I had intentions of writing a column today all about the various options the Cardinals could have in trying to upgrade the offensive production they receive from first base in 2016. Trade candidate, internal options, free agent market targets, it was going to have everything. A real extravaganza, if you will. Or, you know, just a regular column, actually.
However, due to the fact I'm getting a late start on this column after arriving home from the gym, and am hoping to get this posted at a reasonable hour, I've decided to let the big topic deep dive wait for another day. Probably Wednesday, I would imagine, though I hate to make any concrete plans.
In the meantime, I thought we could take a look at the numbers currently being produced by the handful of prospects the Cardinals sent to the Arizona Fall League (AFL), this autumn. The AFL rightly has a reputation as a prospect finishing school of sorts, where advanced, near-MLB ready prospects go for some final work. The truth, however, is a bit more complex than that, as the AFL regularly sees a wider variety of prospects and situations. The prospects sent to the AFL are usually advanced, true, but it's just as likely to see a Double A righthander who missed part of the year and needs to throw more innings, or a High A third baseman who's getting fast-tracked one year after being drafted and needs live competition to stretch out against. In other words, it is prospect finishing school, to an extent, as the competition level is some of the highest you'll see in all the minors, but the players are occasionally chosen for situations beyond just, "Close to MLB ready; needs to face toughest competition."
With that being said, I should also point out the context of the AFL being very hitter-friendly; just imagine all the games are being played in that stadium the Diamondbacks call home, whatever the name of it is now. So offensive statistics will tend to be a bit inflated, even considering the level of competition.
Anyhow, here's a quick look at where the Cardinals' own batch of AFL prospects find themselves early in the league's run.
Alex Reyes, RHP
We all know Reyes by now; he's the organisation's top pitching prospect, top prospect overall, and is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. He saw his stock take a jump this year, after his velocity early in the season was well up from where it had been in the past, but a sore shoulder midseason took some of the wind out of those sails. Still, Reyes has a huge arm, struck out a ridiculous number of hitters this season, and the level of hype surrounding him is, justifiably, fairly crazy.
Reyes has made just two appearances in the AFL so far, and the results have been mixed. He's thrown 7.2 innings, which is fine for a guy just getting back into the swing of things after a layoff following the end of the minor league season, and has still shown himself to be remarkably hard to hit, allowing just five hits and striking out better than a quarter of the batters he's faced -- 9 Ks of 32 total hitters. The problem with Reyes continues to be control, however, as he's walked four already. He's struck out as many total baserunners as he's allowed, which is always exciting, but has never posted a walk rate below 11% at any minor league stop. So far, Reyes in the AFL looks a lot like Reyes everywhere else: exciting potential, but still can barely hit the broad side of a barn most days.
Luke Weaver, RHP
The Cards' 2014 first round pick has largely continued on with his success from the regular season, carrying his advanced repertoire and mature approach forward into the AFL. He's made only two appearances so far, the same as Alex Reyes, and has only thrown six total innings so far. However, in those innings he's looked just as good as he did in the Florida State League, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out six. He's given up two runs, only one earned, good for a sparkling 1.50 ERA, playing in the desert air.
I still have serious concerns about Weaver's ability to hold up physically, as I worry about the arm action, and his ultimate ceiling, given he's still struggling to find a consistent breaking ball to go along with his fastball and excellent changeup, but he's been very good since being drafted. If I said I could see him turning into something along the lines of, say, Tyler Clippard, the outstanding reliever for the Nats, Mets, and A's over the past several years, who lives on his changeup and a good enough fastball, would that be such a bad outcome?
Dean Kiekhefer, LHP
Kiekhefer very much fits the mold of a lefty reliever in the future, as he lacks premium stuff but shows solid splits against same-handed hitters, as well as an ability to limit walks (just 7 BBs in nearly 60 innings this season at Memphis). He's made three appearances in the AFL so far, covering six total innings, and has allowed only three hits, one run, and has not issued a free pass, which is very impressive in a league that tends to push pitchers out to the edges of the strike zone. He's also shown that lack of premium stuff by striking out just three hitters, but he's still having success in the early going.
