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The Back of the List

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A long time ago, in internet years, I did a recurring—and usually never-ending, given my working habits—feature about the lowercase-p prospects who would not make Baseball America's top twenty but were still worth a look. I called it: the Not-Top Twenty. Today, with Future Redbirds and Baseball-Reference making it dead simple to follow every last minor leaguer in the system (I think that's the Richard Racobaldo bandwagon I hear puttering around outside my house), that's not quite so valuable a public service. But now that the team's lost both its Impact Player and the cream of its starting depth, these guys who'll be fighting for a spot on the back of the list are going to find themselves in the blog spotlight by default. 

I don't have a top twenty list, but if I did these guys, hereby disqualified, would certainly be on it: Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, Daryl Jones, David Freese, Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Lance Lynn, Wagner Mateo, Pete Kozma, Eduardo Sanchez, Tyler Henley, Fransisco Samuel (for some reason), Adam Ottavino, Jon Jay, The Ghost of Bryan Anderson, Aaron Luna, Charles Cutler, Casey Mulligan, Robert Stock... that class of player, broadly speaking, from maybe-an-impact-player to probably-a-useful-player. If your favorite fringe guy isn't mentioned after the jump, you can assume he's either hidden among these guys or I forgot about him (whichever fits your narrative.) 

FOUR FRINGE STARTERS

The Cardinals love this guy. He probably throws in the prospect low-nineties, which run from 87-91; he probably has a slider he doesn't throw very often and a two-seam fastball; he might be big, like Lance Lynn, but if he is it's only used in prospect rankings like this: "Pitcher X looks like he should have overpowering stuff, but finesse was the key to his success in his four years at the University of..." 

At times it's seemed like the Cardinals don't feel ready to spring for a Shelby Miller-type, high risk and high upside, unless the system is stocked with at least ten guys who have a one in five shot at sitting at the other end of the rotation in five years. It's been a rough year for these guys—Clay Mortensen and Jess Todd both left via trade, Mitchell Boggs and P.J. Walters were graduated into the noble profession of sixth starter, and Tyler Herron is now a Pirate. But if I were a betting man I'd lay my vast Birdos fortune on it: the International Brotherhood of Pitching to Contact is just biding its time, waiting for the right draft to reload. 

SCOTT GORGEN

4th Round, 2008

AGE LG W L ERA G IP K BB HR K:BB
21 SS 5 2 2.32 14 54.1 60 17 3 3.53
22 A+ 3 5 2.92 14 74.0 73 32 7 2.28
22 AA 3 4 4.93 8 38.1 33 29 4 1.14

Gorgen's a rough fit into the Cardinals' usual fringe starter mold—he doesn't have a great fastball, and his major league prospects are both cloudy and low-upside, but he's also a short, strikeout-first guy whose out pitch is a sharp curveball. 

He began his Cardinals career in prototypical Polished Collegiate fashion, signing early enough to dominate short-season ball, and his stint in Palm Beach was similarly encouraging. Now, at 22, he's already reached a momentous occasion in the life of any college pitcher—he's reached a point where he is no longer old for his league. Which is not to say it's gone well. 

It'll be interesting to see how Gorgen's even K:BB ratio resolves itself; it's a popular (if not consistently accurate) idea that guys like this, who strike out a low-minors batter an inning without a scout's pitch, are doing it with smoke and mirrors, and that as they climb the ladder the P.J. Walters effect kicks in and either their command falters, as their nibbling stops drawing swinging strikes, or their strikeouts fall as they're forced to pitch more in the zone. So far his strikeout rate is still high, but his numbers have borne an increasingly suspicious resemblance to Blake King.

RICHARD CASTILLO

VENEZUELA, 2007

AGE LG W L ERA G IP K BB HR K:BB
18 A 8 4 2.62 13 79.0 69 20 11 3.45
18 A+ 1 0 1.12 6 16.0 19 8 0 2.38
19 A+ 5 12 4.27 26 128.2 90 62 4 1.45

It's slim consolation to a guy who, had he come along three or four years earlier than he did, in the minor league dark ages, would have been a mysterious superhero, but Richard Castillo is on a pace that might win him the Stu Pomeranz Lifetime Achievement Award. There are two things that confound the idea of being young for one's league as an indicator of future success: one is being a pitcher, and another is playing in an organization that pushes everybody aggressively up the chain. In the post-Luhnow era, Castillo hits both marks.

