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The Viva El Birdos Top 21 Cardinals Prospects List for 2016, Part One

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In which players 21-11 are covered, as well as some general housekeeping notes about the list itself.

Matt Carpenter, himself a fixture of lots of 15-20 prospect rankings.
Matt Carpenter, himself a fixture of lots of 15-20 prospect rankings.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, it's finally here. The only Top 21 Prospects List you really need to care about. We here at VEB Industries have been slaving away for weeks, crunching numbers, reviewing 2400 fps video, feeding biorhythmic formulae and data into our UNIVAC system, and just generally pulling in every possible piece of information possible to create the prospect list to end all prospect lists.

My name is Aaron, and I will be your host on this journey into pure, unadulterated prospect enlightenment. On behalf of our staff of hundreds, I bid you welcome.

Welcome.

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Okay, so it's just me here, and I have an Open Office word doc that's been edited somewhere between two and six times. Still, I'm pretty proud of this list, and there's a lot to cover, so let's get this intro over with and move into the actual meat of the thing, shall we?

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But First, a Quick Rule V Note

Before we move on to the countdown, I first wanted to bring up the recent Rule V draft and what the player movement involved means for the Cardinals, and this list, in particular.

The Redbirds lost one player, and gained one player. Neither of them appears on the following list; that does not, however, mean neither deserves to.

Luis Perdomo, the right-handed pitcher the Cardinals lost in the draft, was also the club's only representative at the Futures Game this season, after he was selected for the honour in place of Alex Reyes, whose shoulder was acting up at the time. Perdomo was taken by the Rockies, and the fact it was such a poor club means there's at least some chance he might stick on the big league roster, and thus not be offered back to the Cardinals. As such, I can't consider him part of the system for now.

If he was still in the system, however, Perdomo likely would have ranked right around the bottom of the list, probably somewhere around 16-19. He has elite velocity, capable of pushing high-90s heat pretty consistently, and a slider that grades out as a plus pitch when he's on. The changeup I don't think much of, though, personally, and it's a relief arm action. For me, Perdomo is purely a power FB/SL reliever, which certainly isn't a bad thing, but I think it's a fairly limited ceiling. I think he could be a very nice version of a relief slinger, but I definitely don't think he projects higher than that. So a very nice complementary piece, and one I'm hoping the Cards do ultimately get back. For a comp, think of someone like Octavio Dotel, in terms of a slingy arm slot and a power fastball/slider combo. That's sort of what it looks like, anyway.

The pitcher the Cardinals selected, from the Mets, is RHP Matt Bowman. Bowman has an interesting backstory, if only because pitchers from Ivy League schools are pretty rare in the big leagues. For Bowman, it's a hard sinker in the 90-93 range, an aggressive lower-body delivery, and a changeup that drops at the plate. He sells the change well because of that jumpy sort of delivery and a fast arm. He's been a starter through the minors, and throws both a slider and curve as well, but for my money he fits best coming out of the 'pen and just dialing up the sinker/changeup portion of his repertoire. It's funny; in sitting here trying to think of a good sinker/change reliever to comp Bowman to, I realise that simply isn't a particularly common profile. Seth Maness might actually be the most similar type of guy, but Bowman throws harder and doesn't have the gift for avoiding walks Maness possesses. I know there are players out there who make good comps for Bowman, but at this exact second, I have to admit I'm drawing a blank.

Actually, come to think of it, Fernando Salas works pretty well for what I expect Bowman to look like as a potential reliever. Bowman might have a little better stuff, even, at least in terms of velocity.

Personally, I'm very much hoping to see Bowman come in and pitch well in spring training for the Cardinals; he's exactly the sort of low-cost solution a club needs to cycle into the mix to maintain bullpen depth without having to pay for it. He'll turn 25 before Opening Day this year, and he's probably as good a bet as a guy like Miguel Socolovich (much as I enjoyed watching Soco fool the Pirates early in the season), to put together an above-average line working the 5-7 innings space.

I didn't include Bowman in this list because as a Rule V guy his spot in the organisation is so tenuous, so contingent on the weird rule exception that brought him to the club, that I just don't feel great putting him on. He'd probably be in a similar range as Perdomo, actually. For now, though, both players are in such an ephemeral non-place due to the vagaries of the Rule V situation that both are probably best placed here, as an addendum, rather than taking up an actual list spot better used on a player less likely to simply vanish.

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Before the list, I also want to say a quick word about MLB comparables. I tend to lean heavily on comps for players; I think and speak in metaphorical terms quite often, and I tend to think of prospects in terms of what player I can comp them to. Comparing one thing to another thing is just kind of how my mind works.

On this list, I'm going to provide what I feel is an instructive comp for each player. Usually one, sometimes two. DO NOT THINK OF THESE AS QUALITATIVE. When I'm comping a player, I'm trying to give you an idea of what the repertoire looks like, or how the offensive profile comes together relative to a player's position. How GOOD a given player might be is something else entirely, and not what I'm trying to do. I want you to be able to think of an MLB player, and say, "Oh, okay. I get what that looks like." It's not an attempt to project numbers or value for a player.

