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Viva El Birdos 2017 Top Prospects List, Part Five

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We finish up our countdown today with the tops of the pops, prospect-wise.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Here it is, folks, the fifth and final installment in our annual Viva El Birdos top prospects list. The nine best prospects in the Cardinal system, all broken down and written up for your edification and enjoyment. Considering how long this bastard turned out to be, I’m going to dispense with the intro.

So enjoy, and get edified.

#9: Sandy Alcantara, RHP

6’4”, 170 lbs; R/R; 7 September 1995

Relevant Stats: 29.8% K/11.3% BB (Peoria), 25.4% K/10.5% BB (Palm Beach)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

We kick off the home stretch of our prospect countdown with one of the biggest risers from this time last year. Heading into 2016, Alcantara was a tall, willowy slinger with plus arm strength and not a whole lot else. He had shown an ability to spin the ball, but his breaker had yet to really define itself. Likewise, he would occasionally show an intriguing changeup, but the ratio of quality to...well, something less than quality with the pitch was not good.

The 2015 numbers for the lanky fireballer were solid; he didn’t strike out a ton of hitters, posting just a 19.1% K rate in the Gulf Coast League (it was his first season stateside), but also mostly pitching within the strike zone, as he limited walks to the tune of 7.5% free passes handed out. So relatively good control of a high-octance fastball, not much command yet, and not any really dependable offspeed pitches. That’s not at all bad in terms of raw materials with which to start.

I have to admit, given that profile, I was surprised to see the Cardinals jump Alcantara so aggressively to begin 2016, pushing him all the way up to full-season Peoria. It felt like a challenge promotion, in much the same way the organisation had challenged Magneuris Sierra with a Peoria assignment in early 2015. Fortunately, Alcantara’s challenge went much, much better than Sierra’s.

What we saw from Alcantara this past season was remarkable, as he moved up to a much, much tougher level of competition, and showed an ability to dominate. He missed bats at a much higher rate than he had before, and the stuff began to take shape into something extremely exciting. The downside of his 2016 stat line was an increase in walks — a fairly significant one, in fact — but that is perhaps unsurprising, given the change in approach. The process of beginning to develop those secondary pitches into real weapons required Alcantara to throw them more, and while he certainly missed more bats in doing so, he also worked out of the strike zone more often. It’s all just part of the process. The next step will be to move back into the zone while maintaining that ability to miss bats when he wants to.

As far as stuff goes, Alcantara doesn’t take a back seat to really anyone in the Cards’ system, including Alex Reyes, who sits atop this list for a second consecutive year. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) The repertoire starts with pure power, in the form of a fastball that tops out in the triple digits, and sits mostly 94-98. Alcantara doesn’t have great movement on the heater, but also doesn’t necessarily need it.

In 2015, the fastball velocity was the selling point, and it was really the only selling point. He threw hard, and that was that. This season, though, the overall arsenal started to really take shape. Alcantara throws both a changeup and breaking ball, with the change flashing average potential, and probably being slightly more consistent than the breaker. What his breaking ball lacks in consistency, though, it makes up for in potential, as he’s capable of snapping off a wide slurve with two-plane break at times that grades out as a potential plus pitch at its best.

It’s more of a curveball at this point, still, but Alcantara’s slightly low, slingy arm slot makes me think he might be better off with a true slider. I generally prefer curveballs over sliders, believing the mechanics of throwing the curve are much less risky, but Alcantara’s arm slot makes it difficult for him to consistently get on top of the ball. A slider might fit him better, and the tighter break could be devastating.

It’s not hard to look at Alcantara, squint slightly, and see a future 70 fastball, 60 breaking ball (particularly if he were to go to a slider), and 45-50 changeup. With just even average command, you’d be talking about a high-end #3 sort of starter, and if things come together into anything better than average, the sky is the limit.

