Initially, this post was going to run on Saturday as part of the "ho-hum" weekend farm reporting you've grown accustomed to over the last several months. I had lots of nice things to say about Oscar Taveras and some mixed reviews of Randal Grichuk and then a good, solid look at the rest of the farm system. I didn't expect it to change much before June 4th.
Grichuk got the call on Thursday, to add some much needed pop to a lineup that would be without Matt Adams for a few games, so I debated on removing him from the farm report and ultimately decided that we'd written enough about him that he didn't need to be here necessarily if he was on the big league roster.
And then that Rob Rains tweet shook Cardinal Nation on Friday night.
It only made sense to discuss the Taveras promotion on the VEB Daily post on Saturday (Craig made that very point on Friday via email) -- it actually worked out perfectly other than having to stay up late and get up early to write it. In the ensuing Oscar-fest that was the VEB weekend, I decided to lift both he and Grichuk from this post and really hunker down on the rest of a decidedly deep position for the Cardinals organization.
I broke these guys out by position, because I think it's important to denote the players who actually can play CF from those who can't. I can't for the life of me understand why a lot of publications just list guys as "Outfielders" when it's clear that there's nearly as big a difference moving from center field to a corner spot as there is moving a corner infielder into the middle infield in terms of the talent and athleticism necessary to play the position. The players listed as center fielders here might also be able to play in a corner, but they have the ability to play in center and that differentiates them from the latter group.
Again, the grades here are based on looking at multiple prospect lists (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, John Sickels', etc) and trying to parse those ratings with what I've seen mysefl -- although I usually try and default to the guys who do this for a living more often than not. Sometimes, though, I just like a guy, and I try to note those guys as much as possible.
Quite a dichotomy at the top of the list of center fielders:
Ramsey is a former first round pick, an All-American at one of the storied college programs, and was thought of as a ready made prospect with limited upside and an outstanding work ethic that could fast track to the majors quickly and be productive there, possibly as a regular, but at least as a fourth outfielder. After a rough start as a pro, Ramsey has broken out a bit, hitting 26 homers in his last 589 PA's at AA. For comparison, slugging lefty Matt Adams hit club record 32 homers in 513 PA's with Springfield in 2011. Pretty good company, right? The power surge has also come with an increased contact rate this season, striking out 19.1% of the time in 2014 -- significantly better than the 26% rate from a year ago. The walk rate is still in double digits as well, and the 175 wRC+ is currently tied with teammate Jacob Wilson for the best in the Texas League for those with more than 70 PA's there in 2014. The promotion of Grichuk and Taveras ahead of him opens the door for a return to Memphis, where he got a shot of coffee (not even a full cup!) a year ago, to see if he can replicate these results against some more refined pitchers in AAA.
Vaughn Bryan is quite the opposite of Ramsey. A 35th round pick a year ago from a small community college in Florida, Bryan was just another late round toolsy type pick until Jason Parks fired his shot across the bow in the Baseball Prospectus Futures Guide this year and put Bryan 10th, ahead of more celebrated players like Charlie Tilson and, most notably, the aforementioned James Ramsey.
Unlike Ramsey, Bryan has few polished skills but a crazy amount of potential, due to the best package of raw physical tools in the entire Cardinals organization.
Contact ability? Check.
Power potential? You betcha.
Arm? Probably his weakest tool overall, but it's still very good and I saw it on display a bit last Wednesday.
Parks is a self-prescribed "tools whore" and Bryan certainly fits that bill. Upside being upside, though, he's got a lot more to prove yet in pro ball before I would move him ahead of Ramsey on my list - here's hoping he has a similar breakout to what Ramsey has treated us with over the last 12 months or so.
The trio of C+ guys are all pretty similar players. Ortega, a transplant from Colorado via the Rangers, has at least the potential to flash some power, hitting 4 home runs so far in 217 PA's with Springfield this season. The other two are basically a punch-and-judy platoon with pretty ridiculous speed. I had McElroy under 3.90 twice last Wednesday down the first base line from the right handed batter's box. Impressive. What's less impressive is that he didn't hit the ball hard once the entire night and has just a .051 ISO in about 500 PA's in the Midwest League over the last two seasons. Tilson was a toolsy high school pick by the Cardinals in 2011, missed all of 2012 due to injury, and then had a nice comeback season with Peoria last year, hitting .303/.349/.388 in 411 PA's. He's currently doing much of the same in the Florida State League, slashing .306/.365/.352, good for a 114 wRC+, but, like McElroy, he's got virtually no power at all, with just 5 extra base hits in 212 PA's with a .387 BABIP propping up his value a bit as well.
We all know what Shane Robinson can do (and what he can't do), but he's a useful 4th outfielder that's not costing the Cardinals much and provides nice depth for the big league club should they need it. Tommy Pham has, so far, been able to play almost a two months without getting hurt and is putting up pretty good numbers (.286/.355/.464, 115 wRC+) in playing time that's been limited (just 93 PA's) by younger, better players like Grichuk, Taveras, and Piscotty thus far. Perhaps if the owner of the Pham voodoo doll stays on permanent vacation he'll finally be able to show what he can do over a full season.