So, for instance, when I say on the podcast that I think Anthony Garcia has a Matt Holliday-esque offensive toolset, what I'm saying is I think Garcia has a similar ability to control the strike zone, get on base via the walk, make contact at a similar sort of rate, and has a swing geared toward hitting hard line drives all over the field that will occasionally turn into home runs, but he isn't necessarily a classic slugger. Think of the way Matt Holliday does what he does, and that's what I'm saying about Garcia. I'm not saying I think Anthony Garcia will produce 50ish WAR over the course of his career, or a similar wRC+. Okay?

Okay. Good. Glad we're all on the same page.

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The "Just Missed" List

These are the players who fell just outside the Top 21, but still deserve to at least be mentioned here. I may do a more substantial post later this offseason about some of these players, the guys who occupy the fringey spaces at the edge of the picture. For now, though, these are your not-top 21 players for 2016, but who shouldn't go unnoticed all the same.

Oh, and why is it 21 instead of a nice round 20, you're probably asking? Because I finalised my top 20, had it all ready to go, and then realised I had forgotten a player I wanted to include, added him back in, but didn't want to bump my 20th ranked guy out of full coverage.

Austin Gomber, LHP -- Outstanding performance this year, and really could justify a spot on this list, but I have concerns about the arm action and long-term durability. Fits best as a funky reliever for me, but could be fantastic in that role. Probably the first guy out of the 21, to put it in NCAA Tournament terms.

Sandy Alcantara, RHP -- Another near-miss, Alcantara is definitely worth a write-up sometime this offseason. Extremely young, but a big frame and already-elite velocity make him extremely intriguing.

Jake Woodford, RHP -- Certainly has the draft profile, and the stuff is good, but I'm not on the bandwagon yet with Woodford enough to push him above the other players covered here.

Dean Kiekhefer, LHP -- Proximity to the majors (he might be up this year), makes him a name to know, but as a probable LOOGY the ceiling for Kiekhefer is very limited. Still, useful to not have to sign Randy Choate for three years.

Jacob Wilson, INF -- Wilson is still interesting as a utility bat with power, but profiles similarly to new Cardinal Jedd Gyorko, with a little less glove, and may not have a clear route to the big leagues. Probably #23 here.

Patrick Wisdom, 3B -- Yeah, yeah, I know. Wisdom has the draft pedigree and a good story about a turnaround this year. But, I'm not buying anything he's selling just yet. Even with that hot stretch midseason, the numbers overall were bad, and he fell back off late. Also was not very good in the AFL. Bottom line, I'm still not a believer. He did make strides in knocking his K rate down this year, though, so maybe there's still hope.

Allen Cordoba, SS -- Cordoba torched the Gulf Coast League this year, winning the MVP of the league. Magneuris Sierra did the same in 2014, and jumped into prominence. Cordoba probably won't make that same sort of leap, but as a shortstop who hit .342 with a near 1:1 walk to strikeout ratio, he's definitely a name to watch. Depending on where he starts and how he performs in 2016, Cordoba could be the biggest gainer on next year's version of this list.

The Top 21 Cardinal Prospects for 2016, Numbers 21-11

And only 1600 words in, too!

#21: Corey Littrell, LHP

Opening Day 2016 Age: 24

2015 Level: High A Palm Beach

Relevant Numbers: 2.77 FIP, 4.0% BB rate

So, what's so great about this guy?

Corey Littrell was the other player the Cardinals received in the John Lackey deal in exchange for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, and has a chance to add further value to what already looks like a major heist for John Mozeliak. Coming out of the University of Kentucky, Littrell looked like a typical crafty lefty, one who gets by spreading multiple average pitches around and outfoxing hitters.

Once he got into the Cardinal organisation, though, Littrell began changing his approach, and this season the results of those changes started to really manifest. He's gone from working the edges of the strike zone with lots of offspeed junk to pounding the bottom part of the plate with a wickedly effective sinker, paired with a changeup that shows split-finger action, and has essentially cut his walk rate in half from where it was with the Red Sox.

Littrell still throws a cutter and curve, but has pushed them to complementary status, leaning heavily on his ability to generate groundballs with his sinker. His K rate has fallen since coming over as well as his walk rate, but the overall package of quick outs on the ground and no free passes is actually pushing him toward greater efficiency and effectiveness than ever before.

The challenge for Littrell will be seeing how his numbers translate once he leaves the friendly environs of the Florida State League, where even the few balls he allows in the air have virtually no shot at leaving the park most days. On one of the podcasts a while back, Ben and I discussed Littrell, and I compared him to Mark Mulder. I like that, and stand by it, as a lefty with solid-average velocity (he can touch 93 with his fastball, though it's usually more 89-91), great sink, a splitter-type offspeed pitch, and an ability to attack the zone fearlessly with all his offerings. Jaime Garcia also isn't a terrible comparison, if you wanted a more positive Cardinal taste in your mouth. Or think even of Joel Pineiro, in his deadball-era full Duncan mode glory of 2009.

