John Vuch, the farm director for the St. Louis Cardinals recently spoke to Redbird Rants.
Daniel Solzman: John, thanks for joining Redbird Rants today. How are things treating you in St. Louis?
John Vuch: Things are good here – we felt 2012 was a solid season from the minor league perspective, but we’re currently working hard to make 2013 even better. Our philosophy is never to spend much time looking back, but better for us to focus on what we can do to improve in the future.
Daniel Solzman: You were named as farm director in late 2010. How many minor league games do you try and attend each season?
John Vuch: I try to make trips to each of our full season clubs at least twice during the season, and make trips to our short season clubs at least once or twice during their season. Obviously, there are also responsibilities in the St. Louis office, as well as meetings throughout the year, so there is a lot of balancing to do, but I always enjoy getting out and spending time with our managers, coaches and players. Spring Training is the one time of year that we have everyone in the organization together under one roof, so that’s one of the most enjoyable times of the year, and it gives me an opportunity to see all of our players at the same time – makes it easier for evaluating and comparing.
Daniel Solzman: Prior to being promoted to farm director, what did you do for the Cardinals?
John Vuch: I’ve been with the Cardinals for most of my life, starting at age 16 as a “runner” working on game days. I did that all through HS and college, and then managed to land a full-time role in our sales department. I did season tickets, group tickets, and party room sales for three years, before moving over into the Baseball Operations department. Since then, I’ve done a little bit of everything from contract negotiations and salary arbitration, to draft preparation and anything else needed in the department – even caught a few bullpens for some of our rehabbing pitchers when the team was on the road. For the last 10 years or so, I’ve primarily been focused on the player development side of things, which to me is the most rewarding aspect of the game.
Daniel Solzman: The Cardinals recently acquired Jake Lemmerman from the Dodgers for Skip Schumaker. Where do you see Lemmerman fitting in with the organization?
John Vuch: We had very positive reports on Lemmerman and see him as the kind of guy who could either play SS on a regular basis or handle a variety of positions in a utility role. We like his approach at the plate, as he exhibits good discipline, doesn’t chase and will take his walks. Obviously, we’ve got a collection of infielders at the upper level of the minors with guys like Jackson, Greg Garcia, Wong, Curtis, Cerda, etc, so we’ll end up sorting things out in Spring Training, but right now we have an opening for an everyday AA shortstop and/or a AAA utility role and it’s certainly feasible to see Lemmerman filling one of those roles.
Daniel Solzman: What is the ETA for Kolten Wong?
John Vuch: After a successful 2012 season at Springfield, followed by a solid stint in the Arizona Fall League, Kolten is right on track to contribute in St. Louis when the time is right. Hard to pinpoint exactly when that time will be, as it will be determined in part by the need at the Major League level as well as how he’s playing at the time. Ultimately that decision will be made by Mo and the major league coaching staff, but it’s likely that Kolten will get a chance to be seen by them in Major League camp this spring, and we’ll see how things go from there…
Daniel Solzman: Let’s talk Oscar Taveras. Is he the second coming of Albert Pujols?
John Vuch: As a Cardinal, Albert had the greatest first 11 years of a career for any player in history, so I don’t think it’s fair for us to expect anyone to equal that performance anytime soon. That said, we’re all very excited about Oscar’s potential. He’s always been a phenomenal hitter and I would be surprised if he doesn’t turn out to be an impact bat at the major league level. But the thing I was most impressed by this season was the way he responded when we challenged him this spring to elevate his game from a defense and baserunning perspective. He took it to heart, and really improved in the other aspects of his game. Our goal for Oscar is not to simply have him be a good hitter in the major leagues, it’s to be a great all-around player, and he has the ability to be just that.
Daniel Solzman: Outside of Wong and Taveras, who in AA or AAA have a really strong chance of making the opening day roster?
John Vuch: So much of that is dependant upon the health of the major league team. One of the nice things about having an established major league club is that it allows us to avoid rushing guys to the big leagues prematurely. We’re relatively deep with right handed pitching that it would be tough for anyone other than the young guys who were up late in the year (Rosie, Shelby, etc) to crack the roster right out of spring training. If there was a need for a lefty pitcher, in addition to guys who have been there before like Browning and Freeman, there are other candidates like a Tyler Lyons, John Gast or Kevin Siegrist. Given his success at Memphis last year, a guy like Matt Adams would be a candidate as well, but as far as guys who would be making their debut, Oscar and Kolten are probably the most likely at this point.
