10. Charlie Tilson
(fourstick: 13; Cardinals645: 12)
Our take in February:
After fighting off various injuries for his first couple of seasons as a professional, Tilson emerged a bit last year with a clean bill of health, hitting .303/.349/.388 in 411 PA's at Peoria before moving up for a cup of coffee with Palm Beach and continuing his torrid pace there. Still just entering his age 21 season, there's still a ton of projection in Tilson's bat to go along with his plus defense in CF and equally good baserunning. Going to be tough sledding jumping ahead of all the outfielders above him, but if the bat continues to improve, he'll be a candidate for quick promotion.
Tilson’s numbers in the first half of 2014 basically mirror what he did in Midwest League in 2013, but in a much tougher league for hitters: .306/.354/.412. Similar ground ball rate (56.6%), similar walk rate (5.8%), but an ISO that’s about 20 points higher due to his power surge in the month of June that featured 11 of his 21 extra base hits, a .190 ISO, and all 4 of his 2014 home runs. If Tilson could find a way to repeat his June line (.333/.373/.523) over the course of a season he’d be among the top prospects in baseball given all his other tools. Althought that’s unlikely to happen, it was nice to see some real pop from a guy who’s basically banked on legging out triples to improve his ISO numbers for the majority of his career.
The real concern here is the ground ball rate: it’s Ichiro like, and Tilson, while fast, doesn’t have Ichiro type speed. his career BABIP in the minors is .360 with a 58% ground ball rate and just 12.5% line drives -- that tells me that as defenses begin to get a little better (and the leap from A+ to AA is a huge one in that regard) his average driven by ground ball singles is certain to fall off by 25 to 30 points. Combine that with an increasing strikeout rate (19%, up nearly 5% from last season) and an incredibly poor record of stealing bases for a guy as fast as Tilson is (just 24 of 37 in the last two seasons combined) and it’s hard to imagine him as anything more of a 4th outfielder.
I’d say this ranking was probably the correct one coming into the season, but clearly some of the guys behind Tilson have forced their way ahead of him as the season has worn on. If Charlie Tilson had Billy Hamilton speed or Colby Rasmus power he would be one of the better prospects in baseball. Alas, he doesn’t, and that makes him not much more than a rich man’s C.J. McElroy.
9. Carson Kelly
(fourstick: 8; Cardinals645: 12)
Our take in February:
Apparently I have some explaining to do with this ranking. I love that Kelly has moved to catcher, and the handful of whispers about his progress at the position have been positive. With Kelly behind the plate, the team doesn't need nearly as much production from his bat, which is good since Kelly hasn't really hit yet. Kelly has mostly struggled in pro ball so far, and hasn't shown a consistent profile. He showing impressive power as a 17 year old in the Rookie League, but hit fewer homers in twice as many games last year, albeit against much tougher competition. I still like Kelly, but this is a tough organization to be ranked in, and there are a lot of solid players in the system that are closer to the majors. In another year, his future offensive potential should be clearer, potentially making me look foolish.
Well, he’s still hasn’t turned 20 years old, the transition to catcher has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped (I actually believe he’s better than Steve Bean, who’s been catching since he was in short pants), but the bat still hasn’t really come around despite a very good approach that leads to a decent number of walks and contact ability that reduces strikeouts to a minimum: Just 11% of all PA’s this season have ended in a K. That’s phenomenal for a 19 year old kid in full season ball.
If I had to sum up Carson Kelly’s 2014 so far in one word? Unlucky. A 19% line drive rate should lead to a better BABIP of .265, especially in a league that’s not known for it’s defense. Even with that cruddy average on balls in play he’s put up a .250/.321/.384 which is good for a .331 wOBA -- that’s no slouch for a catcher. Twice as many hits as strikeouts, but just 22 for extra bases (including 4 triples! From a right handed hitting catcher no less!!!) and just 7.2% of his flly balls go for home runs -- and Kelly hits a good amount of flly balls to the outfield, nearly 29% of his balls in play.
I still think Carson Kelly is a top ten player in the Cardinals farm system based on his youth, approach, and contact rate. He’s a big dude and I think his power will come eventually and if it doesn’t hopefully he can spray the ball in the gaps like former draftmate Stephen Piscotty has done successfully while moving through the higher levels of the minors. That kind of production from a catcher would be excellent and if you put Kelly in the majors behind the dish at 24, that coincides with Yadi’spost-prime and towards the end of his multi-year extension.
Still -- either the power has to come on or he’s going to have to become and elite line drive hitter like Matt Carpenter if he’s going to be a league average player even behind the dish. I have faith, but I’d feel a lot better if he ended 2014 on a tear at the plate.