Player comp: Well, you know. Mark Mulder, like I just said.

#20: Mike Ohlman, C/1B

Opening Day 2016 Age: 25

2015 Level: Double A Springfield, Arizona Fall League

Relevant Numbers: 11.0% walk rate (AA), 18.5% K rate, 12 homers, 417 PAs, 118 wRC+, .315 BABIP

So, what's so great about this guy?

It isn't often you see a meaningful player acquired for nothing but cash (except on the free agent market, I suppose, but you know what I mean), but that may be exactly the situation for the Cardinals with Ohlman, whom they acquired from the Baltimore Orioles this past February for cold, hard cash.

What puts Ohlman on this list, even at this modest placement slot, is the potential for average- to above-average offensive production coupled with the positional ability. In the Baltimore system, Ohlman was seen as exceedingly unlikely to remain at catcher, even in a part-time capacity, and the bat just doesn't really hold up for a player on the far right side of the defensive spectrum. However, since coming to the Cardinals, Ohlman has made strides with his glove behind the plate, and there is now a realistic chance he could be a useful piece in a backup role.

Part of the improvement has been Ohlman's own efforts, of course, but part has also been an organisational philosophy issue; the Cardinals looked at his defense behind the plate and believed there was enough there to work with. The coaching staff took a special interest in him, and he's put in the work. It's an excellent argument for the idea sometimes players really do just need a change of scenery, much as that justification may be overused. There are who knows how many guys out there stuck on an organisational treadmill, unable to advance, and perhaps what is needed most is a fresh set of eyes, or a different set of expectations, and suddenly a player's skillset has value in a way his previous club just maybe never saw, for whatever reason.

What Ohlman offers at the plate is an ability to control the strike zone, in a very Cardinal-hitter-esque kind of way; his 11.0% walk rate and 18.5% strikeout rate in 2015 feels like almost exactly the prototype range for the type of hitter the Redbirds try to cultivate these days. Also very Cardinaly is his relatively modest power, considering the fact he's 6'5" and large-framed in general; his .145 ISO at Hammonds Field is absolutely nothing to write home about. Unless, I suppose, your letter consisted of,

"Dearest Mother -- I am traveling the wilds of Western Missouri as this missive reaches you. I have seen many things in my wanderings, but most striking of late was a giant of a man, clad in full regalia of ignorance, who took a positively Bunyanesque swat at a rawhide sphere, but failed to hit it even beyond the reach of a man patrolling the green pasture toward which he sent it hurtling. Also, there's this big Bass Pro down here, and I bought a crossbow, even though you always said it was too dangerous. -- Finn"

In which case Ohlman's iffy power would be something to write home about, I guess.

Behind the plate, it's a big-time arm, a good mental approach to game-calling and the like, and very questionable defensive actions on the whole. More than anything, Ohlman is simply a much larger person than catchers usually are, and he's somewhat hampered by his frame in terms of moving around. Still, his hands work well, and he understands the game, so even if he is perhaps somewhat physically limited, perhaps the minutiae of the position that we're still only beginning to fully embrace is where his strengths lie.

This will be an interesting year for Ohlman; the Cardinals seem to still be confident in his ability to handle the catching duties of a part-time player, but the fact they brought in Brayan Pena on a two-year deal to backup Yadier Molina is perhaps indicative Ohlman's arrival as a viable backstop is not imminent. Each of the past two seasons, Ohlman has gone to the Arizona Fall League, and essentially bombed out. I'm talking alarming strikeout rates over 30% levels of bombing out.

If Ohlman ultimately sticks at catcher, he could be a very valuable commodity as a reasonable on-base guy capable of playing behind the plate and spelling a player at first base as well. If catching is not an option long term, however, the bat simply doesn't appear to play at first or DH full time, and it would seem he might almost immediately fall off the radar as a prospect.

Player Comp: Steve Pearce, as a moderate-power, patient hitter who plays only bad defensive positions and began behind the plate.

#19: Oscar Mercado, SS

Opening Day 2016 Age: 21

2015 Level: Low A Peoria Chiefs

Relevant Numbers: 11.9% K rate, .087 ISO, 86 wRC+, 50 SB

So, what's so great about this guy?

I was not a big fan of the Cardinals spending a high draft pick in 2013 to take Mercado, then a high school shortstop with an extremely questionable bat. I was even less a fan of them going well over slot to buy the Florida product out of his college commitment, thinking both the money and, especially, the draft slot could have been better used on a player with a more realistic chance at contributing.

Since that time, Mercado has done very little to invalidate my concerns at the time, with a wRC+ in the 80s at all three minor league affiliates for which he has played. He's also racked up huge error totals, which is perhaps more disappointing, and certainly more surprising, given at the time of the draft his glove was seen as having carrying tool potential.

And yet, I find myself very interested in Mercado, and actually more optimistic about him now than I was two years ago, even if I'm not entirely sure why.