Daniel Solzman: In 2009, the Cardinals had the 19th pick of the first round of the draft. The Los Angeles Angels had the 25th pick of the draft. Nothing against Shelby Miller, but is there any particular reason as to why the Cardinals passed on Mike Trout?
John Vuch: Our scouting department handles the draft picks, and they’ve done a tremendous job over the years in providing us with a lot of quality raw talent for our coaches and instructors to develop. As far as the exact reason for why one player was taken over another, they would be much more qualified to answer that question than me. In general terms, I do think it’s easier for HS players in cold weather areas to slip at times, as they often are not seen as frequently due to the shorter season, and they typically are playing against lesser competition than their warm weather counterparts, and it’s possible that played a role. While I think the 24 clubs that picked ahead of the Angels probably underestimated Trout’s potential, if the Cardinals can get a player the caliber of Shelby in the 1st round every year in the draft, we’ll take our chances!
Daniel Solzman: Do you have any fun memories of George Kissell or Dave Ricketts?
John Vuch: Many great memories of those two – probably the biggest thing I remember is that I spent my first few years in player development barely saying a word, as I just wanted to listen to what those great men had to say. The thing that most impressed me was that despite their vast knowledge of the game, they were always wanting to learn more and improve, and they were never too proud to learn from anyone regardless of who it was. It made me realize that if those guys were still learning about the game despite their experiences, I should always focus on trying to get better and never think that it’s possible to know it all. That’s why I still prefer to spend the vast majority of my time in our meetings with our coaching staff listening to them, rather than doing the talking. As George always said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so you should be listening twice as much as you talk.”
Daniel Solzman: We touched on Kissell and Ricketts but what about Red Schoendienst?
John Vuch: For a kid who grew up in St. Louis at the time Red Schoendienst was our manager, it was a thrill to get to meet him initially and then later get the opportunity to listen to him speak about baseball. What impresses me so much now, is how in tune he is about everything with the game. Whenever I see him, he’ll ask me about specific minor league players that he saw during spring training, so he’s always locked in and paying attention whenever he’s observing on the field. And it’s always a treat when he’s sitting upstairs in the box during the major league games, as he still has a knack for anticipating what’s going to happen during a game.
Daniel Solzman: What was the biggest surprise that you saw this season?
John Vuch: This game never fails to surprise, no matter how much we think we know heading into the season. A lot of pleasant surprises this year, such as Trevor Rosenthal going straight from Springfield to the Major Leagues, and ultimately having a major impact on our Major League bullpen. The overall Springfield bullpen was neat to see come together, as we had guys like Fornataro and Blazek put themselves on the map as relievers after having been starting pitchers for most of their career. Offensively, guys like Colin Walsh and Mike O’Neill really opened some eyes, both during our minor league season and then later in the Arizona Fall league. There’s always the negative surprises, such as the Swagerty injury, but fortunately we had many more positive than negative surprises in 2012.
Daniel Solzman: I haven’t had a chance to look at the promotions being offered for next season yet but is there going to be a Chris Carpenter’s Rib Day? I don’t think anyone, myself included, thought he would have even been pitching in a game last season.
John Vuch: Carp is a perfect example of what we want from our minor league pitchers from a toughness and competiveness standpoint. He’s a tremendous teammate and leader among the staff. One thing that I always recall, was when he was rehabbing in Jupiter after a surgery, he would remain out on the field after he was finished with his rehab, just to watch our Extended Spring Training games and offer advice to those young players. 99% of the major league players would have just done their required work and then headed off to the clubhouse, so that’s just one small part of what makes him unique. So while I don’t think anyone expected to see Carp pitching shortly after his surgery last season, if I was going to bet on anyone who could potentially beat those odds, Carp would be that guy.
Daniel Solzman: Thanks again for joining Redbird Rants. Any final words for the best fans in baseball?
John Vuch: All of us with the Cardinals are extremely appreciative of the support we receive from our fans. Personally, I realize how fortunate I have been to be able to work most of my life for the organization I rooted for as a kid. I think that helps me realize the responsibility we have as an organization to always do whatever we can to help keep the team competitive in an effort to add more World Championship pennants to the flagpoles out in right field. It’s always exciting to see our young guys come up and contribute to championship seasons and I’m very optimistic about us being able to provide more championship caliber players to the major league team in the next few years.