Cardinals Pre-Draft Minor League Update

We're three days from having a new set of players to worry and wonder about; if you can't get enough Future Redbirds, this is good news. But as those same prospect hawks discuss here, the Cardinals have started faberge egg season a few days early: Carlos Matias, a young (apparently!) right-handed flamethrower whose four-seamer has been described as "one of the best fastballs at any level of baseball"—I originally typed that quote without realizing I'd accidentally engaged caps-lock, and it was almost fitting—has signed, or at least attempted to sign, a $1.5 million deal with the Cardinals. 

Baseball America writer Ben Badier describes the issues like so:

The Cardinals have Matias under contract and under reserve, but he still has to clear a few hurdles before his bonus will be paid. Matias had previously agreed to a $160,000 deal with the Red Sox but he did not pass his investigation with Major League Baseball, which suspended him for one year in March 2009. Matias still has to have his age and identity cleared by MLB and receive his visa from the U.S. consulate for the deal to be completed and to receive his bonus.

Matias has presented himself to teams as an 18-year-old with a Sept. 2, 1991 date of birth. 

Apparently he was 16 last year, but you know what they say about pitchers' weird aging patterns. Meanwhile, according to Goold, the "club's understanding is that Matias is 19 years old." While he's sent away to get his eyes examined the team should take a look through his family Bible. 

So don't get too attached—to the name on his passport and his alleged birthday, at least—but the scouting reports are making it hard to avoid irrational exuberance. (He's even played with the Dominican Summer League Cardinals already—six strikeouts in three innings!) The Cardinals going with a low-upside college guy in the first round of next week's draft will be much easier to stomach if it comes on the heels of a successful contract with a major Dominican talent. 

Right now, with Matias showing a high-90s fastball to multiple scouts, I have no idea why he would lie about his age, which is not to say he isn't still doing it. Young pitchers aren't like young hitters; teams are terrified of the way they might develop, not excited about it, and once Matias flashes the golden fastball it's to his benefit to be older than 18. He'll get to the Major Leagues faster, he'll be on a less-restrictive pitching regimen, and he's likely to get paid more from teams leery of their teenagers losing velocity a la Madison Bumgarner or Deolis Guerra.

It's to a hitter's benefit to be as young as he possibly can be relative to a given league; as Richard Castillo has proven in the Cardinals system, it's not nearly as useful for pitchers. If Matias insists on continuing to forge his documents he should consider trying to remain 23 for two or three years in a row; that seems like the young-pitcher sweet spot. 

After the jump, a progress report on the Cardinals' draft classes to date. 

2004: Prospect mavens take heart: We may never get rid of the ghost of Chris Lambert—he is under some kind of spectral contract with SB Nation—but the 2004 draft has almost entirely vanished from the Cardinals' minor league system. Lambert, the first rounder, made six appearances last year between Detroit and Baltimore; after the season the Orioles outrighted him to AAA, and while he appeared to be a lock to join the Norfolk Tides's rotation he retired to pursue a degree in Economics

Mike Parisi (ninth round) opted to stay with the Cubs after being selected in the Rule 5 draft and failing to make their 25-man roster; he's currently in AA, pitching his way back for the former Cardinals-affiliated Tennessee Smokies. Mark Worrell (12th) has begun rehabbing with the Padres' AAA squad following his 2009 elbow surgery and has 25 strikeouts in 25 innings pitched. And Jarrett Hoffpauir (sixth), perhaps the most popular 2004 pick of all, is killing the ball for the Blue Jays' AAA squad: he's got a .321/.385/.536 line with 19 walks against 11 strikeouts. The Cardinals were so sure that they had no need for a short, scrappy, defensively challenged backup infielder that they let him go on waivers last November. 

And that's it: those first four guys, who collectively might have five months of Major League service time, are the only members of the Cardinals' 2004 draft to make Major League rosters. This draft looked bad in 2004 and looks even worse now; if the Cardinals are looking for a blueprint to not follow it's this attempt to combine high thriftiness with low risk. 

