UNIVERSITY PARK — Oliver Marmol has no idea how many carats reside in the St. Louis Cardinals' 2011 World Series championship ring that weighs down the ring finger on his right hand.
The 26-year-old manager of the State College Spikes isn’t concerned with the details, or measurements. To him, it sounds more like a symbol of the franchise’s trust that he can lead one of its minor league baseball teams.
“I have no idea,” Marmol said Wednesday inside his office at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. “I just know it’s heavy … and really shiny,” he added with a smile.
The team arrived on Tuesday, bringing with it the hopes of its young players, and its young coach.
After the Cardinals and Spikes agreed to a two-year Player Development Contract last year, the franchise with 11 championships — second only to the New York Yankees’ 27 — tapped Marmol to lead State College’s Class A short-season affiliate.
“It means a ton, especially for an organization like the St. Louis Cardinals,” Marmol said. “It’s definitely an honor to be a manager within this system.”
The new affiliation actually returned the Spikes to its first parent franchise. The team’s first coach, Mark DeJohn, who is now field coordinator for the Cardinals’ minor league operation, was in attendance Wednesday during the team’s first fieldwork.
Last season, Marmol led the rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals to the Appalachian League playoffs in his managerial debut, just one year after his first post as hitting coach with the rookie Gulf Coast League Cardinals in 2011.
On some level, managing has always been on his mind, even while he played at the College of Charleston and also as a middle infielder in the Cardinals minor league system.
Now, he gets to do it with a storied franchise.
“It’s surreal because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and it’s for the best organization in baseball,” Marmol said. “So you put those two things together and the opportunity that they’re giving me at my age — I have no complaints.”
Complaints, no. Challenges, yes.
An obvious difficulty could be leading a group of men without the gravitas that an older manager with a thicker resume might command. It wasn’t that long ago that Marmol made his professional playing debut with the New York-Penn League’s Batavia Muckdogs in 2007 after being a sixth round pick in that year’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Marmol anticipated that his age could have been a problem, but he dealt with it quickly.
Now, he sees it as an advantage, something that helps him relate with players that know he’s recently walked their path.
“I thought it would be a lot harder being that I was closer in age, but you set those boundaries early…
“Do we kid around, mess around in the clubhouse — absolutely. But when it’s time to get after it, they know where I stand when it comes to my competitive nature … so as far as it being a challenge — not really — if anything I think it does help.”
Marmol has already built some of those relationships after three months of spring and extended spring training sessions and he’s come away excited about his lineup.
Carson Kelly, an 18-year-old third basemen and 2012 second-round pick, is currently the Spikes’ youngest player, although that could change as draftees begin to trickle in after contract signings.
According to his manager, Kelly can hit for power and has great hands defensively, which at his age, makes him an exciting prospect with major-league potential.
Mitch Harris, 27, is the team’s oldest player, even senior to his own manager. Harris, a 13th-round pick in 2008 from the Naval Academy, fulfilled a nearly five-year commitment to the Navy before earning his release to play professional baseball.
The 6-foor-4, now 230-pound right-handed pitcher is still trying to work his way back into baseball shape and looks to begin the season in the bullpen.
Bruce Caldwell is a second basemen that was a 15th-round pick in 2012, who played with the Muckdogs in 2012.
Cesar Valera at shortstop was acquired as a free agent in 2008 and has already played this year with the Palm Beach Cardinals.
Ronald Castillo, a leftfielder acquired via free agency in 2009 also played in Palm Beach in 2013, as did Juan Bautista, a right-hander who’s expected to be one of the team’s top starting pitchers this season.
As talent starts to reveal itself, Marmol said his offensive and defensive philosophies will follow.
Until then, his goal, he says, is developing and maximizing talent and also teaching his players how to be professionals on and off the field.
After all it is a development league, which can sometimes muddy the waters when it comes to winning games.
As an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Spikes went 191-260 and the 2008 team had the fourth worst record in NY-PL history (18-56).
Marmol is well aware of his charge, but said that winning and development don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Spikes inaugural team in 2006, under the Cardinals, still owns the club’s only winning record (39-36). Nine players from that team made it to the Major Leagues.
“I think winning lends itself to development. It’s easier to develop players when you’re winning because the environment is a lot more exciting, the players are energized and have some life to them and it’s easier to learn under those conditions.”
“We are an organization that develops players. That’s what we’re here for at this level … in that process you teach them how to be winning players, championship players. And if you do it the right way at the end of the year we’ll see where we’re at, but usually you have a pretty good team that’s putting up some numbers. So yeah our main focus down here is to develop these guys. It’s a developmental league … but when that scoreboard is on these guys are competitive…”
The official State College Spikes’ roster is likely to be released later this week, but for now here is a look at a few key players to watch this season:
Juan Bautista is a right-handed pitcher with experience that figures to be at or near the top of the Spikes rotation. The 19 year old from the Dominican Republic pitched this year for the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League and went 1-0 in three starts with an 3.21 ERA.
Mitch Harris is a 27-year-old right-hander making his professional debut after serving nearly five-full years of duty in the Navy after attending the Naval Academy and being drafted by the Cardinals in 13th round in 2008.
Jeff Raugh, 23, is another right-hander. He was a free agent acquisition in 2012 and played for the Batavia Muckdogs in 2012. He went 3-2 with a 5.18 ERA in 24 1/3 innings with the Muckdogs.
Ben O’Shea, 21, is the only left-handed pitcher currently on the roster, however that could change when draftees officially sign contracts and join the team. He was picked in the 35th round of the 2012 draft. At 6-foot-5, 255-pounds he could be imposing on the mound. He went 3-3 in 12 starts and 60 1/3 innings pitched with a 3.12 ERA.
Bruce Caldwell, 21, bats left-handed and plays second base. He was a 15th- round pick in 2012 and played for the Muckdogs. He batted .304 in 44 games with Johnson City in 2012.
Carson Kelly, 18, is the Spikes’ lowest draft pick, chosen in the second-round of the 2012 draft. Kelly is a right-handed bat, plays third base and figures to have an impact with his bat.
David Washington, 22, is a lefty that plays first base and was a 15-round pick in the 2009 draft. He played most recently in 2013 with the Peoria Chiefs.
Cesar Valera, 20, plays shortstop as a free agent acquisition in 2008. He played most recently with the Peoria Chiefs in 2013.
Ronald Castillo, 20, is a 6-foot-5 leftfielder who was a free agent acquisition in 2009. He is a right-handed bat who played with the Palm Beach Cardinals so far this year.
Steven Ramos, 22, was a 22nd-round pick in 2010 that played in Peoria with the Chiefs this season. He is also a right-handed hitter.
Matthew Young, 22, also bats righty and was selected in the 20th round of the 2012 draft.
Rounding the bases
Mason Katz was drafted by the Cardinals in the fourth-round of the 2013 draft and is currently playing with LSU in the College World Series. Once his collegiate career ends the organization will begin the process of trying to sign the power-hitting infielder. Entering this season, Katz was the South Eastern Conference’s returning home run leader with 13 in 2012.