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The First Offseason Prospect List of the Year

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If I were dreaming up advertising campaigns for Sony and their Playstation, I would sign up Trevor Bauer as soon as possible, just so I could have Joe Mauer strike out in a future commercial, turn to Trevor, and say, "Well played, Bauer." I think I might also try to find Jeremy Sowers, too, if only to prove my games can be played even by those who have lost all functionality in one of their arms. Maybe Tyler Flowers also. And this is why no one will let me work in advertising. 

I'm writing this post late Monday night/early Tuesday morning, as I'm not sure if I'll have the time Wednesday morning. Ergo, the most recent knowledge I currently possess of the Cardinals is the rather stirring victory they put up Sunday to take three of four from the hated (relatively speaking), Pittsburgh Pirates. It was just the sort of encouraging performance I would have been thrilled to death to have seen three weeks ago, and just the sort of performance I now bitterly sardonically ruefully grin grimace at, fully expecting a run of good baseball now that the Cards have no chance of making the postseason.

Anyhow, seeing as how I have no idea what happened in last night's game and the team as a whole has not really given me much to work with at the moment, I thought I would do something a little different. Though come to think of it I would like to express the opinion I would have preferred to see Marc Rzepczynski take the upcoming Thursday start instead of Brandon Dickson, since we're apparently still working under the assumption The Scrabbler (worst Batman villain ever), could end up in the rotation sometime in the fairly near future.

So what I'm going to do is write the very first Cardinals prospect list of the 2011-2012 offseason. Sure, you could wait around for people who are qualified and actually know what they're talking about, but why do that when my list is here so much sooner? After all, my motto has always been, "If you can't be good at something, at least be quick about it."

And now you know why I've never married.

Oh, a quick note before I forget: while discussing the Cardinals' recent high draft picks last week, I mentioned Kevin Gausman, who was one of my favourite targets last year, and said he should be a high draft pick in 2013. Keith Law was nice enough to drop me an email and let me know Gausman will, in fact, be a draft-eligible sophomore and so draftable in 2012. Thanks to Keith for the info, and piquing my interest in the Cards perhaps being able to pull one of my cheeseballs on the second go-round if they're willing to go overslot for the kid the way they did with Zack Cox, who was also a sophomore when drafted.

So here we go, fifteen of the the best prospects the Cards' system has to offer. My methodology for ranking them is based largely on heavy absinthe consumption and the opinions of a talking lobster I befriended while working on a merchant marine vessel in the 30s.

One note: while I'm sure Eduardo Sanchez (and probably Lance Lynn as well), will still qualify for these lists come winter, I'm going to omit both of them. In my mind both players are now major leaguers, whatever the service time accrued may say about them. Also, leaving them off allows me to get a few more interesting guys on the list who we don't already know quite so much about. Actually, come to think  of it, disabled list time counts as service time, so neither one may qualify at all. Eh, either way. Details bore me.

1. Shelby Miller, RHP

Number one in our hearts and on the charts, Shelby is the man with the golden arm and the amber pitcher, one of which is going to have to go.

Seriously, though, the obvious question about Miller is his off the field issues, but at 20 years old I believe he has plenty of time to learn a lesson and make the necessary changes. Growing up isn't always the easiest thing to do under normal circumstances, much less trying to learn how to handle yourself as a high profile figure at the same time.

As for the on-field, Shelby has all the makings of a future ace. His fastball still grades out a solid 70, and his changeup has actually developed into a real weapon for him as well. His curveball, which was highly thought of coming out of high school, has become his problem pitch, with inconsistent shape and command. It seems fairly innocuous to me; the sort of trials most pitchers have as their deliveries mature into whatever they're going to be and the release point wanders a bit. Still, getting the breaking ball back up to snuff will be important for Miller as he takes the next step in 2012. Time, consistency, and judgment are the things Shelby still needs more of, and really, they're probably all the same thing anyway.

Expect to see Shelby occupying this slot on every single list this year, and solidly entrenched in the top five or ten of the overall lists as well.

2. Oscar Taveras, OF

Here's my first (moderately), controversial ranking, putting Taveras ahead of Carlos Martinez. But in looking at their overall season performances, while Carlos has faltered a bit of late, Oscar has maintained and, if possible, actually gotten stronger late in the season. Plus, while I'm not exactly a TINSTAAPPer, I think Taveras does get a little extra credit for the simple fact he isn't a pitcher.

