ST. LOUIS -- Just 21 years old and only one year removed from the college mound, Michael Wacha arrived at Busch Stadium last May for his Major League debut.
Wacha's ascension to the Majors came less than one year after he was selected in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. By the end of that season, he was in Double-A. Wacha started his second year in Triple-A and two World Series starts would conclude his first season in the big leagues.
For a Cardinals organization that has put added emphasis on building from within -- to the tune of 15 current players in the Majors who have been drafted and developed by St. Louis -- that cycle is continuing.
"We understand that it does take patience, but at the same time, we make sure the players understand that we also have expectations, too," Cards director of player development Gary LaRocque said. "Different players are moving up through the system now, and we have to have them ready for the big league club on the timetable and the timeframe that fits their development. That's the challenge we go through all the time."
The Cardinals' top two picks from last year's Draft, Rob Kaminsky and Marco Gonzales, are currently ranked as the organization's No. 3 and No. 4 prospects, respectively, by MLB.com.
Gonzales, much like Wacha, was drafted out of college and has moved up the ranks quickly. The 22-year-old left-hander began the season at Class A Advanced Palm Beach, but he quickly moved up after posting a 1.43 ERA and striking out 32 hitters in 37 2/3 innings. In 27 1/3 innings at Double-A, Gonzales has struck out 32 with a 2.63 ERA.
"He started his season off after Spring Training in Palm Beach and pitched well there, and really, really showed that he was ahead of that level," LaRocque said. "He obviously earned the chance to go to the Double-A level. He's doing fine and we're pleased with where he's at in terms of getting quality innings in at the Double-A level."
Kaminsky, meanwhile, started the season in extended spring camp to work on developing command of his fastball. Kaminsky, 19, has since been moved to Class A Peoria, where he has a 1.72 ERA in 31 1/3 innings.
"He's handled it very well," LaRocque said. "As a 19-year-old in the Midwest League and to be competing for that league level is a challenge for any player. It's always a challenge for a first full-season player to do that, and he's handled it well."
If there are two areas of strength for the organization in recent years, it has been an abundance of pitching and outfielders. MLB.com's No. 2 prospect Oscar Taveras made his much-anticipated arrival in the Majors last month and No. 11 St. Louis prospect Randal Grichuk is already with the Major League club, too.
Those promotions have left No. 2 prospect Stephen Piscotty as the Cards' top Minor League outfielder. Piscotty, 23, is hitting .291 at Triple-A, with four homers, 17 doubles and 33 RBIs. Just one year ago, he moved through both Class A and Double-A in his first year playing the outfield.
"He's moved his way right through the system and done a very good job," LaRocque said. "He's accelerated at that pace and is obviously on track for a really strong year at the Triple-A level. The big thing there, what we do see is the opportunity that we wanted to give him a full season of at-bats at the highest level right now, that's Triple-A right now -- he's done well with it."
Because of the influx of outfielders at the higher levels, players like No. 6 prospect James Ramsey were sent to Double-A following Spring Training to get a sufficient number of at-bats. The 24-year-old, who will soon come off the disabled list, has hit .305 with 11 homers.
LaRocque's philosophy has been to get hitters like Ramsey at-bats, insisting that performance still gives Double-A players an opportunity to advance.
"We've proven in the past that players can move up from our Double-A and Triple-A levels," LaRocque said. "Last year, for example, we had five players play at Double-A that ended up coming in the big leagues. The most important thing is that they're getting quality at-bats on a consistent basis. It just so happens we've used our Double-A level to do that."
The cycle will continue after the Cardinals selected 42 players in the 2014 Draft. For a third straight year, that included a college pitcher, Florida State's Luke Weaver, with the top selection.
"It's very important that you place players in the right spot and very important that they have a level of success early on," LaRocque said. "We go through that together as a staff. We sit down during that process to make sure the players are placed in the right spot."
Alex Halsted is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less