photo: Jake Walsh, Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson, Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
I have been going to the Arizona Fall League for the better part of two decades. While the St. Louis Cardinals had a number of offensive leaders over the years, I do not recall a time when the team had such strong performers from top to bottom as in 2021.
The pitchers were not quite as exceptional, but two of four stood out, as well.
The Glendale Desert Dogs went 17-13 on the season, with their final game loss the difference between winning the three-team West Division and finishing in “last” place. Had Glendale been in the East, they would have been divisional champion. As it was, they sat out of the championship game.
As a team, the Glendale offense was not a dynamo. They were fifth of six AFL squads in batting average at .257 and last in OBP at .351. The Desert Dogs were third in slugging and fourth in runs scored and OPS.
Still, all of the Cardinals offensive representatives stood out positively. Each batted over .300 with OPS’s at .941 or better.
The season began with top prospect Nolan Gorman designated as the Cardinals priority player. That meant the second baseman would be in the lineup at least four of six days. However, he lasted just one week before suffering a hamstring injury that ended his AFL campaign.
In 23 plate appearances, Gorman slashed .375/.565/.625/1.190.
Brendan Donovan was promoted from the taxi squad (playing only twice a week) into a regular roster spot and saw considerable action at second base in Gorman’s absence. The new 40-man roster addition slashed an impressive .308/.422/.519/.941.
Lars Nootbaar was the regular right fielder and leadoff man for Glendale. The St. Louis outfielder was third in the league both with his .643 slugging and 1.080 OPS. After his Fall Stars Game start, Nootbaar did not play the final week.
In the middle of the lineup was Juan Yepez, a contender for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. The first baseman was fourth in slugging at .640 and eighth in OPS at 1.028. Yepez was second in the league with 26 RBI and tied for second with seven home runs. He tied with four other players for second in doubles with eight.
Yepez received a major honor from the league.
Co-Hitter of the Year goes to Juan Yepez from the St. Louis Cardinals org.
The Desert Dogs first basemen hit for a .302 average and 15 Extra Base Hits, including 7 homeruns. He brought in 26 Runs and finishes the season with an On Base of .388 and a Slugging percentage of .640. pic.twitter.com/CEmDuN8AOF
— MLB's Arizona Fall League (@MLBazFallLeague) November 21, 2021
Against a normal scale, the Glendale staff’s ERA of 4.82 would not stand out for the right reason. However, in the pitching-challenged AFL, it is a different story. In fact, this mark was best in the league by almost a half-run per nine innings. The Desert Dogs walked the second-fewest opposing batters but also struck out the second fewest.
Cardinals pitchers were a feast or famine lot.
The season began with rehabbing St. Louis closer Jordan Hicks playing the role of the Cardinals designated starter. However, after two uneven appearances, resulting in a 9.64 ERA in 4 2/3 innings, Hicks returned home. Springfield’s Garrett Williams was named to replace him, but the lefty never pitched in the AFL.
Andre Pallante moved into the rotation in Hicks’ place and was exceptional. After three relief appearances, the right-hander made four starts with an accumulated 1.29 ERA. He fanned 22 in 21 innings, walked 10 and held opposing batters to a .221 mark.
Prospect Zack Thompson was effective in long relief. In 17 1/3 frames, the lefty crafted a 1.56 ERA. He struck out 22, but has a continuing challenge with free passes, issuing 15. AFL batters hit a stingy .215 against him.
Trusted with late inning work, Jake Walsh saved four of five opportunities, but logged an ERA of 8.10 in the process. The right-hander, who was added to the 40-man roster on Friday, allowed far too much traffic on the bases, with 15 hits and six walks in 10 innings. Walsh fanned 10.
Fall Stars Game
It would be easier to call out which of the Cardinals were not selected for the annual Fall Stars Game, but we don’t take the easy route here.
Among hitters, Nootbaar and Yepez were named to the West Division team and started in the game. Donovan was voted in by the final fan online balloting and appeared as a replacement. Based on his prospect stature, Gorman was selected, but could not play.
On the pitching side, Thompson was placed on the team and Pallante was a late addition. The former took one inning in the Fall Stars Game, but the latter did not pitch.
Three #STLCards players headline the 2021 All-AFL Team, the most of any MLB team. 🙌
Congratulations to Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbaar & Andre Pallante on a great Fall League season. https://t.co/8b62NIj6IY
— Cardinals Player Development (@CardsPlayerDev) November 23, 2021
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