The longer standing of the two St. Louis Cardinals’ entries in the rookie-level Dominican Summer League, the Blue, had the best winning percentage in the entire Cardinals system, but finished in second place in its division in 2019.
The Dominican Summer League (DSL) is at the Rookie level within baseball’s minor league structure. The league is a gateway into affiliated professional baseball for players who are not eligible for Major League Baseball’s annual June First-Year Player Draft. The lack of eligibility is mainly because of not meeting the residency requirement.
The DSL is comprised of 45 teams split among six divisions with the Cardinals Blue assigned to the nine-team South Division, the largest one. (By contrast, two divisions have six teams each with the 24 squads balance divided evenly between the remaining three divisions.) Each team plays exclusively within its own division, to minimize travel.
After 13 seasons with one team in the league, St Louis expanded to two squads for the 2018 season, enabling them to double the number of players assigned. The original team became the Cardinals Blue and a second team was created, the Cardinals Red, which plays in the eight-team San Pedro Division. Both teams share the Baseball Oasis facility with one team almost always home while the other is on the road.
The 2019 season began on June 1st and ran through August 24th with a maximum of 72 games scheduled. However, the South Division scheduled 64 games, due to uneven number of teams in the division necessitating additional off days. Because of the rather significant difference between the total games played in the South Division versus the rest of the league, which was 71 or 72 games, a counting stats comparison between the Cardinals Blue versus the league will not be addressed in this review.
During the 2019 season, 37 players received playing time on the Cardinals Blue, with eight – four position and four pitching – also seeing action on the Cardinals Red. For the purposes of this article, the stats of those eight remain in the cumulative team totals in which they were generated. However, each of the eight player’s stats and prior experience was counted against the team for which they played the most, both when analyzing individual ages and experience (see below) and consideration for year-end awards.
The Blue averaged 17.8 years of age, slightly above the league average of 17.7. While the vast majority hail from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba and Columbia were represented as well. The squad had 15 Rookies experiencing their first taste of professional ball, 15 players with one year of experience and three with two prior pro seasons.
Blending the age and prior experience components, with ages marked as of the start of the 2019 season on June 1, the 15 Rookies were a mix of three 16-year-olds, six 17-year-olds, five 18-year-olds and a 19-year-old. For ages of players who played pro ball for one year prior to 2019, two were 17 on Opening Day, eight were 18, four were 19 and one was 20. The three two-year veterans were all 19.
The Cardinals Blue began the season as the defending South Division Champions, a first for the organization. The team’s results on a monthly basis were 15-7 in June, 14-8 in July and 12-8 in August to finish with a 41-23 mark. That was good for second in the division, two games behind the DSL Rockies. In fact, the Cardinals Blue’s play-off hopes continued until the second to last day of the regular season, when they lost a head-to-head match-up versus the Rockies that would have propelled them back into first place.
The Cardinals Blue had a slight preference for their home field, going 22-10 there versus 19-13 away. Their longest winning streak was a 10-game ride from August 3rd through 16th. Immediately following came a four-game losing skid from August 17th through 21st. That was the first time the team had lost more than two consecutive games all season. The C Blue went 14-9 in games decided by one run, 6-6 in two-run contests, 3-2 for those decided by three runs and 17-8 in games determined by four or more tallies.
The Blue’s 2019 winning percentage of .641 was best among all Cardinals minor league affiliates by a substantial margin, but still down from the blistering .708 pace of the year before.
21 hurlers took the mound, including only two left-handers, Nelson Prada and Cristoffer Zapata, and both southpaws received their unconditional release at the season’s end. The average age of the staff was 17.9 years old, placing them in a three-way tie for fifth place with the Rangers2 and Dodgers Bautista. That was under the league average of 18.3 years.
In comparison, the Blue Jays had the league’s youngest staff at 17.6 years of age while the Cubs2’s pitchers averaged 19.5 years, which were the oldest. Contrasting the average age of this year’s staff to last, the 2018 Cardinals Blue staff averaged 18.4 years old, which was the league average last season.
The young staff, which included four rookies in the rotation, compiled a 3.63 team Earned Run Average (ERA) and 1.352 Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) which tied them for 12th in ERA and 10th in WHIP as compared to their counterparts on other squads. Although the C Blue staff was decidedly lower middle-of-the-pack in Hits Per 9 Innings (8.5) and Strikeouts Per Nine innings (8.0), tied for 27th and 28th, their Walks Per 9 Innings was a strong 3.7, putting them seventh in that category and seventh in Strikeouts-to-Walks ratio (2.16:1).
The average age of Cardinals Blue hitters was 17.8, placing them just over the league average of 17.7 and in a seven-way tie for 25th. That number puts them a tad older than the 2018 average of 17.6. The Padres claimed the youngest group at 17.1 and on the other end of the age spectrum, both the White Sox and Rays2 hitters averaged 18.4 years old.
