Can you smell that, children? Can you? Can you smell what the Baron is cooking?
In case you can't smell what it is I'm talking about, or else just want to be stubborn and not acquiesce to the siren's song of late 90s professional wrestling catchphrases (what kind of monster are you?), I'll tell you what it is: it's a list, children. Oh, yes, it's a list. That holy grail of new-age web 2.0 success, that avatar of obsessive-compulsives everywhere. The list, children. There will be lists, He said, and so there were lists, and it was good.
More specifically, it's prospect week here at Viva El Birdos, so the smell you smell is the smell of the future, of success coming down the pipeline, slouching toward Bethlehem and all that jazz. It's the smell of prospects, children. Also, maybe the smell of leftover chicken and dumplings cooling on the stove, cooling down and waiting for me to put them into tupperware and then on into the refrigerator. So if it's Monday night and you catch a whiff of something delicious, it could be prospects, or it could also be Aaron's dinner.
But no, it's Wednesday morning as you're reading this, and so that means the smell is almost surely prospects.
So this is my list. But not only a list, no no, not at all. A list, and then bonus content! I'm not going 20 names deep, the way all these other squares did, If you wanted Cubesville, you wouldn't come to the Baron, now would you? I'm going ten deep (insert sex joke here), and then featuring four other players I like, but who aren't showing up on anybody's list just yet. (Or, well, they may show up on Baseball America's list, simply because theirs are 30 players long.) So you still get less content from me, but I like to think some added value. Or maybe I'm just being lazy and don't care enough about the players in the 11-20 range unless it's a guy I have some specific feeling about. Could be that one, too.
On to the list, featuring a number one that will almost certainly be unique, even shockingly so, and probably the only time you'll ever see anyone go out on this particular limb. It takes balls of steel to go against overwhelming opinion, but I, my dear friends, have those balls.
1. Oscar Taveras, OF
Okay, so I may have stretched the truth a little about having a unique number one pick.
There are two pertinent facts here: one, it's hard to really argue for anyone else as a number one over Taveras, if you're going by the service time eligibility rules. (For what it's worth, I would actually rank Carlos Martinez above Taveras if he was still on these lists, but I believe he's lost his rookie eligibility, so I'm excluding him.) Two, it's tough to come up with something new to say about Oscar Taveras. Plenty of people have said plenty of things about him, and there's really just not that much new ground to cover. He was hurt last year. It sucked. It doesn't make me worry about his long-term future. He's as close to a sure thing as you can get in terms of a pure hitter.
2. Tim Cooney, LHP
Ah, now here we have a ranking that actually probably does surprise you, no?
2014 Future Redbirds Top 20 Prospect List
The St. Louis Cardinals' top 20 prospects entering the 2014 season according to Future Redbirds.
To be honest, this was a tough ranking for me, trying to figure out where to put Cooney on this list. He came into last season a solid-ish back end starting prospect, and pitched like exactly that guy for a fair bit of the season. A High-A FIP of 2.70 was supported by an excellent walk rate and a crazy low home run rate, but middling strikeout numbers. Makes sense, right? Low-ceiling college arm, doesn't strike out a ton of hitters, doesn't have the stuff to strike out a ton of hitters, but throws strikes, keeps the ball down, and keeps a book of pitching cliches under his pillow when he goes to sleep at night.
A funny thing happened when the Coonster (don't call him that, by the way), got to Double-A, though. Suddenly, his strikeout rate shot though the roof, while his walk rate stayed pretty much where it was. He gave up a few more homers -- not surprising, given the comfy surroundings of Hammons Field -- and the end result was an FIP of 2.57 and a number two ranking on my list.
The problem, of course, is that strikeout rate. What exactly caused the spike? He pitched 36 ish innings at High A, and a little over 118 at Springfield, so it isn't as if we're talking about a blip on the radar of high strikeouts; if anything, the low K rate in Palm Beach looks like the blip. Then again, 2012 Cooney was closer to the High A guy than the Double A guy, so....
