Acquired: Draft, 2012: 5th round, 180th overall
Player Profile & Career Summary:
Cory Jones was a Junior College pick in 2012 from College of the Canyons, though he initially started at Pepperdine University before transferring, and was set to transfer again to Oregon St. before the Cardinals signed him. The MLB draft notes from 2012 projected him as a future reliever, calling his curve "inconsistent" and noting that his high velocity would play up out of the pen. His command was described as improving, but still poor, and his change-up needed even more work than his curve. Making his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, Jones did little to dispel the idea that his control needed work. In just 17 and a third innings, he walked 11 batters for a 12.9% rate. He did strike out 15 batters as well though. His ERA sat at 7.27, with an FIP of 5.97. The idea has been floated that part of Jones' control problems in college, and possibly in the GCL by extension, was related to a large blister he had developed on the bottom of his right foot, which is the foot he pushes off the mound with.
He started 2013 in extended spring training, to focus on his development. It payed off almost immediately, as he jumped straight to full season A-ball with the Peoria Chiefs, where he struck 19.9% of opposing batters (55 in 66⅓ IP). More importantly, in terms of his long term development, he walked just 6.1% of those batters -- an unspectacular but very solid rate. With the benefit of a .257 BABIP, he posted a 2.04 ERA. His FIP was a much more reasonable 3.28, which is still very good. Between the late season promotion, and a late-summer injury that caused him to miss most of August, he only managed to rack up 66⅓ innings in competition.
He has a prototypical power-pitcher's frame at 6'5", and backs it up with a mid-90s fastball and power curve, mixing in a changeup. In a season review for the Peoria Chiefs at Cardinals Farm, some blogger named Joe Schwarz had this to say in defense of choosing Jones as Peoria Pitcher of the Year:
"This 6'5" righty had a heck of a season for the Chiefs as shown by his 8-2 record and 2.04 ERA. Cardinals scouting director Dan Kantrovitz said he has an "Ideal pitcher's body. Fastball sits at 93 [mph], touches 97, potential for a big power curveball. I think he's got a starter's repertoire." Though an injury slowed down his pace this season, look for him to move up the ladder of the minor leagues next season, if he can stay healthy."
An interesting tidbit to note is that his K:BB ratio against righties was 21:11, but against lefties it was 31:5. It's too early to say he has a reverse platoon split, but that's fairly large and an interesting thing to keep an eye on.
It's early, but Jones is starting to look like one of those mid-late round picks that the Cardinals turn into a productive player. With a big power arm, Jones always had some upside, and it looks like he is making real progress toward reaching it. He should have a good chance at a spot in the bullpen with just mediocre control/command. I don't think we should rule out a spot for him in a future rotation though, if he can continue to develop his curve and change and throw strikes. As he accumulates more innings this year, we'll get a better idea of how good his offspeed pitches are as he finds consistency with them.
Jones looked good in A ball last year with Peoria, and I expect the organization will start him at High-A Palm Beach in 2014. I think he'll spend most of the season there, perhaps even coming up to the Texas League for a cup of coffee with AA Springfield in July.
Acquired: Draft, 2011: 3rd round, 109th overall
C.J. McElroy isn't a top prospect in the organization right now, but he IS one of the more intriguing ones. A great athlete that gave up the chance to be a two-sport athlete playing CF and RB/WR for the University of Houston's baseball and football teams respectively, McElroy also has some MLB bloodlines. His father, Chuck McElroy, was a journeyman lefty in the 90s, and Cecil Cooper is his uncle.
McElroy struggled in his debut in the GCL at 18, but was promoted to short season Rookie ball in 2012 where he held his own with a .271/.314/.332 line across 268 PAs. Derrick Goold reported some adjustments McElroy was making in August 2012.
"He has modified his stance at the plate to lower his back elbow and take a more direct approach. The results have been fewer grounders and meek popups, he said, but aren't reflected in his average. Eager to use the new swing, he also hasn't taken a walk in 10 games."
Despite the adjustments, this past season saw him struggle again in his first taste of full season league competition. His BB rates (5.6% to 6.4%) and K rates (15.0% to 15.7%) remained similar from 2012 to 2013, despite the level jump. A drop in BABIP from .325 to .286 fueled an ugly .240/.288/.302 line.
