John Vuch has been with the Cardinals ever since he was a teenager, and has has played a vital role in several departments before settling into the role of being the Director of Minor League Operations. Few, if any, know more about the Cardinals and the inner workings the farm system. After settling down in Jupiter for spring training, John was kind enough to answer questions from myself and the other writers at FR. Good stuff, as always. Enjoy.
First of all, congrats on winning the Harry Mitauer Good Guy Award at the Baseball Writers Dinner. That’s one award I’d say the writers got right.
Thanks Erik. As I mentioned the night I received it, with so many good people working around the stadium, I would have been flattered merely to have my name come up in the discussion, let alone being named the recipient. But it’s easy to be in a good mood when doing something I love on a daily basis.
Baseball America ranked the Cardinals’ system the 8th best in baseball. What is your take the ranking?
We try not to get too wrapped up in what others say about our system, since there are so many variables that can affect a ranking. Even when our rankings were not as high, we were able to have players like Albert and Yadi come through the system, and turned other of our younger prospects into Major League talent through trades. But I think the feeling is universal within our organization that we have much more depth and significantly more players that can be realistically projected to have a Major League future than we had in prior years. I think the rankings are probably a reflection of that. But I don’t want to sound disingenuous by saying that I agree with the rankings when they rate us highly and disagreed when we were ranked lower!
The organization has not been shy about promoting players as of late. What are some of the factors that go into determining whether or not a prospect is ready to be moved up to a different level?
A lot of different things go into making that determination. Obviously, success at a lower level is often a big part of it, since if a player is struggling at a lower level, moving him up likely would just make it even tougher for him. If it’s a player that we consider one of our better prospects, then making sure that there’s an opening where he’ll get ample playing time is another priority, especially if we’ve already got a prospect playing the same position at that level. Almost every time we make a decision about moving a player up (or down), it will involve not only Jeff Luhnow and me, but also the managers for the teams involved as well as our hitting/pitching coordinators. Getting the perspective of our guys in the field is critical, since there’s often something that they’ve picked up on that could affect that player’s chances of success at the next level that isn’t necessarily reflected in the stats or in our game reports.
How long does it take to go about making roster assignments for the minor league teams to start the season?
It’s a lengthy process, and one that involves a lot of people. All of us have our “projected” rosters, and many of us were already projecting 2009 rosters while the 2008 season was going on, but there are so many variables that the actual rosters can often wind up bearing little resemblance to the projected rosters. Ideally, it’s because a player shows up being greatly improved over the prior year – however, other times it may be due to injuries or under performance. But we’ll have two days of meetings with our staff prior to the start of camp to discuss players and rosters, and then we’ll have numerous meetings throughout spring training, making decisions about who makes which club, who remains at Extended Spring Training, and who ultimately gets sent home. Oftentimes, we’re in a holding pattern with our rosters depending on what happens at the Major League level, so occasionally there are times where we have to react quickly to an unexpected player dropping down to our AAA roster, but there are many hours spent making the decisions that go into forming our opening day rosters.
We’ve seen a lot of positional movement with players lately, whether it be a no-hit catcher moving to the bullpen, or a certain scrappy outfielder moving to a spot of real need. Is this a paradigm the Cardinals are going to continue utilizing, heavily moving forward whenever there is a surplus at one position or a deficiency at another?
I think it often makes sense for a player to at least explore anything they can do to give themselves as much versatility as possible, especially since it’s often impossible to project where an opening may suddenly occur at the major league level. If a player has at least shown the ability to adequately handle multiple positions, it allows him to be considered as a candidate for a variety of roles, rather than being locked in exclusively at one spot. Additionally, if a player was drafted at an “offensive” position such as LF or first base, if it turns out that he has the ability to play a more challenging defensive position, that can turn him into a much more valuable commodity. One example of that is Tony Cruz, who is a solid defensive third baseman, but has impressed with his ability behind the plate. It’s much tougher to find catchers with Tony’s offensive capabilities than it is to find similar hitting third baseman, so by having Tony working on his catching he is able to make himself much more valuable, as well as giving him multiple ways to move through the system.
What do the Cardinals hope to improve on in terms of managing the minors in 2009 compared to 2008?
It’s hard to get into too many specifics, but our goal is to always have somebody ready within our farm system when there’s a hole or a need at the Major League level. There’s nothing wrong with signing players from outside the organization at times, but we always want that to be something that is done by choice, and not due to a lack of internal options. Ultimately the goal of the farm system is pretty simple – to continue to increase the quantity and quality of players making their way to St. Louis.
I’m sure you’re going get asked this a few bazillion times this spring, but how is Brett Wallace looking at the hot corner?
Brett may be unlikely to ever look like a prototypical third baseman, but the bottom line is that he makes the plays, has good hands, and despite an unusual throwing motion his arm is ML average at worst. Pop Warner, who was his manager both at Springfield and in the Arizona Fall League, was pleased with the progress that Brett made during his time in Arizona and at this point there’s no reason to believe that Brett couldn’t remain as a third baseman in the future.
Daryl Jones and Jess Todd won the organization’s pitcher and player of the year award, taking two different paths. Jones languished Low A before coming on like a house of fire, while Todd just rocketed through the system in his first full season. Please give me your thoughts on those two, and do you have a prediction as to who could be this year’s Daryl Jones (breakout hitter) or Jess Todd (fast-moving pitcher)?
Daryl really wasn’t a big surprise to me, as he’s always been a very coachable, intelligent kid, who really just needed to continue to get experience playing baseball. He’s always had the tools, but was a bit raw, having played multiple sports in high school. It’s always important to be patient with young players whenever possible, as evidenced by guys like Joe Mather and Chris Duncan, who both had their share of struggles in A-ball.
