All posts by Lou Roesch

The Cardinals Remain on the Path Branch Rickey Blazed

photo: Branch Rickey 

With Major League Baseball clubs having broken camp and moved north for the 2021 season, minor league baseball now prepares for its 2021 season. The minors, thanks in large part to the ingenuity, perseverance and diligence of Branch Rickey, are the usual pathway to a big-league career.

Baseball represents one of the hardest sports to progress from high school to the spotlight of success. Just one half of one percent of high schoolers drafted – or one out of every 200 – make it to The Show. A very few can accomplish it without a trip through the minor leagues.

The St. Louis Cardinals are a storied organization dating back to when baseball was played barehanded. Along the way, the franchise has evolved and morphed into a 21st Century leader on and off the diamond.  Between the lines, they consistently are a marquee attraction in part because of a great farm system – but did you know that they were the first to start the baseball farm system as we know it today?

Branch Rickey

Baseball has always had lower levels and teams independent of the major leagues. In the process that evolved through the late 1800’s and into the 20th Century, major league teams would sign a player, hope he develops, and then make a deal for him to play somewhere else.

In the early 1920’s, St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey began implementing a plan that would change baseball history. Although Rickey had previously toyed with idea as the St. Louis Browns general manager, it was with the crosstown Cardinals where his idea came to life.  He believed the minors were the lifeline that smaller market teams needed to compete with the big clubs like the vaunted New York Yankees.

The idea for a developmental system was borne from the lack of honesty and integrity among independent minor league owners. They were more likely to sell a player to the highest bidder than to honor their deal with the team that originally had a player’s rights.

After his move to the Cardinals, Rickey received the go ahead from owner Sam Breadon to pursue his idea of a farm system to offset the advantage of bigger markets and to reduce the likelihood of losing potential stars.

The architect of the minors bought a 50 percent interest in the Fort Smith, Arkansas team, securing a spot for his first test case, Heinie Mueller, to begin his ascent to St. Louis. Shortly thereafter, the Cardinals brain trust added a minority interest in the Houston Buffaloes (eventually they would play a role in the Houston Colt-45’s and subsequent Houston Astros history.

With two rungs of the ladder complete, Rickey was set to add Memphis (which would come later) but unbeknownst to him, Breadon had struck a deal with the Syracuse owners and Memphis was scrapped for the moment.

The farm would eventually bring players like Dizzy Dean, Chick Hafey, and Joe Medwick among others to St. Louis, forming the cornerstone of the World Series-winning “Gashouse Gang.” Rickey’s creativity drew the wrath of commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis ruled with an iron fist and did not want to be upstaged by someone like the brash Branch Rickey.

Landis attempted to derail the plan but there was no stopping this train. By 1924, Rickey had gained controlling interest in both Houston and Syracuse. No longer did he need backroom handshakes and agreements.

Rickey’s innovation opened the door for stability and growth – not just for the Cardinals, but for major league baseball organizations as a whole. Without the minor leagues, St Louis may not have become synonymous with winning. Without the farm system there may never have been a Stan Musial, a Bob Gibson, a Steve Carlton, a Vince Coleman, an Albert Pujols or a Yadier Molina wearing the “Birds On The Bat” and most likely never 11 World Series titles, the second most in baseball history.

Branch Rickey

Rickey brought a pathway by which the Redbirds continue to grow and develop some of the best in baseball. Today the Cardinals have 263 players under contract including the 40-man roster. Of the 26-man active Cardinals roster, 14 are homegrown. That is 15, if you count Adam Wainwright, who was obtained in a deal while still a minor leaguer. It serves as a testimonial to Rickey’s vision of building a pipeline of development and success.

Even with baseball’s latest realignment of the minor leagues, the system created by Rickey continues paying dividends for the Cardinals, such as Dylan Carlson, a potential 2021 National League Rookie of the Year. Year in and year out, depending on who you ask, the Cardinals system ranks anywhere from the top 10 (as the pre-eminent deliberator Keith Law had them in 2020) to the bottom third where the website prospects1500.com has them in 2021. In The Cardinal Nation’s annual breakdown of how a half-dozen national analysts rank farm systems, St. Louis remains in the middle third. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the parameters by which they assess.

No matter how it is measured, Branch Rickey’s genius lives on.


Exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation

Cardinals Welcome 112 Players to Minor League Camp


2021 Prospect Guide now available!

Now available, The Cardinal Nation 2021 Prospect Guide is back for a fourth year. It includes over 250 pages of in-depth commentary about the very best St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers, including dozens of color photos.

TCN’s 2021 Cardinals Prospect Guide – Now Available!


