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A completely inexpert 2012 St. Louis Cardinals Top 20

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 10:  U.S. Futures All-Star Shelby Miller #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the third inning during the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field on July 10, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 10: U.S. Futures All-Star Shelby Miller #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the third inning during the 2011 XM All-Star Futures Game at Chase Field on July 10, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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Since I'm filling in for #hpgf expert azruavatar today, I thought I'd take a moment to start some arguments without doing any research—it's time for your unofficial, time-limited Viva El Birdos 2012 Top 20 St. Louis Cardinals Prospects List! Built from our very own Top Prospect List Construction Set, I promise here at the outset that it will offer no new information or analysis, only arbitrary numbers and vague, unlocalized sadness, at least from me—I have added MLEs from noted SBN-lurker, Transaction Oracle, and ZiPS projector Dan Szymborski, in a fit of usefulness. 

(I promise also to speak for no one on VEB but myself—I have it on good authority that bgh's Top 20 is just a big picture of Donovan Solano, repeated 20 times.) 

1. Shelby Miller. Shelby Miller is the top prospect. His age-20 debut in the hitter-friendly Texas League at the Springfield Cardinals' even-hitter-friendlier ballpark wasn't perfect—he only struck out a batter an inning, instead of a batter-and-a-half, as he had in Palm Beach—but at 21 he enters 2011 in a position to bring up some very awkward questions by next July. 

(2011 MLE: 80.2 IP, 66/41/3 K/BB/HR, 3.68 ERA; 48 IP, 58/29/5 K/BB/ERA, 4.31 ERA) 

2. Kolten Wong. Yeah, I'm going to be that guy. The Cardinals have two outstanding teenaged pitching prospects on the way, but teenaged pitching prospects are terrifying—they get elbow and shoulder injuries, they flame out at higher levels, they just turn out to have never been good in the first place. They're like holding penny stocks, if penny stocks sometimes seemed ready to mature for years at a time before revealing they had been valueless the entire time. 

Wong hit .335/.401/.510 in 47 games of full-season ball the year he was drafted; he'll be 21 all next season and ready for AA at some point. He's much more certain to provide value than Martinez or Jenkins, and he's even more likely to do it soon.

(2011 MLE: 47 G, .272/.321/.381)

3. Carlos Martinez. Martinez was outstanding in the Quad Cities, where he made his first eight starts—50 strikeouts in 39 innings, one home run and a not-especially-worrying walk rate—and, for his troubles, was promoted to Palm Beach at midseason, where he had 10 less-outstanding starts.

Not worrying, really; he struck out a batter an inning. But his walk rate spiked, reminding us, after a few years of watching Shelby Miller coast through levels, that he was a 19-year-old in full-season ball, and that 19-year-olds in full-season ball don't normally dominate at every stop. 

He seems likely to repeat Palm Beach next year, at least to start, and for good reason—last year there was only one 20-year-old at Palm Beach, and it was Shelby Miller. 

(2011 MLE: 41.2 IP, 34/44/5 K/BB/HR, 6.75 ERA; 34 IP, 32/19/4 K/BB/HR, 4.76 ERA)

4. Oscar Taveras. Speaking as a deeply impartial journalist—friend and former roommate to any number of graduates of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism—it was very difficult, last year, to avoid developing a big old crush on Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals' first unlimited-upside hitting prospect since J.D. Drew

Playing in the Midwest League at 19—and a young 19—Taveras hit .386/.444/.584 over 78 games, and has hit .292/.299/.415 in 16 additional games in the AFL. I don't really have much else to say about him—some people are worried about his "max-effort" swing, but if it's allowing him to hit .386 and slug .584 in the Midwest League at 19 I'm skeptical of its ability to derail him at higher levels. The hamstring problems are worrying, but in a top end filled with pitching prospects I'm willing to give him a pass.

(2011 MLE: 78 IP, .287/.332/.409)

5. Tyrell Jenkins. This is exactly as high as I'm wiling to go with a starter who'll be 19 next year (an old 19) and just made 11 starts in the Appalachian League. They were good starts—a 4.23 K:BB ratio in 56 innings—and Jenkins has great stuff, apparently, but he's as far away as a top prospect can get from the Major Leagues. 

(2011 MLE: 52.2 IP, 34/19/7 K/BB/HR, 5.47 ERA)

6. Maikel Cleto. This seems weird to me, especially as someone who hated the Brendan Ryan trade, but I don't really see any way around it; he has the hardest fastball in the system, and he was excellent as a starter at two levels before being only adequate in a 13-start audition in the Pacific Coast League, which had a league ERA of 5.13 this year. 

He'll be 23 next year, and whatever he is he's pitching adequately exactly one level removed from the Major Leagues. 

