photo: Jose Leon (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
The St. Louis Cardinals’ Low-A affiliate struggled for the majority of 2021. For the Palm Beach Cardinals, it was a tale of two seasons, in part due to the releveling in minor league baseball. Palm Beach had many first-year players, beginning with 2020 draft picks, then 2021 draft picks after the latter were promoted from the Florida Complex League.
Low-A Southeast League
The Palm Beach Cardinals represented the St. Louis Cardinals in the Low-A Southeast League’s East Division. In 2019 and prior, the Beach Birds were in the A-Advanced Florida State League, but MiLB realigned leagues and levels. There are 10 teams in the Low-A Southeast League, with four teams in the East Division and six in the West Division. Most of the teams in this league were part of the previous A-Advanced FSL and played in their MLB affiliate’s spring training facility. Spring training ballparks tend to be larger than most minor league parks which helps this league to be pitching oriented.
The regular-season schedule began on May 4 and ended on September 19, delayed one month and shortened due to the pandemic. Each team was scheduled for 120 games, but due to inclement weather, some games were canceled. The Beach Birds played 117 games including 47 against teams in the West Division and 70 in the East Division. The Cards played 60 games as the home team and 57 on the road, the latter not counting “road” games against the Marlins held at Roger Dean Stadium.
The 2021 Cardinals were managed by Jose Leon. This was Leon’s first season as the manager for Palm Beach, but he had been employed by the Cardinals’ organization since 2018. Leon was drafted by St. Louis in 1994 and made it to Double-A before being traded to Baltimore. The Puerto Rican native then made his way back to the Cardinals organization as a pitching coach for the Dominican Summer League, before being promoted to the manager of the State College Spikes in 2019.
Dean Kiekhefer was the pitching coach for Palm Beach this season. Kiekhefer was drafted by St. Louis in 2010 and was assigned to the Johnson City Cardinal. He was then promoted to the Class A Quad City River Bandits. In 2012 Kentucky native pitched for Palm Beach. His next season was split between Palm Beach and Springfield. In 2014 he spent time with Springfield and Memphis, and all of 2015 with Memphis. In 2016, after opening with Memphis, Kiekhefer was promoted to St. Louis. Kiekhefer retired from the MLB following the 2019 season after playing with St. Louis, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Oakland. He was then hired by the Cardinals for the 2020 season as pitching coach for the State College Spikes, but the season was cancelled.
The Cards’ hitting coach was Daniel Nicolaisen. He was originally hired to be the hitting coach for Johnson City in 2020 but was reassigned to Palm Beach following the COVID-19 pandemic. His coaching career started in 2017 as a volunteer assistant coach for the women’s softball team at Seton Hall University, where he was later promoted to a full-time assistant in 2018.
2021 was a tale of two seasons for Palm Beach. They struggled for a majority of the summer, but many of the original players were no longer with the team by the time the season concluded. There was no all-star break this season, but the Cardinals were in last place at the halfway point with a record of 23-36. The Beach Birds won just one six-game series this season (they went 5-1 against Dunedin in Week 9), and they split six series. The Cards were slightly better at home, posting a 21-39 record, while they went 16-41 on the road (both were the worst in the league).
Palm Beach had standout player throughout the season, but before they had an opportunity to shine together, they were promoted to Peoria. In doing so, the team continued to struggle as they brought in first-year players from the rookie level Florida Complex League team and the 2021 draft.
Overall, Palm Beach finished in 10th/last in the Low-A Southeast League with a record of 37-80 (24 games behind the St. Lucie Mets (NYM) for first in the East, and 36.5 games behind the Tampa Tarpons [NYY]). The next worst league team went 52-64, 15 1/2 games better.
The lack of success in 2021 caused the Cards to miss the playoffs for what would have been the second consecutive season. As 2019’s playoffs were canceled due to Hurricane Dorian and the 2020 season was not played, the consecutive appearances would have been in 2018 and 2021.
36 pitchers took the mound for Palm Beach in 2021 (the second consecutive season during which the team used 36 pitchers). 16 pitched at least 20 innings. The staff struggled this season with their combined ERA a league-worst 5.66.
The team was tied for the fewest shutouts (Daytona Tortugas [CIN]) at three. The Beach Birds had the fewest saves (14) and the highest batting average against (.261). The pitching staff also allowed the most hits (989), the most runs (738), the most walks (628), and the highest WHIP (1.66). The Cardinals allowed 79 homers (tied for seventh-most) and fanned 1174 (fifth-most).
34 different players took at least one at-bat for Palm Beach in 2021, 15 of which had at least 100 at-bats (six with at least 200). The Beach Birds had more success at the plate than on the mound.
The batters finished with a .241 batting average (tied for third-best), 903 hits (3rd), and a .706 OPS (6th). They had trouble converting them into runs, however, with just 515 (10th). Palm Beach hitters combined for 73 home runs (tied for 6th) and 459 RBI (8th).
At the plate, the team fanned 1110 times (second-fewest) and they walked 498 times (eighth-most). The team’s stolen base percentage was 69% (62-for-90), the second-worst success rate in the league.
Palm Beach posted a fielding percentage of just .962 (tied for ninth) this season. The defense committed 151 errors (8th). They recorded 217 double plays (6th) and 13 passed balls (tied for fourth-lowest). The catching staff allowed 155 stolen bases (fourth-most) and had a caught stealing percentage of 27% (fourth-best).
TCN Top Prospects
Palm Beach featured 13 of TCN’s Top 50 prospects in the Cardinals organization throughout the season. This included #3 prospect Jordan Walker, #4 prospect Masyn Winn, #7 prospect Michael McGreevy, #18 prospect Gordon Graceffo, #20 prospect Ryan Holgate, #22 prospect Austin Love, #24 prospect Patrick Romeri, #28 prospect Levi Prater, #41 prospect Matt Koperniak, #42 prospect Thomas Francisco, #46 prospect Edwin Nunez, #47 prospect Todd Lott, and #50 prospect Elijah Cabell.
Walker, Winn, Francisco, and Lott were promoted to High-A Peoria; and Koperniak was promoted to Double-A Springfield before the conclusion of the season.
Matt Koperniak played nearly half the season (58 games) with Palm Beach and posted a slash line of .322/.443/.470/.913. His OPS led the team (playing at least 30 games). Koperniak also had 15 doubles and four homers before his promotion.
Masyn Winn played 61 games with the Beach Birds before moving up to Peoria. Winn had the fifth-most at-bats on the team. Over that span, he crossed home plate 50 times, hit 21 extra-base hits (including three homers), and stole a team-leading 16 bases.
L.J. Jones played more games (86) with the Cards than any other player in 2021. As a result, he also had the most at-bats (329) and he had a slash line of .243/.303/.371/.674.
Luis Ortiz has the most appearances (60 ⅔ innings in 33 games) on the mound for the Cardinals but had an ERA of 6.68. Jose Moreno pitched the most innings (81 ⅓ innings) and posted a 5.53 ERA.
2021 was a difficult season for Palm Beach. Most of the players were in their first professional season and/or first full season and the coaching staff was new to the team, league and level as well. Despite the overall struggles though, good individual efforts allowed for promotions to High-A Peoria (and one to Double-A Springfield).
Once the standout players were promoted, the team struggled once again. The coaching staff was missing the star power, and they were trying to learn the newcomers (the majority of which were either from the FCL team or the 2021 draft).
This season was quite different than previous formats, as Palm Beach does not typically have this many first-year players. Next season may look similar with many first-year players on the team, as they wait for their name to be called up to High-A.
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