Taveras is just 19 years old (and won't turn 20 until next June), playing in a full-season league, and posting an OPS over 1.000. (1.024 as of this writing, to be exact.) Virtually all of his offensive stats have jumped off the charts this season, but perhaps most encouragingly of all is the increase in walk rate. In 2010 Taveras walked in just 5.2% of his plate appearances at Johnson City; this year he's drawn a free pass in 9.4% of his PAs. Not elite plate discipline, exactly, but a solid number all the same and a very encouraging progression.

I've only gotten to see Taveras play twice live (he was hurt when Quad Cities played at Busch earlier this year, which I found very disheartening), but his defense looks solid to me. I think he's more of a right fielder down the line than a center fielder, but he could probably man center in a pinch. Most everything about Oscar's game puts me in mind of Carlos Gonzalez, from the big swing to the physical makeup -- though Taveras is an inch or two taller -- and the production at a very young age. The Cardinals are going to have to be very careful not to push Taveras too quickly despite his prodigious talents; he has plenty of maturing to do and the last thing any of us want to see is the promising 2011 Oscar go the way of the Mets' Fernando Martinez by 2014.

3. Carlos Martinez, RHP 

What more can really be said about Carlos? He may have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Cardinals' system, which is rather amazing considering the pitcher sitting atop this list, but it's true. A pure 80 fastball, a wicked curve, and a changeup that, while still very much in its nascency, shows potential for a future plus grade. The repertoire is unreal; Martinez is an out and out buzzsaw when he's right.

There are really only two concerns with Martinez. One, he's small, and two, he's wild at times. The wildness seems to have increased late this season, possibly as a result of fatigue, and I fully expect that to improve as he accrues stamina and innings moving up the ladder. The size thing, though, is a legitimate concern. I personally have no reservations about him handling a starter's workload -- which is good since guys rarely go from barely six foot to six-five after their eighteenth birthdays -- but I can't blame anyone else for having those concerns. If he does prove unable to handle 200 innings a year, Carlos still has the sort of repertoire which profiles almost absurdly well for late inning relief work. His value would certainly take a huge hit, though.

4. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP 

This was a tough ranking for me to make, but it's one I think Rosenthal has earned with his performance this year. Coming into the season he was put on several sleeper lists -- including mine from the Maple Street Annual -- and he's blossomed in a big way. His simple ERA isn't anything to write home about at 4.11, but the underlying numbers tell a much more enthralling story. A 9.95 strikeout rate, 3.41 K/BB, fewer hits than innings pitched, a 52% groundball rate. He has some funk to his delivery and has already shown a strong proclivity for working low in the zone. All that says to me Trevor Rosenthal is a name we should probably all get used to hearing, because we're going to be talking about him often in the next few years.

Rosenthal doesn't have the same kind of pyrotechnic repertoire as Shelby Miller or Carlos Martinez, but he isn't a finesse pitcher by any means, either. He works in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball, and his secondary pitches receive high marks for a pitcher of his age. (Just 21, won't turn 22 until early next season.) He still needs polish, of course, and he does have a sizable innings jump to be concerned with going forward. All in all, while Rosenthal may be exceeded in pure ceiling by at least three other pitchers in the Cards' system, that speaks more to the remarkable depth of talent the organisation has built on the mound than any failing of Trevor himself.

5. Kolten Wong, 2B

I really wanted to go with Tyrell Jenkins here, as I think his pure upside is phenomenal, but Wong's performance in full-season ball straight out of the draft, coupled with his non-pitcherness, forces me to give him the nod.

When Wong was taken in the first round of the draft this year, there was much sturm und drang, with the cries of Pete Kozma thrown about occasionally becoming deafening. I myself wasn't overly fond of the pick, but as I said at the time, this player has very, very little in common with the Cards' last first-round middle infield folly. Kolten Wong, whatever else you might want to say about him, is a hitter. And what do hitters do? That's right. Hitters hit. And that's just what Wong has done since entering pro ball, to the tune of an .887 OPS and better than a third of his hits going for extra bases. Personally, I would like to see him walk more often, but his low strikeout rate helps to mitigate that concern somewhat.

