The easiest way to slag the Cardinals' thin post-Walrus collection of prospects is to say that it lacks "impact" talent. (There are indeed a lot of ways, but that's the easiest one.) Several players in the average top ten don't strain the imagination as legitimate Major Leaguers, but it's seemingly always as a fifth starter or a backup infielder. Whatever you thought of Wagner Mateo—whatever you think of any sixteen year-old who is apparently worth $4 million—his eye problems robbed the Cardinals of their designated Brett Wallace replacement, and without him Shelby Miller is the lone Future Star in the bunch.
But there's something to be said for players who are close to the majors. If the Cardinals don't have anybody else who's likely to pile up wins before he hits his arbitration years, they are relatively flush with players who will keep them out of the trash heap over future Hot Stove seasons. In vague order of their proximity to the majors...
David Freese. I like to think I'm relatively open-minded about imperfect prospects, but even I am tired of talking about David Freese, who is three years younger than Matt Holliday. That said, he's already kept the Cardinals out of the market for a number of players, some of whom turned out, in this strange market, pretty affordable. Adrian Beltre or Felipe Lopez would probably have made the Cardinals better in 2010, but the way the team has held its wallet close of late makes it no sure thing that they ever planned on being able to afford a name-brand third baseman and Matt Holliday at the same time.
As a third baseman who's likely to be somewhere around average, if not quite at it, David Freese keeps the Cardinals out of the market for Joe Crede types at the low-end and imperfect above-average guys like Adrian Beltre and Mark DeRosa.
Jaime Garcia. I'm not sure if this is an unalloyed Good Thing or not, but by having kept the fifth starter job out of the hands of a Jon Garland-type, Jaime Garcia has already begun easing the team's free agent burden. We've been talking about Jaime Garcia being close to the majors since he was dominating the Midwest League, but even if he doesn't start the year in St. Louis, this looks like the year he'll finally be there to stay.
Garcia, the prototypical scoutspeak Third Starter, is the kind of player who leaves the idea of the "impact player" distended and unsatisfying. A real third starter looks something like Jeff Suppan, but if a scout thinks a player looks like Jeff Suppan (see Lance Lynn) there is almost no chance they'll use that terminology. In the next few years Garcia has a fair shot at an ERA under four, or an ERA+ over 110, and if that isn't an impact player I humbly present, as contrary evidence, the difference, in value, between Kyle Lohse in 2008 and Kyle Lohse in 2009.
Garcia kept the Cardinals out of the market for fifth starters this year; in the future he seems like a fair bet to occupy the Brad Penny spot.
Allen Craig. Bench bats like Allen Craig are rarely expensive—at least when they're intended, from the beginning, to be bench bats—but when the Cardinals are without one strange things begin to happen: people start Kevin Mench fanclubs, Nick Stavinoha begins to look like a palatable bench option, Jim Edmonds decides he wants to play baseball again, after all.
Craig was also what amounted to the Cardinals' leverage during the Matt Holliday negotiations. He's probably below average for an outfielder right now, but think about some of the outfielders who were signed and played as starters in 2009—Garret Anderson and Jeff Francoeur, to name two who combined to torpedo the Braves' chances last year. If you've got league-average offense, and Craig looks like he will, and you hit home runs every so often, somebody is going to consider starting you in left field.
This kind of player isn't extremely valuable in a vacuum, but he keeps the Cardinals from freaking out and signing a league-average guy at above-market rates.
Daniel Descalso. I saved my favorite non-impact prospect for last. When was the last time the Cardinals had a second base prospect who looked ready to step in and be a passable second baseman? Shaun Boyd? Descalso is by no means a perfect prospect, but his .266/.326/.393 ZiPS projection and basically average defense is a pretty fair Skip Schumaker impression.
Guys like these are crucial to a Cardinals team that's committed to paying two superstars a ton of money. If you don't have cheap, average players like Descalso and Freese manning the non-star positions, you're going to have cheap, bad players manning them instead. The MV3 squads fell apart when Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen did, but they weren't much helped by having to pay full price for Kip Wells, Juan Encarnacion, and Adam Kennedy.