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Exploring the St. Louis Cardinals’ multitude of pitching prospects

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SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay is credited for coining the oft-referenced baseball phrase, "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect," which is more commonly known by its acronym, "TINSTAAPP." As we already know, throwing a baseball overhand is an unnatural biomechanical process. With this in mind, it is not surprising to see so many pitching prospects fail to reach their uninjured potential. TINSTAAPP doesn’t stop at injuries, either, as many times, a young prospect, who dominated in high school and/or college and even carried this performance to the lower levels of the minors, simply cannot replicate his early success when facing stiffer competition higher up in the minor league ladder.

Thus, it is recommended to not get too excited about pitching prospects until the day they don their respective organization’s big league uniform. Fortunately, this is an achievement the Cardinals have enjoyed recently in Michael WachaCarlos Martinez, and briefly, Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney (both are currently injured and unavailable until next season). With two former pitching prospects (one being 24 years old and the other 25 years old) already in the MLB starting rotation and two more injured but hopefully back for 2017, in a vacuum, an outsider could probably come to the conclusion that the Cardinals' farm system is depleted of pitching prospects. Thankfully, this could not be further from the truth.

Prospect Age Level(s) G GS IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Alex Reyes 21 AAA 13 13 59.1 32.1% 11.3% 5.31 3.94
Luke Weaver 22 AA 12 12 77.0 28.6% 3.3% 1.40 2.00
Jack Flaherty 20 A+ 19 19 102.0 21.8% 8.3% 4.06 3.46
Austin Gomber** 22 A+ to AA 19 19 120.2 22.7% 6.0% 2.69 2.73 (A+), 3.07 (AA)
Daniel Poncedeleon 24 AA 22 22 123.0 18.8% 8.6% 3.37 3.82*
Jake Woodford 19 A 17 17 95.0 17.5% 7.1% 2.94 3.90
Sandy Alcantara 20 A to A+ 18 18 92.2 29.1% 11.9% 4.37 3.22 (A), 7.50 (A+)
Junior Fernandez 19 A to A+ 19 16 96.0 17.6% 10.5% 4.50 3.87 (A), 6.34 (A+)
Ronnie Williams 20 A- to A 8 8 53.0 18.5% 3.7% 2.55 2.85*

*does not yet include last night's (8/3/16) start; **placed on the disabled list yesterday

Reyes is the Cardinals' top prospect and has been for two years now depending on who you follow for minor league analysis. Reyes was a Futures Game representative, an appearance in which he flashed his potential on national television. Heck, if Reyes was part of an organization dealing with major MLB injuries (like the Dodgers), he likely would have already been promoted. In mid-season prospect re-ranks, Reyes still finds his name in the top ten of many national lists. While his Triple-A ERA is less than ideal, he is still striking out hitters at a ridiculous rate. His walk rate and innings per start obviously need to be better, but I honestly believe both of these could improve if he began implementing a sinker more frequently (just ask Carlos how that worked for him). Plus, his curveball, while downright nasty at times, could become more consistent through a minor mechanical adjustment.

Reyes' hype aside, the gap between #1 Reyes and #2 Weaver is not nearly as wide as it once was, and one minor league source told me that Weaver "might be better in the long run than Reyes." To fully appreciate Weaver's rise through the system -- he was promoted to Triple-A yesterday -- one must revisit the red baron's review of the Weaver selection back on draft day in 2014. Again, TINSTAAP applies no matter how effortless a given prospect's rise has been, but Weaver's performance thus far has been much brighter than RB's gloomy outlook on the pick. Having watched my fair share of Weaver starts, I cannot help but see the 2013 version of Michael Wacha, with even better fastball command. His fastball-changeup combination is already deadly (helping provide a solid floor), but his ceiling will be determined by the progress of his breaking ball. Look no further than this MiLB.com video to get a glimpse of Weaver's ability to paint the corner with his fastball.

Next on the list to consider is Flaherty, who was a supplemental first round pick in the same 2014 draft as Weaver. To be fair, one should track Flaherty's progress independently of Weaver's because he was drafted out of high school (as opposed to being in the ACC with Florida State), and it was well known that it would take some time before he was big-league ready. Thus, despite being two levels behind his draft mate Weaver, Flaherty, at 20 years of age and having dealt with a few injuries already in his young career, is right where he should be in High-A Palm Beach. Frankly, he is probably ahead of where I imagined he'd be at this time. Many high school pitchers have trouble with control early in their professional careers, and Flaherty has done a decent job with it, posting a walk rate of 8.3% through 102.0 innings this season. In order to harness command, you must first conquer control, and Flaherty appears well on his way here. Mix in his plus changeup and slider, and you have a really interesting 20-year-old pitching prospect to talk about.

Excluding Weaver (who had a terrific 2015 season prior to 2016's gem thus far), Gomber has been the most consistent pitching prospect in the entire Cardinals' farm system. His ability to go deep into games on a regular basis is unusual for minor league pitchers. For Gomber, it all starts with fastball command. The fastball will not overpower hitters, but pick a corner, and he will hit it. It helps that he provides a good Q&A as well. Happiness aside, Gomber was placed on the disabled list yesterday, and at the time of publishing, I have not yet seen a reason behind the transaction. This could be TINSTAAPP occurring before our very eyes.

Update: Gomber was placed on the disabled list for nothing related to his shoulder/elbow. A minor finger injury will keep him from throwing for roughly one week.

Poncedeleon possesses arguably the best name in baseball, and at 24 years of age, his time as a legitimate prospect may soon be dwindling, even if he was drafted only two years ago. Given Poncedeleon's age (24), current level (Double-A), MLB rotation ages (Wacha, 25, and Martinez, 24), and the pitchers ahead of him on the prospect chart, his MLB future likely comes in a long-relief role. There is value in long-relief, but obviously not as much value as a starting pitcher.

Where to start with Woodford? Just as I have been on the Gomber train since draft day, I have been on board with Woodford since his supplemental first round selection (#39 overall) last season. The red baron is a bit more bearish on Woodford than I am, but I am a sucker for a pitcher who is able to command his fastball, particularly a sinking one. His secondary offerings absolutely need work as they will be a vital component to leading to more swing-and-miss stuff. It's hard to get excited about a below average 17.5% strikeout rate, but he does a good job at suppressing home runs by keeping balls in play on the ground.

Finally, the trio of young fireballers in Fernandez, Alcantara, and Williams. Fernandez possesses the most notoriety of the three as he is the youngest and was included at number nine in Baseball America's preseason Cardinals' top ten prospect list. Yet, beyond the halfway point of the 2016 season, the furthest along of the three has to be Alcantara, who has posted a strikeout rate of nearly 30% at essentially the same level of competition as Fernandez (17.6%). Williams made his full-season debut last night with the Peoria Chiefs and shined over 6.2 innings, allowing one earned run while tallying one walk and seven strikeouts. The rest of 2016 will simply be about staying healthy as the organization will probably start winding down their respective workloads with 2017 and beyond in mind.

Bottom Line

Despite the constant threat of TINSTAAP and graduations to the majors, the Cardinals' future is in good hands when reviewing their current pitching prospects. The trade deadline has already passed, but you cannot help but wonder how many calls John Mozeliak fielded regarding the pitchers listed above. Should Gonzales and Cooney return to health, the Cardinals could have 11 legitimate pitching prospects to rave about come 2017, and that's before bringing up their 2016 draft picks in Dakota Hudson (#34 overall), Connor Jones (Round 2), and Zac Gallen (Round 3).