home runs allowed (22), WHIP (1.25) and batting average (.216).
September concluded the season with two games in Des Moines, where Memphis faced the Iowa Cubs. The Redbirds lost both as they were already out of the playoffs, but also missed their chance at a .500 season.
The pitching staff continued to be one of the strengths throughout the year as they ended with the fourth-best overall ERA (4.87) in the Pacific Coast League. This was down from last year, however, as the 2018 Redbirds posted a league-best 3.54 ERA.
Memphis was one of the better staffs in not allowing home runs with the second-fewest in the PCL (167), but they did issue the most walks in the league with 607. The Redbirds were in the middle of the strikeout pack, ranked eighth with 1228.
It was an up-and-down year swinging the bats for the Redbirds as they finished in the middle of the pack in most categories. Ninth place was their home as they were ninth in average (.278), walks (509), runs (803), hits (1,314), triples (30) and RBI (761).
Despite being ranked 11th in the league in home runs with 200, they broke their 2004 franchise record (174) in that category soundly, in large part due to the juiced baseball across Triple-A.
The Redbirds were a strong third in the 16-team PCL with a .983 team fielding percentage. The catchers, led by Knizner and Joe Hudson, stood out with just four passed balls all season long, second-fewest in the league. Their caught-stealing percentage of 37 percent placed them third.
The late season surge was powered by many, including later arrival outfielders Randy Arozarena (1.028 OPS in 64 games), Justin Williams (1.045 in 36 contests) and Dylan Carlson (1.098 in 21 games), who helped boost the team in its playoff chase.
Among qualified batters, Rangel Ravelo led the team with a .299 average and had a 16-game hitting streak from May 8-24. Ravelo (.856 OPS) and Andrew Knizner (.821) were mid-season Pacific Coast League All-Stars.
John Nogowski came a close second in the team batting race with a .295 mark while playing in 22 more games than Ravelo. His .413 OBP and .889 OPS also stood out for the right reasons.
Infielder Ramon Urias led the Redbirds in doubles with the relatively small total of 24. The PCL leader had 41.
Adolis Garcia was inconsistent most of the year, but his powerful swing gave him the team lead in both home runs (32) and RBI (96), eighth and 10th in the league, respectively. The 26-year-old right fielder did so while posting a .253 batting average, including team-best six triples and 14 steals (and also team high 10 caught stealing). He was the organization’s Player of the Month in August, following Arozarena, who was the June and July winner.
Of particular concern, however, is Garcia’s strikeout rate, up seven percent over 2018 at Memphis, to 30.1 percent this season. His walk rate was just 4.2 percent.
Jake Woodford posted a 9-8 record and a 4.15 ERA and was named the 2019 Triple-A All Star Game starter for the PCL in the mid-season contest. His nine wins lead the club. 2019 should be looked at a learning period for the 22-year-old right-hander,, who should be considered as a starting pitcher candidate for the Cardinals sometime in 2020.
Daniel Ponce de Leon had a strong season, and an even better finish. His 8-4 record included wins in his last four starts in Triple-A, and he ended the 2019 year in Memphis with a 2.88 ERA in 84 1/3 innings pitched. Ponce de Leon did all of this after being one of the best pitchers in the PCL a year ago when he had a league-low 2.24 ERA.
Austin Gomber made only eight starts with a solid 2.98 ERA before injuries scuttled his season. Former top prospect Alex Reyes struggled to a 7.38 ERA in 10 appearances before his 2019 ended prematurely, as well.
Later arrivals Junior Fernandez (1.48 ERA in 18 games) and Kodi Whitley (1.52 in 16 contests) help to spark the bullpen revival. No Redbirds reliever had more than six saves, with Chris Beck and Mike Mayers both reaching that total.
The Redbirds were a team many scratched off from the playoffs early on in the year but finishing strongly, as was the team’s goal throughout the year. Manager Ben Johnson knew his team had the work ethic to continue pushing through despite the rough start.
While Memphis saw the Sacramento River Cats win the National Championship on their field, if Johnson can help lead his team to a late season surge in his first year as manager despite tying a franchise record of 67 different players on the roster, it would not be shocking to see a 2020 Redbirds team to return to the playoffs and win back their titles. To do so, however, will require a number of players from the disappointing 2019 Springfield team to step up their level of play to that of the expected returnees.
Link to master article with all 2019 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Next up will be our DSL Cardinals Red Relief Pitcher of the Year, with individual player award articles exclusively for TCN members.
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