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The Cardinals’ options for the Arizona Fall League

Which future Cardinals will play in the annual league this year?

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The minor league seasons are getting close to wrapping up. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to continue following Cardinals prospects. The Cardinals will send a handful of high minors players to the Arizona Fall League, which starts in October and goes into November. There, they will get extra developmental time, and perhaps just as important, we get more time to follow their development.

The Cardinals, probably like most teams, seem to send players to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for three reasons. First, they do so to get their prospects more time against advanced competition. Sometimes that’s because a player was injured for part of the regular season, sometimes it’s for extra work after a rocky season, sometimes it’s just to get a close-to-MLB ready prospect more developmental time before a possible call up the next year.

Second, the Cardinals tend to send players that they see as possible organizational players or the last man in the bullpen. By organizational players, I mean players that may be on the 40-man roster, but don’t spend much time on the 25-man roster except in the case of injury.

Here’s a VEB piece last year previewing the 2015 AFL. The writer also broke down who the Cardinals have sent over the years. Here’s who they eventually sent last year. Last year embodies the team’s strategy pretty well. They sent Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver as top prospects with excellent seasons to get more developmental time. Aledmys Diaz was picked as well after finishing the season hot. Patrick Wisdom made it as the struggling prospect.

There were the organizational guys as well. Robbie Rowland and Dean Keikhefer both were there get time against advanced competition, perhaps for purpose of evaluating how they might do at the big league level. Mike Ohlman was perhaps there to get a better look at if he could be a big-league back-up catcher. The Cardinals answer to that appears to be "no".

If you look at the last three years, a third reason might jump out at you. James Ramsey was sent in 2013. Tyrell Jenkins played in 2014. Charlie Tilson played in 2015. You might say that the Cardinals try to showcase prospects in the Arizona Fall League. Perhaps these were all just players the Cardinals wanted to see against advanced competition, and those three just happened to be players they wanted to trade after seeing them against advanced competition. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Anyway, with the League around the corner, who might the Cardinals send this year? Here are the players I think have the best chances to go:

The Next Wave

The best bets to go to the AFL are the team’s top prospects who might contribute to the big league club in the following season. Not including Reyes and Weaver, who are now with the big league team, that to me means three players:

Harrison Bader, outfielder (age 22)

AA: 6.4 BB%, 25.2 K%, .205 ISO, .352 BABIP, 141 wRC+ (314 PA).

AAA: 7.0 BB%, 23.6 K% .126 ISO, .291 BABIP, 75 wRC+ (157 PA).

Evaluating Bader’s ability to contribute in 2017 should be a big priority for the team. The Cardinals could lose Dinger Master and corner outfielder Brandon Moss to free agency, and also have a $16M decision to make on whether to bring back Matt Holliday.

There’s also Randal Grichuk’s 2016 numbers and the confusing way he’s been handled this year. If the team thinks Bader can add stability to the changing outfield picture, it would allow them to be conservative in the coming weak free agent market. Bader of course hasn’t been as productive at Triple-A as he was at Double-A, but his strikeout and walks numbers are marginally better, which is nice to see.

Paul Dejong, infielder (age 23)

AA: 7.4 BB%, 26.6 K%, .199 ISO, .300 BABIP, 115 wRC+ (511 PA)

Dejong was drafted last year along with Bader, and the two skipped High-A to start the year in Double-A. Paul is still at Double-A, perhaps because his numbers haven’t been as great as Bader's, but also perhaps because there’s less need to rush him while the MLB team’s infield situation is so crowded. Also like Bader, Dejong’s primary problems at Double-A have been in the strikeout and walk department, though he showed better results before the jump.

Dejong is less likely than Harrison to contribute in 2017, but as one of the Cardinals’ few legitimate high-minors position player prospects, it’s hard not to see the Cardinals not giving him more developmental time in October.

Carson Kelly, catcher (age 22)

AA: 5.9 BB%, 19.5 K%, .116 ISO, .339 BABIP, 114 wRC+ (236 PA).

AAA: 9.2 BB%, 13.8 K%, .082 ISO, .349 BABIP, 101 wRC+ (109 PA).

