There are two ways to look at the Cardinals’ 2016 season. Either the 2016 Cardinals were a very solid team, constructed in an interesting, even novel, way, and there was simply a run of bad luck and shaky performances waiting to ambush them, barely keeping them out of the playoffs (along with yet again the Giants), or the 2016 Cardinals were a enormous disappointment, showcasing misplaced priorities (i.e. power over defense, or too many interchangeable parts, or whatever flaw you want to find), poor execution at all levels of the organisation, and a pervasive sense of aimlessness and an unwillingness to actually invest in winning.
Both sides have their adherents, and both sides have their points to be made. While I personally may find some of the claims made on various message boards and in comment sections that the 2016 Redbirds were chokers or heartless or gutless, or that the organisation is poorly run or misguided, to be the very height of sports talk nonsense run amok (though I admit I’m really, really beginning to question the judgment of the front office and ownership on the subject of Mike Matheny), I can also understand some of the broader brushstrokes being used in portraying one very poorly executed offseason and an ensuing down campaign as some greater malaise.
The good news is this: both sides can, or should be able to, agree that the 2017 version of the Cardinals needs to be better than the team we just watched for six months. The people who think something in the organisation is badly broken will certainly believe things need to change; they may argue John Mozeliak is not the man to change those things, but let’s just put that aside for now.
The side that believes the 2016 Cardinals were more bad luck than bad process, that everything is more or less basically fine and we should all just quit bitching, may be all-in on Johnny Mo being the guy for the job and inclined to dismiss out of hand some of the larger discussion points raised here and there, but they should also be willing to admit that the club we watched take the field this year was, in many ways, a letdown. And even if things are mostly fine, there are things that need to be upgraded, addressed, fixed, or whatever other verb you like.
Given that spirit of consensus, of agreement that the 2017 Cardinals should not look exactly like the 2016 club, lest we begin dipping into same process, different results definition of insanity territory, we should be able to look ahead at the offseason and see some moves we would all like. There is still a very long time to write about all the moves that should be made, or that an individual author would prefer to see made. So today, rather than provide my own preferred roadmap of the way forward, I thought we should take stock of the organisation’s resources, the ammo they will likely be using to accomplish whatever moves they make. With so thin a free agent market as the one we find ourselves heading into, it’s safe to assume most big-time, potentially team-altering changes will have to be made via trade. Therefore, understanding what kind of depth the club possesses at the minor league level from which to deal would be very useful.
I’m not going to go player by player at every level of the organisation, obviously; that would probably not be all that helpful. Rather, we’re going to look at buckets of players, and the best examples of each type. There’s an old adage in scouting that it’s important to know the other club’s players, but it’s even more important to know and understand properly what you have in hand. Failing that is how you end up with Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen, or John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. With that in mind, let’s take inventory of those birds in the hand.
These are the players that the organisation is most likely looking at as completely off the table in the vast majority of trades, as future building blocks of the club long term. They’re too valuable, and too important, to be moved for anything less than a king’s ransom.
Alex Reyes, RHP — Well, obviously, right? We saw what Reyes was capable of this season, even with shaky command, and it was incredibly exciting. Now, that’s not to say Reyes could not or should not be dealt under any circumstances; personally, I wouldn’t be at all averse to moving Reyes for a long term solution at a position of need, whether that be center field or third base, but I’m also more skeptical of Reyes going forward than many here, even though there’s zero chance he isn’t number one on my offseason prospect list. If the Orioles want to move Manny Machado for Reyes, I won’t complain. There aren’t a ton of players I would move him for, though.
Delvin Perez, SS — Perez is actually somewhere between this group and the next group I’m going to talk about; he’s nearly untouchable because he’s a seventeen year old wizard at shortstop who just hit almost 25% better than league average in his first taste of pro ball, but also because, if the rest of baseball valued him as highly as they maybe should, he wouldn’t have been on the board for the Cards to draft when they did. A couple months of great performance have likely pushed Perez’s stock up quite a bit, but probably not quite high enough yet for him to be a good trade candidate.
Carson Kelly, C — Kelly is a bit of an odd duck, as he’s a good prospect, but not one of the level you would normally put in the untouchable bucket. However, the organisation is so desperate for a potential catcher of the future, and has put so much effort into Kelly’s conversion to the position, that I can’t see any way he would be dealt.
The Not Enough Value (Yet), Nearly Untouchables
This is a very tough bucket to evaluate, because these are players who fall into a twilight zone of potentially having enough value down the road that you don’t want to trade them, but who don’t yet have the kind of value on the market that would convince you to possibly part with them. The real untouchables up above you wouldn’t want to move because they’re just too important; these guys you aren’t comfortable moving because they might be too important, and aren’t worth quite enough until you figure out if they really are too important.
Nick Plummer, OF — Plummer’s pro career has gotten off to a bad start, with a decent but curious performance last year out of the gate being followed up by an injury-riddled 2016 that never really got underway. He didn’t look overmatched in spring training with the big club at nineteen, so you have to be intrigued, but he hasn’t taken a meaningful at-bat since.