Robby Rowland, RHP
Rowland is another big, physical righthander in the Cards' system, and is a relief-only prospect at this point. He reached Springfield this year, and can push his fastball into the 94-95 range in short stints.
He's gotten knocked around pretty good so far in Arizona, appearing in three games, covering three innings, and has allowed six hits, a walk, and four earned runs on the down side of the ledger versus three strikeouts on the good side. It's early, is what you should say about his results so far.
Patrick Wisdom, 3B
Wisdom has become one of the most intriguing prospects in the Cards' farm system again after a season that saw him struggle so badly he was demoted to extended spring training to work on his swing with one of the hitting coordinators, then take off following that and produce the kind of results the Redbirds have been hoping for every since they drafted him out of St. Mary's the same year as Stephen Piscotty.
In 27 plate appearances so far this fall, Wisdom has shown very little patience (3.7% BB rate), but has made pretty good contact, with a 14.8% strikeout rate and four extra base hits among seven total. He has yet to homer, but is clearly not overwhelmed by the level of competition, which is at least encouraging. The .269/.296/.462 line he's produced so far is certainly not amazing, but it's not bad for a player just getting back into the swing of things against the best competition he's ever faced.
Charlie Tilson, OF
In just 13 at-bats covering three games so far in the AFL, Tilson has done his best to show off his well-rounded game as quickly as possible, with a .308/.400/.462 line. He's walked twice, struck out three times, collected two doubles, stolen a base, and scored five runs. It's sort of the definition of 'filling up the stat sheet'.
I feel like Tilson has gone a little overlooked in the Cardinal system this year, despite being pretty close to big-league ready and a pretty good bet to produce solid numbers as an extra outfielder in the Shane Robinson+ mold. I'll try to focus on him a little more when it comes time this offseason to try and produce a prospect list.
Aledmys Diaz, SS
Diaz, the former Cuban star signed by the Cardinals for a metaphorical song a couple years ago, has set the AFL on fire so far, continuing the tear he was on the second half of the minor league season. In six games (25 PAs), Diaz has hit .286/.400/.524, walking more often (4 BB), than he has struck out (3 K), and socking two doubles and a home run among his first six hits. I still have my doubts about Diaz's glove being good enough to start at short every day in the big leagues, but the bat is beginning to be intriguing enough I could see him turning into an extremely valuable utility player in the very near future.
Mike Ohlman, C
Ohlman, whom the Cards acquired from Baltimore for cash considerations this past season, had a very solid season for Springfield, posting a .774 OPS and, more importantly, playing almost exclusively behind the plate. It was thought he would end up at first base in the past, but the Cardinals must see something in his catching they like.
So far in the AFL, Ohlman has played in only three games and gotten just 10 official at-bats, but he's made them count. He's hitting only .200, but one of his two hits left the yard, and he's drawn three walks to go along with those hits, giving him an overall line of .200/.357/.500. Ohlman has above-average raw power and very good patience at the plate, but has struggled to tap into that power the last couple seasons against more advanced pitching. If he can stay behind the plate, his on-base skills and power potential could make him a very intriguing backup for Yadi as he transitions into lesser playing time and the organisation waits on Carson Kelly or some other catching answer to make itself known.
Bonus Update: Jurickson Profar is currently putting up a .417/.533/.833 line for the Surprise Saguaros, the same team all the Cardinal prospects are playing for. Just saying.
Overall, it's been a solid, if unspectacular, showing for the Redbirds' prospects in the AFL so far. Diaz's stock in particular continues to climb, and the organisation is going to have to put him back on the 40 man roster this offseason, one would think. I would love to see him inherit the Pete Kozma position in the very near future.