Actually, it's not completely true, that I don't know why. I do know why; Mercado is still possessed of the remarkable physical gifts that made him a potentially explosive defender at shortstop, and appears to be developing into an extreme contact hitter as time goes on. There's value in a player capable of putting the bat on the ball, and Oscar has done that more and more the longer he's been in pro ball, to the point his strikeout rate is approaching the kind of numbers we just almost never see in the game currently. Combine that with a huge arm at shortstop, elite-level range, and speed that translates into damage on the basepaths, and there is a way to look at Oscar Mercado and see a well above-average major league player. I didn't necessarily feel that way at the time he was drafted, even though he already had the potentially elite defense -- and, really, was probably seen as more of a sure-thing defender then.

Mercado's game, as a whole, while moving in an intriguing direction, remains an enigma in many ways. He has elite range, arm strength, and hand speed in the field, yet makes a huge number of errors. Part of it is the classic situation of a player who gets to everything simply having far more chances to make mistakes, but that isn't the whole explanation. Mercado's fundamentals are not very good; he throws from all angles, rather than setting his feet and consistently delivering the ball across the diamond, making him inaccurate. He fields with what might be termed an excess of flair at pretty much all times, with lots of movement, pounding of the glove, and showy flourishes the order of the day. I very much admire a player who injects a certain amount of showmanship into his craft, but Mercado plays shortstop like a Harlem Globetrotter dribbles, with the problem being he ends up making unforced errors because he's so inconsistent with his approach.

At the plate, while the contact skills are hugely encouraging, it's also an extremely aggressive approach that limits walks, thus limiting his ability to get on base. There's not much power, either, though Mercado will occasionally show plus pop in his wiry-strong frame when he connects just right. Still, this will probably always be a low-ISO hitter, and so the burden on his ability to make contact will be huge, and his dependence on the BABIP gods to get on base similarly so.

There's a lot to like about Mercado's potential, and I say that as someone who did not think much of him from the outset. Even now, though, after two and a half seasons in pro ball, he needs a tremendous amount of polishing, of rounding off the sharp edges and trying to develop consistency, before he can even think of being a real contributor at the major league level. It's tough to say I have confidence he'll get there, but I will freely admit to being fascinated by what could be.

Player Comp: Dee Gordon, as a middle infielder with an extreme contact approach, disruptive speed on the bases, and a glove that contributes plenty of value to his overall package. Brendan Ryan has some definite similarities, as well, though he never made the impact on the bases a guy like Gordon does, and hopefully Mercado might.

#18: Bryce Denton, 3B

Opening Day 2016 Age: 18

2015 Level: Gulf Coast League

Relevant Numbers: 18.9% K rate, .056 ISO, .194/.254/.245, .236 BABIP

So, what's so great about this guy?

Well, certainly not most of the numbers he put up this season after being drafted, even playing at the lowest level of pro ball. Just looking at the stat line, it's easy to form a picture of Denton as a hitter in the GCL this year; he kept his strikeouts from ballooning, but was very much in what might be termed survival mode, making weak contact, drawing very few walks, and just generally doing all he could to keep his head above water and not be overwhelmed by his first taste of the professional game. As a 17 year old meeting the highest level of competition of his young life at the end of an already-long spring and summer season of showcases, pre-draft events, and the normal grind of travel ball, it's not particularly surprising to see a player like Denton struggle. Maybe a bit of a letdown, but not a shock to the system.

Whatever the case may be, though, two things are undeniably true about Bryce Denton: one, he struggled in his first shot at pro ball, and two, he remains a physical beast. It's important not to let the former fact detract from the latter, nor allow the latter to obscure entirely the former.

Athletically, I feel Denton was underrated coming into the draft -- including by yours truly, if you must know -- though I'm not sure why that would be the case. He's capable at either third base or second, with big arm strength that generated 90+ on the mound and makes him a great fit for the hot corner specifically. There was talk before the draft he might have to move to the outfield, but at least for now I don't think that's going to happen. (Or doesn't need to happen, at least.) He's at least an average runner, and probably a little better than that, though looking at his build it's easy to see him slowing down a bit. He moves well on the infield, with a good first step, with the main black mark against him I see so far are inconsistent throwing mechanics, which is exactly the sort of thing one would expect to improve with coaching and repetition.

If Denton was underrated as an athlete and potential fielder, however, it's much easier to see why his bat was worth drafting. In a 2015 draft class that had the Cardinals at least giving off the appearance of prioritising bat speed, Denton's was the most notable, and singular. He has incredible strength in his forearms, and helps generate torque with aggressive trunk and shoulder rotation, leading to a swing which aesthetically has a bit of Andrew McCutchen in it. It's big-time raw power for Denton, with enough bat-to-ball skills to dream on. If it all comes together, this might be the highest upside bat in the system for the Cards.

There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks for Denton, beginning with plate discipline that has a long way to go if he's going to hit that offensive ceiling. He was borderline overmatched at times in the GCL, though having just turned 18 at the beginning of August he was also one of the youngest players in the league, so he has more maturing ahead of him than even the majority of his high-school draft contemporaries. If he does have to move out of the dirt into the outfield, the bat will have to play up, though I have very little concern about either of those outcomes.

