photo: Andrew Knizner (Springfield Cardinals FANatic Photos)
The Springbirds flocked to their adopted hometown on Saturday, returning to Springfield following arguably their best regular season by won-loss record in 2017.
Two days later, the Springfield Cardinals hosted their Media Day. As part of the event, the Double-A Cardinals released their (preliminary) Opening Day roster.
The 2018 version of the S-Cards will feature many familiar faces from last year’s club, including a whopping 14 returnees who saw time at Double-A last season.
From among those returnees, the team will be led by two of The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 prospects in right-handed pitcher Ryan Helsley (#9) and catcher Andrew Knizner (#8) as well as No. 13 prospect, outfielder Randy Arozarena.
And the Cardinals also feature 11 newcomers, who should soon make their Texas League debuts.
Top arrivals include TCN’s No. 18 prospect, Opening Day starter Jake Woodford, No. 29 prospect Sam Tewes, and 100 mph arm Conner Greene, who was acquired in the Randal Grichuk trade this past offseason.
“Well, I’ll be honest with you – right from the beginning when we had (Jordan) Hicks in the rotation and Connor Jones in the rotation,” returning Springfield manager Johnny Rodriguez said, “I said to myself, ‘It would be hard to match us anywhere.’ Because you still have Helsley coming back. You have Woodford, who had a real good year last year. Greene came in a trade from Toronto.
“I was excited about that rotation plus the bullpen. Four young guys, who know how to pitch and some returning guys. I said, ‘Right off the bat, we are going to be really good.’ I think we have more power than last year. Younger guys, who have more strength offensively.
“Then we lost Hicks and then we lost Jones. We will see. (Sam) Tewes came up and Ellis came into the rotation. He’s been a great help in the bullpen, who has experience and can spot-start. From that standpoint, we lost a little bit but we will be okay. We got strike-throwers now. We went away from power sinkerballers to strike-throwers.
“So, we got to play defense. It’s a new season. I think the guys that were here last year learned a lot from last year, so that’s going to be helpful. That experience and having that type of record – winning and having success – is going to help,” the second-year manager concluded.
The tentative rotation includes three who accumulated innings at Double-A in 2017: Helsley, Ellis, and Greene (with Toronto) plus the two newcomers Woodford and Tewes – all right-handers.
As of right now, the projected rotation stacks up with Woodford at No. 1, Helsley at No. 2, Greene at No. 3, Tewes at No. 4, and Ellis at No. 5.
Woodford, a 21-year old, had a solid yet unspectacular year at Palm Beach this past season as some of his numbers in the Florida State League were good (3.10 ERA in 119 innings) while others weren’t eye-popping (1.40 WHIP, 14% strikeout rate).
If his stuff ticks up, perhaps he could become this year’s version of Jack Flaherty. Woodford comes off a solid, though brief showing in big-league camp, throwing three shutout frames.
Helsley, 23, opened the year in high-A Palm Beach last year, where he posted an 8-2 record with a 2.69 ERA in 17 games. Helsley had a 91-to-30 strikeout to walk ratio through 93 2/3 innings hurled. He led the Florida State League in almost every statistical category before being promoted to Double-A Springfield in July.
At Springfield, Helsley made the most of his six starts with a 2.67 ERA, boasting an impressive 41-to-15 strikeout to walk count in 33 2/3 innings against Texas League hitters and he even received a taste of Triple-A Memphis by season’s end.
Cardinals officials say there is a chance he is given a cameo out of the big-league Cardinals ‘pen at some point in 2018 as well. Helsley was one of the later cuts in major-league camp for St. Louis this spring.
Greene, a 22-year old, had suffered his bumps at the Double-A level, particularly last year. The powerful righty, who has a fastball that can reach triple-digits, struggled with a 5-10 record and 5.29 ERA at New Hampshire in the Eastern League in 2017.
Controlling and commanding his blistering stuff will also be a big key to his success. Greene had a 92-to-83 strikeout to walk count in 132 2/3 innings.
Tewes, a 23-year old, had a successful first full season of pro ball last year after his debut was delayed due to Tommy John surgery. He made seven starts for the Spikes, compiling a 3.83 ERA while notching a 31-to-7 strikeout to walk ratio in 42 1/3 innings and was promoted to low-A Peoria on July 31.
Tewes made just one start with the Chiefs in which he hurled seven innings before he was promoted again, back to Palm Beach. While he didn’t strike out a ton of batters, the righty flashed terrific efficiency, which allowed him to pitch deep into games. With the Beach Birds, Tewes threw two seven-inning shutouts and also went eight innings in one of his starts. He put together a 3.09 ERA in 10 games (six starts) at Palm Beach.
Ellis, a 25-year old, was acquired in the Jaime Garcia trade from the Braves in December of 2016. The righty had his moments through his 15 starts (17 games) with Springfield last year, boasting a 4.45 ERA through 99 innings after being sent down from Memphis at the end of May.
The bullpen includes five right-handed arms and three lefties. Ian McKinney is one among the latter. He returns to the Texas League after struggling in limited action last year before recovering at high-A Palm Beach.
McKinney, 23, had a 5.16 ERA in 14 games (two starts) last year. He had an 11-to-10 strikeout to walk over 22 2/3 innings. With the Beach Birds, the southpaw improved significantly, posting a 2.02 ERA with four saves in 49 innings hurled. He had a 48-to-24 strikeout to walk count.
The other two lefties are Brady Bowen and Jacob Evans. Bowen looks to get his first extended opportunity at Double-A. He appeared in one game with Springfield last year, tossing 2 1/3 shutout innings. Overall, Bowen had a 2.77 ERA with five saves in seven chances across three levels in 2017, posting a 61-to-16 K/BB.
