This is the second part of my conversation with Cardinals Farm Director John Vuch.
Azruavatar: A few years ago, we saw Allen Craig start to make the transition in the minors from third baseman to outfielder. It appears that Matt Carpenter may be on the brink of a similar transition. Skip Schumaker made a positional transition in the majors from the outfield to second base. Without commenting on a specific player, under what circumstances does the club try to broach a conversation like this with a minor leaguer?
John Vuch: We always encourage versatility among our minor league players, simply because we don’t always know where the next opening at the Major League level is going to occur. If there’s an injury at the major league level, if a minor league player has had some experience at that position, he’d certainly get more consideration for a callup than somebody who had never played the position. Obviously, it’s not going to be a daily game of musical chairs at the minor league level, as we still want players to have a primary position, but especially as players get further up the ladder, it makes sense for them to at least get some exposure at other positions they could potentially be asked to play at the major league level. A good example of that is somebody like Ryan Jackson, who played in a utility role in the Arizona Fall League. We certainly still consider him a shortstop, and somebody who will play the bulk of his games at that position. But the experience of playing some 2nd base and 3rd base in Arizona can only help him in the future if a major league utility role opened up before a shortstop opportunity. So that’s how we portray it to the player – it’s usually not that we don’t like him at a given position, just that it opens up more avenues for him to get to the major leagues if he at least has the ability to play multiple positions.
AZ: Similarly, we’ve seen pitchers in both the minors and majors move between the bullpen and the rotation. I want to turn that previous question around a bit though. Are there circumstances or qualities that would lead the organization to be disinclined to try a hypothetically struggling starter as a reliever? Just to show how much a farm geek I am, I’m thinking back to Eric Haberer who was a lefty starter that was released after 2007 despite the system being very light on left handed relievers.
JV: I think for relievers, there is typically less emphasis on the ability to throw a changeup, and more emphasis on velocity and breaking pitch. In other words, repertoire for relievers is less important, but the quality of the few pitches they can throw becomes more important. That’s magnified for lefties – the first thing you look for with turning a lefty starter into a lefty reliever is whether he has a killer breaking pitch to use for those lefty/lefty matchups. While there’s always exceptions, if he’s a fastball/changeup kind of guy, he’s more likely going to sink or swim as a starting pitcher.
AZ: There was a renewed focus, or at least public comments from the front office, in recent seasons to get back to fundamentals at every level of the organization. Do you feel like the organization has been successful in that effort and what is your vision for the farm system in 2012?
JV: After the changes to our Player Development department following the 2010 season, fundamentals became one of the first things that we wanted to improve. It’s not a glamorous aspect of the game, and it may not always be exciting to watch bunt plays, cutoffs and relays, and other fundamentals, but that is something that defined the Cardinals for years when George Kissell was coordinating things for our minor leaguers. In this era, we realize that we’re never going to have the highest payroll club, and there will occasionally be times where other teams have more pure “talent” than we do, so it’s vital that we maximize our talent and avoid making fundamental mistakes.
Part of that goal was to ensure that we were doing things in a consistent fashion from top to bottom throughout the organization, so that as a player went from club to club, he wouldn’t have to relearn fundamentals for any individual manager. Obviously, that starts with the understanding how the major league club does things and then implementing that program throughout the system.
When I moved into this role, Tony LaRussa and his coaching staff were incredibly generous with their time, and spent many hours with me and our coaches as we put together an organizational instructional manual, which documented how everything was to be done from St. Louis, all the way down to our Dominican program. That really set the tone for the 2011 season from the minor league perspective and I think we went a long way towards achieving our goals in that area.
With Mike Matheny coming on board, one of the first things we did was have him review the existing manual and let us know the areas where he’d like to do things differently. He’s been tremendous in terms of communicating his vision for how he sees the majors and minors working together. Since Mike had previously spent many years in the organization and had spent time the last few years working with our minor league catchers, he didn’t have sweeping changes, but we’ve updated our manual to reflect the way he wants things taught, and looking forward to continuing to improve fundamentally as an organization.
Over the years, quality fundamental play has been the Cardinals identity and it’s our job to make sure we uphold that legacy.
AZ: Any prospects in the system that you think the public should be paying more attention to than they are now?
JV: I think with the level of coverage devoted to the minor leagues through websites, blogs, newspapers and magazines, some players who might have gone relatively unnoticed in the past are now more well-known. I’m always reluctant to get too specific about how we view individual players for several reasons – some competitive, some motivational – but we’ve got quite a few guys that I would at least consider “chance” prospects. Some of them are players with “tools” that haven’t yet had their performance match their athletic ability, while others are guys that have had success beyond what would be expected from “limited” tools that we’ll continue to give chances to show us that their success is legitimate. We’re excited to see which guys make big steps forward in 2012, but by this time next year, I’d be surprised if we didn’t have a couple names pop up on people’s lists that aren’t currently there.
AZ: Do you think the increased coverage (be it traditional media outlets or more contemporary ones) is something that is beneficial for the minor league players or is it an added level of scrutiny that makes adjusting to professional baseball more difficult?
JV: If handled properly, I think there’s generally more positive than negative associated with the increased media coverage. It allows the player to familiarize themselves with what is expected of them from reporters, how to handle being interviewed, and the importance of making themselves as available after poor performances as they are after good outings and to gain that experience on a much smaller stage than they will encounter when they reach the major leagues. At our early camp last year, we had several of the reporters that cover our major league team spend time with our minor league players in order to give them the perspective from the media, and I think that session was beneficial for both the players and the media. It’s important for the players (and staff) to realize that the media has a job to do, and that there’s a professional obligation to be cooperative with reporters. Interviews, especially those of the postgame variety, are typically very brief, so if a player doesn’t make himself available for comment (particularly after a bad game), it doesn’t take long for a player to get a reputation for not being a stand-up guy. It’s better for the players to learn those lessons while coming through the minor leagues, than to be completely unfamiliar with media protocol while simultaneously trying to adjust to all of the other differences that come with being in the major leagues.
I suppose one danger from the increased coverage can potentially come from players getting an overly inflated opinion of themselves, or thinking they’re already “big leaguers” based on the amount of media attention they receive or their status in various prospect rankings. But ultimately, that’s up to us to make sure we keep our players grounded and focused, and avoid letting the attention be a distraction.
From a front office perspective, the effect of increased minor league media scrutiny should be negligible, as you can’t effectively run a farm system while being overly concerned with how your organization is being portrayed by publications or websites. Obviously, it’s impossible to be unaware of how various publications rank farm systems or prospects, but it’s important to avoid letting 3rd party opinions affect your decision making. Sometimes you’ll see clubs overhype marginal prospects for media purposes, but in the long run I think you jeopardize your credibility by habitually portraying fringy players as major prospects.
AZ: Thanks for your time, John.