For an organisation that has appeared at times hesitant to go for upside in the draft, preferring instead to draft performers capable of developing into major league depth, with league-averageness generally the ideal outcome, Denton is a remarkable departure, particularly in terms of the early rounds. He has miles to go, and plenty of questions to answer, but the ceiling on his talent is unlike nearly any other player in the system.

Player Comp: the thick, muscular build, extreme bat speed, huge power potential, and defensive spectrum slot of 2B/3B all resemble Rickie Weeks, with the hope Denton might be able to exceed Weeks's career production if he can command the strike zone more effectively, as well as avoiding the litany of nagging injuries which seemed to cost Weeks time nearly every year.

#17: Darren Seferina, 2B

Opening Day 2016 Age: 22

2015 Level: Low A Peoria

Relevant Numbers: 132 wRC+, .367 BABIP, 8.2% BB rate, 12 3B

So, what's so great about this guy?

Darren Seferina can really hit. In fact, I think Seferina may be a better pure hitter than the Cardinals' current second baseman, Kolten Wong, who can also really hit, albeit in a slightly different way. Where Wong uses a leg kick and outstanding hand speed to occasionally drive the ball much further over the wall than you might expect from a player his size, though, Seferina's own swing puts the ball on a line more often and more consistently, but lacks the pure power upside of what Wong can do.

Seferina is also capable of impacting the game with his legs, as he can take an extra base on a ball in the gaps as well as any player in the game not named Billy Hamilton. Unfortunately, it appears Seferina needs to either develop better timing as a basestealer or simply stop trying to swipe so many bags, as he was caught stealing nearly as often (17 CS), as he was successful (23 SB), in 2015. With the tradition of basestealers in general the Cardinal organisation possesses, you would really think they could leverage some of that knowledge to better coach their minor leaguers on the art of the steal, but that doesn't seem to be the case, with mostly terrible SB/CS ratios up and down the minor league rosters.

In the field, Seferina utilises his quickness better than he does on the bases, with well above-average range for a second baseman. He lacks the arm to play short, but could probably fake it on occasion, if he needed to. I think he could be an impact defender at the keystone, honestly, as he has the hands and range to make not only the routine plays, but plenty that elude the average second baseman.

It's possible Seferina could transition into a utility role, but defensively I think his best fit is playing second everyday. And while the Cardinals are already set at that position for what looks like a good long time, it honestly wouldn't surprise me if we looked around in three years and see Seferina starting, with Kolten Wong moved on the market for a position of need. The over-the-fence power may not be there for Seferina to hit double-digit home runs the way Wong can, but having watched Seferina play a fair amount this season I think he might ultimately end up as valuable a hitter, just with a slightly different approach.

Player Comp: A left-handed version of Howie Kendrick, as an aggressive, slashing line drive machine capable of also playing impact defense at second base.

Note: Seferina was the player I initially forgot in doing these rankings, and forced me to go to 21 instead of 20 players to avoid losing Corey Littrell.

#16: Paul DeJong, 3B/INF

Opening Day 2016 Age: 22

2015 Level: Rookie-level Johnson City, Low A Peoria

Relevant Numbers: .200 ISO, 9 HRs, 30 XBHs in 292 PAs, 9.9% BB rate, 13 SB

It's been discussed here at great length over the past few years: the almost stunning lack of power bats in the Cardinals' minor league system. Perhaps it's mere coincidence the Redbirds appeared to take steps to rectify that lack in the 2015 draft. Perhaps the best players on the Cards' board at various points just happened to line up with potentially solving that issue.

Or, perhaps not.

Whatever the case, the Cardinals selected several power bats in the early going of this past summer's draft, both from the high school ranks and college. Bryce Denton, discussed just a few moments ago, was one of the more notable examples of the premium the Redbirds seemed to place on players with bat speed and power potential. Harrison Bader, still to be covered here, fell into that same demographic. And Paul DeJong, a senior sign out of Illinois State, brings to the table both qualities in spades.

If I'm being honest, I actually think DeJong is probably better than this spot on the list, but going through the names intellectually, rather than relying entirely on feel, I can't put him above the other names above here. Still, DeJong was one of my favourite picks in the draft this year, as an example of an overlooked talent who could have gone much higher but may very well turn out to be an enormous bargain.

DeJong's best quality at this point is his plus raw power, which shows up in games as an ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field with authority. Opposite-field power is a huge predictor of success for me, and it's one of the things DeJong most excels at. He keeps his hands back beautifully, then explodes into the ball, going gap-to-gap as well as any player in the Cardinal system.

That ability to wait on a given pitch translates into an overall mature approach, as well, as DeJong controls the strike zone well for a player fresh out of school. The pop in the bat, combined with a willingness to wait for the pitch he wants, rather than chasing, should allow him to produce consistent extra-base power, even aside from his ability to go over the wall. He's just an average runner, but showed savvy on the bases in his first taste of pro ball, swiping thirteen bags and being thrown out just four times. That thing I said awhile ago, about the Cardinals having tons of terrible basestealers and baserunners in general? That doesn't apply to DeJong.

