When I was writing up my Top 20+ Prospects list for the upcoming Cardinal season (which is currently being reposted, one piece at a time, so that we have one tag for all the scouting reports that you as a reader can use to get the info more easily, hopefully), I had to make a bunch of cuts to players I really wanted to cover, but ended up having to let go. Obviously, I could have just made it a longer list, of course, but at some point you're a) chopping up masses of players into groups and trying to rank them on such small margins it becomes near-impossible to justify, and b) bringing in so many players all at once it simply becomes overwhelming to try and sort through. Therefore, I decided to stick with the number I started out shooting for, and simply lose a few guys I hated losing.
However, now that the massive undertaking of the list itself is over and in the books (and I hope you all found it worthwhile), I'm going to pull out a few more of those names of players I couldn't quite get around to covering in full while making the list. Not to try and rank them, but just to try and highlight a few more prospects who, for one reason or another, I feel could have an impact in some way down the road. Over the next couple months, I'll cover a handful of these players, and add them to the pile of scouting reports, so that hopefully if and when these names show up in the farm reports or the minor league box scores you can come here to find out who the player is, as well as the answer to the eternal question: so, what's so great about this guy?
I'm starting today with one of the players who was among the harder cuts for me to make from the list this year. It was a simple matter of the sample size being so small, and him not being among my favourite players coming out of the draft, that pushed him down off the list into the 'just missed' section. Even so, there's still plenty to like, and so I wanted to start off these second chance scouting reports with a pitcher the Cardinals spent a relatively high draft pick on just this past June.
Jake Woodford, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 19
2015 Level: Gulf Coast League Cardinals
Relevant Numbers: 26.1 IP, 21 K, 7 BB, 4.60 GO/AO ratio
So, what's so great about this guy?
A wicked sinking fastball, that's what.
Look at that last number up there, next to the 'relevant numbers' notation. That's where you'll see that Jake Woodford, in his first taste of pro ball, recorded better than four and a half times as many groundball outs as outs in the air, among the highest rates in the minors. Sure, groundball tendencies alone do not a successful major league pitcher make, but an ability to keep the ball on the ground, and thus limit the damage opposing hitters are likely to do, can certainly form a strong base upon which to build.
Woodford's fastball has above-average velocity right now; he reached as high as 95 in the spring, but sat closer to 91 after being drafted. I expect him to settle in somewhere in the 92-93 mph range long-term, probably still topping out at 94 or 95. What really makes his heater special, though, is the hard downward movement he generates, as well as a decent amount of armside run. When he gets inside of right-handed hitters in particular, he can be devastating, and I expect to see a fair number of broken bats and slow rollers to the left side of the infield. I'm sure some will call Woodford projectable, and forecast big velocity gains as he fills out his lanky frame, but I don't necessarily see those gains coming. This is a pitcher who got his velocity early, having been on the radar for a couple years now, and I doubt he takes another big step forward. He might add if he were to go to a straight four-seamer, but I think he would probably end up less effective overall if he did so in the quest for higher radar gun readings.
Even sitting where he is now, in that low-90s range and bumping a little higher, it's an easy 60 fastball due to how hard it appears to square up. The command for Woodford is pretty raw at the moment -- not surprising for a high schooler, and not a criticism, just a fact -- and if he improves that the pitch could play up even more. Just based on the fastball alone, Woodford should continue to be a groundball machine as he moves up the ladder, and it gives him a tremendous foundation.
Beyond the sinker, Woodford's repertoire is much less developed. He throws both a slider and a changeup, and I'm not all that impressed with either. The slider has its moments, but he overthrows it, a lot, and it comes in too hard and flat much of the time. I'm tempted to say I would prefer to see him switch over to a curveball, particularly given how risky I think sliders in general are for elbows, but I have to admit even a short slider, if he can learn to locate it consistently, is probably a better complement for his sinker than a bigger, slower breaking ball that would likely start out of a higher 'tunnel', in terms of optics. The changeup, well, stop me if you've heard this one before, but it's just not very developed yet. Woodford rarely threw one in high school, mostly because he didn't really need to. Standard story, and one I'm sure you're tired of hearing, but it's cliched because it's true, and just the way the development curve for most high school pitchers goes.
I will say that I've seen Woodford throw a couple nice changeups in showcase settings, but not to hitters. At those times he's been working on his stuff for scouts, though, he's dropped a couple nice changes of pace, with better than average sink; perhaps unsurprising, given how much downward action his ball has in general already, but still very encouraging. It definitely needs work, but I think there's the makings of at least an average change there.
The downside for Woodford is that, as good as his fastball is, and some promise in the secondary pitches, he doesn't yet show a ton of swing and miss in his repertoire. The slider, even when it's good, acts more like a cut fastball, getting outs off the barrel of the bat, but rarely has enough movement to miss bats entirely. Perhaps the change ends up closer to a forkball or splitter, and generates some empty swings, but I wouldn't want to bet on that, necessarily. For now, the fastball has enough movement that even pro hitters of Woodford's level have a tough time getting wood on the ball, but that won't last forever. If he can't figure out a pitch that goes away from contact, his ceiling will likely be pretty limited. Even in that case, however, there's a chance he could matriculate up through the levels based entirely on keeping the ball on the infield and limiting the damage hitters do on the contact he allows.
If he can sharpen one of his offspeed pitches to the point of being a swing and miss offering, however, Woodford could live primarily on his sinker and just sprinkle in enough of the other pitches to keep hitters off it and put batters away when he has them set up. In that case, it isn't hard to see him as a mid-rotation starter down the line, hopefully in front of a solid infield defense that would make his numbers look even better than they might otherwise. He'll probably always be a contact pitcher, and thus dependent on the defense behind him, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have plenty to offer in terms of helping that defense out with weak, relatively non-dangerous batted balls.
Player Comp: Both Doug Fister and Rick Porcello come to mind as tall, lanky sinkerballers who have generally done well without having elite strikeout rates. Both of them feature the curveball as their primary offspeed pitch, though, so it would look a little different. I hesitate to compare Woodford to someone like Derek Lowe, in spite of there being some definite similarities, due to his being such an extreme pitcher, in terms of the fact he leaned on just one pitch as much or more than virtually any other pitcher we've seen in recent memory. Still, it's not out of the realm of possibility.