The rise of one of baseball’s most talented farm systems is beginning to have a tangible impact in Memphis.
After struggling to a dismal 57-87 record last year, the Redbirds have gone 13-9 to start 2013, buoyed by a group of solid prospects mixed in with a number of veterans.
Cardinals No. 1 prospect Oscar Taveras, who is rated No. 2 overall in all the minor leagues, will be in center field. He will be joined by No. 5 Kolten Wong at second base and No. 6 Michael Wacha on the mound.
Baseball America ranked St. Louis as having baseball’s best farm system and now fans in Albuquerque will get to see what all the fuss is about starting tonight (Monday) at 6:35 p.m.
Rotation: Right-hander Michael Wacha (3-0, 1.96 ERA) was drafted in the first round out of Texas A&M last season and is already making an impact. He wowed fans and the Cardinals front office in spring training and earned a promotion directly to Memphis despite throwing just 21 pro innings last summer. He has a mid-90s fastball with sink and a circle changeup that was rated as the best in the 2012 draft. His slider and curveball still need work. Wacha will start tonight’s opener.
Due to a doubleheader on Sunday and the promotion of right-hander Seth Maness (2-2, 4.32) to St. Louis, the remaining starters are to be determined. It seems likely that lefties Tyler Lyons (2-1, 3.28), pictured, and Nick Additon (1-1, 4.74) will start against the Isotopes, but the final starter could be called up from Double-A Springfield or be plucked out of the bullpen.
Bullpen: Veteran right-hander Victor Marte (3.18, 5 saves), pictured, is back in the closer’s role for the Redbirds. He had 31 saves in 2011 with Memphis and spent most of 2012 in St. Louis. Right-handers Jorge Rondon (1-1, 1.93), the Cardinals’ No. 24 prospect, and Keith Butler (4 scoreless innings to date), No. 29, have emerged as the primary setup men.
Lefties Barret Browning (0-1, 5.59) and Sam Freeman (1-0, 7.15, 1 save), No. 22, have both struggled out of the gate. Veteran lefty Marc Rzepczynski has just been added to the roster after posting a 7.88 ERA in nine games with the Cardinals.
Catching: A pair of veterans have handled the bulk of the duties behind the plate this season. Rob Johnson (.173, 2 HR, 3 RBI), who turns 31 in July, is a longtime big-league backup with 245 games to his credit with the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and New York Mets.
Former Astros prospect J.R. Towles (.217, 2 HR, 6 RBI), pictured, is also trying to give his career a restart. He turned 29 back in February.
Infield: First baseman Brock Peterson (.291, 4 HR, 13 RBI) is a former Twins farmhand who spent all of 2011 and much of 2012 playing for Bridgeport in the independent Atlantic League.
Second base falls to the aforementioned Kolten Wong (.291, 9 RBI), pictured, the Cardinals’ first-round pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2011. He looms as the Cardinals’ near-future starter at the keystone.
With Jermaine Curtis (.292, HR, 17 RBI) now in St. Louis, No. 15 prospect Ryan Jackson (.315, 4 RBI) has shifted from shortstop to third base for the time being. Jackson is a plus defender but lost out in spring training to Pete Kozma when the St. Louis shortstop job suddenly opened up following Rafael Furcal’s season-ending elbow surgery.
Greg Garcia (.245, 4 RBI) is the primary starter at shortstop for Memphis, though he can also play third.
Super-sub Jamie Romak (.323, 4 HR, 12 RBI) can play first base, third base and the outfield corners.
Outfield: Former San Francisco Giants prospect Justin Christian (.232, HR, 11 RBI) has seen the bulk of the starts in left field. He is off to a slow start with just a .616 OPS through 22 games.
Top prospect Oscar Taveras (.284, 2 HR, 7 RBI) missed the first few games of the season to tend to a personal matter, but he is starting to heat up. Taveras is playing primarily center field for the Redbirds, but he profiles as Carlos Beltran’s heir apparent in right field in St. Louis.
Adron Chambers (.127, 6 RBI), pictured, who has been playing for Memphis since 2010, is back after losing out on a bench spot in spring training.
Journeyman Chad Huffman (.318, 2 HR, 8 RBI) is the primary backup outfielder.
Prospect to watch: Taveras. The reigning MVP of the Double-A Texas League, Taveras hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI for Springfield last season. He is a disciplined hitter with tremendous hand-eye coordination, drawing 42 walks and striking out just 56 times in 477 at-bats last year. Taveras is still developing as far as his power goes. Defensively, he has the range to play center but is not overly fast on his feet. He has the arm for right field. Taveras sometimes gets down on himself when he struggles, but he does not turn 21 until June 19, so the Cardinals have been patient with him.
Outlook: Memphis represents a formidable challenge, especially with Albuquerque’s pitching staff depleted by the injuries that continue to mount in Los Angeles.
The best news is that the Isotopes will miss lefty John Gast (3-0, 0.00), who has yet to give up a run, earned or unearned, in 29.2 innings. They will still face Wacha in the opener and lefties Lyons and Additon are nothing to overlook.
The Redbirds’ lineup is seemingly poised to begin to break out, notably Taveras and Jackson, pictured. If that happens this series, the Isotopes may be lucky to just get a split.