When he was drafted, Cooney had a fastball in the 88-91 range, an above-average (slightly), changeup he made most of his money with, and a slurvy slider that couldn't quite decide what it wanted to do with its life and went for a liberal arts degree. In the years since, the breaking ball has been the biggest change, as Cooney has turned the pitch into more of a curveball that projects as a true out pitch and is probably the reason he suddenly started striking out better than a batter per inning at the Double A level. His fastball is a bit firmer now, sitting at 90-91 and touching 93 here and there, and he works from a slightly lower arm slot that I personally enjoy watching.
Watching Cooney pitch, the guy I flash on is Jeremy Sowers, the former Indians prospect and Vanderbilt alum who came up with so much fanfare a few years back, had success in his initial look at the big leagues, and then fell victim to arm injuries. He was also, for awhile, one of my favourite pet prospects, a guy I always hoped would be able to get healthy long enough to have a real run. Cooney has the same feel for me, of a lefty with a slightly slingy delivery, a plus breaking ball, a firm enough fastball, and a feel for pitching that's tough to quantify.
I had a hell of a time ranking this guy. I debated myself for hours. In the end, I decided to jump in with both feet and choose optimism that the Springfield numbers are real. So here's your number two, folks.
3. Stephen Piscotty, OF
Also known as the Right Field Prospect Least Likely to Be Noticed, Piscotty is a third-base convert from Stanford who has displayed a remarkable hit tool in his pro career so far, and has absolutely no chance of ever being mentioned as best hitter in the system so long as that Oscar guy is around.
I've come to believe in the hit tool as the most important a player can possess, and Piscotty definitely has that. His hands are remarkable, as he almost never swings and misses, uses the whole field, and squares up pitches consistently enough I have no problem projecting him to hit .290 in the big leagues as a baseline. He's also shown some real power as a professional, though I think there could be more in there if his lower body wasn't costing him power in his swing. I only saw him play right field twice in person, but he looked surprisingly, almost shockingly, good out there to me. He runs very well, his arm is strong, and the skillet hands of third base don't seem to be such an issue on fly balls.
I've called him a poor man's Jayson Werth before, and I kind of like that still.
4. Alex Reyes, RHP
Alex Reyes did as much rising as any prospect in all of baseball last year, I think, entering the season a virtual unknown and ending it by sneaking onto the back end of some top-100 lists. Watch him pitch, and it's easy to see why.
Reyes throws hard, sitting at 94 and touching 97, and his fastball is anything but straight. Even better, though, is his curveball, which if it wasn't for the little lefty I'll be writing about here in a moment would be the best in the system. His changeup is still very much a work in progress, as is his command of whatever he's throwing, but there's potential here for two plus-plus pitches. Oh, and he's also 19 years old until the end of August.
The walks are high, and Reyes threw eight wild pitches last season in less than 60 innings, a testament to both the quality of his breaking ball and his lack of command. Time is on his side, though, not to mention talent. I think there's a pretty good chance this is your number one prospect next year.
5. Kolten Wong, 2B
You probably thought I forgot about Wong when he wasn't in the top two or three, didn't you? Or that I had decided to exclude any players who had already made it to the majors or something. Nope, I didn't do either of those things. I'm just a little nervous about Mr. Wong, that's all.
Don't get me wong, er, wrong; I think Kolten will be a fine middle infielder for the Cardinals. It's just...well, there's a head/heart or maybe brain/eyes kind of thing going on with me here, and I'm having a tough time reconciling the two.
I think this is a very good defensive second baseman. No doubts or worries there at all. Kolten Wong will play second in 2014, and he will be very good at it. Bank it. My concerns are on the offensive side, which is strange, considering I always thought the one thing you could count on with Kolten Wong was his ability to hit the baseball.
And, honestly, he'll probably still hit the baseball. But I watch him now, and while I still see the hand-eye coordination that made me like his bat so much out of college, his swing seems choppier to me, more engineered to hit nothing but grounders, less likely to produce the kind of surprising-for-his-size pop I expected. I never liked how deep and low he got on his back leg, and that seems even worse now. I don't know what the deal is, but watching Kolten Wong swing the bat now makes me worry.
