It used to really chap my hide that the Cardinals seemed completely incapable of turning out major league-ready players who could fill in the holes when a player on the 24-man roster went down with an injury.
Going back a couple of decades we heard praises of guys like Jim Lindeman, a total major league bust and Todd Zeile, the catcher who couldn't catch. There was Colby Rasmus, the most uncoachable player, perhaps, in the history of professional sports. There were pitchers like Anthony Reyes and Jimmy Journell. They were supposed to be top tier stars. But they turned out to be complete washouts. And more recently, Eduardo Sanchez, a hurler with some of the best breaking stuff I have ever seen to compliment a plus fastball, was thrown on the Chicago Cubs scrap heap.
I guess the team was just saving up. Because this year the Redbirds have suffered the loss of three starting pitchers (Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook), starting shortstop Rafael Furcal and closer Jason Motte. And, without exception, the young players who have been called to plug the leaks have come through with flying colors.
On Wednesday night Tyler Lyons became the third rookie to make a start for the Cardinals this year and the fifth rookie to pitch for the big league club. Lyons is somewhere around 10th on the St. Louis starting pitching depth chart. Yet he threw seven innings for the Cardinals, allowing only four hits and one run as his team rallied from losing the opener of the San Diego series to win the set two games to one.
Lyons needed only 81 pitches, 53 of them strikes, to make it through seven innings. He was composed, yet aggressive, in the way he dealt with opposing hitters. While only time will tell if he has the ability to consistently retire major league hitters, he's sure got the guts and the confidence to succeed.
The oddest part about the young Cardinals hurlers is that they don't make me nervous when they pitch. I felt more comfortable with rookie Shelby Miller on the mound than I did with Jaime Garcia or Jake Westbrook pitching. And I was more comfortable with Carols Martinez and Seth Maness than I was with Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas or Marc Rzepczynski.
A lot of the success has to do with talent evaluation. But it's more than that. A lot of those young players who didn't quite make it had tons of raw talent. While some of the players were over-hyped, the disconnect seemed to be in the grooming process. When they arrived at the big leagues some of them were unable or unwilling to adapt to a higher level of competition. Some of them seemed to be overwhelmed by the pressure.
The rookies have played so well I find myself forgetting about the players they've replaced. Pete Kozma, perhaps the biggest question mark for the Cardinals in spring training, has played very well at shortstop. He's making all the routine plays and a few spectacular plays -- a pair of balls he fished out of the hole and flung on target for key force outs at second base come to mind. Meanwhile Kozma is batting a respectable .265 with a .327 on-base percentage. Usually in the eight spot in the batting order, he's driven in 17 runs.
Trevor Rosenthal, still technically a rookie, has nailed down the eighth inning void caused by Boggs' meltdown, freeing veteran Eduard Mujica to be a very successful closer in Motte's place.
The best news is that two of the best prospects in the Cardinals system are still waiting to make their major league debut. Slugging outfielder Oscar Tavares was hitting the daylights out of the ball before being slowed by an ankle injury. And pitcher Michael Wacha is tearing up hitters in the Pacific Coast League with a ticket to the majors in his near future.