Wong does everything else well enough -- with the odd exception of stealing bases -- but it's his bat that will carry him to St. Louis in short order. Jason Parks of BPro recently rated him the best second base prospect in baseball now that Jason Kipnis has graduated, and I don't necessarily disagree with that assessment. Kolten Wong still wouldn't have been my first choice in the first round -- I wanted Henry Owens or Brandon Nimmo -- but so far he's looking like an extremely smart pick.

6. Tyrell Jenkins, RHP 

Yet another Cardinal pitching prospect with an enormous ceiling, Jenkins sits behind guys like Wong and Rosenthal only on his youth and distance from the majors. He has all the tools to be a top flight pitcher down the road; time is the most important element needed for Jenkins' personal cauldron. A power fastball, a power curveball, and multi-sport athleticism all point to a big future for Tyrell, who could be lacing up his quarterback shoes for Baylor right now if he had made a different decision. I think we can all agree we're very thankful he didn't.

That's not to say it's all sunshine for Jenkins, of course. He's been more hittable to this point than you might expect from a pitcher with his stuff, and while his strikeout rate is good, it isn't really blow the doors off brilliant. Those two things together say to me this is a pitcher still very much in the process of refining his repertoire, and his extremely low walk rate (just 2.09 BB/9!), tells me he's around the plate pretty much all the time. Jenkins has shown some rather extreme groundball tendencies in his pro career so far, with 59% worm burners this season. So he throws hard, spins a good curve, doesn't walk anyone, and keeps the ball on the ground. Sounds pretty good to me.

7. Zack Cox, 3B

I talked about Cox at fair length last week when looking at the Cards' recent run of  draft picks, so I won't belabour the point by giving a full breakdown of his talents here. Suffice to say he's reached Double A in his first full season and has an OPS over .800 there. There's still plenty of work to be done, but to date Zack Cox has really done just about everything you would hope to see him do.

8. Matt Adams, 1B

Ah, here we go. One of the toughest nuts to crack for me in putting this list together, and sure to generate more discussion than he's probably worth. Matt Adams is an offensive force of nature, setting a new home run record for the Springfield Cardinals this year and putting up video game numbers for much of the season. When you put up the kind of production Matt Adams has in 2011, you make prospect lists.

Then again, when you have the question marks attached that Matt Adams does, you don't rank higher than eighth on prospect lists. The bad body thing has been gone over ad nauseum, so I won't say too much about it here. Still, if the Cardinals were to buy this kid a big crate full of Beachbody products you wouldn't hear me complaining.

More importantly (to me, at least), are the questions about his plate approach and the simple fact of his position. While Adams doesn't strike out all that often for a slugger, his walk rate is barely over 8% for the year, leading me to wonder if higher level pitching will take advantage of him. The park effect of Springfield on left-handed hitters shouldn't be ignored, either, meaning his overall power output could take a significant hit in the future. And more than anything, if you're looking for a reason not to love Matt Adams, just look at that position listed next to his name. The offensive demands on a first baseman in the major leagues are enormous, such that any player limited to playing there should have a healthy dose of skepticism attached to their future value.

All that aside, Matt Adams has had an historically great year, and while he may not have prototypical shape to his production, his bat will get him a chance, be it in St. Louis or elsewhere.

9. Joe Kelly, RHP

You're probably looking at this right now and thinking, "Wow, that's an awfully aggressive ranking for a guy with Kelly's numbers, when there are so many other options." And you know what? You're probably right. Putting Kelly this high, ahead of, well, the next couple players on this list, is pretty aggressive. What can I say? I'm a believer in Joe Kelly.

Kelly is still relatively new to pitching, having converted to the mound in college, but has the kind of arm scouts dream about. Even as a starter he sits easy in the mid-90s, and his fastball has hard downward movement that has produced outstanding groundball rates in his career. At Quad Cities last year Kelly racked up a 65% GB rate; this year at Palm Beach it was 62% but has fallen slightly in Springfield to 55%.

It's mostly still potential over production for Kelly at this point, but his Double A FIP stands at 4.46, which isn't terrible considering the hitting environment. He's been bitten hard by the home run bug since moving up to Springfield, and walks are still an issue. All the same, Kelly is a former college closer with a big arm and less than five years worth of mileage on said arm. The transition he's made to starter hasn't been without bumps, but all the pieces are there; it's just a matter of whether or not he can put them all together.