(2011 MLE: 68.1 IP, 60/42/5 K/BB/HR, 4.35 ERA; 34.1 IP, 27/15/2 K/BB/HR, 3.93 ERA; 25 IP, 23/15/4 K/BB/HR, 5.40 ERA)

7. Jordan Swagerty. I like what he did moving across three levels in his first year of pro ball, and I like that he's both still a starter, technically—he made 12 in 36 appearances this year—and possibly ready to move quickly as a reliever. With top prospects I hate to see relief whispers, but as you get into the mid-range pitching types it seems like their potential Major League value is increased by the possibility of early relief work. 

(2011 FSL MLE: 48.1 IP, 37/23/4 K/BB/HR, 4.47 ERA)

8. Ryan Jackson. This is probably higher than he'll be elsewhere, but Jackson's a great defensive shortstop who's treading water on offense at age-appropriate levels and looks ready for Memphis. The offensive questions will remain until he's hitting in the Major Leagues, but he's shown, already, one Major League value proposition, which is more than I can say for— 

(2011 MLE: 135 G, .244/.290/.333)

9. Zack Cox. In general, it's a real worry when the first thing people say about your college-star pure-hitter first-round draft pick is, "Do you think we could move him to second base?" 364 days younger than Jackson, a no-hit shortstop, he managed an OPS 40 points higher at the same hitter-friendly level over 93 games. 

I hope to feel deeply stupid about putting him ninth—and wanting to put him lower—in May, but at third base he just seems like a guy with a bad case of Brett Wallace's Disease. 

(2011 MLE: 42 G, .246/.287/.317; 93 G, .251/.303/.334)

10. Trevor Rosenthal. Great numbers and reviews in the Midwest League at 21. I don't feel qualified to say anything else about Trevor Rosenthal, except to say that he's an inch below bypassing the "People are going to talk about moving him to the bullpen" clause of mid-level pitching prospect high minors debuts. 

(2011 MLE: 110 IP, 85/52/16 K/BB/HR, 5.73 ERA)

11. Matt Adams. Given the Texas League in general and Hammons Field in particular I'm skeptical of Adams, who will never play anywhere but first and doesn't walk enough to lampshade his power or contact skills, but the man did hit 32 home runs and slug .566. 

(2011 MLE: 115 G, .254/.303/.398)

12. Tommy Pham. I'm not certain he'll ever stay healthy, but he slugged .517 in that very same ballpark over 40 games and has the advantage of playing center field. 

(2011 MLE: 40 G, .224/.293/.347)

13. John Gast. Gast's peripherals aren't especially promising, but he reached AA in his first full year, threw 161 innings, and picked off a million batters. Aside from his future as a lefty/baserunner-specialist, he's entirely interchangeable with—

14. Joe Kelly, who also reached Springfield this year with not-especially-impressive peripherals. If copying and pasting Gast's bio for Kelly's in your 2012 Cardinals Media Guide, be sure to find-and-replace for all instances of "pick-off move" with "low-nineties sinker."

15. Adam Reifer missed all last season with a knee injury, which will probably end his career as an NFL feature back. As a right-handed reliever, he remains a mid-90s fastball guy who could reach the Major Leagues at any moment. 

16. Charlie Tilson stands in here for all the 2011 draft picks we'll get very excited about in seven months. 

17. Roberto De La Cruz is the winner of the prestigious 2012 Danup Tools-And-Age Overreaction Award, given by the player each year for whom I extrapolate far too much future success based on one standout tool and his age. This year emeritus winner Jon Edwards will be presenting the award to De La Cruz, one of the Cardinals' first big international signings, who slugged 16 home runs—31 extra-base-hits—in 59 games in Johnson City after two years in the Gulf Coast League. 

Of course, he also walked seven times (against 57 strikeouts) and finished the season with a fielding percentage of .814 at third base. (Prospecting Hot Tip: If a player's OBP and fielding percentage add up to 1.000, even just barely, you're allowed to rate him too highly on unofficial blog prospect lists.)  (2011 MLE: 59 G, .212/.237/.351)

18. Matt Carpenter spent most of Game 6 updating his résumé; he'll make a useful stand-in and possible high-OBP regular at third base for somebody, but given David Freese's heroics and Zack Cox's adequacy on either side of him it's not likely to be St. Louis. (2011 MLE: 130 G, .250/.347/.366)

19. Anthony Garcia had a very nice season in Johnson City, hitting .308/.407/.527 over 51 games as a 19-year-old. He's hit for power at two levels—including 2010 in the GCL—where few do, though as a corner outfielder he'll need to keep doing it. (2011 MLE: 51 G, .234/.312/.349)

20. Cody Stanley looks like he'll stick at catcher, but he was a little old (22) to have a .742 OPS in the Midwest League, and for a polished-college-hitter type the 92 strikeouts in 379 innings were a bit much. Actually, screw it, I'm going Bryan Anderson here. I like my left-handed bat-first catcher-types in Memphis! and blocked permanently! (2011 MLE: 101 G, .219/.257/.324)/(98 G, .233/.296/.323)

[Eligibility note: Nobody who made a significant contribution to the Cardinals in 2011 is on this list, because that's easier than figuring rookie eligibility.]