Player Comp: With his three-quarter delivery, premium velocity, and potential for a wipeout breaking ball, Alcantara calls to mind early-career Max Scherzer a bit. The refinements Scherzer has made to his game in becoming one of the three to five best pitchers in all of baseball are exactly the sorts of developmental steps one can dream on for the lanky Dominican.

via Nathan Graham:

#8: Junior Fernandez, RHP

6’0”, 180 lbs; R/R; 2 March 1997

Relevant Stats: 18.8% K (Peoria), 12.5% K (Palm Beach)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara are almost inextricably linked right now, and probably will be for awhile, in the minds of Cardinal prospect geeks. Their careers have exactly mirrored each other’s in terms of level so far, and they’ve become the faces of the next great wave of pitching talent heading toward St. Louis. Which one of them you prefer is a matter of taste, although Alcantara’s performance in 2016 probably pushed him ahead for most people.

In Alcantara’s favour is his size, slightly better velocity, and a breaking ball that at least flashes plus at times. On Fernandez’s side of the ledger is greater athleticism, an arm action I tend to like better, superior fastball movement, and one secondary pitch that projects better than anything Alcantara features.

While Alcantara might have the bigger fastball, Fernandez’s heater isn’t exactly chopped liver, featuring velocity in a similar 93-97 range. Where Alcantara’s fastball tends to be a bit straight at times, though, Fernandez generates hard armside run on his that helps him get inside on right-handed hitters and create plenty of weak contact. He doesn’t create a whole lot of plane on the pitch due to his modest stature and a lack of sink, but that running action can be something to behold when he’s on. Considering just the fastballs, I think it’s a wash between the two.

Where the paths diverge — and where the observer will likely find his or her point of emphasis — is in the matter of secondary stuff. Alcantara’s slurve flashes a 60, his changeup a 50. Fernandez, on the other hand, throws a slider that needs a lot of work and is really more of a big cut fastball at this point. He has the arm speed to spin a breaker, without a doubt, but has yet to really show even the potential for a plus breaking ball. What Fernandez has shown, however, is a changeup that every once in awhile looks like a magic trick.

So this is really our point of divergence. We have two pitchers with similarly great fastballs. The one shows two offspeed pitches; one a 60 and the other a potential 50. The other is probably working with a 30 breaking ball right now, but a changeup that will flash 70. So do you prefer the guy who has shown more potentially average or better offerings? Or the guy who has shown two elite pitches and has yet to show much in the way of a third?

Ask me on any given day about Fernandez and Alcantara, and I might flip which I prefer. Today, though, I’ll take the guy with the potential for two elite pitches, even as I have to admit his actual performance in 2016 was not as strong as the other guy. But it’s a very close call, and hopefully I don’t actually have to choose between them as they make their way up the ladder.

Player Comp: Physically, the comp is hard to see, but the high-octance fastball and devastating change combo for Fernandez resembles both the 2013 version of Michael Wacha, and the best version of Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal might actually be the better comp, though he’s also shown a greater variety of pitches when called on to start. It’s easy to see a route for Fernandez that takes him into the bullpen; I hope he gets every chance to develop as a starter first, though.

via Baseball America:

#7: Austin Gomber, LHP

6’5”, 225 lbs; L/L; 23 November 1992

Relevant Stats: 4.21 K:BB ratio, 2.76 FIP (Palm Beach)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Austin Gomber was, honestly, one of the very toughest players for me to rank in this whole exercise. I will admit I’ve never been all that high on him, from the time the Cardinals drafted him out of Florida Atlantic to his borderline meteoric rise through the minor league ranks over the past two season. I look at him, and I don’t see anything all that great. I see a repertoire that’s overall pretty average, an arm action that frankly scares the hell out of me, and just generally a lack of anything concrete upon which to hang my hat.

But here’s the thing: Austin Gomber just gets outs. A lot of them. And at some point, it matters more what kind of results a pitcher gets than how it looks while he’s getting them. Thus, my aggressive ranking of what is probably the most consistent performer in the Cardinals’ system.

Gomber’s repertoire features a fastball in the 89-91 range, mostly, that he locates consistently and creates nice plane on from a high arm slot. Coming out of college, his changeup was his best pitch, but now it’s tossup for me between the change and a really nice overhand curve that he can put in or out of the zone depending on what he needs. The heater is probably no better than a 50, while I could see slapping 55 grades on either or both of the offspeed pitches. All of which sounds just fine, and probably fairly unremarkable, right?

