*St. Louis Cardinals Minor League Preview: Palm Beach Cardinals (A+)

Marco, Marco, Marco!!! - Rob Carr

Today we preview the Palm Beach Cardinals, who have as good a mix of high upside and high floor talent as any A+ team in the entire minor leagues.

The farther down you get in the minor leagues the tougher and tougher it becomes to project rosters of players and the roles that those guys will fill. Once you hit A ball, everything becomes much more up for grabs than at the higher levels, where pitching and positional roles are more defined and everyone can play at a high enough level that you can draw some significant conclusions from their play against one another.

The 2014 Palm Beach Cardinals have as much talent as I've seen from a High A team in the Cardinals minor leagues in the time that I've been evaluating and following the Redbirds farm system. You have high upside prospects with lots of raw tools but not very many refined skills and you have high floor players who have on or two polished attributes to their name but don't have the raw ability of those other guys. You could see 5-7 of these guys in a MLB uniform by 2016....or you could see none (although I'd bet against that with the state of the MLB bullpen right now).

So, without further ado, your 2014 Palm Beach squad:

Starting Rotation:

  1. Marco Gonzales (L)
  2. Cory Jones (R)
  3. Joe Cuda (R)
  4. Mike Mayers (R)
  5. Kyle Helisek (L)
  6. Kyle Hald (L)
  7. Tyrell Jenkins (R) - 7 Day DL
Rotation spots don't mean the same thing in the high minors as they do higher up on the chain: Clubs in developmental leagues like this one continually run 6 or 7 starters out there throughout the season usually with pitch limits for the top prospects that keep them under 6 innings of work. Player development is the #1 goal in A ball and pitcher usage many times will reflect this goal.

Gonzales more than likely started here due a few setbacks in spring training - he finished last year in AA and most had him slated to return there to start 2014 before struggling to get right for much of March. I'd anticipate him dominating hitters at this level again, much like he did in his first start of the year (5 IP, 3 H, 7 K - no runs or walks allowed) and be promoted to AA my mid-May. It's pretty amazing to see all these left handed pitchers do so well in a Cardinal minor league system, which was barren of good lefties for the better part of 20 years.

Jones and Jenkins are the other high upside candidates here: Jones had a standout year pitching for Peoria last season, his big issue is the lack of a third effective pitch, which might relegate him to bullpen duty in the long run. I'd guess that this is a make or break year for him as a starting pitcher. Jenkins is coming off of a shoulder injury and just now getting on the rehab train. He spoke about where he feels he's at right now in Joe's excellent interview on Friday, and everything seems encouraging to this point -- it's just hard not to be wary of pitchers with shoulder issues when you're a prospect guy who's watch two very talented pitchers succumb to them in the last decade.

The other four guys round out the rotation with a mixed bag of potential. Cuda is runt of the bunch, standing just 5'9", but had 7 solid starts for Palm Beach a season ago and that might be the only reason he's still around as he's done little else to write home about. Mayers was the Cardinals third round selection out of Ole Miss in 2013 and pitched well enough in the GCL to get a quick promotion to Peoria. He's got strikeout stuff and a big frame, but struggles with command at times. An interesting college arm, to say the least. Helisek had a solid year for Peoria last season in 23 starts and could be a sleeper if he can continue to miss bats at the rate that he did last season. Hald is a holdover from last season's Palm Beach squad and looks to improve on what was a pretty awful 2013.

Bullpen

The first two on the list above are the guys to really watch this season. Tuivailala was a former 3rd round infielder who moved to the mound at the latter end of 2011 and has been throwing gas ever since. 100 mph gas. If he can improve his command a bit and get a feel for any secondary pitches he's going to move quickly up the ladder given the lack of relief options ahead of him. Llorens might be his biggest competition: The sidearmer has been nearly unhittable in the low minors, striking out better than 25% of the hitters he faces at every stop thus far. The question, as with a lot of sidearm throwers, is whether his command will be good enough to keep missing bats as he faces hitters with a more refined knowledge of the strike zone. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Llorens in AAA by season's end.

