photo: Roberto Espinoza (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
At .340 (17-33), the 2023 Cardinals Florida Complex League club posted the third-worst record in team history. On the rookie-level roster, the starting pitchers performed far better than the hitting, defense and relief pitching.
By Paul Ivice and Brian Walton
Not much went as hoped or expected for the last-place Florida Complex League Cardinals in the 2023 season. But a close inspection into the nooks and crannies will reveal that not all was lost … though 33 losses in 50 games, including their last nine, is a big number.
With their fourth consecutive fifth-place finish in the FCL’s East Division, the Cardinals’ streak of five division titles in the previous seven years (from 2012 through 2018) seems like ancient history. The latter stretch was compiled in a time when drafts were 50 rounds and two additional levels (now eliminated) existed between the rookie league and Low-A. Times have changed.
Like most others in MLB teams’ player development departments, the Cardinals will tell you that especially in these lower levels, the results are less important than the process. But if pressed, they would also admit that they prefer to win than lose.
And this team lost often.
The 2023 team’s winning percentage of .340 is the worst for the Cardinals at the level since 2008 (.309) and third worst in the organization’s history (including .327 in 1975). This goes back to 1964 in three separate stints totaling 39 individual seasons of play.
Still, while the 2023 FCL Cards performed poorly at times in every aspect of the game, there were some remarkable individual performances that merit attention. They will be highlighted in future articles in this series.
The Cardinals played all 50 games in-division. They got off to a decent 8-9 start in June, but really struggled from there. Their July record was a dismal 5-14 and did not improve much in August at 4-10.
|Total runs||Runs inn. 1-4||Runs inn. 5-7|
Of the Cardinals’ six wins over the Marlins and Mets, three were shutouts, two were near-shutouts in which the Marlins scored their only run in the eighth inning, and in the other, the Cardinals erased a four-run Mets lead in the seventh inning, then scored the game-winning run in the 12th inning. The Mets badly outscored the Cardinals in the first four innings, while the Marlins did most of their damage in innings five through seven, but the results were the same – combined, the two teams won 10 of 13 over the Cardinals.
Against the Nationals, the Cardinals won three of their first four meetings, the last of which was a 14-1 humiliation in seven innings. However, over the long haul, the Nationals took over, winning seven of their last eight head-to-head meetings.
The Cardinals did post a winning record against the Astros, taking seven of 12. They established a scoring advantage in the early innings and held even late.
As the data below indicates, the Cardinals scored the fewest runs, while giving up the second most. On average, they plated over one run less than the opposition per game over the 50 games played.
|Total runs per game||Off||Def||Diff|
|vs. FCL Mets||5.44||5.06||+0.38|
|vs. FCL Nationals||6.02||6.39||-0.37|
|vs. FCL Marlins||6.29||5.19||+1.10|
|vs. FCL Astros||5.55||5.59||-0.04|
In terms of player age, the Cardinals were very close to the average across the 15-team FCL. The hitters’ average of 19.4 years of age was right on the cross-league mark, while the pitchers at 20.6 years came in just under the FCL aggregate mark of 20.8.
With up to 40 players on the Cardinals roster, playing time was spread out. The 15 position players to see the field for the Cardinals in 2023 received from a low of 72 to a high of 136 plate appearances. In comparison, the FCL leader in plate appearances had 239 and a total of 61 players from other teams had more than the Cardinals leader at 136.
On one hand, this enabled the coaches to look at more players for an extended period. But on the other side of the coin, the best of them received fewer reps than their counterparts on other teams.
With the proximity of the Low-A Palm Beach club, the Cardinals had the flexibility to give a number of FCL position players and pitchers alike the opportunity to play “a level up” for a time, even though most such promotions were short-term in duration.
Notable hitters to play for the Beach Birds, only to be returned to the FCL, were prospect shortstop Jonathan Mejia (twice) and outfielder Jose Cordoba. Catcher Jake Burns was promoted upward, but later released off the Palm Beach roster. Pitchers Benjamin Arias and Chen-Wei Lin remained with Palm Beach once promoted, but Wilmer Ortega didn’t stick until his second try.
Unlike some prior years, only a few members of the Cardinals 2023 draft class played for the FCL club. However, with an entire draft class of collegians, this was not too surprising. Appearing very briefly in the FCL were RHPs Jacob Odle (14th round) and Hunter Kublick (18th). Third-round outfielder Travis Honeyman was also placed on the FCL roster, but only because he was injured and did not play.
Only one Cardinal, prospect pitcher Alec Willis, spent the entire season on the injured list. In three years in the FCL, the 20-year-old right-hander has been able to throw just 12 2/3 innings. However, Willis surely wasn’t the only injured player. Due to the large roster, there was no need to place other players on the IL even if unavailable for a period.
After the season closed, the Cardinals released seven players from the FCL roster – RHP Alejandro Cervantes, LHP Diorys Guerrero, RHP Ludwin Jimenez, RHP Yonael Dominguez, 1B Fernando Diaz, SS Javier Bolivar and OF Jeremy Ramos.
League stats comparisons
Cardinals pitching was 10th of 15 FCL teams with a 5.76 team ERA. They were 11th in strikeouts but issued the sixth fewest walks.
However, deeper digging uncovers a huge disparity in effectiveness between the rotation and the bullpen. The FCL starters’ aggregate ERA of 3.77 was the best in the league, however, the relievers ranked 12th with an ERA of 6.26.
The Cardinals offense did not even fare as well as the relievers. Their 4.64 runs scored per game was second lowest in the league (14th). The Cards also had the second fewest hits, doubles and steals. They took the third fewest walks and had the third most strikeouts.
Defense was also an issue. Even if the players were not younger than the average, in the field, they played as if they were relatively inexperienced.
The Cardinals committed 90 errors in their 50 games, one short of the most in the league. Their fielding percentage of .949 was 15th/last.
What the Cardinals might have learned in 2023 is there are many ways to win a ballgame, but even more ways to lose one.
What is next?
Much more detail on the FCL Cardinals’ top hitters, relievers and starting pitchers is coming as we select the best of the best in upcoming articles in this series.
Check out The Cardinal Nation’s annual article series highlighting team results and top hitters and pitchers across the entire St. Louis Cardinals system. The Class-A Palm Beach Cardinals Team Review is next up.
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