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In Search of the Elusive Upside

Good morning, friends. And how is everyone today? Do you feel warmer? Well, I certainly do, because I went to the Winter Warm Up over the weekend, and it lived up to its name. The atmosphere in the city of St. Louis is now palpably more appealing, with the chill of winter having been dismissed to the outlands.

Okay, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the Winter Warm Up was this past weekend, I did attend, and it was pretty great. First time I had ever been, and I made the most of it. Went to a couple of seminars, walked around gawking at all the players you normally only see on television, and then stood in line to meet the Walrus. And let me tell you something: It. Was. Awesome.

First off, Brett Wallace is really, really cool. Super nice guy, seemed genuinely glad to be in professional ball, and didn't mind chatting at all. The players were clearly under instructions to keep the line moving, so you didn't have a real long time to talk, but still. Second, Brett Wallace is a big boy. I know that isn't news to anyone here, but none the less, I feel the need to emphasize it. Not overweight, mind you; the guy certainly doesn't look anything like a John Kruk, or even a Prince Fielder, type. But Wallace is just huge. It's always tough to look at a photo and then translate it into real life, but he looked to be in much better shape than most of the college photos I had seen. Still, better shape or not, the first thing you think  when you see the guy is just how big he really is.

You know, we've done a lot of discussing around here about the Cardinals' farm system, and the consensus is largely that, while Jeff Luhnow and crew have done an excellent job of building solid depth, there is still a notable lack of top-end talent, particularly in the starting pitching ranks. Plenty of guys who project as mid- to back-end starters, but very few players with the big time stuff that you see shutting opposing lineups down. Personally, I happen to pretty much agree with with that assessment, and that is a definite problem. If you can't develop the talent, you have to pay for it, and front end starter talent is as close to a gold standard as you can get in baseball.

With all of that in mind, I thought it might be useful to take a look around at the Cards' minor leagues and try to determine who might have the kind of top end talent we're talking about. There are a few, you know; you just have to look for them. And so we will. Let's make it five, shall we? Nice round number and all that.

1. Clayton Mortensen- Ah, right off the bat, we're going to have some controversy. Mortensen is a very, very tough prospect to get an exact handle on, largely due to the fact that any and all numbers have to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt. It's been widely discussed that the Cardinals rushed Mort up to Triple A this year, his first full season as a professional, and he struggled, pretty seriously. What happened with Mortensen is pretty simple. He started getting knocked around by hitters at a higher level than what he was ready for, and he got tentative. He stopped attacking the strike zone, preferring instead to nibble. His groundball rate plummeted, indicative of a pitcher trying to guide the ball, rather than finishing his pitches properly. Even more damaging, his walk rate spiked sharply, a certain recipe for disaster.

What Mortensen does still have, though, is a repertoire that is much better than most people realise. He begins with a power sinker that sits comfortably in the 90-92 mph range by most reports, a solid average slider that generates more weak contact than empty swings, and at least one good changeup. I say at least one because when he was drafted, Mortensen threw two versions of his changeup, a standard straight change and a palmball, which I literally don't think anyone has thrown since sometime in the mid-50s. I'm not sure if he still throws both, but the two times I've seen him pitch, once at Springfield and once at Memphis, I was impressed both times by the movement on some sort of changeup-like pitch. Take that for whatever it may be worth, and that probably isn't much, but hey, I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

Mortensen is very much a late bloomer, as his body is just now filling in at the age of 23. He took a big step forward his last year of college, and the Cardinals demonstrated their faith in his sinkerballing ways by popping him well ahead of where most pundits had him projected. The thing about Mortensen is he has truly remarkable movement on his fastball, with a hard downward tilt that recalls a little bit of the Red Sox' Justin Masterson. Mort also has a big, lanky frame that even now has plenty of room for growth and, hopefully, strength.

Personally, I believe in this kid. (Obviously, since I'm going out on a limb here and projecting something that very few others see in him.) The Brandon Webb lite tag may have been thrown around a little hastily this past offseason and spring training, but I think that Mort has the stuff to pitch toward the front of a major league rotation. Whether he can develop that repertoire suitably remains to be seen, but to my eye, he has much, much more upside than he almost ever gets credit for.

2. David Kopp- When the Cardinals picked the righthander out of Clemson University in the third round of the 2007 draft, it looked like they might very well be getting a bargain. They took him at #71 overall; he had been projected before the draft to go quite a bit higher than that.