Here's the thing, though: the numbers still say otherwise. He looks like strictly a slappy groundball hitter to me now, but his Triple A OPS of .835 -- including a .466 slugging percentage -- does not speak of a slap hitter. So I have numerical evidence he's still a really good hitter, and a feeling while watching him that something has gone wrong during his development. I can't reconcile those two things, so he lands at number five on my personal list. He's an extremely safe number five, though.
6. Rob Kaminsky, LHP
Rob Kaminsky is owner of the best curveball in the Cardinals' system, and the cause of a hefty fine for public nudity incurred by yours truly in June. You know what? I'm not explaining that or linking anything. Just leaving it right there, just like that. Newbies to the site, think whatever you will.
Kaminsky is small. You're going to hear that a lot. He's somewhat less than six foot tall, which is a little like saying I'm somewhat less handsome than Jon Hamm. Point is, he's short. He's also crazy talented, though, with a fastball/curve combination that makes Alex Reyes a little jealous. The heater has been clocked up to 96 in pro ball, though he typically sits more in the 92 neighbourhood, and the curve is positively beautiful. Stunning. It is...Ankielian. Not a big overhand 12-to-6 breaker, it's got tilt and power, the kind of pitch right-handed hitters will swing and miss at as it hits them in the right foot.
The changeup needs work, and the mechanics are not at all my favourite. But the ceiling for Kaminsky is extremely high, even if he might need a stepstool to reach said ceiling.
7. Carson Kelly, C
See that C right there? That's a big part of the reason I'm still so firmly on the Carson Kelly bandwagon, despite very middling results to date in his professional career.
It's funny; moving Carson Kelly to catcher makes so much sense, I actually thought to myself at one point writing about him, "He sounds like a catching prospect." Cannon arm, nimble, quick reactions, very athletic in short bursts but surprisingly heavy-footed, those sorts of things. Of course, once the Cardinals actually did decide to move him to catcher, I immediately lost all hope of ever telling anyone I thought he would make a good catcher, simply because it's sounds way too good to be true. Oh, sure, the people in my head would say, you totally thought he could move to catcher. Right, Aaron. Very believable.
Anyway, voices in my head aside, the story of Carson Kelly is, so far, one of as-yet-unfulfilled promise. He has shown bursts of high-end talent at times in his career, but has yet to put it all together in any cohesive way for even a short run. Sometimes he shows plus raw power. Other times he shows good contact ability. Sometimes he shows off the big arm, sometimes soft hands. But never all of it at once. He hit well last season after a demotion, putting up a 123 wRC+, but a .111 ISO from a player with his raw physical strength isn't all that exciting. On the other hand, in his very first taste of pro ball in 2012, he hit nine home runs in just over 200 plate appearances. Only one good thing at a time for Carson, apparently.
For now, the promise of Kelly is still too big to ignore, too exciting not to rank him highly. He's still crazy young, has raw tools you can't teach, and is now playing one of the most premium defensive positions on the field. I have to say, though, 2014 feels like a year you really want to see something tangible from Carson Kelly.
8. Marco Gonzales, LHP
This might be a little low for a pitcher as safe, as polished, as near-ready as Marco Gonzales, to be honest. I feel like it almost certainly is too low. But I also can't deny the fact I feel much more strongly about a whole bunch of players in the Cards' system than I do Gonzales. That probably says as much about me and my own criteria for judging a prospect as it does the Gonzaga alum.
I've made the comparison before, and I'll make it again: Marco Gonzales puts me in mind of Mark Buerhle. Similar builds -- though Buerhle is a little bigger overall -- similar stuff, similar built-for-durability mechanics. Firm enough fastballs, plus changeups. Both throw cutters to right-handed hitters, trying to bust them inside right at hand level. Gonzales' cutter definitely needs some work to get to Buerhle's level, but watching him throw, I see a similar approach with the pitch.