Junior Fernandez, RHP, and Sandy Alcantara, RHP — I’m going to lump the two youngest guns in the system together here, as both are just beginning to step into the spotlight that by next season could make them too important to move. Fernandez is my favourite of the two, being younger and possessed of a delivery I prefer, but both have the kind of raw stuff that could make them for-real untouchable with a good 2017. Or they could flame out entirely. That’s kind of the tough part of this bucket.
Bryce Denton, 3B — Denton was taken as a seventeen year old athletic project in 2015, and now, just barely having turned nineteen, is coming off an above-average turn with the bat in the Appalachian League. He was a project, is still a project, but showed signs this year of tremendous promise and upside. Again, the future is potentially too bright, but the current outlook too uncertain, to see a good fit for him in terms of a trade package.
Allen Cordoba, SS — One of my personal favourite breakout players in the Cards’ system this year, I’ll be writing plenty more about Cordoba this offseason. For now, though, Cordoba is a middle infield burner with incredible bat control who doesn’t have enough track record as the player he looks like he might be to move.
The Cubans — Here I’m talking about the three big names the Cards signed out of Cuba this year as part of the international signing period; we’ve got Jonatan Machado (speedy outfielder with great bat control), Johan Oviedo (physically imposing righthander with a fastball up to 98), and Randy Arozarena (twitchy athlete with versatility all over the field). Too soon on all of them, even if there’s enough track record on each to suggest they might be pretty damned valuable.
The Sweet Spotters
These are your best trade pieces. Enough value to potentially bring back something big, either singly or as part of a package, but not so vital as to be written in pen down the road.
Luke Weaver, RHP — Weaver might be the Cards’ single best trade chip this offseason, as he’s established he belongs at the major league level already, while also being somewhat less important than one might think due to the presence of Alex Reyes ahead of him and tremendous organisational depth coming up on his heels through the system, not to mention a pair of injured lefties we’ll get to in a bit here.
Jack Flaherty, RHP — I have to admit, I’m very much hoping Flaherty is not moved, as I want to see what he could do in a Cardinal uniform, but it’s also impossible not to see how attractive he would be to other clubs. He struggled for the first time early this season, but powered through and ended up having a very good season, and continues to hone his overall repertoire. He’s not flashy, but there are four usable at least and potentially better than that offerings here, and he’s coming up on Double A. That’s a good trade piece.
Harrison Bader, OF — Given the Cardinals’ needs in the outfield, it’s tempting to put Bader up above in the untouchable category, but while he’s been very good overall as a pro, his game is not so airtight as to be a lock for the future. He’s easily the best positional trade piece the Cards possess right now, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if his name came up in most trade talks they engage in this offseason.
Edmundo Sosa, SS — Nearly as good a piece as Bader, Sosa is eminently dealable now because of emergence of several other shortstops throughout the system. Aledmys Diaz appears to have the major league job locked up for the near future, Delvin Perez is the next crown jewel of the system once Alex Reyes is officially no longer a prospect, and Allen Cordoba is just behind Sosa in terms of system placement. Sosa didn’t have a great year, but he had one of those seasons that consolidates what a player can do in the eyes of the industry, and what Sosa can do is hit around league average and play shortstop. I would be a little surprised if he wasn’t part of any big deals the Redbirds make this offseason.
Jake Woodford, RHP — Woodford just had a solid season in the Midwest League at nineteen. Productive full-season ball assignments by teenagers create value. He might be verging on the potentially too valuable bucket, but I think he’s movable.
The Campus Bros — By which I mean the trio of college pitchers the Cardinals just took in the draft this year. Dakota Hudson, Zac Gallen, and Connor Jones all fit a profile of accomplished, relatively polished, potentially quick-moving arm that tends to trade very well. Of the three, Jones is the most likely to be dealt, I think, as he splits the uprights in terms of having plenty of perceived value without such a high ceiling as to be too intriguing to move. Hudson is close to too intriguing, even though the more I look at the delivery the more I hate it, and Gallen isn’t established enough yet to make up for the perception of a slightly lower ceiling.
Austin Gomber, LHP — Boy, Gomber sure does feel like the kind of pitcher who gets dealt as the second piece in a package, doesn’t he? Moderate stuff, but great results, big frame, moving up the ladder in a hurry. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name this winter.
A special category, created exclusively to house Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney, both of whom are in injury purgatory currently. Cooney is riskier, due to his issues being shoulder-related, whereas Gonzales is coming back from Tommy John, seen as a fairly safe bet, but both are tough to get a handle on in terms of trade value. Most likely we’ll have to see them back on the mound and producing before either could be moved, but Gonzales in particular could represent an interesting option for a club looking to make a deal for a potentially undervalued asset.
The Not-Yet Group
These are players who are similar to the Nearly Untouchables earlier, but whose value in the long term probably will never get to essential status. They aren’t established enough yet to bring back enough value to ignore the potential ceiling (probably), but also don’t look like as big a risk — I should probably say “risk” — to turn into stars you wouldn’t want to deal away under any circumstances.
