photo: Roberto Espinoza (center) and FCL infielders (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
Despite a second consecutive last-place finish in the five-team East Division, the rookie-level Florida Complex League Cardinals had some bright spots in their 2021 season.
Like most others in the Cardinals’ player development department, FCL manager Roberto Espinoza emphasizes that especially in these lower levels of the system, the results are less important than the process.
Even so, the Cardinals’ 24-29 record was better than the 20-34 record posted by the 2019 team.
The 2019 team had a losing record against all four division opponents, but the 2021 team won more games than they lost against the Astros and Nationals. This year’s Cardinals finished 7 ½ games behind the division-winning Mets.
Scoring at a premium
With 20 of the Cardinals’ 53 games scheduled for just seven innings, either because of doubleheaders or pitching shortages, it was even more important to score early, and often.
The following scoring analysis illustrates how crucial it was to get runs on the board in the first four innings. In the first two innings, the Cardinals were outscored 88-70.
|Runs per inning|
|Total runs||in first 4 innings|
In their seventh and eighth innings, the Cardinals scored a total of 37 runs, but 25 of them were against one team – the Nationals. Similarly, the Cardinals gave up 55 runs to opponents in the seventh inning or later, but 30 of them were to the Marlins.
Because there are five teams in the division, one team is idle every day from Monday through Saturday, and all teams were off each Sunday.
Espinoza observed that all but one of the games between Cardinals and Mets followed an idle day for the Cardinals on the schedule. The Cardinals were 3-8 in those games. Espinoza said that especially with games starting at noon or 10 a.m., a team that was off the day before takes a little longer to get back into the rhythm of the game, so that was an advantage for the Mets, however slight.
In a quick scan of the schedule, the Astros offer data that supports Espinoza’s point. The Astros regularly played the Mets after the former’s day off. The Astros went just 5-9 against the Mets.
The Cardinals were not only last in the East Division in runs per game (4.43) and OPS (.659), they were 15th in the 18-team league in runs per game and 16th in OPS.
Power was the biggest deficit. The Cardinals’ 367 hits were only 11 below the league average, though all four of their division opponents were above the average. Their .320 batting average ranked 15th, and though the Cardinals batters drew walks at slightly above the league average rate, it didn’t push their ranking for On-Base Percentage any higher.
But their .325 slugging percentage was 17th in the league, far below the .380 league average. In the East Division, only the Mets were above average. The Cardinals’ 19 home runs tied for last in the league, which averaged 33.8 per team. Despite the big park, they were also 10 below the league average of 80.4 doubles.
Though their 12 triples were close to the league average of 14.6, in the other key speed barometer — stolen bases – their 48 was well shy of the 68.6 league average. However their 22 caught stealing total was barely shy of the 23.4 team average.
|Total runs per game||Off||Def|
In the 18-team FCL, the Cardinals were below average performers with a 4.62 ERA that ranked 10th. They were last in the five-team East Division. Their strikeout total of 466 is 11th overall and again last in the East. The Cardinals’ batting average against of .267 tied the Nationals for 11th in the league and was highest in the division.
On the positive side, Cardinals pitchers walked 190, the fifth-lowest total in the league and best in the division.
New draftees prevalent
On a roster that swelled to over 40 players once the 2021 draft picks were signed, this group of newcomers made up almost a third of the team.
The Cardinals drafted 12 pitchers this July and all signed. Of them, only fifth-rounder Gordon Graceffo, did not open his professional career in the FCL. Most threw an inning at a time in recognition that they had already played a full spring schedule. Yet by the end of the summer, Michael McGreevy (1st), Austin Love (3rd), Andre Granillo (14th) and Andrew Marrero (18th) were promoted to join Graceffo at Low-A Palm Beach.
The story on the position player side was just the opposite. Of the eight signed position players, only former high school outfielder Joshua Baez (2nd) was assigned to the FCL The 18-year-old remained all summer, roaming in center field.
In this clip from an August intrasquad game, McGreevy and Baez faced off.
The step up to Palm Beach, while close geographically (both are located in the Jupiter complex), was tall in terms of the difference in competition. With the 2021 loss of two levels that were previously in between, some of the younger players who showed they weren’t quite ready for Class-A were backed off to the FCL.
In conclusion, the players can build upon their first game action since 2019 (or first as a pro) and 2022 will bring increased familiarity with the new minor league structure for players and coaches alike, leading to increased hope for the future.
(Brian Walton also contributed to this report.)
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