the cardinals' top 7 prospects

since leaving st louis with a 3.5-game lead, the brewers have only broken even, 5 wins and 5 losses. alas alack, the cards have only gone 3-6 in the same span. now here’s the really awful thing --- in 3 of those losses the cardinals led after 6 innings, and in 2 of the others they held early 3-run leads. in all 5 of those defeats, the cardinals’ win probability surpassed the 75 percent threshold at some point during the game; probabilistically speaking, they ought to have won 4 of the 5 --- in which case they’d be riding a 7-2 tear and just a single game back of milwaukee. even if they’d merely won 3 of the 5, they’d be 2 games out and making things very uncomfortable for the brew crew.

woulda coulda shoulda --- ain’t that baseball?

derrick goold has a project going over at Bird Land; he’s asked a bunch of cardinal bloggers to list the 7 best prospects in the st louis farm system. derrick comes up with the top-prospects list for Baseball America every off-season, and with the minor-league schedules pretty much over (batavia made the playoffs, so they’re not quite through) he has started his research for next year’s book. i figured i’d weigh in; i don’t get to see the minor leaguers play very often, but i talk to people; i read about ‘em and follow the numbers. so i’m weighing in, for whatever my opinion is worth.

before i go on: the definition of "prospect" can get a little blurry sometimes. is chris perez still a prospect? his rookie-of-the-year eligibility will probably still be intact for 2009, so technically speaking you could say yeah, he’s a prospect. joe mather, on the other hand, lost his rookie eligibility, yet he seems a lot more like a prospect to me than perez does. perez has graduated to the big leagues; he’s got a regular job, and there’s no longer much doubt about whether he can play at this level. it’s just a question of how good he will be. mather, by contrast, can’t be assured that he’ll ever take another big-league at-bat; reserve outfielders are a dime a dozen, and the cardinals have a big glut of them. so it seems bass-ackwards to deny him "prospect" status while granting it to a guy like perez.

there’s also the question of what "best" means when you’re dealing with prospects. is it the guy who is closest to being ready for a big-league job? by that yardstick, mitchell boggs is definitely a better prospect than adam ottavino. but if "best" is defined as the guy with the greatest potential to become a star, then ottavino is a better prospect --- even though it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready before 2010 at the very soonest.

to deal with these issues and ensure a consistent, rigorously evaluated top 7, i have. . . . . done nothing. with respect to the first issue, i’m more or less using the most restrictive definition of "prospect" ---- ie, i’m excluding mather because he objectively has lost his rookie eligibility, and i’m excluding perez because subjectively i think he has graduated from prospect status. but that’s only a loose guideline, which i will break unapologetically if it should suit my purposes. likewise, on the issue of what defines "best" --- it just depends. i’m not applying a hard-n-fast rule. i’m just eyeballing it, folks.

so let’s get started already. i think the list of the top 7 prospects in the system begins with 3 no-brainers: brett wallace, colby rasmus, and daryl jones. i’m not ranking the 3 of them in any order, just placing all 3 at the head of the class. they all appear to have 2 attributes that generally translate well to the big leagues: a power stroke and good strike-zone judgment. each of the 3 seems capable of developing into the "impact"-type player la russa’s been talking about lately. wallace is probably the best pure hitter; his MLE across two levels this year was .274 / .325 / .448, which is very similar to what ryan braun posted in his first year with wooden bats, back in 2005. two years later he was a 34-homer man in the national league. but wallace, like braun, may not be able to handle 3d base (his current position) in the big leagues, and it’s not clear that he’d even be able to play left field. so even if wallace’s bat develops as advertised, he gets demerits for his lack of a clear position.

in 2008 daryl jones finally posted numbers worthy of his raw tools, for which he has long been touted. upon reaching the double A texas league in july he became one of the youngest everyday players in the league; also one of the best. interestingly, his MLE average and slugging for 2008 were identical to wallace’s --- slash lines of .274 / .346 / .448 over two levels. but jones is a year younger than wallace, and he spent more of his time at higher levels of competition than wallace; he’s also reputed to be a plus defender and he’s got excellent speed, so he can contribute even when he doesn’t have a bat in his hands.

