I've been thinking about the minors a lot lately, and wanted to put my thoughts to paper, if you will. As we all know, the minor league system is the lifeblood of a successful ML team. All organizations not in the Yanks/Sox/Phil’s category need to supplement their ML team with young, cost-controlled talent to remain viable long term. Developing your own superstars is what turns teams into championship contenders. Teams that are run well put millions of dollars and hours into finding, selecting, and cultivating talent in order to save millions down the road.
Fortunately for us, it would seem that the Cardinals have similar feelings about the importance of a strong minor league system. Over the past few years, under the direction of John Mozeliak and with the hard work of people like Lunhow (goodbye, sweet prince) and John Vuch, the Cardinals have turned an awful farm system (thank you Mr. Jocketty) into one that will be ranked in the top 10 by all, and even in the top 5 by some.
So, without further pontification (actually there is a lot more coming), I want to talk about the 5 talking points/storylines/narratives I will be closely monitoring during the 2012 season. Follow me after the jump...
1. How will the system's young, high upside starting pitchers progress?
The organizations is lucky to have several high upside SP that, assuming uninterrupted progression and no injuries occur, should all be contributing to the ML by 2015-2016. Now, that is a Prince Fielder sized assumption, as TINSTAAPP cynicism has been shown to be true in many cases. Still, we as fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, have a lot to look forward to with Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Tyrell Jenkins on the horizon. Add in "lesser" prospects like Joe Kelly and Jordan Swagerty, who may or may not be starters long term, and you have quite a bit of depth to go with upside. And, like a beautiful cherry on top of a perfect sundae, Trevor Rosenthal is that mysterious, "who is this guy," prospect that all systems love. He's better than sliced bread in my estimation. Here's what I'm looking for in these guys over the season.
2. Is Oscar Taveras for real?
The Robot had a nice post over at Future Redbirds entitled "Is Oscar Taveras Underrated." I tend to think the answer to that question is yes. As azru shows, even if you normalize his BABIP, he still had an outstanding season as one of the youngest members of A- ball (Taveras was 19--remember when I made a big deal about Shelby Miller being 20 and dominating AA...yea, that's still awesome). It will be very interesting to see where the organization starts Taveras this season. Smart money is probably on A+ ball, but I can certainly understand a case being made for being aggressive and moving him to Springfield to start the year. As he progresses through the levels, will his peripherals remain the same? His walk and k rates were both respectable (I'd love for him to improve on his 9% BB rate, and I'll be looking for that). Will he develop any more pop? Scouting reports show that he might be a 15-20 HR guy, but that he crushes the ball all over the field. Lastly, can he play CF at all, or will be relegated to the corners? This is probably the biggest question I have about him, as I truly believe in the bat (despite what some scouts report about his swing being too violent; all scouts seem to agree he has uncanny hand-eye coordination, which fills a lot of potential holes in his swing). If he can play center, his value will soar. I hope the Cards give him every chance to prove that he cannot play center before moving him off the position.
3. Catching Prospects (Or the Lack Thereof)
I feel it is not a stretch to say that catcher is the most important position player on the baseball diamond. A good catcher will perform several key tasks: direct a team's pitching staff, control the opposition's running game, and provide some offensive value. When looking at the Cardinals organizational depth chart, there is a massive drop between Yadier Molina and any other player. The Cardinals have been calling Molina the best catcher in baseball for several years, and I have no doubt he will want to be paid as such, whether it be by St. Louis or another organization. Even if the organization extends/re-signs Molina, it needs catching talent in the pipeline. Currently, there is a pretty obvious dearth in said talent. As the Future Redbirds Top 20 Prospects List shows, the organization has no high end catching prospects. Players like Cody Stanley, Robert Stock and Luis de La Cruz look like future backups, pitchers, or non-prospects. Will Stanley, who was slightly old for low-A Quad Cities, improve his BB% (6.5% in 413 PA) enough at A+ ball to move into legit prospect category? Will Robert Stock, who actually hit better at Palm Beach than he did at Quad Cities, show enough power improvement (.087 ISO at Palm Beach) to overcome his decreased contact rates? I feel like the answer to both of those questions are probably no, which means I will be looking hard at Adam Ehrlich to carry the catching prospect torch this season. Ehrlich was a 2011 6th round pick out of California. There is no point at looking at his stats in Rookie Ball, as he only had 69 PA (though he did walk ~10% of the time, which is promising in a SSS sort of way). The scouting reports on Ehrlich are mixed, but he should be able to stick at catcher defensively. Will he hit? That is what I will be looking for as he starts the season, probably in extended spring training and into rookie ball come mid-season.
4. Replenishing The Farm
The 2012 Rule 4 First Year Player Draft will be held June 4th, 2012 (First round and supplemental first round). As of right now, the Cardinals have 4 of the first 52 picks. Once Edwin Jackson signs a major league contract with another team, the organization will have 5 of the first 53 picks. I've read mixed reports on the depth of this year's draft, with some articles stating this year has a deep class lacking top end superstar talent, and other saying the class lacks real depth and upper echelon players. Regardless, having 5 of the first 53 picks gives the Cardinals options. Do they play it safe and try to pick 5 sure-fire major league contributors, or do they throw caution to the wind and go for low-floor, high-ceiling talent in hopes on hitting on one or two core, star players. Based on recent drafts in which the organization showed a willingness to take high-end talent early while still showing a penchant for selecting safe, value picks, my guess is this draft will be a mixed bag. I just hope that if Stryker Trahan (here too!) is still present with the 19th pick, the Cardinals take him. The system lacks power, catchers, LH pitchers, and upper echelon shortstop prospects, so, in a perfect world, new scouting director Dan Kantrovitz (this is a link to an article, not just a tag) uses the 5 picks on Trahan, a couple of power prospects, a LH pitcher, and a high-ceiling SS. Will he be conservative, risky, or right down the middle in his first draft? It's a philosophy I will be closely monitoring come June.
5. Who is our next Oscar Taveras?
Oscar Taveras burst onto the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, with a .386/.444/.584 line at Quad Cities in 2011. Does the organization have another player capable of replicating this type of surprise season? That's a question I have going into the season. My pick as potential surprises: Tyler Rahmatulla. He was old for Rookie Ball, but in 251 PA he exhibited a good eye (10.4% BB), power (ISO of .231) and the ability to hit for average (.315) all while playing what seems like a respectable second base.