10. Jordan Swagerty, RHP

Swagerty and Joe Kelly are an interesting pair, and I like having them back-to-back here as college closers trying to move into starting. Where Kelly is the fireballer still trying to put it all together, Swagerty has good but not great stuff to go along with plus control and a knack for aggressively attacking the strike zone. It's also somewhat interesting (to me, at least), to note the similarity between Swagerty and Jess Todd. Both were undersized pitchers with high-effort deliveries, both featured aggressive strike-throwing as their best feature, both saw three levels of the minors in their first full season. Weird, huh?

That being said, Swagerty's stuff is a little better than Todd's. Swagerty throws a little harder, sitting around 91-92 instead of touching 92, and his curve is probably a bit stronger than Todd's slider. Still, all the questions that followed Todd up the ladder certainly apply to Jordan as well, the main one being how well his smallish frame and mechanics will play for durability. And I'll say the same thing about Swagerty now I said about Todd then: keep him in the rotation until he proves he can't do it. After being moved to the bullpen this season to limit his innings, I fully expect to see Swagerty get another chance to prove if he can or can't next season. He doesn't have the upside of a Joe Kelly, but his ability to fill the strike zone up gives him at least as good a chance.

11. Matt Carpenter, 3B

Things Matt Carpenter has drawn a walk while doing:

  • Showering
  • Throwing a frisbee
  • Watering house plants
  • Washing dishes
  • Getting laid
  • Updating his Netflix queue
  • Striking out
  • Drawing another, different walk

Matt Carpenter is one of the oddest prospects I can honestly ever remember. He's almost a one-tool player, but that one tool is one you almost never see in isolation. Sure, some guys with huge power draw tons of walks, but how often do players with ISOs below .200 have BB/K ratios of almost 1.3? Hell, how often does anyone have a BB/K ratio of almost 1.3?

I like Carpenter's defense. Average, maybe a tick better to my eye. He has just enough power I don't think pitchers can knock the bat out of his hands. He makes hard contact most of the time when he does choose to swing. In the end, though, Matt Carpenter's greatest skill is, essentially, his ability to do nothing. Isn't that odd?

12. Ryan Jackson, SS

First, I'm not even going to discuss the glove. It's great, and pretty much everyone knows it. Ryan Jackson's glove = Matt Carpenter's plate discipline.

Jackson is a very worrisome prospect, mostly because of where he's playing. He's spent the 2011 season in the offense-inflating paradise of Hammons Field, and that makes it much harder to get an accurate read on how well he's actually hitting. Sure, we have ballpark- and league-adjusted numbers, but for an individual player those are a little scattershot for me. Park factors don't affect all players in the same way.

What I think we can assume is that Jackson's eleven home runs this season are probably at the higher end of what we can expect to see from him. The 28% line drive rate at Palm Beach last year, and the 21% in Double A this year, though, well, that's not going to be nearly as volatile.

I will say this: Jackson was a much more attractive prospect to me last year, when he posted a 13.5% walk rate at Quad Cities, as opposed to his 7.5% this year. Walk rates do tend to drop some as a player moves up the ladder, but not usually in such a dramatic fashion. What it means I'm not sure, but getting that number back up closer to 2010 levels than those from 2011 would make a world of difference in how confident I am in Ryan Jackson's bat.

Really, though, Jackson has shown offensive production right around league average at all three full season stops he's played at. With his glove, league average batsmanship would make him a very, very valuable player.

13. Boone Whiting, RHP

Boone Whiting makes me nervous. He really does. He's not a big guy. He doesn't throw hard. He isn't left-handed. His best pitch is a devilish changeup that really does have the Bugs Bunny sort of feel to it. In other words, Boone Whiting is a shorter version of P.J. Walters. And so yeah, that makes me nervous.

On the other hand, Boone Whiting may also very well be the organisation's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He's struck out better than a batter per inning, and his K:BB is better than 5:1. Maybe he's just another in a long, long line of polished pitchers who dominate the low minors only to hit the wall at higher levels. But I think there's enough reason to think otherwise that I hope you'll forgive me a bit of optimism. Plus, I like his delivery. (You're probably going to want to mute that.) And he has a great baseball name. So there's that.

