The Cardinals’ four full-season minor league affiliates are scheduled to open the season on May 4th, 2021. Yesterday, I covered the Palm Beach club, the Cards’ Low-A affiliate. In this piece, I will preview the Peoria Chiefs, now the Cards’ Class High-A Affiliate after being re-classified from Class A.
I covered this issue in the Palm Beach piece, but Palm Beach and Peoria have switched classifications. The old Midwest League, in which the Cards’ Peoria affiliate used to play, has been switched from a Class A league to a High-A league. The primary benefit is that the prospects that are promoted from High-A to AA do not have to travel as far, and that Palm Beach is now a Low-A club, which ensures a smoother transition to that club from the complex league and extended spring training.
NEW LEAGUE IS HIGH-A CENTRAL (WEST DIVISION)
The old Midwest League was a 16-team league. Three clubs, the Kane County Cougars (Diamondbacks), Clinton LumberKings (Marlins), and Burlington Bees (Angels) have been eliminated from organized baseball. Kane County went on to join the American Association of Professional Baseball, which is now an independent MLB Partner League alongside the Frontier and Atlantic Leagues. Clinton and Burlington joined the Prospect League, which is a collegiate summer baseball league. The Bowling Green Hot Rods (Rays) are still in operation, but have been moved to the new High-A East League.
Other changes of note are that some clubs have switched team affiliations. The Lansing Lugnuts have switched from the Blue Jays to the Athletics, the Quad Cities River Bandits from the Astros to the Royals, and the Beloit Snappers from the Athletics to the Marlins.
The name of the Chiefs’ new 12-team league is the High-A Central. The Chiefs will play in the West Division alongside the Beloit Snappers (Marlins), Cedar Rapids Kernels (Twins), Quad Cities River Bandits (Royals), South Bend Cubs (Cubs), and Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers). The Dayton Dragons (Reds), Fort Wayne TinCaps (Padres), Great Lakes Loons (Dodgers), Lake County Captains (Indians), Lansing Lugnuts (Athletics) and West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers) round out the East Division. All West Division clubs were in the Chiefs’ division in 2019, with the exception of the South Bend Cubs, who are a new addition to the division this season.
Like with Palm Beach, the structure of the schedule is very simple and symmetrical. Starting on May 4th and ending on September 19th, the club will play a six-game series against another club every Tuesday through Sunday, and every Monday will be a day off. This will amount to 20 six-game series for a total of 120 games. There will be no All-Star Game and no playoffs. The Chiefs will only play one East Division club, the West Michigan Whitecaps, for 1 home and 1 road series. Of the other clubs in the Chiefs’ division, they will play 2 home and 2 road series against Beloit, Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities and Wisconsin, but just 1 home and 1 road series against South Bend.
EXPERIMENTAL RULE CHANGE
STEP OFF RULE
All High-A Leagues, including the Centra,l will have a step off rule for 2021. This will require pitchers to disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base on penalty of a balk. This rule was tested in the second half of the Atlantic League season in 2019, and one can imagine that it will make it much easier to steal bases against lefties in particular.
*Manager: Chris Swauger. Swauger was drafted by the Cardinals in the 26th round of the 2008 draft out of The Citadel. Primarily an outfielder, he spent parts of seven seasons in the organization, and was released in 2014. He topped out at AAA Memphis, but spent part of five separate seasons at the AA level. After retiring as a player, he served as the hitting coach for Johnson City in 2014 and managed that club in 2015 and 2016. Swauger then managed Peoria in 2017 and 2018 and returns to manage the club after spending 2019 as a roving instructor.
*Pitching Coach: Rick Harig. A long time high school and American Legion coach, Harig has been a major league scout, and was the pitching coach for Johnson City in 2017 and 2018. He was set to be the Peoria pitching coach before the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.
*Hitting Coach: Joey Hawkins. Formerly the hitting coach for Jefferson College in 2017 and St. Louis University in 2018, Hawkins was the hitting coach for the GCL club in 2019.
*Strength and Conditioning Coach: Jacqueline Gover. This will be her first year as a baseball coach, having previously worked at Southern Illinois University and for USA Field Hockey.
*Trainer: Alex Wolfinger. This will be his first year with Peoria, having spent 2019 as the trainer for Palm Beach and the year prior as the trainer for Johnson City.
*Note that this roster is tentative. There may be injured list placements or re-assignments before May 4th. Also note that the typical allowable size of a Class A active list has been 25 players, but that has been increased to 30 for this season. Part of the reason the rosters are being expanded is to deal with the fact that it will be more inconvenient for players to switch levels due to COVID-19 protocols. J.J. Cooper of Baseball America also reported that Class A clubs would send pitchers to lower levels for only a few days so that other players could get playing time, but the players sent to other levels would not even leave the team. The roster size increase will discourage the use of such gambits. Clubs are not required to field a full roster of 30, and Peoria looks to open with 29.
