The quantity of minor league teams and their locations change over time, but important consistency measures for the St. Louis Cardinals system over the last half-century have been to develop quality future major leaguers – while playing winning team baseball.
The former, the organization’s player pipeline to St. Louis, continues, though more narrowly on the pitching side currently.
However, the collective game results of the teams of over 200 players across the minor league system fell to a new low in 2021.
Since 1963, when the minor leagues were reorganized into the basic structure we know today with four full-season levels, the Cardinals system has never logged a year as poor as their collective .386 winning percentage this season.
This is a period of 57 years!
2021 recap – three views – full-season, US-only, entire system
In 2021, all four full-season clubs – Triple-A Memphis, Double-A Springfield, High-A Peoria and Low-A Palm Beach – posted losing records while finishing no better than fifth place in their respective divisions. The latter three were cellar-dwellers.
|Team||Memphis||Springfield||Peoria||Palm Beach||Full Season|
This is the continuation of a recent trend. 2021 is the second consecutive campaign in which all four Cardinals full-season teams posted a losing record, with each team faring worse in 2021 than in 2019. (The 2020 season was not played.)
Including the other US-based club, the Florida Complex League Cardinals, does not alter the overall picture. The rookie-level Cardinals also finished in last place, though they were only five games under .500 (24-29).
|Team||FL Complex||US total|
The five US teams ended 2021 with a collective .392 winning percentage. That is 30th (last) of all 30 organizations. In fact, all of the other 29 organizations were above .400 this season, led by Tampa Bay at .648.
Taking a full organization view would include the two Dominican Summer League squads. The DSL Cardinals Red and Blue also posted losing records this season, with the full seven-squad Cardinals minor league system coming in at .396 in total.
|Team||DSL Blue||DSL Red||System|
(Note that at least one national source, Baseball America, included in its totals the add-on final two weeks of Triple-A play, called the Triple-A Final Stretch. However, MiLB.com lists these results in the “post-season” category, separate from the regular season. Given the latter, the Final Stretch games are not included here, though in reality, Memphis’ 4-4 record would not change the bottom line, anyway.)
As much as it would be easy to write this off as a one-year, COVID-driven blip, it is not. During the last prior “normal” minor league season, 2019, the Cardinals system’s winning percentage was 29th of 30 organizations. So, 2021 is a continuation of a downward trend.
A major difference from 2019 is due to the game-wide contraction of the minor leagues. With two fewer short-season levels in the system starting this year, the Cardinals had to develop a new strategy in advancing players – directly from the Florida Complex League to Class-A, what previously would have been a three-step jump. Of course, there was an effect on the teams above, as well.
While the basics of contraction are not unique to the Cardinals, the follow-on approach may vary. Organization officials point out that their system is young compared to its competitors, which is true. It is in part reflecting the home-grown approach taken in building the system.
Staffers also note that the Cardinals pushed a number of younger players ahead who ultimately did not catch up to the competition at their assigned level. While the short-term results may not have been as desired, the experience will better prepare these challenged players for the future.
Further, many other organizations sign large numbers of minor league journeymen to augment upper-level rosters. The Cardinals did not do this – until bringing in a number of independent league players during the 2021 season to try to fill depth gaps, primarily on the pitching side.
Specifically, pitching was the Cardinals system downfall in 2021 as all four full-season affiliates registered team ERAs of over 5.00.
Yet relative youth may not be a new theme. For example, the Memphis roster has stacked up young in age versus its Triple-A league competitors in recent seasons, but with much better comparative results on the field in the past.
Memphis Redbirds recent history (compared to league)
- 2021 – youngest hitting and pitching – fifth place finish
- (2020 – no season)
- 2019 – youngest hitting and pitching – second place finish
- 2018 – youngest hitting and pitching in the middle of the pack – WON the league
- 2017 – second youngest hitting and youngest pitching – WON the league
In future articles, I will dig further into the relative age matter at the various levels over time.
The trend downward
The Cardinals haven’t always played losing baseball. Far from it.
From a longer-term perspective, before the recent downturn, the Cardinals system was a consistent winner on the field, logging eight aggregate over-.500 seasons in the nine years from 2010 through 2018.
However, the current trend is concerning. The system was .550 in 2018, .463 in 2019 and now .396 in 2021.
According to national prospect talent analysts, in comparative rankings, the Cardinals system has fallen into the 20 (Baseball America) to 21 (MLB Pipeline) range of the 30 organizations – after consistently placing in the top half over the last 10 years.
In 2021, the Cardinals system was shut out of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. However, an asterisk is required. 2021 became a more restricted environment than usual. Not only are there two fewer levels than before, Triple-A did not have a traditional post-season, nor did the rookie levels. Playoffs at Double-A, High-A and Class-A included just the two league teams with the best regular-season records – a much narrower field than previously.
Prior to 2021, the last time every Cardinals affiliate finished with a losing record was two decades ago. In 2001, the then-total of six minor league clubs each came in under .500, posting a collective .423 winning percentage.
As noted above, the sub-.400 results for the organization in 2021, no matter how one considers it (full-season, US-only or total system), established a new Cardinals low since at least 1963 – and perhaps all-time.
What is next?
For members of The Cardinal Nation, we will look at records and ages at each level of the system, comparing 2021 to prior seasons.
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