Paul Dejong, 3B — Dejong exploded out of the gate after being drafted last year, to an extent even Harrison Bader couldn’t really match. This season, he showcased a much more uneven game, particularly early on when the aggressive Double A assignment threatened to swallow him up, but still ended up hitting close to a quarter above league average, based mostly on power production. He’s almost certainly not a star, but......it would really suck to trade him to try and shore up the Zach Duke hole now on the roster, only to realise you moved a 25 homer a year infielder.
Magneuris Sierra, OF — Sierra hasn’t shown the same level of dynamism as he appeared to possess in his minor league player of the year campaign a couple seasons ago, but there’s still reason to hold on to him. He’s probably more Charlie Tilson 2.0 than the Carl Crawford clone one could have dreamed on after 2014, but it’s too early to move him, most likely.
Ronnie Williams, RHP — Williams is coming off a breakout season, one in which he had some up and down performances, but also made real progress in developing his arsenal of pitches. He’s too far away to be Flaherty, and the ceiling isn’t perceived to be extremely high, but he was a project, and shouldn’t be moved until the project looks more complete.
The New Crop — Here, of course, I’m talking about the majority of this year’s draftees. That group of college pitchers above are uniquely suited to being moved, due to demographics and draft position and a bunch of other things, but for the most part the players taken in the draft this June are not yet ready to have real trade value. I’m talking about players like Jeremy Martinez, Dylan Carlson (who almost warranted a separate entry on here), Tommy Edman, Walker Robbins, John Kilichowski, those kinds of players. Next year, some of these players are going to be in one of the other categories, probably either the sweet spot or throw-in types, but for now it’s just too early for them to have established much of what they’re going to be.
Ryan Helsley, RHP — He was a velocity bet coming out of a small school, and while he put up some monster numbers this year at Peoria, it’s probably going to take at least one more stop of those monster sort of numbers before Helsley really begins to establish his value. Personally, I’m very excited about seeing where things go with him, but for now he’s not yet going to be anything more than a throw-in, and I think he’s too intriguing to let go in that sort of capacity just yet.
Eliezer Alvarez, 2B — Potentially the biggest issue regarding Alvarez is the fact he’s listed as a second baseman, and not a shortstop. He’s working on three seasons in a row of very impressive offensive performances, and if he played short those performances would make him an extremely attractive asset. The guy just does nothing but hit. However, even as a middle infielder putting up impressive numbers, Alvarez is a bit of an under the radar player. He probably can’t quite make it at shortstop, isn’t really all that young to be at Low A (he just turned 22, which is still young for the league, but not young for a top prospect), and essentially doesn’t do any one thing so well as to be an undeniable talent. The word ‘tweener’ is going to come up a lot when Alvarez is being discussed. Actually, that’s not true; Alvarez isn’t going to be discussed enough for you to really notice. His value is just too slippery right now to pin down, and so he fits into this not yet category. If he does what he did this season next year at High A, though, count on that to change.
This is the category for players whose values are relatively well established, are not of the calibre prospect to headline a package — or even be the second name in a big group for an elite name — but who could very well be a three or four in a four-player package, or the second guy in a smaller swap. They’re the minor league version of Fernando Salas, in other words. They also are going to just be listed here, rather than getting a mini writeup, due to the time of day, the length of the post, and the relatively modest value they bring to the table. The Cardinals also have quite a few of these players, not all of whom are going to be named here.
- Chris Chinea, 1B/C
- Mike Mayers, RHP
- Trey Nielsen, RHP
- Corey Littrell, LHP (I like him better than this)
- Sam Tuivailala, RHP (ditto)
- Arturo Reyes, RHP
- Ryan Sherriff, LHP
- Patrick Wisdom, 3B
- Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP
- Luke Voit, 1B
- Darren Seferina, 2B
There are plenty of other players I haven’t covered, as I said, but this should give some account of what the Redbirds will be working with this offseason when they start making calls on potential deals. The Cardinals right now have a very deep system, but one still a little light on star power outside of Reyes. That could certainly be in the process of changing, though, with a player like Delvin Perez coming on, and a huge group of college performers coming in this year, one of whom I’ll bet turns into a better prospect than was expected at draft time. (My personal money is on either Kilichowski or Jeremy Martinez.)
For now, the minor league system mirrors the major league club, in that there’s a ton of depth, but perhaps a little less upside than you might like to see. The challenge for Mo and Co. will be to use both the major and minor league breadth and depth of talent to focus and consolidate the roster value, to hopefully increase the big league club’s overall ceiling. Will they be able to do it? Well, that’s an open question at this point. I would like to say yes, definitely. But, I have to admit I have a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, left over from last offseason, and reinforced by how the season just ended played out. I still trust Mozeliak, certainly. But I also want to see better execution this year, and perhaps a little bit of a philosophical shift, too.
The pieces are certainly there to use. Now it’s just a question of figuring out how to use them.