With Wong and Taveras out of the minor leagues and on to exhausting their rookie eligibility, Stephen Piscotty assumes the title of "Best Position Player" in the farm system, and with good reason: The guy can really, really hit. Piscotty's bat-to-ball skills aren't as good as Taveras or Wong, but those guys have elite hit tools and Piscotty's isn't that far behind, probably a 65 or 70 on a 20/80 scale. He barrels the ball really well, doesn't swing and miss much, and rarely strikes out, although his K-rate has spiked a bit this season as he's adjusted to AAA pitching. Defensively, he's solidly above average in right field and has a powerful arm capable of making all the throws necessary for someone playing that position.
There are a few bad trends though: Piscotty's ISO has dropped considerably over his last two promotions, going from .185 in Palm Beach in the spring of 2013, to just .130 so far this year in Memphis. The .332 wOBA is good for only a 95 wRC+ in the Pacific Coast League and is dwarfed by those of former teammates Grichuk and Taveras, guys who are the same age or younger than Piscotty but have been in pro ball a bit longer than he has. In his defense, Taveras is one of the better hitters on the planet right now and Piscotty doesn't look completely defenseless against good breaking balls like Grichuk does. Hopefully this is just a blip in the radar for the Stanford product, but good contact ability with fringe power won't play well in the corner outfield at the next level, so some semblance of gap power needs to come around at the very least.
Remember what I said about guys like I like? Well, I like Ronald Castillo and David Popkins. Castillo is big (6'5", 200 pounds) and has the plus bat-to-ball skills indicative of a plus hit tool. Castillo's best comp as a hitter is probably Stephen Piscotty, actually, as the two are really similar in terms of skill sets, with Castillo possessing a bit more power projection while also not being as quite as good defensively. I like him a lot, and if he's able to fill out his power potential Castillo could be a real sleeper in the Cardinal farm system.
Popkins was an undrafted free agent that signed with the Cardinals in 2012; a former top college prospect whose star dimmed considerably after struggles in his last two college seasons. He's hit well since joining the organization and while he was off to a slow start in 2014, he recovered a bit in May, hitting .270/.325/.432 with 3 homers and 3 doubles in 83 PA's last month. He's a switch hitter that can really mash from the right side (.329/.390/.597 against LHP in his pro career), making him a possibly interesting 4th outfielder at some point as the right side of a platoon.
Mike O'Neill we know about, and he's come back to Earth a bit while leading off for Springfield -- still no power, fewer walks, and more strikeouts so far this season. Garcia was my pick to really break out this year, and I've definitely got some egg on my face for that one, but in my defense, he was starting to pick it up right before he got hurt, hitting .292/.393/.542 with a .250 ISO in 56 May plate appearances in the first half of the month. I still like him quite a bit: Good raw power and he's really reduced the strikeouts so far in 2014 -- his 13.6% rate is a drop of nearly 11% from his career numbers in the lower minors and from the 24.6% rate he had in Palm Beach a year ago.
Starlin Rodriguez could be a major leaguer if major leaguers played in the Florida State League. He hasn't hit anywhere else and the move to outfield certainly didn't do him any favors in terms of playing time, what with all this depth at the position ahead of him. Kenny Peoples-Walls is another guy with that same problem, making the transition to outfield after struggles playing SS a year ago. Now his problem seems to be the inverse: He's played well defensively from what I've seen, but his bat has all but disappeared: Peoples-Walls had 22 XBH in 257 PA's with Johnson City last year and has managed just 7 in 190 PA's with Peoria so far this year. I noted in last Thursday's DFR that his bat looks really slow right now, even when facing average velocity (90-92), and I've got some video evidence I'll share to prove it in the near future.
The rest are really mostly farm filler at the lower levels, with the notable exception of Rowan Wick, who moved out from behind the dish last year and mashed 10 homers in just 241 PA's for Johnson City while learning to play RF. Wick walks plenty (12.4%) and strikes out plenty too (29.5%) but I'd expect him to get some time in a full season league this year given his size (6'3") and power potential (substantial). At best, he's probably a 3TO guy similar to Xavier Scruggs, albeit from the left side of the plate. Those guys can have a lot of value if they can manage the strikeouts and play decent defense - Wick has supposedly been average or better in RF according to scouting reports and he's certainly got the arm strength.
As you can see, a lot of talent, both skillful and toolsy, upside and ready-to-contribute. Most all of the big bats in the Cardinals low minors are located somewhere in the outfield, which presents a few problems in terms of how to get all of them playing time. I'd be shocked to see the Cardinals take too many "project" outfielders in the draft this year, but maybe they'll come upon another gem like Bryan that they can't pass up late on the last day.