Finally we come to Matthew Scherer (16th), a right-handed reliever who spent some time on the Cardinals' 40-man roster before being removed last year. He's still plugging away in Memphis, having been solid and uninspiring at every level in the system thus far; he combines good control with not enough strikeouts to impress anybody as a reliever. He's got a lot of bodies in front of him for his cup of coffee, but as the last man standing in a cursed draft whose second rounder retired in 2007, whose tenth rounder is a budding CCM star, he's already accomplished something. Congratulations, Matthew Scherer: this 2004 draft post-mortem is for you. 

2005: Once upon a time this draft was front-loaded with outstanding young arms—there was Mark McCormick's 100 mph fastball, Tyler Herron's excellent prep command, Nick Webber's sinker, Josh Wilson's... I'm not altogether sure what his thing was, but he was a Texas high school type, so fill in the blank. McCormick never stayed healthy; Herron was dumped (by the Cardinals and then the Pirates) for some shady non-baseball reasons; Webber's sinker got hit 331 times in 321 innings; and Wilson needed shoulder surgery almost immediately, retired in 2008, returned in 2009, and then retired again. And that's what happened to the Cardinals' last four first and second round picks. 

Colby Rasmus makes this draft a clear win for the Cardinals, but even after the silence of the arms this draft has additional depth to offer. Tyler Greene, the second of the Cardinals' four first rounders, has emerged from bustdom to put up some interesting seasons at Memphis; were it not for Brendan Ryan he'd have competed for the starting job two years running. Daryl Jones (third) looked like a bust, ran up the prospect lists, and is struggling now to stay on them; Bryan Anderson started high, fell off, but finally made his Major League debut this year; both look like they could be, at least, useful bench players. 

Mitchell Boggs (fifth) made the jump from hittable starter to fire-breathing reliever in the major leagues; Nick Stavinoha (seventh)... well, he's also in the major leagues. But the real prize of the back of the draft is Jaime Garcia, the 22nd rounder. (Trivia question: the only other player from that round to make the major leagues is Tommy Hanson, chosen by the Braves three spots ahead of Garcia.) 

Other players still remain in the Cardinals' system. Among them, Blake King's (44th) command is finally improving; he's struck out 33 against 17 walks in 27 AA Springfield innings. Without counting the two future MLB players the team drafted but didn't sign—Daniel McCutchen (12th) and Ryan Rohlinger (21st)—the 2005 draft has graduated six players, all of whom have a chance to carve out significant roles in the big leagues. Considering the failure of their pitching reinforcements, that's an impressive achievement. 

2006: Of course, with Adam Ottavino's debut in the books the 2006 draft has already graduated seven: Ottavino, Chris Perez (first), Jon Jay (second), Shane Robinson (fifth), Allen Craig (eighth), P.J. Walters (11th), and Luke Gregerson (28th.) (Lance Zawadzki, an infielder who debuted with the Padres last month, was drafted in the 15th round but didn't sign.) 

Ottavino's high-minors nightmares seem to be moderating, finally, but he's still been disappointing to this point; Perez and Gregerson are gone for veteran reinforcement. But this draft seems to have been designed (successfully) to fill the Cardinals' bench and bullpen. In addition to Perez, Gregerson, Walters, Jay, and Craig, this draft brought the Cardinals sleeper reliever/Thriller dancer Casey Mulligan (22nd), who's got 40 strikeouts in 25 minor league innings this season; poor man's Allen Craig Mark Hamilton (second), who could not have appreciate being drafted by Albert Pujols's team; and Tyler Norrick, a wild but strikeout-happy LOOGY currently in Memphis. 

It's also generated weird internet-watcher circus prospects at an astounding rate—this one draft produced, take a deep breath here, thirtysomething musclebound god-king Amaury Cazana (I'll never forget his listing on the MLB.com draft board, which read, simply, perfectly, NO SCHOOL); colossal high school tools goof Jon Edwards; over-the-over-the-top arm angled starter Eddie Degerman; two catchers who became relief pitchers (Mulligan and David Carpenter); and wild groundballer Gary Daley, still of Springfield, whose 2008 might be the worst season ever.

It's also the draft that brought us the eminently frustrating Tommy Pham, whose four tools are the ones that don't mean anything if you can't hit .200. Following his huge Spring Training, during which he dominated the Vuch report, he's hit .244/.362/.372 in Palm Beach, which is an improvement; I'll be interested to see what he does in a hitter's league. 