This Blue offense put runs on the board to the tune of 6.19 per game on average, seventh in the league. Of the six teams above them, just three had a younger average age.
What else did the 2019 Cardinals Blue offense do well? That would be two categories with a direct connection: On-Base Percentage and Average Walks per Plate Appearance. The C Blue placed in the top quarter of the league in both areas, compiling a .368 on-base percentage, which was eighth in the DSL. In the average number of base-on-balls per plate appearance drawn, their 1:8 ratio was 11th.
The Cardinals Blue were either close to or in the top third in Batting Average (.256), Slugging (.360) and OPS (.728). That slash line ranked them in a three-way tie for 14th in Batting Average, 16th in Slugging and 13th in OPS.
A glaring weakness was contact…or lack thereof. The Cardinals Blue whiffed an average of once every 3.63 at bats, 38th of 45 teams. Considering strikeouts per plate appearance instead does not change much since the team struck out an average of once every 4.37 plate appearances, 35th in the league.
The Cardinals Blue tied with three other teams for 22nd in the league with a .954 fielding percentage. In comparison, the league’s top defensive team was the Rangers1 with a .971 fielding percentage and the worst was the Angels’ .938. However, there were individuals who impressed with their glove work but more on them in the upcoming Player of the Year article.
Catching duties were shared mainly by two players for whom 2019 was their second year in the league: Jose Zapata and Luis Rodriguez. Zapata is the younger of the two by a year, having turned 18 in February, and he received a bit more time behind the plate – 31 games to Rodriguez’ 23. But Rodriguez was far superior at nailing base runners, catching 59% of 37 attempted steals versus Zapata, who caught only 27% of 63 runners, while generating similar offense – higher batting average for Rodriguez but a bit better walk rate and slugging percentage for Zapata.
Team backstops had a caught stealing rate of 34%, placing them in a four-way tie for 14th in the league. The upper portion of the league was so competitive in this category that only 3% separated the Cardinals Blue from 8th place.
Let us take a bit deeper dive into attempted steals by comparing the team to their eight division mates. The other eight teams would be facing and trying to catch a similar group of base runners, which should give another view on how the team did. The Cardinals Blue tied the Phillies Red for second in the South Division, behind the cellar-dwelling Nationals with a 35% caught rate. The Cardinals Blue also had the fewest attempts made against their backstops, 123, versus 145 for the Phillies Red and 169 for the Nationals.
The 2019 Dominican Summer League All-Star Game took place on Sunday, July 14th with the Cardinals Blue sending just one player – outfielder Gustavo A. Rodriguez. While 2019 was Rodriguez’ first year of pro ball, the 19-year-old was signed as an international free agent on July 2, 2018 but was placed on the Restricted List on July 14, 2018 before seeing any action.
The wait was worth it for the Cardinals, as the Dominican native was hot out of the gate, slashing .329/.352/.513/.865 in 19 June games, which earned him an All-Star nod. But Rodriguez’ offensive line plummeted in July, .200/.341/.271/.612 in 21 games before he generated an August bounceback of .262/.357/.344/.701 in 16 games for an overall line of .266/.349/.382/.731.
Defensively, Rodriguez played exclusively in right field and flashed one of the team’s better gloves. The rookie was charged with only one error in 47 games, making 83 putouts and five assists for a .989 fielding percentage. His 1.87 range factor was well below either center fielder Hansel Otamendi’s 2.39 or I-play-all-three-fields Darlin Moquete’s 2.44.
Up, Up and Away
There were two promotions from the Blue during the 2019 season, both pitchers who were in their second year of pro ball. Luis Ortiz was the first to fly the coop, promoted after three games, two starts, in which he went 0-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 10 1/3 innings. The right-hander needed to keep his bags packed as he tossed just 21 innings, five games, three starts, for the GCL Cardinals before finishing the year with the Johnson City Cardinals, where Ortiz pitched 24 1/3 frames over seven games, six starts.
Reliever Luis Tena spent the majority of his 2019 season with the Cardinals Blue, compiling a 2.52 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 25 innings over 14 games, one start. The 19-year-old was promoted to the GCL Cardinals on July 22nd, a day after Ortiz was bumped up to Johnson City from the GCL squad. Tena came out of the bullpen 10 times for the GCL Cardinals, covering 19 2/3 innings.
The Cardinals Blue was a team balanced in offense and pitching. While the offense generally put up better numbers compared to the rest of the league, the rotation contained three starters with an ERA under 3.00. All three contended for Starting Pitcher of the Year. Ultimately, shaky defense turned out to be the squad’s downfall with unearned runs deciding a crucial late-season contest that ended their post-season aspirations.
Link to master article with all 2019 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Next up will be our Gulf Coast League Cardinals Team Review.
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