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News » Youth is paying big dividends Cardinals' attempt to grow their own talent results in team using 10 rookies in the first 29 games

Youth is paying big dividends Cardinals' attempt to grow their own talent results in team using 10 rookies in the first 29 games

Youth is paying big dividends Cardinals' attempt to grow their own talent results in team using 10 rookies in the first 29 games
CINCINNATI - Shane Robinson unknowingly furthered a point Thursday afternoon when he grounded out as an eighth-inning pinch-hitter for reliever Blaine Boyer.

Robinson, not even invited to major-league camp this spring, became the 10th rookie to appear for the Cardinals in their first 29 games. No other team had used more than nine.

Seven rookies are on the 25-man roster, one more than on opening day. Already this season, Colby Rasmus, Joe Thurston, Brian Barden and Tyler Greene have produced their first major-league home runs. Barden, 28, was named April's rookie of the month.

The Cardinals employed 10 rookies all last season, with the since-traded Brian Barton leading the group with 153 at-bats, 20 more than outfielder Joe Mather. Chris Perez' 41 2/3 innings led all rookie pitchers with Mitchell Boggs finishing second with 34 innings spread over six starts and two relief appearances.

Enhanced reliance on player development became a touchstone for the Cardinals' current front-office regime. However, the degree is significant within an organization that long invested heavily on minor-league free agents. The practice contributed to some toxic clubhouses at Class AAA Memphis but also helped save the parent club by making available former Independent League pitcher Jason Simontacchi in 2002 and finding future Silver Slugger outfielder Ryan Ludwick in 2007.

Of the Cardinals' current rookie crop, Thurston is the only one signed as a minor-league free agent.

Strong recommendations from third-base coach Jose Oquendo and de facto scout Eduardo Perez, both managers in the Puerto Rican Winter League where Thurston was playing, caused general manager John Mozeliak to move.

Thurston, the National League rookie RBI leader, has paid quick dividends given Troy Glaus' extended absence while Barden, an August 2007 waiver claim from the Arizona Diamondbacks, entered Saturday leading NL rookies in batting average, slugging and home runs.

Through Friday, Cardinals rookies had taken 249 of the team's 999 at-bats compared to 373 such at-bats for the entire 2008 season. In 2007, the final year of Walt Jocketty's regime, the club exposed only four rookies.

Of course, last season Aaron Miles (four-plus seasons of major league service) provided infield depth; Barton, a Rule 5 draft acquisition, served as the fifth of five outfielders. Where have you gone, So Taguchi?

Different players are obviously graded on different curves. Thurston and Barden have 17 total professional seasons' experience. Greene is six months removed from being placed on the 40-man roster.

"We have to find out about Tyler Greene," Mozeliak said.

This year's mix of position players includes Rasmus as no worse than the fourth outfielder, and currently a third one. The Cardinals' present infield depth offers Greene and on most nights either Thurston or Barden. Robinson leaped over Mather, who has required two wrist surgeries since last taking a major-league at-bat; and Nick Stavinoha, who failed to impress manager Tony La Russa this spring.

Cardinals vice-president of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow avoided minor-league free agents last winter. One of the few signed, catcher and Springfield, Ill., native Justin Knoedler, entered camp projected as the big club's No. 3 catcher. Knoedler, who played small parts of three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, was released out of minor-league camp in mid-March.

Mozeliak says recent abstinence regarding minor-league free agents is an organizational one, not a byproduct of an overzealous player development system seeking to rush draft picks through the system.

"If we need to go out and find a specific position or a starter, we're not afraid to do that. But with some of the internal success we've had, we wanted to give these players a chance to play," he said.

As the organization finds greater depth, Mozeliak says the turnover will slow.

"As younger players start to make an impact on the major-league level, it's going to have an effect on those behind," he said.

With a stated goal of becoming more self-reliant, the Cardinals appear inclined to use their bench as an initial proving ground.

Mather's ongoing wrist concerns leave the organization short on righthanded power. The so-far promising April 20 trade of Barton to Atlanta for reliever Boyer suggests apprehension about the state of righthanded relief, or at least a reluctance to place Jess Todd on the 40-man roster.

"You look at guys differently based largely on experience level," Mozeliak said. "Somebody who's been around seven, eight or nine years is one case. Somebody drafted four years ago who's never played at the major-league level, you look at in a different light. If he ends up staying eight or 10 years, then great. But at least he's had that opportunity.

"And, in turn, it does give you an opportunity at the highest level to make judgments on matters such as maturity and how they project."

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: May 10, 2009

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