The story on Kopp, for me at least, begins with his delivery. He may have some of the best mechanics I have personally ever seen, and every one of the mechanic analysts I've come across agree with me. His delivery is remarkably similar to that of Mariano Rivera, with a higher glove position the only major difference. He repeats his delivery well also, which bodes well for future control.

Kopp's repertoire is very good, with a sinking fastball that he pumps consistently in the low 90s and occasionally a bit higher than that. His slider is described as at least average and probably a future plus pitch, with excellent depth. His changeup is very much still a work in progress, though it has shown considerable potential at times.

There are two main concerns with Kopp. The big one is his health. He went down with shoulder issues this past season, and was diagnosed with minor fraying of his labrum. However, it was also described as being comparable to what nearly any pitcher probably has, and Kopp's long term prognosis is good. Of course, shoulder issues and the Cardinals make me awfully skittish, but most reports that I've read have him on track to be ready for a full season's workload in '09. Until he stays on the field, though, the health concerns will certainly continue to be there.

The other issue with Kopp is his strikeout rate. With his power repertoire, Kopp simply shouldn't allow as much contact as he does. Even in college, he never posted the kind of K rates that one associates with true dominance. At Palm Beach last year, he did strike out almost 20% of the batters he faced, a pretty good number, but still not what you see from the top prospects in the game. The question of why Kopp doesn't strike out more hitters is a difficult one for me. His repertoire is certainly good enough to generate the K, but somehow he just doesn't. It is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he's a groundball machine, but one still has to wonder what the deal is.

The bottom line with Kopp is this: he has an ideal pitcher's body, an outstanding delivery, and an above average assortment of pitches. As it stands now, even without the injury concerns, one has to question his ultimate upside. If you're looking for a guy who certainly has all the components in place to dominate, though, Kopp certainly fits the bill.

3. Brett Zawacki- Ah, one of my very favourite draft picks. The Cardinals popped Zawacki in the 12th round of the 2007 draft and signed him away from a commitment to Arizona State. This is just the sort of high upside, prep school pitcher I love to see the team get into their system.

Zawacki pitched only 34 innings in his debut in 2008, and his line was less than impressive. He ended up with an ERA of 7.86, but the underlying story isn't nearly so bad. His BABIP was a truly ghastly .400, and while BABIP in the low minors isn't nearly so predictable as in the big leagues, that number simply has to come down. Still, though, it was a less than auspicious debut, no matter how one wishes to slice it.

What is good about Zawacki, though, is the stuff contained in his right arm. His fastball sits in the low 90s with hard sink, he has a power curveball that is still erratic but very impressive at times, and a changeup that has unusually good movement, finishing hard down and away from left-handed hitters. The comparison that I always come back to with Zawacki is Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers. The two are similar size, have similar repertoires, were both highly regarded high school picks in the draft, and both feature deliveries that are typically described as "drop and drive" and lead to concerns about their ability to keep the ball down consistently.

That's a pretty lofty comparison, I know, but I think it's also an apt one. There has been a little bit of dismissal of Zawacki here and there, due to his ugly numbers this season and the notion that he was supposed to be a quick riser. I think that's a bit premature, as Zawacki is very, very young, and still quite raw. The stuff is absolutely there, and the maturity and makeup are supposedy top notch. He's a long way off, but Zawacki represents one of the highest upside arms the Cardinals have taken in recent years.

4. Deryk Hooker- I freely admit that I'm a sucker for strikeouts. Of all the starters in the Cards' minor league system, Hooker may be the top guy when it comes to empty swings. He pitched in short season leagues each of his first two years, and struck out over 30% of the hitters he faced at each level. He was promoted to Quad Cities in the latter part of the season this past year, and saw his K rates drop off significantly, but he managed to still hold his own.

At only 19 years old, Hooker is also extremely young, a fact which, of course, bodes very well for his future success. He throws hard, in the low-90s and occasionally a bit higher, and has unusually good movement on the ball. He features a big, nasty curveball that is already being talked about as being an out pitch in the future, and a changeup that shows significant promise. He's also an absolute beanpole at 6'4", 185, so there's plenty of room for growth and with it possibe added velocity.

