The St. Louis Cardinals lost their Spring Training 2011 debut by a score of 6-3 to the Florida Marlins, but even the Chicken Littlest of Cardinals fans isn't worried yet. That's because the first four runs were given up by non-roster invitee Raul Valdes, formerly of the New York Mets. Spring Training is always filled with not-quite-familiar faces, but there's nothing quite as confusing as the first few sets of pitchers; with that in mind, a brief run-down of the six pitchers who participated in the Grapefruit League opener: Raul Valdes, Bryan Augenstein, Francisco Samuel, (breathe), Eduardo Sanchez, Blake King, and the noticeably recognizable Fernando Salas.
Raul Valdes was one of the Cardinals' earliest offseason pick-ups, and briefly seemed like a LOOGY candidate before assuming his role as the longest of fifth-starter long-shots in the wake of Adam Wainwright's elbow surgery. Valdes began his career as a somewhat prominent Cuban defector who signed with the Chicago Cubs in 2004; a rapid ascent through the system was combined with an equally rapid fall from grace, and after a disastrous stint with AAA Iowa in 2006 he spent some time in the Can-Am League (indie league trivia: also the league where Amaury Cazana got his start) before joining the Mets' system in 2007 and then being released again.
In 2010 Valdes was invited to camp once more and eventually spent much of the season in the Mets bullpen. His 4.91 ERA wasn't especially exciting, but he struck out nearly a batter an inning and is at least interesting depth at Memphis.
Bryan Augenstein, who allowed a run in two innings of work, was another depth signing worthy of note. A seventh-rounder in 2007, he moved through the Arizona Diamondbacks system in a hurry as one of those guys whose command was just way too perfect for the low minors. He put together a 7.07 K:BB ratio between A and high-A in 2008; then 4.33 between AA and AAA in 2009; and somehow had a 6.49 ERA in 2010.
Command guys like this are always a concern in the high minors—witness Yusmeiro Petit, or P.J. Walters—but his peripherals were still solid, so that ERA is, at the least, likely to be an aberration. Augenstein has a lot of question marks to his name, but you don't get a guy like this as a minor league free agent without those questions; he's unlikely to embarrass, if nothing else, as the team's sixth or seventh starter.
Francisco Samuel could be pitching to you right now, and you might not notice it. His fastball is as good as any in the system—high-90s, great movement, the works—but in 11.2 Memphis innings last year he walked 18 batters. Over his 199 innings in the Cardinals system the 24-year-old right-hander has struck out 253 and walked 188.
Yesterday things were working—he struck out two and walked one in one inning, which is a good Samuel appearance. He's the ultimate relief pitcher lottery ticket. He could be Carlos Marmol, but he could also be the bad Carlos Marmol.
Eduardo Sanchez, on the other hand, is just about ready to pitch in the Major Leagues. The youngest member of the Cardinals' confusing Samuel/Salas/Sanchez arrangement, he's also the best; at 21 he struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings between AA and AAA while maintaining an Augensteinian strikeout-to-walk rate.
It seems unlikely that he breaks camp with the Cardinals, but it's equally unlikely that he doesn't appear in St. Louis at some point in 2011; he seems just about done with the minor leagues. If you're looking for a Closer of the Future, he's your guy.
Blake King is America's best attempt yet at cloning Francisco Samuel, but he appears to have passed his harder-throwing counterpart on the depth chart. Another guy with a mid-90s fastball and not much command, King had something of a breakout year in the AA Texas League, two years removed from his conversion to full-time bullpen work. 6.4 walks per nine innings is awful, but it's a little more manageable than Samuel's recent numbers.
King throws extremely hard, but his stuff doesn't evoke as much scout-love as Samuel's; to put it in perspective, if Samuel ever manages to walk just 6.4 batters per nine innings, Greek messengers will run him 26 miles to St. Louis on a sedan chair. But King remains an intriguing reliever, and a full year at hitter-friendly Springfield didn't phase him.
Fernando Salas is the rare relief prospect who gets to the Major Leagues on his command, and not his stuff. Owner of a perfectly bland fastball and a nice changeup, Salas dominated even the high minors because he knew where to put both pitches. His stint in St. Louis was good enough that he's likely to stick as middle relief for the foreseeable future, but his occasional home run problems mean he's unlikely to be promoted beyond his level of competence.
Salas is the kind of pitcher that successful teams develop—he's valuable because he's a little better than average, and he's also valuable because he's so cheap.
Keep watching SB Nation St. Louis and Viva El Birdos for more updates on the Cardinals' higher jersey numbers and other Spring Training phenomena.