What really sets Gomber apart is his ability to locate all three of his pitches, and what appears to be a high level of deception in his delivery. Hitters just don’t react to his stuff the way you would expect even minor leaguers to react to average stuff. His timing is funky and he hides the ball behind his leg, and batters just seem to struggle picking his stuff up. Even in the Arizona Fall League this year, baseball’s version of finishing school for prospects, Gomber was consistently getting off-balance swings from the best hitters in the minors, en route to posting a 2.14 ERA in 33.2 AFL innings.

Both Alcantara and Fernandez have higher ceilings than Gomber, not to mention someone like Dakota Hudson whom we saw further back on this list. But Gomber made it to Double A this season, excelled in the AFL, and just might open 2017 in Triple A.

Results matter. And that’s why Austin Gomber is here.

Player Comp: The delivery isn’t quite as funky, but the multiple average offerings and deceptive delivery from a big lefty frame are a little reminiscent of Dontrelle Willis. Not as delightfully goofy to watch, mind you, but that’s the sort of funk we’re talking about.

via Aaron Thorn:

#6: Delvin Perez, SS

6’2”, 165 lbs; R/R; 24 November 1998

Relevant Stats: .294/.352/.393, 123 wRC+ (GCL), 12/13 SB, 17 y/o

So, what’s so great about this guy?

How many times over the past half dozen years have you, as a Cardinal fan, looked enviously at those elite shortstop prospects percolating up through other teams’ systems? The Carlos Correas, Francisco Lindors, Manny Machados. Those kinds of players. The Cardinals never get those kinds of players, it seems, at least not on the positional side of things, where the elite of the elite are gone within the first half of the first round of the draft, and tend to sign for big dollars from just a handful of hyper-aggressive clubs internationally. The Redbirds sign interesting but lower-profile players and bet one exciting arms. Which tends to work out just fine, of course, but we rarely see one of those monster position player prospects come through the system.

Well, have you met Delvin Perez?

I’m sure everyone remembers the circumstances surrounding Perez in the spring leading up to the draft; if not, the short version is this: he came into the year a first-rounder, seen as an elite glove but questionable bat shortstop prospect, then took off with the bat early on, in addition to showing signs of beginning to grow into his ultra-projectable frame. Just a couple days before the draft, though, it came out he had failed a test for PEDs, and his stock fell as both moralisers and skeptics looked askance at him. The Cardinals popped him at 22 in the draft, and he hit nearly 25% better than league average as an absurdly young seventeen year old making his debut in the Gulf Coast League.

Cool story, huh?

Setting aside any concerns one might have about his character — and I would say now, as I said at the time of the draft, that judging a kid trying to maximise the one chance he knows he’ll have in his life to get paid and potentially escape a very rough upbringing in a not so nice part of Puerto Rico is the very worst kind of ivory tower moralising, and I’m still disgusted by Harold Reynolds’s reaction to the whole thing — Delvin Perez is the kind of tools monster the Cardinals simply do not get a chance to draft very often, sitting toward the bottom of the first round as they almost always do. Now, admittedly, those character concerns have their place in any evaluation of his potential; a player willing to take the easy way once might do so again. But for my part, I’m not worried.

As for the physical part of the package, rather than the nebulous character part, there isn’t another player in the Cards’ system with the kind of tools and upside Perez possesses. He’s got two 70s on the card already, in his speed and arm strength, and while his glove certainly needs work in the consistency department, there’s a potential plus-plus fielder waiting to be born here.

On the offensive side of the ledger, Perez already shows a good feel to hit, and his speed plays just as well on the bases as it does in the field. He has power potential, but potential is all it really is at this point. How much power he will or will not hit for we’ll just have to wait and see as he grows and fills out physically.

Make no mistake, everybody; I’m ranking Perez number six because he has less than 200 plate appearances in his professional career, and those came at the lowest level of the minors, but this is the guy with the highest ceiling in the entire system, most likely. One could argue for Alex Reyes as a potential ace starter, or Carson Kelly as an incredibly difficult to find commodity behind the plate, but Perez, if it all comes together, is that sort of premium positional talent the Cardinals almost never seem to get.