I’ve been trying not to, but I have to say I’m getting kind of excited about Kelly. Likely hampered by learning the very challenging position of catcher, Kelly’s offensive game hasn’t exactly been breathtaking in his time as a professional. He’s currently posting his best year at the plate though, and his Double-A line looks a lot better when broken down by month:

Offense tends to come late for catchers, likely because of all the developmental time that goes into learning the position. Scouts rave about his defense, so he doesn’t have to hit all that much to be productive. The Cardinals still have two controllable years of Yadier Molina, and I imagine they’ll want Kelly to spend a lot of time around Yadi in that time.

Potential Starting Pitchers

Jack Flaherty: Right-handed starting pitcher (age 20)

High-A: 8.48 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, 3.24 FIP (121 IP).

Flaherty is definitely who I’d like to see in the AFL as the Cardinals’ appointed starter. Each team can send two players below Double-A, so for Flaherty to go he would have to be one of them. After Reyes and Weaver have been promoted however, he’s probably the best pitching prospect left in terms of talent and proximity to the majors.

He hasn’t exactly dominated High-A, but he’s pitched well. He’s also only 20, and should be more than ready to take on Double-A in 2017 as a 21 year-old. Give him some extra developmental time this year, and perhaps he ends up being an option at the big league level in the second half of 2017. You can never have enough pitching.

Austin Gomber: Left-handed starting pitcher (age 23)

High-A: 8.44 K/9, 2.01 BB/9, 2.75 FIP (107.2 IP).

AA: 5.54 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 3.07 FIP (13 IP).

Typically, each team only sends one starting pitcher. Last year the Cardinals sent two in Weaver and Reyes, but that was a rare exception. If the Cardinals decide not to send Flaherty, they’ll probably send Gomber. Gomber isn’t a better prospect than Flaherty, but he did have a slightly better season on a rate basis at High-A this year, and he’s had two starts at Double-A.

Potential bullpen pieces

Of course, the Cardinals’ pen has been a bit of a mess this season. These players listed here shouldn't exactly be expcted solve that problem. Still, there are a few interesting relief arms that have climbed the minor league ranks this year, and if they keep it up, they could end up pitching on the big league club in 2017. For that reason, they could see time in Arizona this fall.

Rowan Wick: Right-handed relief pitcher (age 23)

High-A: 13.50 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 0.97 FIP (24.2 IP)

AA: 9.22 K/9, 7.90 BB/9, 4.91 FIP (13.2 IP).

Wick carved up High-A, but Double-A hitters have not been as susceptible, as he’s walking a 2016 Rosenthallian amount of hitters over his first 13 23 innings. That’s a small sample though, and I bet the Cards will want to get one of their latest conversion projects more developmental time this fall.

Joshua Lucas, Right-handed relief pitcher (age 25)

AA: 10.28 K/9, 2.09 B/9, 2.82 FIP (51.2 IP).

AAA: 5.06 K/9, 5.06 BB/9, 4.29 FIP (5.1 IP).

He may already be 25, but Lucas still pitched impressively in Double-A this year. Maybe his 2016 is just a flash in the pan, or maybe he ends up giving the Cardinals some cromulent seasons out of the bullpen at the league minimum.

Kevin Herget, Right-handed relief pitcher (age 25)

High-A: 8.22 K/9, 0.39 BB/9, 1.68 FIP (23 IP).

AA: 10.47 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 2.23 FIP (32.2 IP).

Like Lucas, you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Kevin Herget before. He’s also 25, and has mowed down both High-A and Double-A batters this year.

Again, like Lucas, maybe 2016 is just the highlight of his professional career. Or maybe, he ends up contributing at some point at the big leagues. You can’t really get excited about these types of guys, but they could matter at some point. To get a little closer to the truth, the Cardinals can see how these two do against tougher competition.

Corey Littrell, left-handed reliever (age 24)

AA: 8.04 K/9, 0.57 BB/9, 3.22 FIP (15.2 IP).

AAA: 8.94 K/9, 4.56 BB/9, 4.82 FIP (49.1 IP).

Littrell hasn’t set the world on fire in the minors, but he’s generally posted good numbers. He’s had a walk problem in Triple-A though. His claim to fame might forever be being the other piece of the John Lackey-Allen Craig-Joe Kelly trade, but expect the Cardinals to give him more time to work on things this fall.

These are my guesses, what are yours? I love the Arizona Fall League, because it feels like each year we see another piece of future Cardinals teams. Who will that be this year?