8. Randal Grichuk
(fourstick: 9; Cardinals645: 9)
Our take in February:
Between Grichuk and I, one of us thinks he can play CF. Both of us think he can probably hit enough to play in a corner spot, just not likely with the Cardinals. The lack of walks is a concern, but the power numbers are real. Grichuk seems to think that his approach doesn't need changing, something that probably got him dealt out of an Angels player development system that's put improved plate discipline on a pedestal above all else under new farm director Scott Servais. A notion he stole from the Cardinals, I might add. The Cardinals might get the last laugh though, if Grichuk can hit his ceiling as a player. Color me skeptical, but he'll be a fun guy to watch at Memphis this year.
Had I written this a month or so ago, the report would probably be considerably more glowing, but the truth is that Grichuk saw an opening on the big league roster in CF and basically made every possible move to snag it, including starting with a torrid April that got him called up a couple of times in the first two months of the season. He scuffled considerably, as a player with his poor pitch recognition and aggressive approach is apt to do in his first stint in MLB, but then returned to Memphis and continued to rake.
Grichuk’s third turn through the league, however, has caught up with him: His strikout rate has ballooned from around 19% in April and May to nearly 30% in June and July, leading to a .169/.222/.305 line in 63 PA’s in June and a .221/.254/.441 line so far in May. That puts his full season slash line at .264/.310/.498, which is awfully similar to
The power is still there, and it always will be, but….
Randal Grichuk can’t hit an offspeed pitch to save his life. And that simple fact is probably going to cost him a productive career in the big leagues.
What’s even worse is that he can’t lay off of them either. This is a pitch recognition issue, and it’s one that is fairly fabled throughout the history of the game: The wunderkind all-world talent that looked every bit the part until someone threw him a curveball and he nearly fell down swinging over the top of it. You would think that this is something that a player could be coached out of, or solve with a change in his approach, but the only tried and true method is voodoo, or at least that’s what all the baseball movies seem to indicate. So the choice is to either start a fundraising drive to sacrifice live chickens prior to every Grichuk plate appearance or live with the fact that he's probably never going to reach his ceiling as a player despite all the elite tools that he possesses.
Grichuk can definitely play CF at the next level. He can probably hit for power there as well. But, as I noted upon his call-up early this season: Unless he can figure out how to hit or lay off good offspeed stuff, he’s just lunch meat for major league pitchers. Given the tools and the fact that he's just 22 years old, he's probably a top 10 prospect in a farm system lacking with high upside bats. The track record for overcoming his major flaw is not a good one historically, however.
7. Rob Kaminsky
(fourstick: 6; Cardinals645: 6)
Our take in February:
There's some consensus for Kaminsky here, as he has moderate upside, with some polish for a high school guy who hasn't made a full season debut. In a system that is still very deep, but suddenly low on players with impact potential following several prospects graduating, Kaminksy stands out among the mid-level prospects. I fully expect him to excel in the Midwest League this year, and could be as high as #2 on this list in 2015.
2.99 FIP, 1.64 ERA, and nearly a 2.5/1 strikeout to walk ratio is about the best you could expect for a 19 year old pitcher in a full season league. Kaminsky is also surrendering just under 6 hits per 9 innings as well, which goes to demonstrate how dominant he’s been thus far: 66 innings, just 63 total baserunners.
Coming into the year, we were looking at 22 professional innings in a rookie league and basically reputation, and Kaminsky has backed up that rep and more with his performance this season, and his stock is most certainly up. Joe was in attendance at his start on Sunday and while he struggled with his curveball and didn’t have his best stuff, the fact that his changeup was dominant is excellent news. His curve, when on, is a true hammer, and he can push his velocity into the mid-90’s and sit in the 93-94 range, touching 96 when needed. Add a plus changeup to that pitch mix along with Kaminsky’s usually excellent command and you have the makings of a top of the rotation type arm. RB’s loved this kid since he first laid eyes on him, hopefully he can hit his ceiling. He’s almost certainly a top 5 guy in the Cardinal org now, with the only drawback being his size and someone funky mechanics.
6. Marco Gonzales
(fourstick: 7; Cardinals645: 5)
Our take in February:
The lack of projection puts him behind higher upside guys like Kaminsky and Reyes for me, but Gonzales probably has the highest floor of the three, with a plus curveball and a plus-plus changeup as well as excellent makeup and pitching ability. The lack of zip on his fastball is a real concern, but Mozeliak has been quoted a couple of different times stating that the Cardinal player development staff feels Gonzales could add 2-3 mph since he's now focussed solely on pitching. If so, he would move up quickly and likely be among a trio of lefties at AAA ready to fill in at a moment's notice in St. Louis.