His potential as a burner on the basepaths looked questionable last year, getting himself caught in half of his 16 attempts, after going 24 for 29 in 2012. After two seasons being listed as "Fastest Baserunner" in the Cardinals system by Baseball America, he was unseated by fellow toolsy CF and 2011 draftee Charlie Tilson. He did however supplant P Tyrell Jenkins as "Best Athlete".
McElroy has zero home runs in his career. Zero. He is never going to be a power hitter, and will have to rely on his speed and contact skills to be productive offensively. Considering that speed is best-utilized after a player gets on-base, McElroy's focus HAS to be his hitting. His BB-rates aren't horrid, but they're definitely below average. Likewise, his K-rates aren't crippling, but they're pretty bad, particularly for a guy who's waiting for his first career HR after 634 professional PAs.
McElroy doesn't have to develop a whole new tool necessarily, but he needs to make some improvements in his contact, walk, and LD-rates. In a system full of solid prospects, McElroy has a tough argument for a top spot these days. Until he can make hard contact consistently, he's going to have a hard time producing solid batting or slugging averages, and I'm not sure he'll be able to do much to improve his walk rate until pitchers have reason to fear him at the plate. Speed is still his most exciting tool, but it will take a back seat until he starts to hit.
McElroy will repeat at Peoria this year, with a shot at getting to Palm Beach toward the end of the season if he is successful.
Acquired: Draft, 2012 - Round 2, #86 overall
I'll echo the sentiment expressed by quite a few other baseball writers this offseason: Everyone seems to forget just how young Carson Kelly actually is. He doesn't turn 20 until July of 2014 and has spent a season and a half playing pro baseball already. Signed for bonus significantly over slot ($1.6M) to entice him into forgoing a commitment to the University of Oregon, Kelly had a great debut in short season ball in 2012 that got him on the radar of the national scouts: 9 HR and only 31 K's in 271 PA's at age 17 will do that.
There's been plenty of analysis on his potential move behind the plate -- in my opinion its a good move all around: He's got very good hands and quick feet but doesn't possess great speed, a profile more fitting for a catcher than a third baseman. Kelly did an interview with VEB's own Joe Schwarz about halfway through his 2013 campaign and you get the sense that he's smart, open-minded, and mature for his age, which bodes well for picking up a new position quickly -- especially one that requires good mental awareness and a high-level understanding of the game. Catchers have to know scouting reports on opposing hitters and be able to make on-the-fly adjustments as well as be a good receiver and make sure their pitchers get all the pitches on or near the corner of the plate. It's as tough a position to learn as any on the field, but I just get the feeling that Kelly is up to the challenge.
A number of scouts salivate over his potential with the bat -- one speaking with Marc Hulet floated comparisons to Buster Posey -- but he's not shown much promise as of yet, putting up just a .590 OPS in 168 PA's with Peoria last year before heading back to short season ball at State College and righting the ship a bit.
It's easy to see why scouts love Kelly's offensive potential: He possesses a beautiful swing, one of the more naturally powerful ones that I've seen while doing research on players in the Cardinal organization. It's simply, direct to the ball, and quiet -- no obvious flaws mechanically. Kelly also has a very low strikeout rate for someone with as much power as he has. The obvious question, then: What the hell happened to him in Peoria last year?
Here's my take (which, coupled with a quarter will snag you a pack of Juicy Fruit): He was 18 and just wasn't ready to handle the brutal mental test that is pro baseball. So when he started off struggling right away, it just became pervasive for him and led to a downward spiral of struggles that weren't so much an issue with his swing but with his mental approach at the plate. It's something Kelly speaks to in his second interview with Joe, coming up later today here at VEB.
You can see from the video (jump to 1:28 to see him swing the bat) why there are comparisons to Buster Posey. Compact "5 frame" swing, good load, and can really punish the ball from gap to gap with occasional home run power. I believe in his bat and think that we're going to see it come around this season.
After a lackluster season defensively at 3B (which may have also led to some offensive struggles) the Cardinals moved Kelly to C for instructionals last fall and liked what they saw, at least enough to put him on the Non-Roster Invite list for this spring to give him as much time as possible to grow into his position before the minor league season starts. There's a better than average chance that this move will help his offense, and I think he's got the proper tools to be an above average catcher defensively. A 70-75 arm won't hurt his pop times any, that's for sure.