A catcher in college, DeJong won't catch in pro ball due to leg injuries in the past that have likely made the position impossible for him. He can play second, third, and first, as well as the outfield, but third appears his most likely long-term home. He has plus arm strength suitable for catching, and that translates well to third. The versatility is encouraging, but there isn't one position yet that DeJong truly excels at. The hope is that continued repetition at one spot or another should improve his defense; playing mostly behind the plate up until now he's still quite raw elsewhere in the field.

There is a chance, if DeJong can find a defensive home, that he could fly through the system. He's older as a prospect, being that he was drafted as a college senior, and so the clock isn't on his side as it is for some other players. Still, the approach at the plate, the power potential, and the overall intelligence of his game are all huge pluses, and I find myself wondering how it is DeJong fell as far as he did this past June. Not that I'm complaining, of course; I think there's a decent chance the Cardinals managed to grab themselves a premium position prospect at the end of the fourth round, which would be fairly remarkable.

I'll be watching closely to see where the organisation assigns DeJong to begin 2016; a return to Peoria would seem the most likely, but a challenge promotion to Palm Beach wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.

Player Comp: the opposite-field power and premium position both remind me of David Freese; the injury history and older draft age do as well.

#15: Carson Kelly, C

Opening Day 2016 Age: 21

2015 Level: High A Palm Beach

Relevant Numbers: .113 ISO, .239 BABIP, 80 wRC+, 15.3% K rate

So, what's so great about this guy?

I'm sure a lot of you by now know the story of Carson Kelly: the high-ceiling third base prospect from a Portland-area high school the Cardinals paid well over slot in 2012 then moved to catcher when it became apparent his physical tools lent themselves well to work behind the plate, and perhaps his lackluster offensive performances did as well.

It's been slow going for Kelly in trying to develop as a hitter. Somewhat miraculously, he's taken to the catching position, so often considered the most difficult in the game, far faster than he has the offensive side of the game. His defensive abilities, in fact, are the vast majority of the reason he still appears on this list at all, much less within the top fifteen.

Kelly has come along quickly as a backstop, and his blocking, framing, and catch and throw skills are all well above-average at this point. Calling games and handling pitchers he's still working on developing, but he receives rave reviews from pitchers and coaches alike for his baseball IQ. Being that's the sort of thing that's exceedingly tough to spot even watching carefully, I'll defer to player testimonials just this once.

On the offensive side, Kelly is a pretty exciting catcher. He's always made lots of contact, and even this year, when he posted the worst strikeout rate of his career, he still didn't whiff at a concerning pace. What is concerning, however, is the quality of contact, which has never been all that good for Kelly in pro ball. He's never cracked a .120 ISO at any full-season stop, and has pretty consistently put up below-average BABIPs, as well. He's not fleet of foot, but even so, the consistently poor results when he puts the ball in play is indicative more of weak contact than it is misfortune befalling him. There is still plus power potential there, as he's capable of putting on batting practice shows from time to time, but in game action he simply fails to control the strike zone or get the barrel of the bat to the ball. He did finish the 2015 season on a bit of a tear, but it will take more than a few weeks of hot hitting to turn around the evidence presented up 'til now.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Kelly offensively was a sizable reduction in his ground ball rate; it's something to keep an eye on going forward, for sure.

The offensive bar to jump over for catchers is a low one, and it's possible Kelly could still clear it as he matures and moves up the ladder. He's been such a quick study as a backstop it seems hard to believe he's incapable of improving his hitting, but so far that's been the reality of the situation. Even if he never hits at even a league-average level, however, the glove may end up good enough to earn him a starting job, particularly if the organisation for which he plays happens to be one that values catcher defense highly. (ahem)

Player Comp: well, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Kelly resembles a taller version of the man whose job he might one day hopefully take: Yadier Molina. We can only hope his bat develops late in the same way as Yadi's.

#14: Nick Plummer, OF

Opening Day 2016 Age: 19

2015 Level: Gulf Coast League

Relevant Numbers: 14 XBHs in 228 PAs, 16.7% BB rate, 127 wRC+

So, what's so great about this guy?

Nick Plummer, if he makes it to the big leagues as anything resembling the player we saw in his first professional action, will stand as a triumph of a scouting department. As a cold-weather player (Michigan), who played his high school ball in a league that begins all players with a 1-1 count, assessing how good Nick Plummer really is was, to put it lightly, difficult. There are times when hidden gems fall through the cracks due to unusual circumstances; it's possible Plummer may be just such a player.

The first and most notable thing about Plummer is his command of the strike zone. High school players rarely come into pro ball with a feel for the zone equal to Plummer's; the fact he's also a cold-weather player, this having even more limited playing experience, and the bizarre rules of his home league, make his approach almost unfathomable. This is a player who spits on pitches on the edges of the zone, refusing to get himself out to a degree rarely seen in players at the major league level, much less getting their feet wet in the Gulf Coast League.

That being said, the downside to that patience was an elevated strikeout rate; Plummer whiffed in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances. It's impossible to know if poor umpiring may have played a part in that number, but we've seen Matt Carpenter rung up on innumerable borderline calls over the past few years; it isn't difficult to imagine Plummer suffering a similar fate if he refuses to expand his zone even to the extent of what is being called.