Dominated both the FSL and the Texas League in short stints in both places. Struggled in a couple of big Lynnings (sorry, couldn’t resist) in his big league call up, but otherwise pitched pretty well against two of the better run scoring clubs in baseball. Currently lighting up the PCL with a 3.000 OPS while playing the Martin Short role in the Three Amigos of lefties making up the bulk of the Memphis rotation.
I'd say his ranking was about right in this Cardinals system that's got plenty of pitching depth. Gonzales is likely a 3/4 type starter in the big leagues, pitching off his plus-plus changeup could make him a rotation stalwart for a long time to come for the right team -- I'm just not sold that the Cardinals are that team. Given all the high end pitching talent surrounding him, both at the major league level or trailing behind him in the lower minors and working up, that would seem to make Gonzales more valuable as a trade chip than he would be to the Cardinals in terms of added marginal wins over the next couple of seasons.
Given that there are six starters on the 25 man roster currently that are likely as good or better than Marco, it's hard to see him getting a shot at the rotation unless a couple of long term injuries happen, and those starts can be taken by someone like Gast, Cooney, or Garcia, who have a lot less trade value than Gonzales does. I like Marco, and I'm a sucker for "pull the string" changeups, but it does seem like he's an expendable piece and I wouldn't be sorry to see him be the focal point of a trade in the next couple of weeks.
5. Tim Cooney
(fourstick: 4; Cardinals645: 7)
Our take in February:
My favorite minor league stat from last year belonged to Tim Cooney: His 6.97 K/BB ratio in 118 innings at AA Springfield. The number is ridiculous at face value, but even more so when you consider that he doesn't have the pure stuff to just blow it by people in the strike zone like Alex Reyes or Shelby Miller.
I'm much higher on Cooney than nearly everyone else, mostly because I see a guy with four 50/60 pitches who really knows how to sequence his arsenal and mix up speeds to keep hitters off balance. I've mentioned in multiple conversations this offseason about how similar he was to Cliff Lee in his age 23 season and I think he truly does have upside that could land him at the top of the rotation some day.
So the Cliff Lee comparisons were probably a bit much, but Cooney’s still shown some real flashes of brilliance in AAA this season, taking a no hitter into the ninth in one start and pitching 8 shutout innings with double-digit strikeout totals in another. The overall line isn’t impressive: 3.74/4.66 FIP is a spread of nearly a run and the formerly miniscule walk rate has inflated to just over 8%, which for most starters would be average or better in AAA, but not when you give up as many hits as Tim Cooney does (103 in 110.2 IP). This just seems like the classic case of the guy with the not-so-overwhelming stuff facing better hitters and nibbling the edges of the strike zone to avoid getting hammered by opponents. The results are never good in those scenarios, and even less so when you have horrible luck with home runs (15 total thus far and considerably above average for the league as a whole).
For his career, Cooney’s FIP has always outpaced his ERA, mainly due to stinginess of free passes and a really stingy HR rate. Those have been considerably worse this season, and the drop in strikeout rate was predictable, but strangely all the other peripherals are fairly consistent, so perhaps this is just an adjustment to the league that will eventually right itself a bit.
I’d probably put him behind Gonzales now, and certainly behind guys like Kaminsky and Reyes due to their much higher ceilings, but guys like Cooney are valuable to have in your organization: The 6th starters who can fill in for an injury or take a spot start or two when someone needs to miss a couple of turns. He’s a back-end type with a little bit of upside if he can get his command back on track. What invited the Lee comparison still holds: Up until the last few months, Cooney had pinpoint control at every level of the minors he’d pitched in. Here’s to hoping he’s able to find that again.
4. Alex Reyes
(fourstick: 3; Cardinals645: 4)
Our take in February:
Throws 97 mph, has two plus pitches and a changeup that could qualify as a third with a little bit of work, plus solid command of all his pitches. Did I mention he's only 20 years old? And has a bigger frame than Carlos Martinez with similar high-upside stuff? There's just a ton to like about this kid and his ceiling is as high as any player in the minors not named Taveras.
The good: 10.78 K/9, 97 mph fastball, hammer curve, 74.1 IP, just 57 hits and only 17 for extra bases.
The bad: 5.94 BB/9, lots of pitches missed in the middle of the plate that won’t get missed in AA or AAA.
The talent is all there, but Reyes is still the biggest project of any pitcher the Cardinals currently have in the minors. I think he’ll develop the plus changeup he needs to go along with his overpowering fastball and plus curve, but command is a huge issue: Reyes doesn’t know where the ball is going half the time, and especially so when throwing his breaking ball, rendering it far less effective iagainst more disciplined hitters.