Learning a new position, probably starting at short season ball again, but, I repeat: He's 19 and doesn't turn 20 until mid-July. There's time for Kelly to come around and there's certainly plenty of talent: Scouts had him as one of the 10 best players in the organization last year -- one half season of struggles doesn't erase what he did in rookie ball in 2012. I'm expecting big things from Carson Kelly this season.
Projectible tools, especially average to plus power paired with a low strikeout rate, will always have some value. If he can handle the position change there's a good chance of having a top 100 prospect by the end of the season if his bat comes around. That would be very valuable, indeed, but especially so for an organization that's got next to nothing in terms of depth behind the plate in the entire farm system.
It's only a matter of time before his bat really takes off, in my opinion, so it's just a matter of him making the defensive adjustment to catching. I think that happens late in the year and we're back to calling him the next Buster Posey by the end of his August cup of coffee in Palm Beach.
Acquired: IFA, 2009, Venezuela
If the Palm Beach Cardinals ever invite you to a home run derby between C.J. McElroy and Breyvic Valera, with the stipulation being that you have to stay until someone hits a homer, you might want to bring a pillow and a sleeping bag because you're going to be in for a long night. Valera has 3 more homers than McElroy in his career -- so 3, total. That's a serious lack of pop, but one that he makes up for by filling every other hole in the defense with line drives and sharply hit ground balls -- he's hit .311 for his minor league career at 4 different levels thus far.
Signed as a skinny kid (weighing in under 150 pounds on his 5'11" frame at the time) who just peppered line drives everywhere, Valera's more than lived up to that aspect of his tool set. He's also put on 15-20 pounds and proven that he can be a valuable defender at 2B, so while he's not what you'd like at the top of your prospect list, Valera's skill set is one the provides valuable depth to a farm system with very little at his position.
A line drive hitting machine who handles the bat really, really well. Valera can take the ball where it's pitched and deposit it on the field in a spot void of any defensive players. He doesn't hit the ball with a ton of authority, hence the lack of any power numbers whatsoever, but can slap the ball into the gap and down the line into the corner and has good enough speed to turn a few of those into doubles and triples. That's it though -- he's never going to be a 40 double guy like Matt Carpenter and doesn't have enough speed to steal 40+ bases to make up for the lack of power: If you're looking for a guy who can hit .300 and slug under .350, this is your guy.
Valera's has excellent hands and good range at 2B, but can't play SS and doesn't have the arm to play meaningful innings at 3B either. The lack of versatility is a huge problem for him too: You can't carry him as a utility infielder and he doesn't have the offensive profile of someone who can play everyday at 2B either. Knowing that, it's hard to project him to have much value to the organization unless he can develop some gap power.
In short, Tony La Russa must love this guy -- he's like the amalgamation of everything TLR loves in a second baseman: He soaks up every ground ball hit near him, rarely makes an error, and has good range. He never strikes out and rarely flies out either (<25% of the time in minor league career) making him the perfect hit-and-run candidate hitting near the bottom of a La Russa lineup. Remember Aaron Miles? Yeah, this is him, in size, stature, and the inability to play SS, although probably a little bit better hit tool than Miles ever had.
Valera's going to play a lot this year, the lack of middle infield prospects at his level or below pretty well guarantees it, but to move up, he's got to display the ability to hit the ball in the gap on a regular basis and turn his 18 double seasons into 35-40 double seasons. That's the kind of leap he needs to make in 2014.
Offensively, he could be a valuable player if he had the ability to play multiple positions. As it is, he's a second baseman who would need to hit .300+ and improve his walk rate to have any offensive value at the position and given his sub-.100 ISO, it's hard to see how his walk rate improves at all as pitchers are going to go hard after him when the worst that can happen is a single or a lucky ball down the line that turns into a double or triple.
Everyday second baseman at Palm Beach to start the year moving up to AA if he continues to rake, and there's no reason to think that he won't.
The Future Redbird crew will return on Wednesday and continue moving up the ladder to the A+/AA level.