Player Comp: Perez isn’t a switch-hitter, but his overall package of tools is very similar to Francisco Lindor.

via Baseball Factory:

#5: Jack Flaherty, RHP

6’4”, 205 lbs; R/R; 15 October 1995

Relevant Stats: 134 IP, 22.3% K, 8.0% BB, 3.20 FIP (Palm Beach)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It’s been very strange, seeing some of the prospect lists come out this offseason with Jack Flaherty’s name considerably lower than I expected. The Baseball America list, compiled by Derrick Goold, was particularly low on the California righty, dropping him out of their top ten entirely. Following the list’s release, Goold said something to the effect of, “at some point, projection has to actually become reality,” or something like that.

I have to admit, I really don’t get what the BA people were looking for out of Flaherty, and completely disagree with that assessment. Of course, I’m also probably just reading too much into a fairly innocuous statement on Flaherty, but it makes a handy jumping-off point for my own writeup on him, so I’m going to take the opportunity.

Admittedly, 2016 did not start off the way Flaherty or the Cardinals probably would have planned it. He had one disastrous start in April, a lot of what looks like shitty batted-ball luck in general, and by the end of May he was cruising with an ERA close to 6.00. It looked like High A, pitcher-friendly league and all, was giving young Mr. Flaherty his first real taste of adversity.

And then, from about the end of May ‘til the end of the season, Jack Flaherty was really good. No more, no less. Not surprising. A talented 20 year old pitcher was really good in the Florida State League. And that’s why he’s a top five on my list.

Flaherty passed his previous high in innings pitched by nearly 40 innings this season, struck out nearly a batter per inning, and finished up with an ERA in the mid-3.00s and an FIP that suggested he was actually a little unlucky. Again, what’s not to like?

The stuff for Flaherty is good, occasionally very good, as he works in the low-90s with his fastball, and spots it to the corners well. He’s not a fireballer, but 90-93 with command is still good enough to get outs any day of the week. He features a pair of solid-average offspeed pitches in his slider and changeup, both of which he can throw for strikes or out of the zone if need be. There are no 60s on his card, but there are three potential 55s, and that’s pretty damned good.

The one really disappointing aspect of Flaherty’s development to date, for me, has been his struggle to find a consistent feel for his curveball. Coming out of high school (where he was a two-way star, remember, considered a better third base prospect until about April of his draft year), he was a legit four-pitch guy, with an ability to throw two breaking balls and keep them from bleeding together. To his credit, the curve and slider still don’t bleed together; the curve has just stagnated. He was able to work over a full 20 mph range when he had that curveball working, going from the low 70s to the low 90s, and to me refinding that curve would be a huge boon for him going forward.

Is Flaherty going to be an ace? No, probably not. He doesn’t have that kind of ceiling, unless his command ends up improving a couple grades somewhere along the way. But there’s a very solid #3 starter here, if he can continue to hone his craft and stay healthy. If he could rediscover his curveball, it would push him up even a little higher in my estimation, I think. He’s ready to move up to Double A in his age 21 season, and how he performs on that stage, which has proven to be such a great divide for so many prospects, will give us a much better idea of how close or far away he really is from contributing in St. Louis.

Player Comp: A poor man’s version of James Shields, maybe not quite as far above average, but the same kind of consistent, dependable performer who lacks real flash to his game.

#4: Carson Kelly, C

6’2”, 200 lbs; R/R; 14 July 1994

Relevant Stats: 115 wRC+ (AA), 98 wRC+ (AAA), 135 wRC+ (AFL)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

There’s a funny thing happening with this list. As we get closer to the top, I find I have less to say about the prospects I’m writing about. Of course, I suppose that shouldn’t be completely surprising, given that these players are much, much more well known, and so while I’m still attempting to give proper scouting reports on them, the fact is you know who these guys are, and I don’t need to provide nearly as much background information.