The rest of these fellas just have a lot of questions. Stock is the former supplemental pick who couldn't hit as a catcher, transitioned to the mound, and hasn't been able to keep other people from hitting him up to this point. I had high hopes for him coming out of college, but he looks like a bust at this point. Everyone else is past the age to league point where they really count as legit prospects and are mostly just filling spots where there aren't other, better players to fill right now.

Catchers

No, not THAT Jesus Montero, although I'm not sure there's a whole lot of difference anymore, as the Mariners' version can't seem to hit big league pitching either. Rasmus is the rare catcher who can run (he's got 3 SB already this year) but he also can't hit, so that's a bit of a problem -- he's just like his brother, only he doesn't have that two months stretch where he looks like a young Griffey Jr.

Ehrlich was a promising catching prospect last spring, coming off 241 Rookie ball PA's where he hit .303/.383/.389 in right out of high school. Limited to just 14 games last season due to injury he'll get plenty of time behind the dish this season to see if he can turn it around once he's finally healthy. In a system void of catching talent, it would sure be nice to see Adam Ehrlich get back in the saddle.

Infielders

Wilson is a sleeper pick of many after his 18 homer outburst a year ago, but I'm skeptical that he can make enough contact to really stand out against better pitching. He's off to a good start, though, and should be plenty of playing time at both 2B and 3B this season since Stienstra really isn't a prospect and Starlin Rodriguez will see some time in the outfield. Rodriguez is back in A ball after a rough second half in Springfield. Always a guy with more tools than polished skills, he's one that you would expect to be able to use his raw ability up to a point -- AA might be that point.

Washington is a big lefty with big power potential...if he can make enough contact to actually use any of it. He mixes a solid approach with all that raw power, but strikes out a fair amount and has stretches where he struggles to square up pitches.

Everyone might be sleeping on Alex Mejia with all the hubbub over Aledmys Diaz and the young SS in the low minors but the 2012 4th rounder out of Arizona has a solid glove and has shown spurts of good offense in his first couple of professional seasons. He's just 23 and has some upside left yet -- 2014 should be a good barometer of whether he can get there or not.

Outfielders

Garcia was my pick to click this year after real struggles in the second half of last season at AA. I think his power will translate to the higher levels and I'm not as worried about his contact rate as some other evaluators are. I'm expecting a 20+ homer season out of him and hopefully he gets some time to work things out at AA, although that's looking less likely unless there's some sort of trade to clear some space on the Springfield roster.

Tilson started to emerge in the second half of 2013 as the player everyone thought he was out of high school. After some struggles with injuries, a healthy 2014 could result in a breakout -- he's got all the tools, he just needs to put the whole package together. With a good start, Tilson could make a push for playing time at a higher level even with all the depth in the high minors and he's also a guy who could be a prime trade target for other teams.

Breyvic Valera should have his own category. In fact....

Super Utility

  • Breyvic Valera (2B/SS/3B/LF/CF/RF)

There, that's better. I'm waiting for the promotion where Peoria plays Valera at all nine positions each for one inning in the same game...and he plays all of them well while going 4-4 with singles to each field. As a hitter he's a bit slappy, but he can punch the ball into the gap and has the speed to turn those gap singles into doubles.

Remember the conversation about Mike O'Neill from the Springfield post? About how he might be valuable if he could just throw right handed and add some utility? Well, meet Breyvic Valera, who has similar offensive skills to O'Neill (although he doesn't walk as much) but about as much utility on defense as any player this side of Jose Oquendo: The last Cardinal big league player (and only the 5th in baseball history) to play all nine positions in nine innings.

Projected Best Lineup:

  1. Charlie Tilson CF
  2. Breyvic Valera 2B
  3. Anthony Garcia LF
  4. David Washington 1B
  5. Jacob Wilson 3B
  6. Nick Martini RF
  7. Casey Rasmus C
  8. Alex Mejia SS

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