Jess was much more polished coming into pro ball, having had three years of college experience, but I don’t think anyone expected him to wind up in AAA by year’s end. He’s a good example of what can happen when a pitcher has excellent command of his fastball and breaking pitch, and pitches with poise. While he moved rapidly through the system, he proved at each stop that he had mastered the level, and once a player has accomplished that, we’re not reluctant to give him new challenges.
As far as names for this year, guys like Tommy Pham, Jon Edwards and Beau Riportella have shown flashes of their ability in the past and certainly have ample tools to make big jumps once everything clicks for them. Again, patience is key for those type of guys – even though they’ve been a part of the organization for several years, Pham and Edwards will play all year at age 21, while Riportella doesn’t turn 21 until August.
For candidates for fast-moving pitchers, guys like Lance Lynn, Adam Reifer and Sam Freeman come to mind, but there’s quite a few potential candidates that could fall into that category. We don’t set out with the intention for guys to make huge jumps within one season, but if warranted, we wouldn’t shy away from it either.
Letting Luis Perdomo go unprotected from the Rule 5 draft left a few of us fans scratching our heads. Can you help us understand the rationale behind that decision?
John Mozeliak uses a lot of different sources in making the final determination about who to place on the 40-man roster, including internal scouting reports from our own staff members, as well as weighing areas of organizational depth and weakness. We place more weight on the likelihood of a Rule 5 eligible player actually sticking with the drafting club than we do on the chances of selection alone. While it’s certainly understandable how Perdomo would be attractive to another organization, we faced the same questions a few years back when Tyler Johnson was selected by Oakland from us in the Rule 5 draft after pitching the entire year at AA. We felt that Perdomo was more like Juan Mateo, who we selected a few years back in the Rule 5, in terms of being a future major leaguer, but not quite being ready at this stage of his career.
With right handed relief being one of our biggest areas of organizational depth, placing Perdomo on the 40-man roster would have meant starting the clock on his options this spring. With the RH relievers we have ahead of him in the organization, it likely would be a couple years before he’d be in the majors with us, and saving an option year could turn out to be necessary down the road.
Jon Jay fascinates me. He’s done nothing but hit, and according some of the new metrics available, he’s also an excellent fielder. What do you feel his upside is?
Jon has somewhat quietly moved through the organization, in part because much of the focus has (deservedly) been on Colby Rasmus, but he’s a very polished hitter, who has always hit for average and has a little more pop than people give him credit for. Defensively, he’s got the range and hands to play CF if needed, however if there’s no opening in CF, he could adequately handle a corner spot. As far as upside, there’s nothing that I’ve seen that indicates he couldn’t be a solid major league outfielder in the future.
Tyler Greene had an excellent showing the AFL. Do you believe has turned the corner?
I think so – the one thing I’ve noticed about Tyler is that he now plays with much more confidence than he did earlier in his career, and that he realizes that he’s capable of competing and succeeding against quality competition. He’s not a finished product yet, but he’s made big strides in the last year and offers an exciting blend of power, speed and defense.
I know it’s extremely early in his career, but how excited should we be about Roberto de la Cruz?
I think he’s a very exciting prospect. I haven’t seen much of him yet personally, but our guys who got to spend a lot of time with him during Instructional League came away very impressed. He’s our highest profile July 2 signee, and by all accounts, he seems to be worthy of that billing.
We try to assume that no news is good news with injuries, but can we get an update on Jaime Garcia’s rehab?
Saw Jaime playing catch the other day, and he’s right on schedule with his rehab. It’ll be awhile before he’s throwing off the mound, but fortunately, he’s had no setbacks at this stage.
What can you tell us about minor league free agents Joe Thurston and Ian Ostlund?
We’re really happy to have both of those guys in the organization, and despite signing as “minor league” free agents, they have the potential to make contributions for our big league club. Thurston is a guy that we were familiar with, and it seems that he’s had the misfortune the last few years of being blocked by MVP caliber 2nd basemen (Utley and Pedroia). He’s performed very well at AAA, and played winter ball in Puerto Rico. Our interest started heating up based on reports from Eduardo Perez and Jose Oquendo, and fortunately I have a good relationship with Joe’s agent and we were able to work out a deal to make him a Cardinal, as there was heavy interest from multiple clubs. Joe’s always been a guy that managers love to have on their clubs, as he plays several positions very well defensively, handles the bat well and plays hard all the time.
Ostlund was a guy that we targeted, literally from Day One. Prior to the first date of minor league free agency, we always put together a target list of players that interest us, and Ian was one of about 3-4 guys that was at the top of our list. We contacted his agent as soon as the bell rang, and Ian was excited about the opportunity for him here with the Cardinals, and we actually were able to wrap up the deal the very first day. The thing that stood out to us about Ian is that he throws strikes and comes after the hitters. While he has success against lefties, he has ample weapons that enable him to get righties out as well, and he’s capable of pitching an inning+ at a time, rather than solely being a LOOGY. He’s got outstanding makeup and we’re excited to have him.
George Kissell, a Cardinal lifer and a mentor to just so many, passed on this last October. Do you have a memory or two of Mr. Kissell that you would like to share with us?
I could go on for hours about the effect that George had on all of us with the Cardinals. For me personally, the first few years I was in player development I would just sit and listen to him talk with our coaches, and try to soak up as much as possible. I was always appreciative that he’d take the time to talk with a young kid like me, as I was beginning to learn how much I didn’t know about the game. The thing to me that stood about George was how he was always learning, and despite probably being as much of an “expert” as anyone could be when it comes to baseball, he was always looking for ways to improve his teaching methods. While he knew there were certain “iron-clad fundamentals”, he was also flexible enough to evolve as the game changed.