So here’s who Carson Kelly is: he’s the guy who’s likely going to take over for Yadier Molina in the relatively near future. He’s a converted third baseman who was drafted out of an Oregon high school in a town called Beaverton, which happens to be my favourite town in Oregon for completely non-comedic reasons. Coming into the draft, he was noted for his power potential, solid contact abilities, and a big throwing arm at the hot corner that also made him a pitching prospect at one point.

Now, almost five years after being drafted, Kelly is one of the finest defenders behind the plate in the minor leagues, and the sort of studious observer of the game the Cardinals slobber all over themselves in praising. His power is still more potential than anything else at this point, which is somewhat surprising, but his plate approach and contact abilities are both pluses.

He made it to St. Louis this past season, then headed off to the Arizona Fall League and put together a remarkable offensive campaign in which he walked more than three times as often as he struck out, and showed off a little of that power potential. He’s going to head back to Triple A to open the 2017 season, and will continue to hone his craft both behind the plate and at it.

Long story short, we mostly know who Carson Kelly is. He’s the next starting catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, unless things go horribly wrong, and we’re fairly certain he’s going to be pretty good at the catching part of the job. How much the offense comes along remains to be seen, but there are intriguing glimpses of an above-average bat here and there.

Player Comp: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Carson Kelly’s contact-driven profile and high-level defensive skills, not to mention his baseball IQ, are all reminiscent of....Yadier Molina.

#3: Harrison Bader, OF

6’0”, 195 lbs; R/R; 3 June 1994

Relevant Stats: .214 ISO, .349 BABIP, 143 wRC+ (Springfield), All Worse Numbers (Memphis)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I went back and forth endlessly in my head over whether to put Carson Kelly or Harrison Bader higher on this list, and I’m not sure I’ve settled on Bader as the better prospect yet. Considering Kelly plays perhaps the most difficult position to fill in all of baseball, I should probably give him the nod. But, I’m putting Harrison Bader’s multifaceted impact potential at number three, and hoping he doesn’t make me regret it in 2017.

Bader had one of the louder debuts of any 2015 draftee, beating up Low-A competition to the tune of a 152 wRC+. His success was driven by power, an elevated BABIP, and a solid strikeout rate. How much of that would carry forward was one of the bigger question I had about the system in general last year.

To begin 2016, the Cardinals did something unexpected. They pushed Bader, and they pushed him hard. He, along with Paul DeJong, who we’ve already covered in a previous volume of this now-voluminous list, were both assigned to Double-A Springfield to begin their first full professional seasons. DeJong, as we talked about, struggled out of the gate, striking out far too often and fighting to tap into his power potential, before righting the ship and turning his season into an ultimately productive one. That’s about what you would expect from a first-year player jumped all the way to Double-A, honestly.

And it’s not at all what Harrison Bader did.

Bader started off the year like a house on fire, battering Texas League pitching from pillar to post, knocking hell out of the ball on a nightly basis. He wasn’t taking walks, but it didn’t matter. When you’re hitting the ball as hard as Harrison Bader in the Texas League, walks are an afterthought.

And then, Bader was promoted to Triple-A Memphis. And things went bad.

Older, more experienced Pacific Coast League pitchers (remember, many of the pitchers you see in Triple-A are major league veterans), executed the equivalent of baseball judo on Bader, turning his aggression against him. His walks didn’t really change all that much. His strikeout rate actually fell slightly. But where Double-A pitchers had challenged Bader and paid the price, Triple-A pitchers consistently worked him out of the middle of the plate and let Bader get himself out. His power virtually disappeared, and his BABIP dropped off the table. It wasn’t just bad luck, either; I watched most of those games, and I can tell you that Harrison Bader was swinging at all the wrong pitches, and the results were absolutely deserved.

Bader finished up his year with a mostly-successful trip through the AFL, posting a 116 wRC+ in 86 trips to the plate. He cut his strikeouts in the desert, which was good, and hit the ball hard for the most part, which was also good. He didn’t elevate the ball all that much, and so the home runs weren’t there, but I’ll take the results against the best the minors have to offer in his first full season.