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© 2021 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Are Matt Carpenter’s Cardinals Days Numbered?

photo: Matt Carpenter via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

Matt Carpenter’s time as member of the St. Louis Cardinals may be limited. His 2021 spring training camp has definitely not gone according to plan. If performance is the determining factor, the odds are not in his favor. This spring, Carpenter has not performed as he or the Cardinals expected. His productivity as an everyday regular and now as a role player off the bench appears to continuously trend downward.

Matt Carpenter

Over the course of the next week as the Cardinals prepare for their final cut to 26 players, they are going to have to make a tough decision. The organization must decide what is most important to this 2021 Cardinals team going forward. Is Matt Carpenter’s leadership and clubhouse presence more valuable or is his salary a bigger sticking point when it comes to the bottom line?

Here are four points to ponder.

Tommy Edman’s emergence

Edman has played well this spring. His performance at the plate has really made the decision of who mans the second base bag a fairly easy one for manager Mike Shildt. It had been thought that who covered the territory between first and second in the 2021 season might be up for grabs after Kolten Wong moved on to Milwaukee.

Tommy Edman

Carpenter, a former All-Star at second, came to camp hoping to show he still had what it takes to be an everyday player. He has not, but Edman has. The 25-year old switch hitter has nine more hits than Carpenter with only four more at bats. Among Cardinals this spring, Edman ranks in the top five in most offensive categories. He has shown, in limited action, an ability to finally hit right handed pitching with some consistency – something many thought might become the Cardinals’ primary reason for keeping Carpenter. It still might be.

Other bench options prevalent

Although Carpenter did not plan to come off the bench in 2021, it was presumed that if worse came to worse, he could be the left-handed bat off the bench – but an .041 spring batting average is not working in his favor.

Off-season signees Jose Rondon and Max Moroff have wielded healthy enough bats in the spring to help make Carpenter expendable. Combined, the duo is hitting .265 with six extra base hits, 10 walks and 10 RBI.

John Nogowski

If you thought Carpenter might do well enough to back up Paul Goldschmidt at first, think again. In fewer at bats then Carpenter, John Nogowski has a team leading 10 RBI and is in the top three of the club statistically in hits, walks and batting average. Plus, Nogowski may be able to play some outfield if need be.

Then throw into the mix two players who are out of options in Edmundo Sosa and Justin Williams. Out of options simply means that the team cannot assign them to the minors without them clearing waivers. Although being out of options is not a reason to make the club heading north, it can be an important tiebreaker. The risk and reward toward the youth and progress of these two may become a consideration for the Cardinals in light of Carpenter’s lack of performance.

Carpenter’s struggles

The Galveston, Texas native has been his own worst enemy this spring in terms of plate performance. In fact, his overall return since signing his most recent contract extension in April 2019 has been lacking. With a combined slash line over the last two seasons of .216/.332/.372 and his .041 average this spring, the question comes down to this – Is Matt Carpenter’s leadership and clubhouse presence worth $18.5 million if he isn’t producing on the field? There is no easy answer.

The former All-Star came to camp relishing the opportunity to prove he can do it again. When asked in late February about being a role player, Carpenter offered this reply;

“Well, I don’t know if it’s been established that I’m a part-time player just yet,” Carpenter said. “There is a lot of camp left. There’s a lot of season left. I’m going to go out and compete every day to be in our lineup. Who knows where that’s going to be? If I find a way in there, it could be at a different position. That’s my mentality this spring to go out and win a job.”

His willingness to play anywhere and do whatever has been asked of him has allowed the 399th pick of the 2009 MLB draft to have a fairly productive MLB career. That hasn’t changed. When Nolen Arenado was acquired by St. Louis last month, it meant Carpenter would no longer be in charge at the hot corner, where he had achieved All-Star honors previously. When Wong left, it opened the possibility for Carpenter to battle for the second base job with Edman. That battle never materialized. No one knows better than him how important his bat is to his future and the Cardinals success.

“That’s my mentality, take care of that first,” Carpenter said recently. “That’s my first and foremost mentality for this entire season. I know if I hit like I know I’m capable of, I’m going to help this team, plain and simple. I think we’re a better team if I’m swinging the bat like I know I can.”

The bat is not working for him this spring, as referenced by his 11 strikeouts in his 25 plate appearances. This makes the decision all the more difficult and painful. The expectation and hope has been that he would find the magic of 2018 when he crushed 36 home runs and earned that extension. His work in the offseason to return to his once characteristic control of the sticks and bat speed has not yet produced the desired results.

The final straw

Moving on from Carpenter and his $18.5 million 2021 salary makes financial sense. From a baseball standpoint, moving him out would open the door for a younger player. Carpenter, though, brings a depth of leadership like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. His presence brings a certain amount of respect to the game and doing things right.

