January 28, 2016
St. Louis Cardinals Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: The Best Fans In Baseball no longer have The Best Farm System In Baseball, but it’s still pretty darned good, with intriguing talent all over the field.
The Top Ten
1. Alex Reyes, RHP
“Not only is this the most improved pitching prospect of 2015, this is one of the most improved pitching prospects I’ve ever seen.” — AL assistant General Manager.
I could just stop there, but I get paid by the word. Reyes’ stuff is filthy, starting with a true 80 fastball that will touch triple digits and sits 94-96 mph as easily as anyone can sit 94-96. It was the best fastball I saw in the Arizona Fall League, and he was pitching alongside such guys as Mauricio Cabrera and Ray Black. If you sit on that fastball, you take the risk of flailing away at his 12-6 curveball, and it will show moments where it looks like a double-plus pitch, even though it usually isn’t a strike. The changeup has actually regressed somewhat in his time in the Cardinal system, but it’s a competent third offering with late tumble and good arm speed.
Two things keep Reyes from being the best pitching prospect in baseball: his command, and Lucas Giolito. Reyes has a tendency to throw across his body, and while the action is repeated consistently, it limits his command and control around average levels. St. Louis is really good at working with this type of profile, and even as is it won’t keep him from starting.
Reyes will miss the time in 2016 because of a positive marijuana test, which could keep him from reaching St. Louis before the end of the year. It doesn’t change his overall outlook, however, as Reyes projects as a true top-of-the-rotation starter who can miss a ton of bats and give you 200-plus quality innings.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If there’s been a theme across these fantasy takes it’s that the value of the starting pitcher with non-impact upside is having a bit of a course correction. Of course, this does not apply in the least to Reyes, who has SP1 potential—and that’s not something that gets thrown around lightly. It’s not difficult to envision him as a 220-plus strikeout horse with very strong ratios (more ERA impact than WHIP).
Major League ETA: 2017
2. Jack Flaherty, RHP
Jack Flaherty was once in a rotation in high school with Max Fried and Giolito, and while he doesn’t have the same kind of stuff as those names, he makes up for it with outstanding feel for pitching. He can manipulate his 90-93 mph fastball anyway he wants, cutting it, sinking it, or running it. He has the exact same arm speed on his change, and the late tumble makes it a swing-and-miss offering. The slider doesn’t offer the same consistency, as it can get short and slurvy, but it’s a quality pitch that he can locate with bite.
What makes Flaherty a future mid-rotation guy is not the stuff, but his ability to locate that stuff. His delivery is easy to repeat without being easy for hitters to pick up the baseball, and he does a great job getting ahead of hitters while hitting his spots. The upside isn’t elite, but the floor is as high as any pitcher in the system, which you’ll soon see is saying quite a bit.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Now take that theme hinted at before and apply it here. Flaherty is going to be a major league starter, but without strong strikeout ability, the dynasty league appeal just isn’t the same. If the command carries him, he can post an ERA in the low 3’s with a WHIP south of 1.20, but without the impact or margin for error of a higher-upside arm.
Major League ETA: 2018
3. Magneuris Sierra, OF
Sierra wasn’t ready for full-season baseball (.191/.219/.247), but he was just fine upon being sent down to Johnson City (.315/.371/.394), and there’s still big-time upside in this young man’s game. The swing is short to the ball without much rotation, and that compact stroke allows him to hit the ball hard from pole to pole. His lack of upper-body strength and flat swing mean homers aren’t gonna happen, but above-average bat speed and an ability to keep his hands in allow him to put the ball into the gaps.The approach needs a lot of work, as his aggressive nature leads to wasted at-bats, and walks are too few and far between. Once that ball gets into the gaps, outfielders be warned, as he’s a plus runner who can take the extra base. That speed also makes him a threat to steal bases, though he is still learning the “art” of the steal. His athleticism carries over into the outfield, and the aforementioned strong wrists give him an easy plus arm. The jumps there aren’t great, but he has the raw tools to improve as he matures.