The biggest concerns that I've heard with Hooker mostly surround his mechanics, which are usually described as being mechanical and stiff. I honestly haven't seen but a very brief video clip of his delivery, and while it did look a little awkward, his arm action didn't scream out "injury risk", so I'm hoping that maybe those concerns are a bit overstated. Part of the issue, I think, is that he is so gangly, making his delivery look even a bit more unusual than it really is.

Deryk will not turn 20 years old until the end of June this year, and has already proven himself capable of handling full season ball. He'll most likely return to Quad Cities to begin the year, but there is some talk of him getting a chance to earn a spot in the Palm Beach rotation. That seems awfully ambitious to me, but with the results that he's had so far, I certainly wouldn't put it past Hooker. To me, he probably represents the Cardinals' best bet at a top of the line starter. He doesn't have the question marks that surround Mortensen's repertoire and performance or David Kopp's health. Hooker has also proven himself already at a higher level than Zawacki, and is much more polished. He's probably still several years away, but if there's one guy you should watch if you're looking for ace potential, I would say Hooker has to be the guy.

5. Anthony Ferrara- The only lefty on the list, Ferrera is also the only 2008 draftee I'm including here. The Cardinals selected him in the seventh round of this most recent draft out of a Florida high school and moved quickly to get him into the fold. As a result, he managed to pitch 30 innings in the Gulf Coast League, and showed pretty well for a player straight out of high school. He struck out better than a batter per inning, and overall posted a 3.99 FIP.

Ferrara's stock in the 2008 draft dropped significantly due to a biceps injury in the summer of 2007, an injury that at first was diagnosed as shoulder tendinitis. James Andrews, however, diagnosed it as a muscle imbalance, which I honestly know nothing about, though I assume it's essentially just what it sounds like. If not for the injury concerns, Ferrara might very well have been a first round draft pick; as it is, the Cards may have gotten one of the steals of the draft.

Ferrara's repertoire is outstanding. He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, with his four-seamer getting up as high as 95 in his high school career. He also features an excellent changeup that was rated as one of the better off speed pitches in the entire draft. Ferrara has both a curve and a slider, though you don't hear a whole lot about either one, leading me to conclude neither is particularly notable at this time. With such a wide variety of pitches, one would think Ferrara will probably be asked to drop at least one of his offerings in order to better focus on improving the quality of his repertoire.

Ferrara is a big kid, with a 6'3" inch frame that features broad shoulders and long legs. He has room to fill out still, but not quite to the extent that a guy like Deryk Hooker does. He already has plenty of strength and velocity, and any extra would just be a bonus.

I have not yet been able to come across any video of Ferrara, so I can't speak to what sort of mechanics he has or anything of that sort. If anybody knows where I could locate such a thing, I would pay handsomely in internet dollars for a heads up.

To me, Ferrara is going to quckly become a monster prospect. Left-handed, with the kind of stuff he already has, is just begging to be noticed. He endured a weird situation, being in injury limbo, and it may very well have allowed him to slip down to true bargain status. Unless he has more physical issues (knock on wood), I don't see any reason for Ferrara not to tear it up in 2009. As to where he will start the year, I wouldn't even begin to hazard a guess, though I would think he'll be in extended spring training before departing for a short season club.

There are some others in the Cardinal system that probably have the potential to be upper rotation type guys, but these are the ones that I like. Even so, all of these guys have questions surrounding them, whether due to injury, extreme youth, or ceiling questions. There are no true slam dunks here.

What I do like, though, is that the Cardinals have seemed to be much more open to taking the high upside, high risk sort of pitchers in the last couple of drafts, at least in the middle or latter rounds. Guys like Hooker, Zawacki, and Ferrara were all drafted in the seventh round or later, and all have stuff that could make them future stars. Early in the rebuilding of the farm system, I could understand at times the Cardinals' reluctance to select these sorts of players, as building some sort of depth to work with was absolutely paramount. The system, though, is very healthy now. I hope that we see a whole lot more arms like the three I mentioned taken in the future. We've seen Luhnow be able to take the safe picks, and the guys who aren't real likely to completely flame out. Now let's see how he does as a gambler.

Oh, and one last thing: you really need to see this, because it's awesome. Tony La Russa in his Johnny Cash jacket and rock star boots. As much as I get on Tony for being too set in his ways and maybe not a great fit, I have to admit that I'm really going to miss the guy when he's gone. I think.