Those two reasons alone make Carpenter a valuable commodity – one that just might be worth $18.5 million to a team expected to be in the hunt for another World Series title. However if the Cardinals choose to release Carpenter, they would still be on the hook for his 2021 salary minus the $570,500 (MLB minimum) another team would be required to pay if they picked him up. (There is also a $2 million 2022 buyout that will have to be paid regardless.)

Instead, the Cardinals could look to trade Carpenter, but there aren’t many clubs, if any, that would be willing to take on much of his salary. As a result, the Cardinals would likely be on the hook for a vast majority of his compensation – similar to the recent Dexter Fowler deal.

For an organization that has always treated its players like family, this presents an unenvious situation. Should he stay or should he go? That is the million dollar question – or 18 and a half million dollar question, if you will.

How can the Cardinals make the right decision for all concerned?


Exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation

Cardinals Drop 10 in Second Round of Spring Reductions


2021 Prospect Guide now available!

Now available, The Cardinal Nation 2021 Prospect Guide is back for a fourth year. It includes over 250 pages of in-depth commentary about the very best St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers, including dozens of color photos.

TCN’s 2021 Cardinals Prospect Guide – Now Available!


Not yet a member?

Join The Cardinal Nation for the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system.

Follow Lou Roesch on Twitter @sportsguy409.

© 2021 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Hicks “Feels Great” after First Outing Since 2019

photo: Jordan Hicks (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)

“I feel great!” (emphasis added). Three simple words made the day of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt the morning after reliever Jordan Hicks made his return to the mound on Sunday. One year, eight months and 17 days in the making, his first game appearance was nothing short of epic, but the fact he still felt good the day after was equally, if not more important.

Coming off recovery from Tommy John surgery, Hicks got in his one inning/25 pitches of scheduled work by facing just one batter during Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the New York Mets. The 22-pitch battle between Hicks and Mets infielder Luis Guillorme overshadowed everything else in baseball that afternoon. It was the stuff of which legends are created.

Shildt praised future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina for coming out to the mound in the 13-14 pitch range to give the pitcher “a blow”. In doing so, it created a break as if between batters. The manager said Hicks’ outing “exceeded all expectations”.

Jordan Hicks

At 21 years of age, Hicks had made the jump from Class A to the Major Leagues in 2018 and struck out 70 in 77 2/3 innings as a rookie. In 2019, the right-hander dominated hitters with a 3.14 ERA and 14 saves, striking out 31 in 28 2/3 innings.

Then came the injury that sidelined the Houston, Texas native. Pitching to David Fletcher of the Angels on June 25, 2019, Jordan felt a twinge in his elbow. Originally diagnosed as triceps tendinitis, Hicks received a second and third opinion before finally succumbing to the knife.

Recovery for this type of surgery is usually in the range of 12-15 months but then came 2020 and Hicks’ decision to sit out the season. This decision was driven by Hicks’ Type 1 diabetes, increasing his COVID-19 risk.

The pandemic proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Cardinals and their hurler. The decision to sit out relieved the team and player of taking the risk to perhaps rush him back, a temptation to which many have fallen. It’s not the first time the organization has erred on the side of caution with their prized hurler. In 2015, just after drafting Hicks out of high school, the Cardinals shut him down for shoulder soreness and then again in 2016 so he could get a full Fall League experience. The moves paid off handsomely.

The future Cardinals closer hit the radar in the 100 mph range for the first time publicly during spring training 2018. Before the injury, Hicks became the first pitcher to reach 105 multiple times in the same game.

The flamethrower doused any doubts that he could again hit that range on Sunday with six pitches registering 100 plus. More impressive was his ability to throw all of his pitches effectively. You only had to watch what would have been a record setting battle had it occurred during the regular season to know that the converted minor league starter to prime time closer indeed appears to be back in fine form.

This is none too soon either for a Cardinals pitching staff that needs a pick me up. The Cardinals, with a team ERA of 5.40, a WHIP at 1.58 and rising, needed Sunday’s performance to jump start a spring that has been plagued with pitching adversity across the board.

Hicks is expected to be on a normal reliever schedule over the remainder of the spring, meaning we should expect an inning or so every three days with the time gap decreasing as the team draws closer to breaking camp.

Shildt said that closing opportunities to open the season may be spread among a group that includes Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos – and yes, Hicks seems ready to make his spots count, as well.


Exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation

Cardinals Make First Cuts of Spring 2021


2021 Prospect Guide now available!

Now available, The Cardinal Nation 2021 Prospect Guide is back for a fourth year. It includes over 250 pages of in-depth commentary about the very best St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguers, including dozens of color photos.

TCN’s 2021 Cardinals Prospect Guide – Now Available!


Not yet a member?

Join The Cardinal Nation for the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system.

Follow Lou Roesch on Twitter @sportsguy409.

© 2021 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.