14. Anthony Garcia, OF

Garcia and Oscar Taveras are sort of linked together in my mind. Both play corner outfield positions, both are still teenagers, and both have shown high level offensive production already. Of course, Taveras is six months younger and doing it in a full-season league, which is why he's number two on this list and Garcia is fourteenth. Still, playing at Johnson City this year at 19, Garcia has an on-base percentage over .400 and an OPS of .941. His walk rate is solid at 9.7%, though it has taken a fall from his brilliant GCL campaign last year, when he walked more than he struck out. (19:18 in 146 PAs.) Of his 56 hits this season, 24 have gone for extra bases.

Garcia has played predominantly left field to this point in his career, which could indicate the club doesn't think much of his defense, but I don't honestly know for certain that's the case. He does have four triples on the year, which would seem to suggest he runs fairly well. Given the dearth of information about his defense, I'm just going to leave it alone. If he continues to develop his offense along the path he's suggested so far, it won't really matter where he plays anyway.

15. Charlie Tilson, OF

I really struggled with this last spot. I really, really did. So many intriguing players for just this one last spot. I wanted to put Tyler Rahmatulla here but college guys tearing up short season ball get skepticism from me these days. I like John Gast, but his strikeouts are going to have to come up before I really fall in love. Thought about Adam Reifer, but an injury plus being a pure reliever took him off. Keith Butler has done amazing things, and I'm a definite believer, but he's a reliever in the low-ish minors. I considered Roberto De La Cruz, but he turns down walks the way Matt Carpenter insists on them. Adron Chambers was probably the toughest player of all to leave off this list, but I think his ceiling is something like what Jon Jay should be, i.e. an extra outfielder, and there are other players whose ceilings trump Chambers' proximity, in my estimation at least.

So instead of any of those players I went with a pure gut pick and took the guy further away than any of them, the guy with a couple dozen at-bats that weren't against high school pitching. I'll forgive you if you think I'm a little off.

But hey, I really like Tilson. Plenty of others are very down on his ceiling, saying he'll never hit for any kind of power and things like that. I look at him and I see a Steve Finley type. I think there's more pop in there than most see. His swing right now is still that of a metal bat player, and I think he'll fix that soon. The speed is very real, and he should cover vast swaths of ground in center field. The arm isn't reported as great, but I've come to be very skeptical of scouting reports on position players' arms. I'll take Tilson's athleticism and quick-twitch muscle every day of the week and trust it can develop into production. I won't be right every time, but it's a bet I can live with every time.

Maybe I'm just being perverse rating Tilson above so many other guys, sort of like how back in the late 90s I always thought Martina Hingis was more attractive than Anna Kournikova. Or maybe I'm right. Time will tell, I suppose.

In putting this together, the most encouraging thing for me was the final number of prospects on the list. See, this was originally supposed to be a more standard top ten list. Finding I had extra player I really wanted to get to, though, I made it a dozen. Then a baker's dozen. Then fifteen. I could easily have gone to an even 20, if not for time and attention span constraints. So this is my list, fifteen players strong, with another ten or so who got serious consideration.

Gouge away.

Edit: I'm sure many of you have noticed by now I did not include Maikel Cleto. This was not on purpose, but rather the result of simple forgetfulness. See, kids, this is why you should be organised and construct your writings carefully, rather than sitting down at the computer to type up an impromptu 4000 word manuscript on a whim. Sadly, seeing as how I didn't realise my mistake until the current time of 2:38 am Wednesday, I'm going to have to just sort of shoehorn him in. Let's see, um, how about right after Ryan Jackson? That seems about right to me. I don't think Cleto has as good a chance of harnessing his control and staying in a starting rotation as either Kelly or Swagerty, and while 100 mph is 100 mph, his lower chances of starting long term drive him down a bit. The raw stuff is good enough to trust over Boone Whiting, though, for now anyway. So that gives us 16 instead of 15 and bumps the last few guys down a spot. Good enough. 

Baron out.

The Baron's Playlist for the 31st of August, 2011 (click for 8tracks)

"I Ran With Love But I Couldn't Keep Up" - Spectrals

"Leave Me Be" - Spectrals

"Sad Fuzz" - Ty Segall 

"You're Not Me" - Ty Segall

"Arms Against Atrophy" - Titus Andronicus

"A Pot in Which To Piss" - Titus Andronicus

"You Will Always Bring Me Flowers" - Shannon and the Clams

"Baby Don't Do It" - Shannon and the Clams