Small (5'11", 165) and apparently invisible to scouts, Castillo reached full-season ball at 18 after a nice year with the VSL Cardinals and had a brief stint as Sleeper Prospect #1 after appearing without fanfare on Palm Beach's roster last summer. Demoted to the Quad Cities to work as a starter, he showed off solid command and a fastball that sat at prospect-90, which again could be anything.

In Palm Beach all year he's been so strikingly average as to fall back from whence he came on midseason prospect lists. It's interesting—from the way the Cardinals have handled him, allowing him to throw 128 innings as a 19 year-old, I can almost infer that they don't think he's a prospect, either. He allows a ton of fly balls, and while they haven't left the park very often he's spent the entire year in the FSL, where home runs would go to die if their planes didn't keep landing short of the warning track.

But he's not totally without desirable qualities; he is still very young, a year and a half or so ahead of the game, and in the second half his K:BB has improved from 1.24 to 1.71, with both his strikeout and walk rates moving in the right direction. Moving from the FSL to the Texas League, and having to contend with both the major adjustment between the low and high minors and a hitter's league, is a big deal for finesse pitchers; he's in prospect limbo until he makes the jump.

NICK ADDITON

46th Round, 2006 (Draft and Follow)

AGE LG W L ERA G IP K BB HR K:BB
20 A/A+ 11 5 2.23 28 137.0 121 40 13 3.03
21 A+ 4 3 3.06 19 79.1 66 37 1 1.78
21 AA 2 2 3.29 5 27.1 16 16 3 1.00

Hey—it's another guy who's young for his leagues and has underwhelming stuff! Additon has two advantages over Gorgen and Castillo, as he both looks like a pitcher (6'3", 170) and throws left-handed. At this point it should be apparent that a Cardinal prospect's youth in relation to his league should be considered, first, an artifact of the system, and not any particular skill he possesses, but Additon justified his early moves with a sterling 2008 with low-A Quad Cities. 

The problem is that in spite of Additon's heretofore attractive strikeout numbers, he is a born soft-tosser; he gets two outs in the air for every groundout, he's got a fastball that apparently hits 87 and a 59 mph "change up" that noted guest-blogger Christy Mathewson would recognize as a Slow Ball. Without Castillo's age or Gorgen's college pedigree, Additon is the ultimate "numbers pitcher", a class who gets increasingly little support from either side as stats and scouting converge; he can't afford to continue pegging the even mark with his K:BB ratio for much longer.

That said, all of these guys have significant problems; that's why they're fighting for spots at the back of the prospect list.

DAVID KOPP
Second Round, 2007
AGE LG W L ERA G IP K BB HR K:BB
22 A+ 1 3 3.76 10 38.1 30 15 1 2.00
23 A+ 5 3 3.12 15 69.1 58 26 3 2.23
23 AA 1 1 6.43 5 21.0 6 11 3 0.55
 
He's got the best pedigree of any of these guys, which means his problem lies somewhere else: he can't stay on the field. Since 2007 he's thrown two thirds of an inning fewer than Nick Additon managed last year; in his defense, most of them, the ones in high-A ball, have been good, showing off solid command and the first groundball-centric gameplan we've seen in this class. His botched demotion does him no favors, but we simply haven't seen enough of him to write him off yet; if we get the chance, it's a fair bet that he moves out of this range.

TWO BATS

Prospect-watchers get a new shipment of these guys every year: a guy who Just Hits for a while and then sometimes doesn't even do that. There's Brandon Buckman on one end of the continuum, and Allen Craig on the other; in between, there are these guys:

MARK HAMILTON
2nd Round, 2006
AGE LG G AB H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
22 A+/AA 128 469 126 27 0 19 90 .269 .332 .448
23 AA 70 245 59 11 0 8 29 .241 .338 .384
24 AA/AAA 80 256 77 18 0 13 43 .301 .397 .523

Mark Hamilton was on the Brett Wallace career path before the Walrus was a gleam in Billy Beane's eye; drafted as a performance pick out of Tulane, he was supposed to move quickly through the minors until everyone realized the Cardinals were playing Albert Pujols there, at which point he would be traded, or something.