2007: Rick Porcello's spotty 2010 makes this one easier to stomach, so far. The two graduates, Clay Mortenson and Jess Todd, have begun 2010 back with their new AAA clubs; Mortenson is 6-2 with a 4.50 ERA in Sacramento, and Todd has 27 strikeouts in 24 innings for Columbus. 

Meanwhile, Pete Kozma finally appears to have recovered from being thrown into AA a year too early; after a terrible April he's brought his season averages up to .269/.332/.441, matching last season's six home runs in 250 fewer at-bats. The problem people saw with this pick from the beginning still exists: he's far away, and the upside seems low. But after his lost 2009 any return on this investment is exciting. 

Daniel Descalso, their third rounder, a level ahead of Kozma, is looking like a possible future second baseman. His huge half-season in Springfield—in 2009 he hit .321/.396/.531 there, while his 2010 AAA season-to-date line is .274/.349/.413—is probably the outlier in his spotty career, but if he can climb back toward it while playing adequate defense he could be a league-minimum version of Skip Schumaker by 2011. 

Speaking of versions of Skip Schumaker, left-handed outfield tweener and internet favorite Tyler Henley (eighth) was off to a rough start in Memphis when he was placed on the DL with an elbow injury. Backup outfielders have to just get hot at the right time; he's behind Jon Jay on the depth chart right now, but another few months of his .300 with power routine could get him on a roster for good or nowhere, depending on what's going on with the Cardinals when he does it. 

Like the 2006 draft, this one seems light on upside but has a chance to deliver some average-ish players on the cheap, always useful in a post-Holliday payroll world. Adam Reifer (11th), the flamethrower who had an awkward 2009 in Palm Beach, looks exciting again—he's got 24 strikeouts against five walks in 21 innings at hitter-friendly Springfield. David Kopp, an injury-prone starter and the Cardinals' second round pick, has made 10 starts without incident there, which is also good to see. They're joined by Adron Chambers (38th), who climbed onto the back of prospect lists by hitting 16 triples in Palm Beach last year; he's having a similar 2010, hitting .268/.362/.390 with four of them, but he seems strangely unable to turn his speed into stolen bases. 

2008: Out come the other two prospects offered up to the 2009 season. Brett Wallace, the man who would be Matt Holliday, is hitting .276/.342/.505, which is honestly a little disappointing in the PCL in Las Vegas; for all his vaunted plate discipline he has 16 walks against 55 strikeouts in 214 at-bats. Shane Peterson (second), with the Athletics' AA affiliate, is off to a slower start; he's hitting .244/.333/.314. 

What's left at the top of the draft is Lance Lynn, one of the starters left on the Cardinals' depleted depth chart. He adjusted poorly to Memphis at first, walking 17 in his first five starts, but since then he's struck out 34 against 13 walks. He seems to be right on schedule in his pre-ordained trip to the fourth or fifth spot in some future Cardinals rotation; he's one of the most successful subjects in the Cardinals' long-standing, maligned experiment with "polished" college starters. Scott Gorgen (4th), an undersized changeup artist, was doing well himself, carrying a 1.17 ERA through eight starts in Springfield until he went down with an elbow strain; there's no timetable for his return, but his stock had gone way up until he hit the DL. 

It's still a little early for the sleepers to come out in force in this draft. Aaron Luna has moved off second base, seemingly permanently, but continues to do his low-average slugger thing in Springfield's outfield; Charles Cutler (14th), basically a version of Bryan Anderson we haven't tired of yet, has gotten off to a bad start in a platoon with Steven Hill. Niko Vasquez, 2008 Future Redbirds champion, still isn't hitting for average, but after his brutal 2009 (a .562 OPS across two low-A stops) his second experience with full-season ball at the Quad Cities has left some room for optimism. He's hitting .247/.427/.461 with 47 strikeouts and 47 walks. I've always longed for a version of Jack Cust that plays shortstop; maybe this is my chance.

That brings us, finally, to the present. On Monday I'll take a look at the 2009 draftees, just in time for us to talk about the 2010 picks. 

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