Evans, a 24-year old, excelled at two stops last year, compiling a 2.16 ERA in 30 games. He had a 48-to-14 strikeout to walk total over 41 2/3 innings. Evans is one to watch as a future major league lefty reliever with two effective breaking balls – slider and curveball, ala Tyler Lyons.
The righty relievers include returnees Landon Beck and Tyler Bray in addition to Latins Hector Mendoza, Estarlin Arias, and Ramon Santos.
Beck, who had it not been for a rough final week of the season (ERA ballooned from 3.16 on August 28 to 3.76 by September 4), would have arguably been the top reliever on last year’s team. Beck was one of Rodriguez’s most dependable back-end relievers, notching six saves in nine opportunities. The righty also posted a 44-to-17 strikeout to walk ratio over 40 2/3 innings.
One of the unsung heroes in the bullpen’s late-season resurgence was TCN’s 2017 Springfield Reliever of the Year Bray. The side-winding righty tied for first in appearances (37), leading all S-Cards relievers with a perfect 8-0 record, 52 2/3 innings hurled, and 10 holds. Bray finished second with a 2.91 ERA, posting a 46-to-29 strikeout to walk ratio while converting two saves in three chances.
Both righties figure into Springfield’s late-inning plans, particularly for closing opportunities.
Mendoza, a 24-year old, was an under-the-radar signing by the organization last summer from Cuba. He struggled in his transition to pro ball, posting a 4.91 ERA over a combined 22 games between the Dominican Summer League Cardinals and Palm Beach last year. He also had a 37-to-16 K/BB and is one to keep a close eye on in his first full season stateside in 2018.
Coming off a fantastic 2017 campaign in which culminated with TCN’s Palm Beach Reliever of the Year honor, Arias is looking to replicate his results from the lower levels at Springfield this year. The Dominican compiled a 2.18 ERA in 38 games between low-A Peoria and Palm Beach last year. He fanned 53 batters against just 14 free passes over 45 1/3 innings.
Arias could also get some high-leverage opportunities for the S-Cards after notching seven saves in nine chances in 2017.
Santos, a 23-year old, got off to a good, but not great to the season out of the Peoria bullpen (3.54 ERA in 11 games) last year. He was promoted to Palm Beach in mid-May. After 21 mostly rough relief outings in the Florida State League (5.86 ERA), the Cardinals moved the Dominican Republic native into the rotation.
Over six starts, the sinker-curveball specialist looked like a whole different player, cutting his walk rate, increasing his strikeouts and allowing just two earned runs over 36 1/3 innings (though seven more were unearned).
The Cardinals will be carrying two catchers with the catching corps – Knizner and Cardinals 2016 fourth round draft pick Jeremy Martinez.
With Carson Kelly ahead of him at Memphis, Knizner is blocked from moving up despite his excellent 2017 season with Springfield capped by a strong Arizona Fall League performance and showing in big-league camp. He will undoubtedly receive the lion’s share of the time at catcher for the S-Cards to open the season with the focus on continuing to improve defensively.
Martinez will serve as the backup while Chris Chinea has experience at the position as well. He could step in anytime and don the tools of ignorance as well as cover first base.
The six-man infield includes a mix of returning and fresh faces.
The star of the group is 40-man roster shortstop Sosa, who will look to bounce back offensively following an injury-plagued 2017. In fact, the 22-year old showed an improved power stroke this spring and Cardinals officials think he is primed for a big 2018, assuming he stays healthy.
The roster also features a pair of smallish, but potential high on-base, basestealing threats in Darren Seferina and Tommy Edman. A possible sleeper in the middle infield is Ramon Urias, brother of Padres top prospect Luis, who signed this spring after tearing up the Mexican League.
Rodriguez said there will be a rotation of all these middle infielders to ensure each receive at-bats and get reps in the infield.
At first base, it seems Chinea and John Nogowski will be in a platoon.
Including Arozarena, Springfield has four outfielders listed on its initial roster.
The other outfielders include Lane Thomas, Granden Goetzman, and Victor Roache. Arozarena and Thomas have experience in all three outfield positions while Goetzman and Roache have played the vast majority of their time in left field.
Thomas is an interesting player to watch, acquired from the Blue Jays for international cap money last summer and with good all-around tools. He projects as a tweener in the outfield, but scouts see him as a big-league prospect.
Goetzman and Roache are both minor league free agent signings. The former comes from the Rays organization with a career slash line of .245/.290/.363/.653. The latter, a former first round pick of the Brewers, is packed with power but struggles to make consistent contact.
It is also worth noting that Nogowski worked in the outfield during the Arizona Fall League last year, so there is a chance he might get a shot out there as well.
So, that concludes our look at the new version of the 2018 Springfield Cardinals, a club with versatility, experience, and upside in its pitching corps and a potentially speedy offense as they seek to zoom towards the first half title in the Texas League North.
It is safe to say the S-Cards are ready to get things going.
“As far as our team, we have a good group of guys,” Knizner said. “We have experienced guys that have been on the team last year. A lot of returning starters coming back and then some new guys that are going to come in and fill the holes that are left by guys moving up to Triple-A or were traded.
“I think we have a good group. I’m looking forward to the season.”
With Woodford on the mound, Springfield will open the new season on the road against the Midland Rockhounds (OAK) on Thursday, April 5.
“It’s definitely an honor to be named Opening Day starter,” Woodford said. “You just try and prepare like you always prepare. I’m just excited to go out and compete. Get the season rolling.”
The start of the first homestand of 2018 is scheduled a week later on Thursday, April 12 versus the Rockhounds once again.
I will be back this season with my weekly notebooks from Hammons Field covering the Springfield Cardinals. I also hope to contribute interviews on occasion, all for members of The Cardinal Nation.
Stay tuned for more full-season roster information over the next week here at The Cardinal Nation.
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