There's also an interesting parallel with Gonzales to Michael Wacha, I feel, in that both pitchers have outstanding changeups but questionable breaking balls. Wacha's curve improved in his first full season a fair amount, but remains a work in progress. Gonzales' own curve is probably a little further on at the same point in time, but is still what I think of as a bellwether pitch. If the curve develops, the repertoire looks much better than the raw amount of improvement, if that makes any sense.
The fact is, Marco Gonzales would not have been my pick in the draft where the Cardinals took him. Nonetheless, he was probably the safest bet they could have made, and he's the safest bet of the pitchers on this list now.
9. Oscar Mercado, SS
This is a weird ranking for me. At the time of the draft, I didn't much care for Oscar Mercado. I didn't think he would hit, thought the Cardinals did much better picking up Chris Rivera later in the draft, and just generally felt kind of meh about Mercado. More like Meh-cado, am I right?
In his first go round in pro ball, Mercado didn't hit much. At all. In fact, he did almost exactly what I thought he was going to do. So why, after all that, do I rank him here? Good question.
The answer is this: we all saw just how difficult it was for the Cardinals to find a shortstop this offseason. We heard all the rumours, heard the trade speculation, and saw them decide to spend the money for Jhonny Peralta when every other team in baseball was apparently unwilling to part with a young shortstop for anything less than a king's ransom. Shortstops are incredible rare in baseball right now.
The thing is, Oscar Mercado is going to play shortstop. And he is going to play it very, very well. Personally, I think Chris Rivera has a chance to be a very good shortstop as well, but there is no doubt on Mercado. I can't speak of Rivera with the same certainty. So, in part, I'm bumping Oscar Mercado up mentally simply because his skillset is even rarer and more valuable than maybe I realised back around the draft.
The other thing is this: while Mercado didn't really hit that well, there are a few things in there I actually like. For one, his walk rate was a surprisingly robust 9.1%. Small sample size all to hell and back, but the fact he showed better plate discipline than I expected was a very pleasant surprise. Second, while he did hit just one home run (compared to Rivera's five), he also collected a total of ten extra-base hits in less than 200 plate appearances. One home run, five doubles, four triples. Sure, those may have largely been a function of his speed, but hey, I'll take the speed as a plus any day of the week. Speaking of speed, Oscar Number Two stole twelve bases as well, while being caught just four times.
So what we have here is a player who did not hit for a high average, who on the surface looks very much to have proven my skepticism valid, at least in the extreme short term. Digging down a bit, though, we have a player who plays plus-plus defense at the most premium of premium positions, stole a dozen bases, and racked up a decent number of extra-base hits for a rail-thin kid fresh out of high school.
I still have my doubts about Oscar Mercado. And, to be honest, I still like Chris Rivera better in a lot of ways. But, if I'm honestly appraising these players as prospects, Mercado's glove, coupled with some things he actually did better than I expected or initially realised, is just too good to ignore.
10. Randal Grichuk, OF
Ah, the newest Cardinal acquisition. I remember when the Cardinals were heading into the 2009 draft, and rumours began circulating a couple weeks out that Grichuk might be their guy. There was a surprising amount of consternation, as I think a lot of us felt he was a very limited player, almost a one-tool guy, in fact; a left-field only high-schooler who had crazy raw power but not much else to offer. Almost five years on, the Cards finally got him, and didn't even have to spend a draft pick to do so.
Grichuk is actually a better fielder than I thought he would be, as he's improved markedly in the years since he was drafted. I'm doubtful he's actually capable of manning center field, but either corner spot is certainly doable, and at a fairly high level. He still has plus power, and his contact skills are surprisingly strong as well.
The one big problem with Grichuk's offensive profile -- and it's a fairly big one -- is an almost shocking lack of patience at the plate. This is a player who simply refuses to even consider a walk most of the time. When you have the kind of power Grichuk has, you have to try not to walk more often than he does.