#1 starter upside is good enough to get you ranked in the top 5 of most any organization, and Reyes certainly has that pedigree. I’vfe seen Lucas Giolito throw a couple of times on streaming this season and I can tell you that Reyes’ stuff, to me, is not all that far behind. Giolito just has a lot better command than Alex does currently. Still, Giolito has the two best pitches in the entire minor leagues, so just being nearly as good is a huge compliment.
Just 19, probably at least 3 years away from the big leagues, if not 4, and that’s plenty of time to develop the changeup and work on command.
3. Stephen Piscotty
(fourstick: 5 ; Cardinals645: 2)
Our take in February:
Say it after me: I believe in the bat. The VEB community does, Ryan does...but me? I'm on the fence. As a third baseman, I'd have him in the top 3 but you've got to hit a lot more to make it in the corner outfield, and I'm not sure that Piscotty's got the power numbers to be valuable to a big league club out there.
If I was coming up with a big league comp for Piscotty's ceiling, it would look something like a right handed Nick Markakis: Above average contact skills, gap power that's good enough for a few homers, and a decent enough walk rate. Below average defense, however, which effectively neuters Markakis' value and could potentially do the same for Piscotty, although most reports from last year had him being average or slight plus in right field less than 12 months into his transition.
There are worse things than having a Markakis clone in your top 5 prospects and I think Piscotty will continue to hit -- but with Taveras, Holliday, and Craig getting time in the corner OF in St. Louis for the foreseeable future, it's hard to see a path for Piscotty to get much, if any, playing time with the Cardinals. If he continues to rake at AAA this spring, he's likely at the top of the list of trade candidates should the club need an impact player in July.
He is what we thought he was: A line drive machine with gap power and a cannon for an arm. Rarely strikes out, makes tons of hard contact, and most of the prospect community has finally stood up and taken notice, with B-P ranking him in their top 50 midseason prospects.
He’s a right handed Nick Markakis with better defense in right field. I think there’s 20+ homer power there somewhere and he’s just not been able to unlock it yet. But he could easily be a .290 hitter with 35-40 doubles as a big leaguer and that’s more than enough to hold down a corner outfield spot as a regular.
We had him perfectly ranked as did the community: He was the third best player in the farm system behind Wong and Taveras and he’s proven it by not missing a beat as a AAA rookie. He’s still only 23, so there’s some development time yet, but it’s hard to see how he fits into the picture with the big club in the next couple of seasons given that he’s strictly a corner outfielder and that’s the one position in which the Cardinals have plenty of depth.
2. Kolten Wong
(fourstick: 2; Cardinals645: 3)
Our take in February:
For me, Wong's limited upside places him behind Piscotty, but his floor is high enough to make it close. He should have an above average contact rate immediately, and show decent glovework at the keystone. With the exception of his hitting, the story for Wong seems to be a limited set of tools, but with plus instincts that make him a plus baserunner and solid defender. If he can produce a solid line drive rate, he should be a 2+ WAR player for the next few years.
He’s all growns up and graduated, even with a rehab and a silly demotion back in May that led to a .360/.400/.533 line at AAA in 80 PA’s. Since coming back from his shoulder injury, he’s raised his season batting line to .251/.305/.405 at the big league level, which is quite impressive given that his OPS was below .600 at one point in May.
Is likely going to be a regular for a good long time, with some all star potential if his bat reaches it’s ceiling. i’m not yet totally sold that’s going to happen, but I believe in Wong’s bat-to-ball ability, so it’s certainly possible to add a bit more usable power to his game. Getting his game right might be the key to the stretch run for the Cardinals.
1. Oscar Taveras
(fourstick: 1; Cardinals645: 1)
Our take in February:
When Taveras was first coming on our radar in Low A, I thought he was just going to be a "‘tweener"; I wasn't convinced he could play CF in the majors or hit enough for a corner OF spot. With average-ish speed and arm strength, his long term OF spot is still unclear, but his bat should be well above average at any position, including DH. It's hard to imagine an easier rank than this one.
His first PA promised much better things for his mid-season call up, and he’s not yet delivered on that promise at the big league level yet and we’re getting dangerously close to the point where there’s some real definitive data. In 84 PA’s in the big leagues, Taveras is hitting .190/.226/.266 with that initial homer providing a good chunk of his offensive value thus far. The .215 BABIP certainly has something to do with his struggles, but there aren’t any defenders on the other side of the fence and Taveras isn’t hitting the ball there much either.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’s still the best player in this system and it’s not even really close. It was interesting that Chris St. John’s JAVIER system rated Taveras as having nearly average potential where other Cardinal farm hands like Randal Grichuk and Carson Kelly have productive potential per St. John's system.
I don't know that I totally buy that notion, but Taveras could certainly start hitting in the big leagues to help put my conscience to rest about the whole thing.