Sierra has more upside than any hitter in the St. Louis system, and while that might not be saying much,he’s a top-of-the-order type who can give you above-average offense and defense. You’re just going to have to be very, very patient before you see it in Busch Stadium.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: The distance and rawness of Sierra still holds him squarely in the flier category, but the potential for 30 steals and a net positive batting average should keep him on fantasy radars in 14-team leagues and deeper.
Major League ETA: 2018
4. Marco Gonzales, LHP
Gonzales’ 2015 campaign was a disappointing one, as he struggled not only to get hitters out, but also with shoulder fatigue. Twice. It’s tough to forget the version we saw in 2014, however. He’s not overpowering, but his 45 fastball plays up because he can put the pitch wherever the heck he wants, when healthy. The circle change is a true out pitch—the best off-speed of any pitch in this system, including Reyes’ curveball—and even though he has a tendency to overuse it, it still gives hitters fits. The curveball is a competent third offering that has enough depth to keep hitters honest, even if it could use a tick more velo. As you might expect, the delivery is clean and repeated on a consistent basis, and I’d guess the command issues he suffered in 2015 were caused by discomfort more than anything else.
What you see is what you get, and what you see is a back-end starter who won’t miss many bats, but will competently fill out a rotation.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Shallow mixed leaguers should not bother with Gonzales, who makes for a much better deep league play. He should be owned in leagues that roster 200 prospects, but the lack of fantasy impact across the board will leave owners just wanting more.
Major League ETA: Debuted in 2014
5. Tim Cooney, LHP
One scout I spoke with called Cooney the “poor man’s Marco Gonzales” and while that might not seem terribly appetizing, you can do much worse. His fastball is actually a tick better than Gonzales’, at 90-93 with good plane and some sink. He’ll also throw a cutter, which doesn’t have huge movement but keeps right-handers honest. The change is his bread and butter, a pitch he can locate for strikes or bury down in the zone when ahead in the count. He’ll throw a curveball and slider, and while these pitches run into each other, they’re average offerings that help keep hitters off balance. He pounds the zone with all of his pitches, and he keeps the ball below the knees.
Cooney gets the nod over a guy like Luke Weaver, thanks to a deeper, more consistent repertoire, and the immediacy of his impact. It isn’t necessarily sexy, but he is ready to go, and should be a part of the Cardinals rotation at some point this year.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If you’re in an NL-only league, Cooney is a nice reserve play for 2016 (and probably a few years after that as well). If you’re not, you can pretty safely cross his name off your draft list. There’s just not anywhere near enough potential to roster in mixed leagues here.
Major League ETA: Debuted in 2015
6. Nick Plummer, OF
I was infatuated with Plummer following the 2014 Area Code Games, and while the reports afterward weren’t quite as glowing, you never forget that first look. Plummer’s swing stays in the zone with above-average bat speed, and his ability to extend while keeping his hands in allows him to shoot line drives all over the park. His approach is outstanding (he led the GCL in walks), and while that can lead to some passivity, it certainly beats the ultra-aggressive approach you see from plenty of preps drafted high. There isn’t a ton of loft in his swing, but the bat speed and his ability to transfer weight make projecting a tick-above-average power possible. Charlie Blackmon he is not, but his above-average speed should at least keep pitchers honest and allow him to steal double-digit bags as a big leaguer.
The Cardinals are going to give Plummer every chance to stay in center field, but it’s not his most likely landing spot. His arm is closer to 40 than 50, and his so-so routes and “meh” athleticism make it more likely he lands in left field. The bat can absolutely play there, but it does put a lot of pressure on him to hit.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If you were going to own one hitter in this system, it’s Plummer, and really it’s just not all that close. There remains plenty of ceiling here, with an outside shot at a .290/20/20 future. It’s going to take some time to develop, but if you have the luxury of patience, rostering him could pay off big in the future. Expect him to be taken in the second round of dynasty drafts this year, with a price tag that slips because of his poor statistical showing in the GCL.