finally there’s rasmus, whose season was streaky and frustrating and injury-marred. it’s said that he still tries to pull the ball too much and still doesn’t make good contact vs left-handers; his MLE slash-lines were unimpressive at .231 / .321 / .359. i’m not too worried about this, to be perfectly honest; he started slowly, as he has done at every level of the minors, and then adjusted to the league --- which in itself is an indicator of his ability: he finds his opponents’ weaknesses over time, rather than vice versa. that, and the fact that he consistently exhibits good strike-zone judgment, persuade me that he still deserves the mantle of #1 prospect in the system (for the 3d straight year), in spite of the lackluster season. but it’s not as cut-and-dried as it once was; he’s got some competition now, and something to prove.

having said that: if i were the gm, i’d commit to making him my opening-day 2009 cf and trade away at least 2 of the left-handed outfielders (duncan / skip / ankiel). rasmus probably won’t be a big star right away, and he might even be a slight downgrade for a year or so. but he appears to be an intelligent player ---- at least, he has shown an ability to make adjustments. the sooner they get him in there to start figuring out big-league pitching, the sooner he will reach his eventual ceiling.

behind these three, there are a lot of other guys who you could make a case for in slots 4 through 7. i gave consideration to 9 players who ended the year at triple A ---- jaime garcia, jess todd, mitch boggs, clay mortensen, jason motte, john jay, david freese, bryan anderson, and brian barden --- and 3 who ended it at double A --- allen craig, adam ottavino, and donovan solano --- and 3 who spent the year at class A and below --- niko vasquez, deryk hooker, and nick additon. if i left your favorite player off the list, sorry. i like all these players for one reason or another, and if you ask me tomorrow i might not pick the same 4 i am listing today. here are my four --- again, not ranked in order:

    mitchell boggs: boggs led the PCL in earned run average this year, a not-insignificant feat. pitchers who’ve ranked at or near the top of that league’s era leaderboard in recent years include jorge campillo, chris sampson, joe saunders, jason hirsh, and edison volquez, and all became useful big-league pitchers very soon thereafter. we got a chance to see this boggs’s skill set, and it looks to me like he has weapons very similar to jason marquis’; that’s not meant to be an insult. marquis is having a very successful career imho --- he has made close to 200 big-league starts (or 7 seasons’ worth) and won about 80 of them, and his team has finished in first place every single year he has been in the majors. give boggs a couple of years and, if he’s lucky, he’ll be grinding out (mostly) capable 6-inning starts somewhere in the big leagues, or maybe pitching as a setup man. if he can reach that level while he’s young and cost-controlled, he’ll be quite valuable for a while; once he reaches free-agent status, he’ll be an overpriced stiff like marquis is now.

    jess todd: todd was one of the cards’ most highly praised selections in the 2007 draft, and he’s done nothing but get results since then. he doesn’t have the type of dominating stuff that makes you think "ace," but he avoids walks and gets scads and scads and scads and scads of groundballs. he was dominant in both his appearances against other top prospects (the texas league all-star game and the futures game), and he made 3 very good starts in 4 tries at triple A. like boggs, he might have a future either as a midrotation starter or as a late-inning reliever, and if he were to reach that peak soon (which seems possible to me) he’d be extremely valuable during his pre-free-agent years.

    bryan anderson: like rasmus, he was one of the youngest players in triple A, at 21. he has always exhibited a good batting eye, and the lack of power doesn’t bother me; he’s still filling out, and it’s very common for players to add power as they mature. MLE at triple A this year was .258 / .338 / .350; his skill set is less fully formed than rasmus’ is, and he probably needs at least another season at triple A. if he didn’t play catcher i wouldn’t be as excited about him, but that’s a premium position.

    jason motte: what’s not to like? he’s mean, he throws 200 miles an hour, he strikes out hitters by the bushel, and he’s only been pitching 2 years. once he figures out what he’s actually doing out there, he might be halfway decent.

i would have put jaime garcia on this list if not for his elbow troubles. but he's now had pain in that joint two years in a row, and they're talking about surgery. if he has the surgery, all bets are off; even if he doesn't, the recurrence of the problem is a major red flag. based on performance and tools alone, he belongs in the top 7, but the health problem knocks him out of the running in my opinion.

Cardinal70 has links to all the other blogs who are participating in this project, so check them out to see other folks’ take on the top 7. and keep your eye on Bird Land, where derrick will be sifting through it all in the near soon.

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