Physically, Plummer has above-average bat speed, another point in the mini-trend of the Cards' 2015 draft class. That should allow him at least average, and possibly better, power down the road, although he's probably never going to be a thumper. He runs well, probably at least a 55 on the 20-80 scale, and has good instincts on the bases. He needs refinement as a basestealer, but I think that's possible for him, given his feel for the game.

Defensively, there's a definite question as to Plummer's eventual position. If you see him as a center fielder, you likely look at the foot speed and assume he can chase down balls in the gaps quite easily. Myself, I'm more skeptical, and think he ends up moving to a corner. His arm is...Jon Jayish, and so he's limited to left field. His value will take a hit if he's forced to move to left, though I will say I think he could be quite a good defender over there. As a left-handed thrower, he's limited positionally, unless one wanted to imagine him as a Gregg Jefferies sort of first baseman. Which seems somewhat of a bad fit, to be honest.

I'm unsure how well Plummer will grade defensively, but I have more confidence in the bat. He has remarkable knowledge of the zone for such a young player, even without considering all the other unusual circumstances under which he's played. Plummer tore up the showcase circuit in 2014, netting himself plenty of draft hype, and was even in the conversation at one point as a potential 1/1 candidate. The fact his path to the draft was so unusual, and he fell to where the Cardinals were able to take him, could end up a huge boon for the club in a couple years.

Player Comp: Bobby Abreu, as a moderate-power on-base machine who plays above-average defense in a corner outfield spot and adds plenty of value on the bases.

#13: Junior Fernandez, RHP

Opening Day Age: 19

2015 Level: Gulf Coast League, High A Palm Beach

Relevant Numbers: 3.87 K/BB in the GCL, 2.21 FIP

So, what's so great about this guy?

This is probably the most aggressive ranking you'll see of Junior Fernandez; as an arm barely seen on U.S. soil I'm going well out on a limb here. And honestly, I've only seen Fernandez throw eleven pitches, thanks to some footage I was passed by a friend, with the understanding that neither the video nor his/her name would see the light of day. Those eleven pitches, though, were electric, to a degree I wish I could better convey.

The pure arm speed Fernandez shows is extraordinary; he's consistently in the upper 90s with his fastball, and there's enough riding life to the pitch I'd feel comfortable with a 70 grade, if not higher. Perhaps even more impressive, though, is the changeup, which I've been told is not even close to consistent yet, but has shown 70 potential as well. There's a slider, too, apparently, but I haven't seen it, and so can't really speak to the quality. Still, the one-two punch of fastball and changeup for Fernandez is as good as any combo in the system, including Alex Reyes' own triple-digit fastball and waterfall curve duo.

Speaking of Reyes, Fernandez actually took a very similar path into the organisation; he was born in the States, but moved to the Dominican Republic in an attempt to get noticed and signed to a professional contract. It seems to have worked, as Fernandez got $400K in 2013. He's a former infielder, as well, meaning there's a similarity to the developmental path of Carlos Martinez also.

Fernandez is so far away from the majors this ranking is incredibly aggressive, but I feel comfortable with it. The arm strength and feel for a changeup are both truly elite at this point; it wouldn't shock me if Fernandez jumped up to near the very top of these lists at this time next year once the industry gets a look at him. For now, though, he can be our indie darling; the 7" split single with just a label name and an email address printed on the sleeve. And then, when he's striking out the world at Double A, we can all say we liked his changeup better in the GCL.

Player Comp: undersized, with elite arm strength and a potentially dominant changeup; Edinson Volquez isn't a bad comp, neither is Yordano Ventura, though it's always a question whether Ventura is throwing a change or a sinker.

#12: Charlie Tilson, OF

Opening Day 2016 Age: 23

2015 Level: Double A Springfield, Arizona Fall League

Relevant Numbers: 12.1% K rate (Springfield), 50 SB in 663 PAs, 107 wRC+ (Springfield)

So, what's so great about this guy?

Tilson was an overslot draftee back in 2011, taken by the Cardinals with their next pick after selecting Kolten Wong. At the time, he was a raw, athletic bundle of muscle fibers from an Illinois high school who ran like a deer in center field and every once in awhile turned on a pitch in such a way as to showcase plus raw power potential. The ceiling, in other words, was very high.

Since then, the speed has remained, but the power he would show from time to time with metal bats in school has never materialised as a professional. Looking at the swing, it's probably never going to much show up for Tilson, either. In other words, the ceiling is not nearly so high these days.

On the other hand, he's also advanced steadily toward the big leagues, even with a severe shoulder injury early in his career that nearly derailed him before he could even get on track in the first place. He may never possess even average power on a night-in, night-out basis, but that doesn't mean there's no opportunity for Tilson to contribute.

The speed still plays very well in center field, where he's capable of running down balls in all parts of center field. He's a gap-to-gap player, legitimately, and there's reason to believe he could make an impact with his glove. The arm is below-average, so if he's not in center, left is probably the best fit for Tilson. Still, one would assume he'll see most of the action he sees in center, simply because of the difficulty of finding that position.