Cole Aker, Ian Bedell, Fabian Blanco (L), Michael Brettell, Logan Gragg, Nathanael Heredia (L), Mac Lardner (L), Connor Lunn, Ian Oxnevad (L), Freddy Pacheco, Wilfredo Pereira, Jack Ralston, Jacob Schlesener (L), Evan Sisk (L), Leonardo Taveras, Michael YaSenka
Cristhian Longa, Pedro Pages, Zade Richardson
Moises Castillo, Imeldo Diaz, Brendan Donovan (L), Malcom Nunez, Chandler Redmond (L), Brady Whalen (S)
Alec Burleson (L), Leandro Cedeno, Matt Chamberlain (L), Jhon Torres
*Two of the club’s seven draft picks from the 2020 draft have been assigned to Peoria: OF Alec Burleson (Compensatory Round after Round 2, the pick the Cards got because the Braves signed Marcell Ozuna as a free agent) and RHP Ian Bedell (4th round).
The remaining methods of acquisition of the rest of the players is as follows:
*2019: Pages (6th round), Ralston (7th round), Gragg (8th round), Lunn (11th round), YaSenka (17th round), Richardson (22nd round), Redmond (32nd round)
*2018: Donovan (7th round), Brettell (15th round), Sisk (16th round), Aker (18th round)
*2016: Whalen (12th round)
*2015: Oxnevad (8th round), Schlesener (12th round)
*Undrafted: Lardner (Gonzaga), Matt Chamberlain (University of New Haven)
*International free agents: Blanco (Venezuela 2014 future service), Heredia (DR 2018), Pacheco (Venezuela 2018), Pereira (Panama 2016), Taveras (DR 2017), Longa (Venezuela 2017), Castillo (DR 2015 future service), Nunez (Cuba 2018), Cedeno (Venezuela 2014 future service)
*Trade: Diaz (7/2/17 traded with Stanley Espinal by Red Sox to Cardinals for future considerations, originally signed in 2014 for future service out of Venezuela); Torres (7/31/18 traded with Conner Capel by Indians to Cardinals for Oscar Mercado, originally signed in 2016 for future service out of Colombia)
*The two 2020 draft picks and the two undrafted American college players are all making their professional debuts at this level, for a total of four players.
*Ten players are getting their first real taste of full-season ball, having topped out previously at either the GCL club, Johnson City, or State College: Heredia (GCL, 1 game at State College), Lunn (State College), Ralston (State College), YaSenka (Johnson City, 3 games at State College), Longa (GCL), Pages (State College), Richardson (GCL), Castillo (State College, 2 games with Palm Beach in 2019), and Redmond (Johnson City).
*Eleven players are taking what could be called a natural progression, having topped out at Peoria in 2019: Blanco, Brettell, Gragg, Pacheco, Pereira (though for only 7 games, speding the rest with Johnson City), Schlesener, Sisk, Donovan (1 game with AAA Memphis in 2019), Nunez, Whalen, Cedeno and Torres. Blanco started out 2019 repeating Peoria, but was demoted to State College after 17 games pitched. Schlesener started the 2019 season at Peoria, but was demoted to State College after 8 games pitched. Both Nunez and Torres started the 2019 season at Peoria, but were demoted to Johnson City after about 3 weeks after they failed to hit.
*Four players can be said to be repeating the level: Aker, the oldest player on the squad at 24, split the season almost evenly between Peoria and Palm Beach in 2019. The 2019 season for Diaz didn’t start until mid-June, when he began with 3 games for State College, but after that, he split the season evenly between Peoria and Palm Beach. Beginning his 2019 season in late June, Taveras pitched at 4 different levels that year—3 games for Johnson City, 4 games for State College, 6 games for Peoria and 6 games for Palm Beach. Oxnevad is a special case. He spent the 2018 season as a starter with Palm Beach, but missed the entire 2019 season after having primary repair surgery on his left throwing elbow. Also 24 years old, he hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch since September 2nd, 2018, and has always had very poor strikeout rates (career worst 12.6% in 2018).
*The press release from Peoria lists Cedeno as an outfielder, while the club’s home page has him on the roster as a catcher. The last time he played catcher was with the 2016 DSL club in his age-17 season. In his minor league career, he’s split time almost equally between the outfield and first base, but played more outfield than first base in 2019. I’ve got him listed as an outfielder.
*Players on the prospect lists include Torres (#9 Fangraphs, #7 MLB Pipeline), Bedell (#13 Fangraphs, #13 MLB Pipeline), Burleson (#20 Fangraphs, #19 MLB Pipeline), and Nunez (#22 Fangraphs, #16 MLB Pipeline).