Instead, he just kind of sat there. A good debut in short season ball was off-set by a poor start in the Midwest League; an encouraging half-season in the FSL was washed out by poor numbers in AA. After those two mixed-results years he spent another bad half-season at AA, at which point he was starting to resemble a rich man's Mike Ferris a little more than is typically advised.

Larry mentioned him in the course of his (highly recommended) scouting report on Adam Ottavino; here's what he had to say:

this guy is as big and powerful as chris duncan but has a much shorter, more direct swing. he just turned 25 years old a couple weeks ago; probably wouldn’t hit for average in the big leagues, but would draw walks and hit for power.

The problem, for both Hamilton and the Cardinals, is that there's little room on a modern NL bench for a guy who can play first base and pinch hit, especially when the starter is the team's best player; at the same time, he's too far removed from his second round origins to prove an especially valuable trade chit.

STEVE HILL
13th Round, 2007
AGE LG G AB H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
22 SS/A 72 300 96 20 1 12 55 .320 .355 .513
23 A+/AA 76 287 84 15 3 17 48 .293 .334 .544
24 AA 106 414 117 23 2 19 59 .283 .332 .486
  
Well, somebody's got to challenge Nick Stavinoha for AAA slugger at-bats. Hill's special trick is that one of the positions he can play poorly is catcher; in addition to that, he's traded 20 points of Stavinoha's batting average for home runs, which, in his FSL stint, was pretty impressive.

 But at 24, and nursing an .800-ish OPS in AA, he's almost exactly where Super Noha was three years ago. That guy's useful as the replacement replacement, and he might get himself a bobblehead night in Memphis someday, but the players who end up with a slugging-heavy .800 OPS and find themselves as solid corner outfielders for a few years look like this in the high minors; they don't start out that way.

TWO FAR-OFF POSITION PLAYERS

TOMMY PHAM
16th Round, 2006
AGE LG G AB H 2B 3B HR SO AVG OBP SLG
19 SS/A 81 271 51 8 5 2 69 .188 .272 .277
20 A/A+ 113 394 80 14 4 18 156 .203 .272 .396
21 A+ 101 293 67 14 4 7 87 .229 .306 .375
 
Tommy Pham was the inspiration for this exercise; a long-time danup favorite (a long-time prospect kiss of death), he began 2009 in a slump even more tremendous than usual. Pham was a highly regarded shortstop prospect coming out of high school, but even as a center fielder he's got nearly every tool—a lot of power, useful baseball speed, a strong arm and fine range—except for the ability to make consistent contact with a baseball. 2008, ostensibly his breakout season, saw him strikeout in nearly 40% of his at- bats; he just missed having twice as many Ks as Hs on his scorecard.

But if you're looking for another Daryl Jones to take 50 to 1 odds on, he's it. His strikeout rate is down below 30%, which is still way too high, but more impressively he's hit .256/.351/.470 since the all-star break, including a .386 average in the month of August. These guys don't often amount to much, but as fringy centerfielders go I'd rather the Cardinals worry about him than Shane Robinson.  

NIKO VASQUEZ
3rd Round, 2008
AGE LG G AB H 2B 3B HR SO AVG OBP SLG
19 SS/A 66 247 71 17 1 4 69 .287 .383 .413
20 A 61 208 41 6 1 1 58 .197 .295 .250
20 SS 56 199 39 8 1 2 43 .196 .283 .276

I'll say this for the erstwhile Internet Prospect of 2008—he's improved since being demoted to Batavia. Look at that lower strikeout rate! The increased isolated power! Why, he's doubled his home run output.

I don't know what happened here at all, except to say that I'm sure Pete Kozma was feeling mighty jealous about all the attention that this particular high school shortstop was getting. Either he's injured or my watch is stopped.