Offensively, Tilson has worked diligently on improving his contact skills, and his 12.1% K rate at Springfield was the best of his career. He's not a particularly patient hitter, largely due to lacking the power to force pitchers to be cautious, but he also won't get himself out very often. On the bases, Tilson can do some real damage with his legs, and improved markedly in the basestealing arena this past year. I saw him play three games in person in Springfield this year, and came away very impressed with his ability to swipe a big bag at a big moment in a game.

The ceiling for Tilson, as I said, is pretty limited. He's never grown into the occasional power he showed in high school, and while he's a plus defender in center field, I'm not sure he's quite to that Peter Bourjos/Juan Lagares/Franklin Gutierrez level, where you live with limited offensive upside because of the potential to steal runs the player gives you with his glove. Tilson is probably best served in a backup role, taking plate appearances in left and center, being deployed strategically late in games at points where his legs could possibly swing the tide of a contest. He may never grow into the player one might have hoped seeing him in high school, but it's very likely he'll end up a useful major leaguer in some capacity, which is pretty damned good all the same.

Player Comp: a lefty-swinging version of Shane Robinson doesn't sound too far off base, to me. Again, not a star, but that's not a bad player to not have to pay market value for.

#11: Harrison Bader, OF

Opening Day 2016 Age: 21

2015 Level: Short-season State College, Low A Peoria

Relevant Numbers: 11 HR, 17 SB in 258 PAs, .523 SLG%, .212 ISO

So, what's so great about this guy?

I've mentioned before, a couple times, how the Cardinals seemed to focus on batspeed and power potential in this year's draft, which is at least somewhat of a departure from years past. Paul DeJong, Bryce Denton, and even Nick Plummer seemed at least partially chosen because of their potential to do damage with a bat in their hands somewhere down the road.

Harrison Bader might be the guy with the most potential damage in his bat of that whole group.

That's not to say Bader is the best hitter of the group; both Plummer and DeJong show plate approaches much superior to Bader's aggressive attack, and Denton could have the highest ceiling of all if things break right for the Tennessee native. If you're looking for a slugger, though, Harrison Bader might be your guy.

Drafted out of Florida, Bader was one of the most productive hitters on one of the best teams in the toughest conference in all of college baseball. He posted a .959 OPS and .270 ISO playing in the ultra-competitive SEC, which prepared him well for the lowest rungs of minor league baseball. He came out firing on all cylinders, too, after being drafted, battering New York Penn league pitching badly enough he was moved up to full-season Peoria barely a week and a half into his pro career.

At the plate, Bader brings an aggressive mentality to both the frequency and violence of his swings. He's capable of hitting the ball out of pretty much any part of any park, and actually possesses solid contact skills as well. His plate approach isn't terrible, but he's never going to be a high on-base hitter, due to a willingness to attach anything drivable early in the count. It's not a fatal flaw, by any means, but there is a definite limit to how often he's going to find his way onto the basepaths.

He runs well, slightly above-average, and is better once he gets going. He's smart, as well, choosing spots to try and take an extra base whenever he can. In the field, that speed makes him an average to above- corner outfielder, and might even allow him to play some center. He won't be good in center, necessarily, but could do it in a pinch without killing a club. He has a strong enough arm to play right field.

I find Bader's swing very interesting; he hits with an excess of movement in his legs and feet I would prefer to see him tone down and go to a widespread stance, similar to the one he uses in batting practice. Think Jim Edmonds, only right-handed. Actually, Jim Edmonds isn't a terrible physical comparison for Bader in general; I'm not sure Bader will ever have the kind of easy, natural loft in his swing Edmonds possessed, but he is of a similar build and capable of putting a charge into the ball much like the former Cardinal center fielder.

Harrison Bader is somewhat of an all-or-nothing player; his aggressive approach at the plate could leave him vulnerable to pitchers capable of working away from his strength, potentially nullifying what damage he can do. He's also capable of hitting mistakes -- and some pretty good pitches, as well -- a very, very long way, though. He's not as extreme a player as Randal Grichuk, but isn't cut from completely different cloth, either, particularly the minor league version of Grichuk who struck out around 20% of the time, as opposed to the more recent version with his 30%+ K rate.

At the very least, Bader represents a very intriguing skillset for Cardinal fans to follow; it's one we haven't seen a ton of the past handful of years, as the organisation has seemingly prioritised nearly everything other than power hitting. Harrison Bader offers plenty of that power, and could possible bring it while being an asset in the outfield, as well.

Player Comp: Later-career Reggie Sanders, with his power and defense still mostly intact, but without the patience at the plate he showed early on, isn't a bad idea. The short-lived good version (say, 2003-'05), of Jose Guillen isn't, either, minus the crazy throwing arm. (But hopefully with better health overall.)

And that, friends, is the back half of the best the Cardinals' system has to offer. One week hence, I'll have the top ten for your perusal and discussion. Until then, take care.