Left-handed reliever Ryan Sherriff is one of seven Cardinals prospects assigned to the Arizona Fall League, which begins play on Tuesday. (Memphis Redbirds)

By Rob Rains

Of the seven Cardinals prospects assigned to the Arizona Fall League, Ryan Sherriff might be the happiest to be there.

“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Sherriff said. “I’m thankful the Cardinals gave me the opportunity.”

Spots on the Fall League roster are extremely coveted, and Sherriff thought a couple of factors might work against him when it came to deciding what players to send from the organization to the league, which begins play on Tuesday.

The first was Sherriff’s age, 26, a few years older than most of the players in the league. Second was the fact Sherriff, a left-handed reliever, has never been considered one of the premier prospects in the organization since he was drafted in the 28th round in 2011 out of Glendale Community College in southern California.

What earned Sherriff the spot, however, was a big year for Triple A Memphis, where manager Mike Shildt considered him one of the best under-the-radar prospects on the team.

Sherriff went 7-1 for the Redbirds with a 2.84 ERA, earning three saves, and excelled against left-handed batters, holding them to a composite .172 average. He had 55 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings.

He has made the most of the transition from starting, which he did for his first three seasons in the farm system, to the bullpen. He made the move in 2014.

“I had no idea how I was going to be from the bullpen, but I think I was able to learn a lot about myself,” Sherriff said, who also changed his throwing motion to more of a sidearm angle. “I’ve learned what hitters do against me. Shildt gave me the opportunity to come in late in the game. I wasn’t coming in to just get lefties out but righties as well.”

Sherriff does not know for certain how he will be used by the Glendale manager, Aaron Roward, a team that has prospects from the White Sox, Astros, Dodgers and Nationals organizations. The pitching coach is Dernier Orozco, who was with the Cardinals’ Peoria affiliate this year.

“My goal out here is just pitch the best I can,” Sherriff said. “I think the Cardinals know I had a long season and threw a lot of innings. I want to show them what I can do. I felt like I proved myself in Triple A this year and hopefully they will see that.”

Sherriff hopes to use a good performance this fall as a springboard to a spot on the 40-man roster, which would include an invitation to the major-league spring training camp next year. If Sherriff is not added to the 40-man roster, he will be eligible to be selected by another team in the Rule 5 draft in December.

Even before he arrived in Arizona, this off-season already had a couple of special moments for Sherriff.

He was selected to pitch for Israel in the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic, and relieved in the first two games and got groundballs each time, key outs in what turned out to be wins for Israel, which also won the qualifier final to advance to the World Baseball Classic next March.

“It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Sherriff said. “You’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for a whole country. It was just awesome.”

Sherriff hopes his contributions will earn him a spot on the Israel team that will be competing next spring.

For now, his goal is the same as it has been since he was drafted by the Cardinals; to make the most of the opportunity he has been given. His motivation is trying to honor his late father, Larry, who died in 2012.

“When my dad passed away, that was my promise to him,” Sherriff said, “to work hard and do it for him, so that’s what I’m doing now. He never saw me play a professional game but I still keep him in my mind every single day.”

One of the hitters Sherriff could very well face while in Arizona is former quarterback TimTebow, who is trying to play baseball after signing with the Mets. He will play for the Scottsdale Scorpions, who are Glendale’s opening day opponent.

Sherriff has crossed paths with Tebow before, when he was doing off-season workouts at USC in Los Angeles.

“I used to see him there all the time,” Sherriff said. “He’s a nice guy. He was always working at football, I never thought he would be a baseball player. One day I saw him and he was hitting in the cage. I was like, ‘Why is he in the cage?’ and somebody told me he was trying to make a comeback in baseball.”

The other Cardinals prospects joining Sherriff in Arizona are catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Paul DeJong, outfielder Harrison Bader and pitchers Austin Gomber, Corey Littrell and Rowan Wick.

Kelly already made his major-league debut in September, but the others will be trying to follow in the footsteps of the Cardinals’ prospects who played in the Fall League last year.

Of the seven players assigned there in 2015, five of them reached the majors this season – Aledmys Diaz, Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Dean Kiekhefer, and even though it was with the White Sox, Charlie Tilson.

Bader, 22, was the third-round pick in 2015 and split this season between Double A Springfield and Triple A Memphis, hitting a combined .267 with 19 homers, 58 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.

DeJong also was selected in the 2015 draft, in the fourth round. The 23-year-old spent this season in Springfield, primarily playing third base, and posted a .260 average with 22 homers and 73 RBIs, both of which ranked among the leaders in the Texas League.

Kelly, 22, split the 2016 season between Springfield and Memphis before he was promoted to St. Louis. A second-round pick in 2012, the heir apparent to Yadier Molina hit a combined .289 with six homers and 39 RBIs while in the minors this season.

Gomber, a 22-year-old lefthander, should be in the rotation for Glendale. The fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft split this season between high A Palm Beach and Springfield, going 7-8 with a 2.69 in 21 starts combined between the two teams. He recorded 116 strikeouts in 127 innings while issuing only 33 walks.

Wick and Littrell, like Sherriff, will be pitching out of the bullpen. Wick converted from the outfield in 2015 and reached Springfield this year after making the Florida State League All-Star team. The 23-year-old right-hander was 2-0 with a 2.44 ERA and six saves in 44 appearances combined between the two teams, striking out 57 in 44 1/3 innings.

The left-handed Littrell, 24, was the other player the Cardinals obtained from the Red Sox along with John Lackey when Allen Craig and Joe Kelly were sent to Boston. He made 53 appearances this season for Springfield and Memphis with four saves, striking out 63 in 67 innings. Overall he was 2-4 with a 3.90 ERA.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Sherriff said. “Hopefully something good will come out of it.”

The Fall League runs through Nov. 17, with the league championship game set for Nov. 19.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains