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Viva El Birdos 2017 Top Prospects List, Part One: Six Who Just Missed

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The first half of the just-missed prospect roundup for 2017.

College World Series - Vanderbilt v Virginia - Game One Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, your attention please. The time has come for us to speak of things large and small, good and ungood, important and trivial, precious and common. It is time, if you can believe another year has so quickly and easily slipped from our collective grasp, to talk of prospects.

Specifically, today we begin our tallying of the top prospects in the Cardinals’ system, counting down toward number one. Admittedly, the countdown will probably lack some drama and suspense this year, given that roughly 99.99% of Cardinal fans already know who the top prospect in the system is (spoiler alert: his name is Alex, and he’s been debated in terms of trade rumours pretty much non-stop this offseason), but hey, life’s a journey, not a destination, right? Or so I was told by Aerosmith during that strange 1993-1994 period when they were writing almost entirely power ballads and showcasing Alicia Silverstone in their videos, and I was thirteen years old and way into all of those things.

But I digress. (Of course I digress; hi, I’m Aaron, have we met?) We are beginning prospect season proper here today, and over the course of probably the next month, I will publish five more pieces regarding the Cards’ system. Today, we’re looking at players who just missed making my list of 26 (and yes, it’s 26 because I was planning on 25 and once again forgot a player until I had already written up so many other I just wedged him in rather than discard a scouting report). I’m doing six today; the other six will come out Wednesday. Originally, I had planned on all twelve just-missed guys being in one post, but then it started to get long. So, two halves. I will then break the list proper into three parts, and follow those up with a post considering some of the broader points regarding the system and its place in the game.

To that end, I am delighted to announce that our two most prominent minor league writers, Josey Curtis and ebo, have both agreed to provide me with their own lists, in order to get some further prospectives on the players in the system. They won’t be doing huge breakdowns of players the way I will be here, but the differences in order and any notes they wish to provide as time goes on should help to make the offseason prospect coverage a little less one-dimensional. So thank you to both of them for providing their own expertise and time to this project. Their lists, along with my final tally, will all be presented as part of that wrap-up post down the line a bit.

But enough preliminaries. Today I’ll be writing about those prospects who didn’t quite make the list, but I feel are too good, or just too interesting, to not highlight at all. I originally had planned on doing ten of these players, but as I went on with making the list it grew to an even dozen. I really just can’t help myself. Many of these players are simply so far away from the majors that it’s tough to judge them. Others have track records too short. Others have skillsets that don’t translate to what we might think of as major league ceilings, but still could contribute as pieces of a puzzle, even if they’re limited to being rather small pieces.

I am not ranking the players here, for the record; these names are presented in no particular order at all, beyond the order in which I thought of them and added them to my just-missed section in the word doc where I keep my lists. Distinguishing between the fourteenth and fifteenth best prospects in a system is hard enough on its own; at the top of a system, you can usually draw some conclusions about who belongs ahead of whom. Once you hit a certain point, though, it becomes almost entirely a matter of taste, and that point is well before you get to #33 on a list. Can you still see a difference between, say, #15 and #30? Of course. But the gradations between players become much more subtle, and more difficult to tease out.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I didn’t rank players 27 through 38. I’m simply giving you the guys I believe belong in those spots. Beginning with....

#1: John Kilichowski, LHP

6’5”, 215 lbs; L/L; 17th May 1994

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Coming into the 2016 draft, Kilichowski was one of my favourite players in the entire draft (I wrote about him way too much for most people’s tastes, I would imagine), and when the Cardinals actually called his name with their first pick of the third day — the famous eleventh round, where the rules loosen up a little and risks are taken — I was over the moon. He didn’t disappoint in his first go at pro ball, either, pitching for both State College in short season ball and Peoria (Low A) to close out the season. He missed much of his junior year at Vanderbilt with a spring back injury that kept him off the field just long enough he had a hard time pitching his way back into regular duty, but showed no ill effects of the injury after being drafted.

He did show a bit of rust out of the gate in the New York-Penn League, walking more hitters than one would expect, but he tightened that up after moving up to Peoria. Pitching in Low A as a 21 year old, Kilichowski struck out 23.1% of the batters he faced, maintained a miniscule 3% walk rate, and overall put up an outstanding 1.07 WHIP. A touch of homeritis and a low strand rate in the exceedingly small sample pushed his ERA up a tad, but still, this was an excellent debut for the lefty.

As for stuff, Kilichowski works around 90-92 with his fastball, touching 94 or even 95 at times, and peppers the bottom of the zone with solid sink on the pitch. It’s probably just a 50 pitch, but the command stands out and helps it play up. Kilichowski throws three distinct offspeed pitches — changeup, slider, and curveball — and on a given day any of the three could be his best. The change was his most consistently good offering during Vandy’s 2015 college world series run, of which Kilichowski was a big part, but I’ve seen his slider flash real 60 potential at times as well. Suffice to say, at this point Kilichowski is a four-pitch lefty whose breadth of offerings is more potent than any one pitch on its own. Combine that with an arm action I think is pretty great, a cerebral approach to pitching, and above-average command already, and you have a player who could rocket up this list next season if he performs the way I expect him to.

Player Comp: Take your pick of polished, mid-velocity lefties to compare Kilichowski to. Cliff Lee is the absolute ideal of this mold of pitcher, in terms of extreme low-walk guys with several good but not overwhelming offerings, but he’s more an aspirational figure than a realistic comp.

via the Prospect Pipeline:

#2: Rowan Wick, RHP

6’3”, 225 lbs; L/R; 9th November 1992

So, what’s so great about this guy?

A couple years ago, Rowan Wick was my prediction as the breakout player of the system, back when he was still in short-season ball and mashing dingers. I predicted we would be hearing his name a lot in a couple years.

Well, I was sort of right; we hear his name a whole lot more now than we did back in 2014 or whenever that was. So I get, like, half credit or something, right?

Admittedly, Wick’s career path has been very different than I expected; I thought he would move up in the system as a high-strikeout, high-walk, big-power slugger, sort of a Chris Davis-y figure. Unfortunately for Wick, his contact abilities simply didn’t hold up, and his power suffered as a result. The walks fell off, too, as higher level pitchers figured out how to exploit the holes in his swing.

So now Rowan Wick, former catcher, former slugger, has moved to the mound, where he features a 94-97 mph fastball and a big curveball with great shape and movement that occasionally gets too big and slow for its own good. In his first real season as a pitcher, Wick dominated at High A, slowed down at Double A, and struggled badly in the Arizona Fall League. Some of that could very well have been a result of fatigue, as he had never thrown for a full season before, but the concerns over his control that popped up as the year went on were still legitimate.

Wick’s path forward is relatively simple: he needs to hone his command, maintain his stuff over a long period of pitching, and sharpen the curve. The stuff is already there for him to be an effective late-inning reliever at the big league level; it’s mostly just fine-tuning that he needs at this point.

Player Comp: A big-bodied power reliever with an overhand curve, instead of a slider. Bobby Jenks comes to mind as a decent comp stylistically, as does the pre-cutter experiment version of Sam Tuivailala. Obviously, there’s a wide range there in terms of success, but that’s the look of the repertoire.

#3: Jordan Hicks, RHP

6’2”, 185 lbs; R/R; 6th September 1996

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Hicks was a mid-round gamble in the 2015 draft, a projectable high school arm that already flashed some premium velocity. He ended up missing the rest of 2015 with a sore shoulder, as well as a healthy dose of organisational caution, but showed no ill effects this year, leading one to hope it was simply a matter of an eighteen year old kid wearing down after pushing hard in his draft year.

The results haven’t really been there yet for Hicks, but the stuff certainly showed up this season. His velocity was a bit up and down throughout the year, and dropped a bit in August — again, not unusual for a pitcher just starting out his career — but at his best Hicks would flash velocity up to 97 with hard, nasty sinking action. I saw only a few brief outings, but there were occasions in those outings I could see a 70 grade fastball peeking its head out. Of course, that was not at all consistent, but the flashes I saw were very exciting. He sports a hard curve that’s pretty good, if a bit too firm and slurvy, and it should be average or a tick above down the line. I saw very little evidence of a changeup, though for what it’s worth other people have reported he showed a developing change. I’m sure he’s working on it, and hopefully it gets there. For now, though, he’s a premium fastball/40-45 curve pitcher whose stuff is still good enough overall to keep him as a starter.

Hicks has a long, long way to go, even though he did reach State College (the higher of two short-season levels the Cardinals field), at just nineteen this year. The raw material, though, is as good as just about any pitcher in the system.

Player Comp: Joe Kelly isn’t a terrible comp, as another power sinker guy whose stuff doesn’t translate to as many strikeouts as you might think. (The starter version of Kelly, that is.) Henderson Alvarez comes to mind as well.

via Alec Dopp:

#4: John Gant, RHP

6’5”, 200 lbs; R/R; 6th August 1992

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Gant was the biggest piece received in return for Jaime Garcia from the Braves, and honestly, probably deserves to be on the list proper instead of included here. However, I started the list before the trade was made, and honestly didn’t feel like reordering things and trying to fit Gant in. So, he gets a mention here as the one piece of that deal I’m actually optimistic about contributing in a meaningful way.

Plenty has already been written about Gant, so I’ll keep this short: he has a fastball with slightly above-average velocity that nonetheless gets swings and misses, as well as popups, at the top of the zone. I love the changeup, would rather just be friends with the curve. As he is now, Gant could probably fill a spot at the back of a rotation just fine, but I’m intrigued by how his four seam/changeup combo could play up in the bullpen. He’s one of those pitchers I think would actually be better pitching from the navel to the letters with the fastball, rather than trying to work down in the zone as is usually the plan, and leaning on the changeup, say, 30% of the time. At least, that would be my plan, just to see how it would work. (A quick note on the change: it’s almost a forkball, in terms of the way Gant throws it and the action on the pitch. I like it a lot.)

Player Comp: The stuff for Gant isn’t dissimilar to that of Jake Odorizzi; the issue is that Gant hasn’t yet been able to hone his command to that level. (And Odorizzi himself continues to suffer from elevated home run totals, keeping him from ascending to that next level I believe he could still attain. The perils of extreme flyball pitchers.)

via MLB:

#5: Andrew Knizner, C/INF

6’1”, 200 lbs; R/R; 3rd February 1995

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Two words: plate and discipline. Knizner was part of an interesting subtheme of Randy Flores’s first draft as Cardinal scouting director, in that there was a group of college hitters drafted — including two who appear on the list this year — whose primary tool was an extremely advanced approach to hitting. Betting on college players with good hit tools is nothing new to the Cardinals; after all, this is the organisation of both Allen Craig and Matt Adams. But the seeming emphasis on patience and discipline? That’s an interesting wrinkle, even if we’ve seen guys like Matt Carpenter and Mike O’Neill come through before.

Knizner caught a fair amount in college, but there are questions about his glove back there, so perhaps third base is in his future. He’s shown an ability to play multiple positions in the past, so perhaps he’s a bit of a Paul DeJong-style bet on versatility, as well. It’s the bat that stood out in his pro debut, though, and that’s probably going to be his carrying tool going up the ladder.

He wasn’t quite as absurdly patient and disciplined as Tommy Edman or Jeremy Martinez, the other two college bats who most fit this mold of player I’m discussing, but Knizner still managed, in his first taste of professional pitching, to post an even split of walks and strikeouts (9.5% K and BB rate, respectively), and showcased a bit of a power stroke to go along with it. (.173 ISO) Overall, he put up a .319/.423/.492 line good for a 156 wRC+ at Johnson City this year, and played mostly behind the plate. He also threw out 75% of would-be basestealers, but take that number with a grain of salt, given the lack of discipline in baserunning in the low minors. He appeared at third base, first, and DH as well, as is often the case in short-season ball, where players are moving around constantly just to get them playing time.

Knizner’s a decent athlete, but not an outstanding one. He’s going to advance based on his bat and what position he can play. If it turns out there’s any chance he can catch even part-time, his value would take a big jump upward. If he’s forced from behind the plate to an infield corner, though, the bat is going to have a whole lot more pressure placed on it.

Player Comp: The best case scenario for Knizner probably looks something like a Mike Napoli-type player, as a high on-base hitter who can either play a passable catcher or a plus first base. Maybe Knizner trades power for more contact, but the patience and positional flexibility makes him very intriguing. It’s also possible he gets on base at a decent clip, but the power doesn’t come and he’s stuck as a below-average bat limited to non-premium defensive spots. Where Knizner plays defensively in 2017 will tell us a lot about what the Cardinals plan on trying to do with him.

via Pack Nine:

#6: Johan Oviedo, RHP

6’6”, 210 lbs; R/R; 2nd March 1998

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Oviedo was part of the Cards’ huge overslot international period spending spree this past summer, and might very well be the player with the highest ceiling they grabbed. That’s debatable, of course; Victor Garcia has monster power potential, Carlos Soto has big power potential and is a catcher to boot, and Oviedo’s Cuban countryman Randy Arozarena has a wide base of tools that could make him an extremely intriguing center field option down the road. But Oviedo’s stuff is absolutely undeniable, and every bit as big as he is.

He flew under the radar prior to the July 2nd signing period; I admit I had barely heard the name before the Cardinals signed him. In fact, I think I had seen him on just one follow list somewhere or other, but I don’t recall where. I’ve also, to date, only seen about three minutes worth of video on Oviedo (whose name is nearly an anagram of video, he said very proud of how smart he is), so my impression is, admittedly, very limited.

That being said, my very limited impression is basically WOW! Or at least wow without the capitals, if you want a more conservative assessment.

The fastball sits around 95, touching 98, and it’s one of those that just....gets there. I don’t know how else to describe it. Part of it is the fact that Oviedo is 6’6” and gets out in front of the rubber very well in his delivery, giving him excellent extension, but there’s also just something about his heater that looks even faster than it is. It has nice, riding life up in the zone, and hitters didn’t seem to have much luck catching up from what little I saw. I didn’t see him work down much, and I assume that at his current level of competition he’s comfortable just challenging (and beating), hitters in the heart of the plate. He’ll have to adjust that approach at higher levels, of course, but the quality of stuff is such he should be able to maintain his aggression even up the ladder.

I saw a couple curveballs from Oviedo, and there’s the potential of a real hammer there. Again, his size and extension help, as he finishes off the pitch way out in front and generates what looks like tremendous spin. It’s not Alex Reyes level yet, but it’s a pretty impressive pitch for an eighteen year old all the same. I haven’t seen any changeups, so I can’t grade the pitch. I’m hoping to get some more video of him relatively soon. (I have some feelers out.)

I assume there are reasons Oviedo was so lightly hyped before July 2 this year, but at this point I’m a little confused. His size and stuff should have made him an extremely coveted asset, and the fact he absolutely dominated the Dominican Summer League after signing (he struck out a full third of all hitters he faced in the DSL, while walking just under 7%), speaks to him being relatively advanced compared to other 16-18 year old Latin players. Perhaps he didn’t look as good being scouted ahead of time, or perhaps an in-flux Cuban situation complicated the process with some of these guys. Regardless, I’m thrilled so far to have him in the Cardinals’ system, and I think there’s a chance he could end up a huge steal among the international players signed this year.

Obviously, the track record is so short he was hard to rank, and that’s why Oviedo shows up here, rather than on the list itself. It will be interesting to see if the organisation pushes him to begin 2017 with a full-season assignment; I think he could jump into the Midwest League right now and not be overwhelmed. Next year at this time I think we’ll know far more about what the Cards may or may not have in this exciting young Cuban arm.

And that’s half of the just-missed list, everybody. I really need to try and keep these shorter, but those little 50-word blurbs many other prospect writers are able to concoct seem to elude me most of the time.

See you Wednesday with some more marginal prosects.