Major League ETA: 2019
7. Luke Weaver, RHP
No relation. Weaver’s numbers at Palm Beach were outstanding, but they don’t really tell the story of what kind of upside he has. He can get his fastball up to 96 mph, sitting comfortably 91-93. His best pitch is his changeup, and while it’s rarely a strike, its deception along with late fade make it a strikeout pitch. He throws both a slider and a curve, but neither is more than average, largely because of Weaver’s low arm slot, and they both often finish up in the zone. He does throw these pitches for strikes, and although the control is ahead of the command, the pitches are generally within the margin of error.
Weaver drew the widest range of views in this system, with some viewing him as the second-best pitching prospect while some were unsure if he belonged in the top 10. His ability to throw strikes with four pitches gives him a chance to pitch in the middle of the rotation, but without an above-average breaking ball it’s tough to see him as more than a fourth starter.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: These arms are just not getting any more exciting for those mixed leaguers reading this article. Weaver has a better chance than Gonzales or Cooney to be a strong deep league starter, especially with the low walk rate contributing to a strong WHIP, but that’s also not saying too much.
Major League ETA: 2017
8. Edmundo Sosa, SS
Sosa followed up his solid 2014 campaign with an outstanding one, and he just might be the Cardinals’ shortstop of the future. Like Plummer, his approach is advanced, and he has shown a willingness at a young age to use the whole field. There’s also sneaky pop here, as he has strong wrists and his swing has natural loft, which could lead to average power production for his position. He’s just above-average as a runner, although he hasn’t yet shown that he’ll be a base-stealing threat.
The offensive skill set suggests Sosa could be a weapon at shortstop. The defensive skill set says “now hold on just a minute.” He has the range and arm strength to stay on the left side of the bag, but there are a lot of mental and physical gaffes—enough to make a switch a possibility. As a second baseman with 50 or above tools everywhere this could be a real offensive force if he is able to stay at the premium position. Don’t be surprised if Sosa is a real mover with another strong season in 2016.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: There isn’t a spectacular ceiling here—think more of an Erick Aybar type with high single-digit homers, 20-plus steals and a .270-.280 batting average. Yet, with the dearth of middle infield talent out there, it almost makes it worth waiting the years it will take for Sosa to develop. Almost.
Major League ETA: 2018
9. Charlie Tilson, OF
It might be somewhat surprising that Tilson has “only” been in the Cardinals system for four years, because it feels like he’s been here since about 2006. There’s almost no power to speak of, but the hit tool is above average, thanks to his smooth, quick stroke and strong bat-to-ball skills. He’s one of the fastest players in the system, and his plus-plus speed makes him a threat to steal 50 bases a year, although his success rate in Double-A (48-for-70) isn’t special. He’s a competent defender in center with enough arm strength to handle all three outfield positions.
The lack of power limits his upside, but Tilson’s ability to get on base, run, and play defense makes him a valuable player. At worst he should be a competent fourth outfielder who can make a difference both on the bases and in the field.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: The speed! Oh my god the speed! Avert your eyes from everything else!
Major League ETA: 2017
10. Junior Fernandez, RHP
Junior Fernandez is so much the typical Cardinals IFA prospect that he’s almost a cliche. His arm strength is ridiculous, getting his fastball into the triple digits and sitting in the mid-90s with life on the offering. There’s even more life on his change, and while there’s an ever so slight difference in arm speed, the late tumble still makes it a plus offering, with some scouts saying it’ll be a 70 when all is said and done. The slider needs work, but it should be a competent third offering with just enough tilt. He challenges everyone and everything, and the command should be good enough to start.
What might not allow Fernandez to start, is his delivery. There’s a lot of effort, and he may not have the durability to hold up over a 200-inning, or even 170-inning season. If he does move to the bullpen, he’s a future closer, but no one can blame the Cardinals for giving him every chance to start, knowing that “and best of luck to you, Mr. Hitter” reliever is there if and when they choose to go that route.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Relievers are not investments you want to make in your dynasty league unless you’re desperate or your league is far too deep. Fernandez is no exception.
