the cardinals are in an interesting spot in terms of their depth. they have some high-end prospects, mostly on the pitching side, but enough supporting, league-average types to keep payroll down and maintain depth.
the pitching staff looks like it could rely almost exclusively on internal prospects for years, with jaime signed through 2015, and lynn, miller, martinez, swagerty, jenkins, kelly, cleto, gast, et al. on the rise. while there are very few pure relievers in the system, the detritus of the starting pitcher program will likely fill in the right-handed side of the bullpen along with adam reifer once he returns from the DL. the left side of the bullpen remains weak, with only sam freeman (and gast, if he doesn't make it as a starter) to speak of in the high minors. though that's probably the best place to have systemic weakness.
left field is locked up long term in holliday's long contract. center field, assuming the cards resist the urge to trade rasmus, can be taken care of for the next four years. right field has no obvious heir, though jay and craig have both made decent cases to stick there. other prospects could provide either starting capacity (pham) or solid backup (luna, chambers).
in the infield, the long-term plan at first seems to depend on pujols' decision this fall (although matt adams will be breaking into prospect lists in a big way this off-season). at second, a system with descalso and craig in the short-term and wong in 2013 or so is not exactly overwhelming, but at least plausible. at third, freese, carpenter, and cox seem to offer pretty substantial depth, although each has a question mark of sorts beside their names. at catcher, yadier molina is getting quietly older; there's no obvious heir, should the club decide not to extend him beyond his 2012 option. names like cody stanley and robert stock are intriguing, but far from sure things. bryan anderson and tony cruz look like backups, rather than starters, at the moment.
leaving aside the major question at first, a long-term question about catcher, and some room to improve at second and right field, the gaping hole in the team persists at shortstop.
pete kozma and tyler greene don't look like anything more than major league utility players, until one of them takes a big step forward. if there is an answer in the system outside the very low minors, ryan jackson is clearly our best chance.
23-year-old ryan jackson was signed as a defensive specialist at shortstop, with many scouts saying that his defense would play in the majors at the time he was signed. the question was whether his bat would play in the majors.
two years into his professional baseball service, we know a little bit more about his bat. he seems to have decent contact skills, with his career BABIP hovering around .320. he doesn't show much power, though he experienced the patented springfield bounce when promoted (his six homers in 300 PA's at springfield swamped the three homers he had in 700 prior PA's). his walk rate has wandered about from high (13.5% in 355 PA's at quad cities) to low (6.6% at palm beach), but looks like it works out to tolerable (9%-10%) on balance. overall, he puts up decent on-base numbers with a limited ISO.
he had a slow start in about 200 PAs in 2009, with only a .262 wOBA in short-season ball. his 2010 showed a marked improvement, with a .332 wOBA at quad cities and .341 at palm beach. he went straight to springfield in 2011, continuing his success with a .330 wOBA.
assuming that ryan jackson is really that special kind of defensive shortstop that comes in around +5 or +10 runs above average, he doesn't have to hit very well to justify his place on the major league team, especially one dedicated to generating groundballs.
texas ranger elvis andrus put up wOBAs between .316 and .341 over 4 seasons in the minors, with a pretty similar hitting profile. the big caveat in comparing the two is that andrus is as old now as jackson is, so andrus's minor league performance came at a much younger age.
the late, great cardinal brendan ryan put up a .306 wOBA in 2007 in his age 25 season at AAA, yet managed to be a significant contributor at shortstop for several years (5.2 WAR from 2007-10, in about 1300 PA's for the cardinals), mostly by virtue of defense.
alcides escobar put up a .343 wOBA in AAA in his 23 year old season, with prior wOBAs of .369 and .296 at AA, and .290 and .326 at high-A.
i don't see any reason why jackson couldn't be the glove-first major leaguer that some of these players are, with a wOBA in the .280 to .300 range. the question of whether he is a plus-plus glove, or just a plus defender will also play a major role in how valuable he ends up being. if he can push that offensive production a little bit - towards more walking and more gap power (to a .310 or .320 wOBA, he'd become even more valuable. on balance, i'd say he looks like a ryan-escobar type, with an andrus-like upside. his downside would be as a literal all-glove utility man, like pete kozma, whose glove keeps him in the mix but whose offensive incompetence limits him to late innings defensive replacement. he's never going to be the elite kind of shortstop who produces offensively and defensively.
the last question is where the club takes this chip. the simplest thing would be to use him as a starting SS sometime in 2012. he wouldn't make headlines as a league average shortstop, but he'd make our pitching staff look good. and he'd be making league min doing it. luckily for the club, the arbitration system still doesn't reward glove-first guys well. they could pay him for six years for $6m. the benefit there would be to assemble an expensive cast of players around him. cheap players like jackson make that possible.
another options would be to use him as a crutch, to look for a high-risk, low-cost shortstop, like rafael furcal, who might provide more value than jackson on his own, with jackson as the insurance policy. that approach would allow jackson to break into the majors gradually, starting in a reserve role.