Since the 2008 season began, the Quad Cities River Bandits, low Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, have had a first-rounder on their roster in shortstop Pete Kozma, the 18th overall selection in the 2007 draft. The buzz around Kozma's presence in the Quad Cities encompasses the entirety of Cardinals Nation. With a player development philosophy refocused on building a Major League Roster from within the farm system, Cardinals fans and personnel alike are eager to see what strides Kozma makes with his first full-season club.
On July 2nd Brett Wallace landed in the Quad Cities just one day after signing with the Cardinals for a reported $1.84 million. When he donned the familiar red and black, Wallace became the second first-round selection to take the field for the River Bandits this season.
"It's exciting," said Kozma. "It's always fun to play alongside a guy like [Wallace]; alongside another first-rounder." And while Kozma is the younger of the two at only 20-years-old, Wallace, 21, is the less experienced professional and stands to learn from what Kozma has gone through as a first round selection.
"I went through exactly the same thing my first week here," says the young shortstop in regard to the media swarm that Wallace has experienced during his short time with the River Bandits. "He'll get through it; he's just got to focus on baseball. That's what we're here for."
Coincidentally, Kozma, on a recruiting trip to Arizona State late in his high school career, toured the campus with Wallace as his guide. "It's nice to have already known him, to have a background with him," says Wallace. "And it's definitely fun to be playing with such a talented guy."
Hailed by Baseball America as the best pure hitter of all college prospects, Wallace enters his first year of professional baseball with lofty expectations. The third baseman from Arizona State University is the two-time defending Pac 10 MVP and the two-time defending Pac 10 Triple Crown winner for the back-to-back Pac 10 champion Sun Devils. With thighs as thick as tree trunks to go along with surprisingly nimble feet, Wallace is a defensive enigma; it is not often that a 6'1" 245-pounder displays such smooth glove work at a skill position. And it is this paradox that has scouts skeptical about Wallace's defensive future. The biggest knock on the 13th overall selection from the 2008 Draft is that his size will ultimately render him a first baseman - a position spoken for at the heights of the Cardinals' organization for the foreseeable future.
Aware of his skeptics, however, Wallace stresses the fact that, if at all, he can only change minds through his work on the field. "Certain guys make up their minds about me and assume that I can't be a third baseman. What I have to do is keep working hard at this position, and if I end up at first base, it's because that's what's best for the Cardinals, not because I can't play at third."
Wallace's being placed on the Quad Cities roster makes the left side of the River Bandits' infield perhaps the brightest in the Midwest League. Emerging from the corn stalks in left field at Modern Woodmen Park, watching the Cardinals' two most recent first-round selections take the field is truly a magical sight; perhaps foreshadowing a glimpse into the future to see the same two players side by side at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
"You see some good players come through this league," says Steve Dillard, manager of the Quad Cities River Bandits. "But you don't see this very often."
And while Dillard is cognizant of the talent he has at shortstop and third base, he is hesitant to place any undue pressure on the young athletes.
"I don't look at these guys and say 'he'll be a big leaguer,' or 'that guy will never make it.'" Instead, the River Bandits manager maintains objectivity, pointing to past experience as the motivator for his approach. "A while back I was with the Cubs affiliate in the Midwest league in Rockford," Dillard explains. "And we had this great looking young catcher, a big-time prospect. His backup was this guy who couldn't hit a lick; a young kid named Jose Molina."
Molina, now a catcher for the New York Yankees, is in his ninth season in the Major Leagues. Dillard's experience in player development has crossed paths with a number of players like Jose Molina, providing him firsthand evidence that a player's star status is far from a ticket to the big leagues. That knowledge gives him the ability to approach players like Wallace and Kozma from a realistic perspective. "There's no doubt that those guys are special talents, but nothing's going to be given to them and they know that."
In regard to professional baseball, nothing is certain. But the St. Louis Cardinals invest seven-figure signing bonuses in first round draftees like Pete Kozma and Brett Wallace for good reason: ballplayers like Kozma and Wallace possess advanced mental makeup to go along with their God-given athletic ability. And while manager Steve Dillard is hardly quick to deem any of his players as future Major League Baseball players, it is difficult for any baseball person to discount the intriguing nature of the current Quad Cities River Bandits.
Whereas in years past Cardinals baseball operations philosophy was more concerned with trading its prospects for short-term Major League solutions, the St. Louis front office is now determined to draft well and develop from within. An undeniable core of that fresh approach to baseball development lies on the left side of the Quad Cities River Bandits infield at Modern Woodmen Park.