Nonetheless, this is a player who fits as a potential extra outfielder almost absurdly well. He offers a little speed, solid defense, nice pop off the bench. He's right-handed, which is helpful on this team in particular. He's intriguing in much the same way Joe Mather was intriguing, minus the advanced age and absurd handsomeness. I'll take that any day of the week from what amounts to a trade throw-in.
Four Names to Watch
So I managed to write a top ten list without James Ramsey, who tried his damnedest to not look like Skip Schumaker in 2013. Or Lee Stoppelmann, who I expect to see making a very successful major league debut this year at some point. Or Greg Garcia, who I would probably have eleventh on my list, just ahead of the aforementioned Mr. Ramsey. Or Vaughn Bryan, or Charlie Tilson, both of whom represent intriguing athletic talents in the middle of the field. And I'm not going to cover any of those guys. Instead, I'm going to give you four names I like, guys who probably aren't going to show up on many lists but I have, for one reason or another, a desire to put a spotlight on.
1. Rowan Wick, OF/1B/C
Rowan Wick is Canadian. I like Canadians. They just seem pleasant. Also, he has big-time power, just turned 21 in November, and walked in better than 12% of his plate appearances last year. He strikes out too much, to be sure, and he needs a position, but has a sweet left-handed stroke that produces some of the loudest contact you're going to come across in the system. He was very much a developmental project when he was drafted in 2012, and he remains a work in progress. But there's a ton of raw strength here, the hand speed to turn that strength into power, and a willingness to wait for a pitch to unload on. I'm a fan.
2. Sam Tuivailala, RHP
He was drafted as a shortstop, but couldn't hack it as a hitter. He also didn't hack it at that whole shortstop thing, moving to third base roughly midway through his second pro season. Of course, not hitting kind of made the third base thing a moot point, and so now we see Tuivailala taking the mound as the latest conversion attempt by the Cardinals, a road they've gone down before, notably with pitchers like Jason Motte, David Carpenter, and Trevor Rosenthal, who played shortstop himself in college before being drafted for his arm by the Redbirds.
Tuivailala shows a similar kind of arm as Rosenthal, with a fastball that has already been clocked as high as 99 mph. He's shown an ability to spin the ball as well, though it would charitable to call anything he throws a breaking ball at this point. He's basically a pure arm strength prospect at this point, but when said arm strength approaches triple digit territory, that's not the worst thing in the world. I think he could take off in 2014.
3. Dixon Llorens, RHP
Hey, look, everybody, a submariner! I love submariners!
Mariano Llorens, aka Dixon Llorens, struck out 36% of the hitters he faced in 2013. He did so with a funky, deceptive delivery, a nasty slider, and, surprisingly from a submariner, a wicked changeup. In fact, the change might be my favourite pitch from Llorens; his delivery has an odd fast/slow/fast tempo to it, and his change is almost impossible to wait on, as the timing is just brutal. His ceiling isn't very high, in all honesty, but I think there's a good chance he's knocking on the door to the big leagues by the time the season is over.
4. Edmundo Sosa, SS
In truth, I would like to put Edmundo Sosa higher on this list. I really would. After all, it isn't often you see a player who, at seventeen years old, walks nearly one and a half times as often as he strikes out, plays what is usually reported as a plus defensive shortstop, and puts up a wRC+ of 149 overall. Those are all incredibly exciting things.
But, until we see him do those things stateside, I just can't bring myself to throw him into the mix for top prospectdom. Next year, I have a feeling a lot of those reservations will be gone. For now, though, Edmundo Sosa is this year's Leobaldo Pina, a far-off name to remember, as a vague dream of what could be.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my top prospects list for the year of 2014. It's later than I had planned -- I started writing it Monday evening with the intention of it being today's six a.m. post, but I just couldn't get it finished up then -- and it's quite a bit longer than I planned, as well. But I like it. I don't love it; I feel like if you asked me in a week to make up another list it would look substantially different than this one. Maybe that's just the nature of prospect-watching, though.
So tell me I'm wrong. Tell me I'm stupid. And then tell me why.
Bye, kiddies. See you later.