Harrison Bader, to put it lightly, is an aggressive player. You know that guy in the wheelchair on Family Guy, the one played by Patrick Warburton? I’m relatively certain Bader’s personality isn’t actually all that similar to the character, but I can’t help but imagine him internally screaming something along the lines of, “LOCK AND LOOOAADDD!!!” before every at-bat. He’s aggressive in attacking pitches in the zone, takes a mighty hack, and impacts the baseball when he makes contact. He doesn’t work counts, he doesn’t work walks. Harrison Bader wants to fucking kill that baseball. Which baseball? Doesn’t matter. Any baseball. Every baseball.

On the bases, he’s just as aggressive, and it has very much the same sort of effect. He stole eleven bases in 82 Double-A games, which is good! That’s close to a 20 stolen base pace, which would make him a 20/20 player pretty consistently. The bad news? He was also caught ten times to those eleven steals. Stealing bases at just above a 50% clip isn’t going to get it done.

In the field, Bader has the chops defensively to handle center field, I think. I don’t know that he’s going to be a plus defender out there, but I think he can play it as well as Randal Grichuk. (That’s also not the only similarity to Grichuk you may note in Bader’s profile.) He has the arm to play right, and if moved to a corner outfield spot I think he could be a plus.

The big step Bader needs to take is in harnessing that natural Kurt Angle he has within him, and learning to channel it. Some plate discipline would go a long, long way toward turning him into the player he has the talent to be, even if I don’t think he’s ever going to be a particularly high on-base guy. He hits the ball hard enough I could see him as a true talent high-BABIP guy, and he’s going to get his share of extra base hits, too. But Triple-A pitchers showed me something about Bader, and hopefully showed him something about himself as well: Smart pitchers are going to take advantage of him unless he learns to harness that aggression. And at the big league level, every pitcher is smart.

Player Comp: Bader will probably never walk much, and he’s probably always going to strike out a fair amount. His value is going to come primarily from damage on contact, and contributing on defense. With that in mind, something like the young, good version of Matt Kemp is probably the perfect-world scenario for Bader. Consistently high BABIPs and high slugging percentages just because everything he hits, he hits hard.

via 2080 Baseball:

#2: Luke Weaver, RHP

6’2”, 160 lbs; R/R; 21 August 1993

Relevant Stats: 2.40 FIP (Springfield), 4.33 FIP, 27.0% K (St. Louis)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I’ll be honest: I don’t have a ton to say about Luke Weaver. He made it to St. Louis for nine games (eight starts), last year, and mostly held his own. He got hammered with a high HR/FB%, and thus his overall home runs totals were somewhat ghastly, but he also struck out a bunch of hitters, didn’t walk a bunch of hitters, and looked close to ready for his closeup.

It’s a 55 fastball, sitting in the low-90s with nice movement and finish, and a legit 70 changeup that just disappears when it’s on. That one-two punch is what’s good about Weaver, as well as his aggressive approach to filling the zone.

What’s not so great is that Weaver still hasn’t really come up with a consistent breaking ball. It was the biggest black mark against him when he was drafted back in 2013, and it remains the biggest question mark for him now. I do like the cutter he’s added; quite a lot, in fact, but it’s more suited for generating weak contact than swings and misses.

I still worry about Weaver breaking down, not because of his slight build but because of his arm action. He missed time with the dreaded ‘forearm discomfort’ two seasons ago, but remained healthy last year. Well, not entirely healthy; he did miss time early in the year with an injury, but I have yet to see an arm action so disastrous it can actually break a pitcher’s non-throwing wrist, so I’m going to assume that was a fluke.

The bottom line is this: Luke Weaver is going to throw strikes, and he has one really great weapon. The lack of a breaking ball would, one would think, limit his ability to get swings and misses, but he struck out 27% of the hitters he faced in the big leagues, and 28.6% of the hitters he faced in Double-A. If he’s going to have trouble missing bats, we haven’t really seen that yet, particularly since he added the cutter to his arsenal.

Weaver will probably head back to Triple-A to start the season, due to a roster crunch. He’ll start every fifth day there, and wait to either be traded at the deadline, or take over Lance Lynn’s rotation spot when he’s traded at the deadline.