Major League ETA: 2019
Bryce Denton, 3B – Denton didn’t have much success in his first professional season (.194/.254/.245 in the Gulf Coast League), but don’t let the small-sample failure fool you: This guy can really hit. The bat speed is plus despite some length to the swing, and he has a chance for plus power thanks to serious loft and ability to rotate through the zone.. There are major questions about where he’ll play in the field, but the Cardinals’ second-round pick is the most likely “bopper” in the system, be it at third, first or in the outfield.
Harrison Bader, OF– The Cardinals had one of my favorite drafts of 2015, and Bader was a real coup in the third round. There’s no plus tool, but there’s no 45 tool, either. He’s a smart, assertive hitter who is willing to use the whole field, and there’s solid-average power in his right-handed bat. He’s even better with the glove, as his above-average speed makes him a weapon in the corner and capable of handling center. It’s probably a fourth-outfield profile, but don’t be surprised if the former Florida Gator is a top-10 prospect in the St. Louis system in 2017.
Sandy Alcantara, RHP– Everything written about Fernandez applies to Alcantara, just on a lesser scale. He’ll touch the upper 90s with his fastball (usually 92-96) and his frame suggests he’ll have a double-plus fastball as he fills out. He also shows a solid changeup, but the curveball is below average and the command has a long way to go. This is a work in progress, but he could be one of the best pitching prospects in the system someday.
Carson Kelly, C – When Kelly was coming out of the draft, there was a big debate as to whether or not he belonged on the mound, or if his offensive potential was just too great to move him off third base. Two years later, he’s a defense-first catcher. Baseball is weird. Kelly has acclimated to his role behind the plate well, and his plus arm, quick release and soft hands make him an asset with the glove. The bat just hasn’t developed the way so many (me) thought it would. There’s still power in his right-handed bat, so if he can show a semblance of patience, there’s a chance he becomes a regular behind the plate.
Corey Littrell, LHP – Littrell was traded to St. Louis along with John Lackey at the 2014 deadline, and he’s yet another southpaw with advanced feel for pitching. There are four average pitches here, led by a fastball that will touch 92 and a cutter that bores in on the hands of right-handed hitters. He’ll also throw his curveball and change at any point in the count, and his command is close to plus. He gets overlooked because of the other lefties in the system, but he absolutely has a chance to become a member of the rotation at some point in the next few years.
The Cardinals have their share of young stars, but even more impressive is the quantity of quality young players already in St. Louis. Around the league, most U25 lists feature a few players from the big league roster. With St. Louis, six of the top seven players on the Cardinals list are already role 50 or better big league players, and the other guy is one of just a handful of minor leaguers capable of developing into a true No. 1 starter. The Cardinals are pretty good at this draft and development thing.
For all the talent available, it’s not the easiest group to rank. The Cardinals have young contributors around the diamond, in the rotation, and throughout the bullpen. You could change the order of the top seven players considerably, and I wouldn’t argue too much.
Fresh off a breakout season that saw him earn his first all-star appearance, Martinez heads the Cardinals list for now. Featuring a mid-90s fastball that regularly reaches 98, along with a boomerang slider and sharp changeup, Martinez has the tools to head a big league rotation. Just as importantly, Martinez’s command and feel for the craft have come a long way in recent years. He’s comfortable adding and subtracting velocity and movement, and he’s also able to move the ball effectively around the zone. Already very difficult to square up, Martinez could take another leap by limiting free passes and tightening his command further. The shoulder strain that prematurely ended his 2015 campaign is worrisome, although there’s no indication that he won’t be ready for spring training this year.
Wacha was surging towards his healthiest and most productive big league season before a miserable September inflated his ERA and dampened otherwise solid peripherals. Something was clearly amiss: he surrendered seven of his 19 homers in his last five starts, and walked four hitters three times in his last four outings after having not allowed that many in a game all season. Was he tired? Was a case of spinal tilt to blame? It’s hard to say definitively, but if September was an aberration, he’s a good No. 3 at the very least.
