Acquired: Draft, 2010 - 3rd Round, #106
Drafted as a two way player out of Aragon High School in California, Tuivailala logged two unsuccessful seasons in rookie ball playing third base and struggling with the bat. Transitioning to the mound at the beginning of 2012, Tuivalala found a home quickly, dialing up 97-98 mph on the radar gun almost immediately. Paired with an average curveball and an improving change, Tuivailala's stature rose immeasurably at the tail end of 2013 -- enough to snag a surprising mention in Keith Law's Top 10 Cardinals Prospects (requires Insider) column for 2014, clocking in at #11.
Tuivailala mixes both 2 and 4 seam fastballs with easy velocity from his 6'3" 195 pound frame. Paired with his average secondary offerings, but mostly featuring his curve, Tuivailala struck out nearly 1/3 of the batters he faced in 2013 (31.4 K%). That's impressive at any level and it's why his stock has risen from forgotten prospect a year ago to just outside the top 10 on a lot of lists prior to this spring.
The issue? As with a lot of high strikeout pitchers in the lower levels of the minors: Control. Tuivailala walked 12.6% of batters last year, which equates to just over 5 hitters per nine innings of work. That's significant and will put a damper on his development if he can't get it under control. Hitters at the upper levels of the minors have a more refined approach at the plate and Tuivailala is sure to see his strikeouts suffer when hitters won't chase his breaking ball out in the dirt or his fastball up and out of the strike zone.
Let's remember, however: This is a guy who hadn't pitched in two years since high school and had thrown all of 11 innings in professional baseball prior to 2013. When looked at through that lens, the strikeouts look more impressive and the walks less worrisome. That's especially true if you look at his splits from the last two months of the year: 55 K's in just 149 PA's and 22 walks, a 2.5-1 K/BB ratio, with just 1 HR allowed during that span.
Tuivailala's fastball is simply overwhelming for most of the hitters at his level and his command of it is much better than those of his secondary offerings. I'll be surprised if he doesn't struggle some upon a promotion to AA with the K's coming down a bit while his BB% skyrockets for his first couple of months. His biggest weakness are the average secondary offerings and the inability to throw them for strikes, making it all but impossible to keep hitters from tuning up the fastball when he gets behind in the count. Which is often, as evidenced by his below average walk rate.
There's a lot of potential here from a guy who was basically written off last year at this time. His future certainly seems to be in the bullpen as he doesn't have the plus secondary pitch generally required to be effective as a starter.
Law certainly thinks he has some, but flamethrowing right handed relievers are a fairly fungible commodity until they solve some control issues. Tuivailala is probably a C+/B- prospect currently and those are excellent players to have in your farm system to include in trades with other, more viable, major league prospects. If he can improve the control of his arsenal, he could be a valuable bullpen candidate not unlike Addison Reed, the White Sox closer taken 11 picks before him in the 2010 draft.
Starts the year at Palm Beach, likely closing games for them, with a mid-to-late season call up to Springfield.
Acquired: Draft, 2013 - 1st Round, 19th overall
Draft day 2013 marked the second year in a row that the Cardinals plucked the best change-up in the draft on day one. In 2012, that player was Michael Wacha, In 2013? A college lefty out of Gonzaga named Marco Gonzales. That's where the comparisons stop, however.
Gonzales doesn't possess the fastball velocity that Wacha has, but does have a true 70 grade change-up -- plenty good enough to fool hitters even though his fastball clocks in at only 88-91 mph most of the time. Andy had an excellent round-up of the pre-draft scouting thoughts on Gonzales here at Future Redbirds last June. Baseball America's write-upsums up my thoughts the best:
He doesn't have a high ceiling, but at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds he's polished and is a good athlete who has played both ways for the Bulldogs. His fastball sits in the 88-91 mph range. It can get flat at times, but he paints the corners with above-average command. But he's getting drafted for his changeup, the best in this year's class. It's a deceptive offering with fade and scouts have no problem grading it as a 70 pitch on the 20-80 scale. He also mixes in an average curveball and cutter. Scouts love Gonzales' makeup and he could move quickly through the minor leagues. With his frame, stuff and athleticism he has earned comparisons to Jason Vargas.
The Cardinals expect Gonzales to move quickly through the system. He jumped quickly to A+ Palm Beach in July of 2013 and will likely start the season there or at AA depending on how he looks this spring. I'd bet on the latter, as he was one of the most polished pitchers in the entire draft last year and did nothing to dispel that in his 23 innings after turning pro. Unlike Wacha, however, Gonzales has to pitch off of his secondary pitches rather than the fastball and will probably have to improve his cutter to have success against better right handed hitters.
His change is obviously his best pitch, but the curveball isn't too far behind, and with a viable two-seam fastball he doesn't have to light up radar guns to be effective. That said, there's very little projection here: He is who he is at this point and his profile probably isn't going to develop much more.
However, it's not unprecedented for a college starter to join the Cardinals system and see a bump in velocity within 12-18 months time. It happened to Lance Lynn. Happened to Michael Wacha too. I'm not sure what the secret sauce is, or whether these guys have found the elusive Fountain of Youth somewhere near Jupitor or Palm Beach, but it's possible that Gonzales experiences a similar jump as those other players. I don't anticipate this happening as Gonzales has solid mechanics already and I'm not sure where you'd coax another 2-3 mph out of his fastball as it is.
If Gonzales were to wake up throwing 92-93 mph though, that tilt his profile more toward someone like Tom Glavine than Jason Vargas. Pretty sure I don't need to stress which of those is better.
Former 1st round picks always have excellent value (well, unless you're Chris Lambert, or Pete Kozma, or Zack Cox or recently released Brett Wallace...let's forget I said that and start over). Former first round picks that play well always have excellent value. With all the high impact arms in the farm system as well as the active roster, it's easy to see how someone like Gonzales would be a significant piece of the puzzle to make a deadline trade for a veteran in June.
Top of the rotation starter for Springfield and possibly making the jump to Memphis providing that there's any room there for another arm after he dominates Springfield. I don't see him gaining velocity at this point, but I think his secondary offerings are so good that he's probably no worse than a #3 starter at the major league level.