Player Comp: Hard fastball, great change, no breaking ball, and a super scary arm action? I said Anthony Reyes last year, and I say Anthony Reyes again now. (Although Tim Hudson comes to mind in certain other ways as well.)

#1: Alex Reyes, RHP

6’3”, 225 lbs; R/R; 29 August 1994

Relevant Stats: 32% K, 11% BB (Memphis), 27.5% K, 12.2% BB (St. Louis)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I know, a real shocker here at number one. In what can only be described as a sun-rising-in-the-East surprise, Alex Reyes tops our prospect list (and every other prospect list), for the second year in a row.

It’s really kind of a strange list this year; as I said earlier, the closer I got to the top the less I had to say. That was especially true because three of the Cardinals’ four top prospects have already appeared at the major league level, and while Carson Kelly has plenty of reasons to be back in the minors, both Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes look pretty darned ready to take on the challenge of the big leagues.

We all know the story with Reyes. He throws ungodly hard. He tops out in triple digits, and the fastball is anywhere between a 70 and 80 depending on who you ask. Personally, I’ll split the difference and call it a 75. He has a wicked hook that he still struggles to command, but is an easy 65 pitch when it’s on. The changeup has developed all out of measure with what I expected, and is now another 60-65 on his card. And as my colleague Joe Schwarz recently wrote, Reyes began throwing a slider late in the year that appears to be fairly decent in its own right.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what top of the rotation talent looks like.

It’s easy to dream on Reyes sitting at the top of the Cards’ rotation for years to come, co-ace with Carlos Martinez, dominating the National League and moving the Redbirds right back into the prominence they enjoyed as recently as 2015. The two hurdles to that dream? Health and command.

I’m going to level with you: Reyes’s arm action scares the bejesus out of me. Partially because it’s scary, but also partially because I would feel like we were all being actually cheated if we had to watch his career sputter because of injuries. The earlier version of Reyes, that was much more energetic in his delivery and strode out further, had better timing, while the new version with the short stride and toned-down delivery is much more delayed in his arm coming through. I think that’s actually why his velocity jumped a couple years ago, which is obviously exciting, but I worry his arm is going to break down because of it. I’ll just cross my fingers and hope I’m wrong, or hope that the new techniques teams are employing to try and keep pitcher’s arms healthy will pay dividends for Reyes.

The other potential stumbling block for Reyes is a simpler question, that of throwing enough strikes to be successful at the big league level. Even when he was giving Cardinal Nation the collective vapours last autumn, Reyes was walking four and a half batters per nine innings. Of course, when you’re striking out ~30% of batters you face, you can get away with that, but it’s still less than ideal. Beyond the obvious concerns of allowing free passes and giving up runs, Reyes has been very inefficient throughout his career, leading to low innings totals and short outings more often than not. If he’s going to be that ace-level pitcher, the Cardinals need him to get into the seventh inning, instead of being gassed after four and two thirds with a pitch count of 98.

Alex Reyes is as talented a pitcher as we’ve seen in a Cardinal uniform in the last fifteen years. He’s as talented as Carlos, as talented as Rick Ankiel. Alex Reyes has the potential to be something truly special.

Hopefully this is the last time he shows up on this list.

Player Comp: As I was reminded in the comments, I initially forgot to put in a comp for Reyes. Justin Verlander is the pitcher I most come back to thinking about Reyes; similar high-octane fastball, similar waterfall curveball, and both with surprising changeups that function as real weapons. Of course, the best thing about Verlander has arguably been his durability, so fingers crossed Reyes can enjoy even a reasonable facsimile of that good health.

via MLB:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap. Please forgive the late post today; I simply couldn’t get this all written ahead of time like I had planned, and so had to do it between other things. Apologies to all. I’m thinking next year I might just write these all up ahead of time and schedule one per day for a couple weeks. These monolithic chunks are rough to write. I’m not sure, though; I like them in big chunks like this. They’re just tiring.

On Sunday morning, I’ll have the final installment of the prospect list posts, wherein we will discuss the system as a whole, where it stands, what’s good, what’s bad, and the direction in which things are headed.