Piscotty performed well in his first taste of the big leagues. He settled into right field nicely, and he used a compact, fluid stroke to lash line drives all over the field, pounding 26 extra base hits in 63 games. It was an impressive debut, and intriguingly, there’s room for growth in his game. While his swing isn’t conducive to big homer totals, there is more thunder in his bat than he’s shown thus far in his career, and his minor league walk and strikeout numbers were much better than the figures he posted in the majors. Put simply, he has the talent to become a first division regular and his tools give him more than one route to get there.
While not a star, Wong has established himself as a solid-average second basemen capable of impacting all phases of the game. He’s an average hitter with just enough pop to keep pitchers honest, and, game four of the 2013 World Series notwithstanding, he’s a pretty good base runner too. Wong may not have a ton of all star appearances ahead of him, but he should reliably anchor the Cardinals middle infield for the foreseeable future.
If I could sign up for Rosenthal’s 2015 season for each of the next three years, I’d be comfortable bumping him up a spot or two on this list. It doesn’t work that way though, and relievers are a volatile lot. With a fastball that regularly reaches triple digits and a changeup that just murders lefties, Rosenthal has the pitch mix of an elite reliever. If his control jumps half a grade, he could be the class of National League closers.
Grichuk is perhaps the most divisive player on this list. An aggressive hitter, Grichuk rarely worked deep counts and struck out in over 30% of his plate appearances last year. His power is real though—if not quite as extraordinary as he flashed in 2015—and the reverse platoon split he posted portends well for his first full season of everyday duty. It remains to be seen whether he’ll get on base often enough to be better than an average regular, or how long the Cardinals will want to use him as their starting center fielder. Either way, following the offseason departures of Jason Heyward, Jon Jay, and Peter Bourjos, Grichuk will be holding down the fort out there on opening day. Whether he grows into the role or forces the Cardinals to adjust on the fly is one of the most intriguing storylines of the upcoming season.
This being St. Louis, the names above are hardly the only talented 25U players on hand. Sam Tuivailala was an effective reliever in limited duty last season and, riding an 80 fastball and a curve that flashes plus, he should earn an expanded role this season. Matt Bowman and Jayson Aquino haven’t debuted yet, but both could also see time out of the bullpen this year. Aquino is a lefty with a good sinker and average offspeed pitches. It’s not the most exciting skillset, but there’s swingman upside at least. Bowman is a failed starter who the Cardinals drafted with the fourth pick of the Rule 5 draft. If his three pitch mix plays better in short stints, he could earn a living as a middle reliever.
Aledmys Diaz reached Triple-A last season, and while he doesn’t have any standout tools, he has more than enough range and arm to hold a utility job, and he might have just enough stick to eventually start at short. Michael Ohlman can hit and is currently the third catcher on the club’s 40-man roster, though some evaluators think his size will force him off of the position sooner rather than later.
This is a staggering collection of young talent. While a few critical offseason departures have pushed the Cardinals below Chicago, and perhaps Pittsburgh, in the NL Central hierarchy for the moment, St. Louis is well-positioned to make a run at their long-time rivals in the coming years. - Brendan Gawlowski
So, you might have heard there was some drama in the Cardinals front office this winter. We won’t get into that in great detail because most of it isn’t of relevance to the current system.
What is relevant is that the people who are here are really, really good at their jobs. Mozeliak has done a great job of using the system to internally fill needs with players or trades. Flores was a bit of a surprise hire to take over as Scouting Director, but in hindsight he shouldn’t have been: He was a rising star in the industry and his video scouting system OnDeck Digital is one that several clubs have implemented into their scouting regimens.
As good as those folks are, the stars of this system are in the international department. Moises Rodriguez, Luis Morales and several others have made the Cardinals one of the top international scouting teams in all of baseball, possibly even the best. Just look at the names in the top ten who are in this group, and that’s not including guys like Breyvic Valera and others. Combine that with their quality drafts (Arturo Reyes in the 40th round, etc.), and you get a pretty good idea why St. Louis is competitive. Every. Damn. Year.