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2017 Viva El Birdos Top Prospects List, Part Three

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Numbers 26-19 in our annual prospect rankings, highlighted by plate discipline aplenty and a pair of Cuban signings.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workout Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all. Hope everyone’s New Year was good.

Here we have the list. The 2017 Viva El Birdos Top Prospects List, finally coming to you fully composed and written and occasionally annotated by yours truly.

In lieu of a flowery intro, because I know how long this post is going to be, let’s just hop right into the players, shall we? Beginning with....

#26: Tommy Edman, SS/2B

5’10, 180 lbs; S/R; 9 May 1995

Relevant Stats: 15.5% BB, 9.4% K, 19/22 SB, 151 wRC+ (Short Season)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but Tommy Edman represented a very intriguing subset of Cardinal draft picks in Randy Flores’s first go ‘round as scouting director. Polished college players have always been a staple of the Cards’ drafting philosophy — witness Allen Craig, a decade ago, or Matt Carpenter a few years after that — but Edman, along with Jeremy Martinez, still to come on this list, falls into a specific category of polished college bat.

Namely, Tommy Edman is a capital g Grinder, a hitter whose number one trait is absolutely extraordinary plate discipline (in other words, cut more from the Matt Carpenter cloth than that of Allen Craig, who was more of a bet on power potential and the hit tool). Andrew Knizner, the college catcher turned third baseman, who showed up in the just-missed section, is another of these players, and also represents the old Cardinal draft trope of the hitter without a position. Again, think Craig or Carpenter or college catcher Matt Adams.

The good news about Tommy Edman is that while he may not have a completely defined position as of yet, whatever position he does end up playing — and for the record, my money is on second base — will likely be in the middle of the diamond, adding to his potential value. The other good news, of course, is that strikeout to walk ratio listed above.

You’re going to get a lot of David Eckstein comps put on Edman, thanks to his whiteness, his relatively small stature, and that grinding sort of nature, and honestly, that’s not a terrible comparison. However, Edman is a little bigger, a little stronger, a little more patient, and a little faster. In other words, think David Eckstein, only a little bit better in pretty much every way.

The question, of course, will be whether Edman will be able to squeeze every drop from his talent the way Eckstein did, and that question will probably be unanswered for a number of years still. The makeup on Edman, the baseball smarts and determination, seems to be off the charts, but intangibles are so very difficult to get a proper handle on.

Edman could probably stay at short if needed, but given the sudden depth of shortstop prospects in the Cardinal organisation, a second base move is probably in his best interests. His arm fits better on the right side of the infield, honestly. He’s got enough speed and good enough instincts to be an efficient basestealer, can switch hit, should be an above-average defender at second, and has that Carpenteresque approach at the plate. There’s a chance he gets the bat knocked out of his hands at higher levels, and that’s really the biggest question for Edman. He played major college ball and was very successful, and then came into pro ball and performed at State College, but we’ve seen college bats do well in short season only to flop once they move on to tougher competition. Until Edman proves he has the physicality to hold up in full season ball, at least, it’s going to be a bit of a concern.

Personally, I’m betting on Edman to prove he has what it takes. And appearing much higher on this list next year.

Player Comp: As I said, David Eckstein is the one you’ll hear constantly, and not a bad comparison. I’m actually going to reach further back into Cardinal history for one of my personal favourite players of my childhood, the sadly-forgotten (due to playing for some fairly miserable early-90s team), Luis Alicea, a 5’9”, switch-hitting second baseman with a 10.8% career walk rate. Alicea never really found an everyday job in spite of posting above-average wRC+ numbers for most of the early 90s, but a smarter front office in the 2010s would recognise value better.

#25: Jonathan Machado, OF

5’9”, 155 lbs; L/L; 21 January 1999

Relvant Stats: 9.5% BB, 13.5% K, .090 ISO, 77 wRC+ (Dominican League)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

One of the Cardinals’ biggest single investments this year on the international market was Machado, a Cuban center fielder who gets a lot of Ichiro comps and put up big offensive numbers in his native country at just sixteen years old. Intrigued yet?

Well, there’s plenty of reason to be, even if there’s also plenty of reason for skepticism. Machado has been getting the magic wand scouting lingo tag put on his bat since he started playing professionally in Cuba, signifying the pinnacle of bat control, and he adds to that speed that rates between a 65 and 70, depending on who you’re talking to. In other words, putting an Ichiro comp on a kid is stupid; Ichiro Suzuki is not only an all-time great player, but also an all-time unique player. But if any kid deserves a little of that, it’s probably Machado.

The speed makes him a natural center fielder, capable of tracking down balls in both gaps with relative ease. His arm is, unfortunately, lacking in strength, but he gets good grades for accuracy. (Think of Jon Jay.) It’s too early to try and grade just how good Machado will be in the field, but the speed and range are both absolutely elite.

At the plate, Machado really does look like Ichiro, as he tends to get a bit of that running start so common in left-handed Asian hitters (though not so extreme as Suzuki), all while spraying line drives and ground balls to all fields. He has tremendous bat control, and could potentially put up .300+ batting averages annually. It’s rare to see a kid so naturally gifted in terms of being able to maneuver the ball around the field, and watching Machado hit is a fairly extraordinary sight.

The downside, and danger, for Machado is the fact he’s just plain small. The five foot nine part is probably about correct, and not the end of the world. Unfortunately, the 155 pounds part is also probably correct, and potentially a much bigger problem. For all the remarkable qualities Machado shows as a magician with the bat in his hands, he lacks any sort of real functional strength right now, and shows virtually zero power. He can slash and run with the best of them, but where he is physically right now, Machado just doesn’t have the strength to hold up to high level competition. Of course, there’s time for that to develop, given he hasn’t yet turned eighteen years old, but it’s a real concern as to whether he’ll ever be strong enough.

The premium position, speed, and elite bat control should take Machado a long way. But he’s going to need to add a ton of size and strength to his frame if he wants to make it all the way.

Player Comp: Obviously, Ichiro Suzuki is the easy one, only without the arm and playing center instead of right. I mentioned Jon Jay before, in terms of the throwing, but Jay also makes for a decent overall comp as well. Machado has speed that Jay couldn’t match, but there’s a whole lot that’s similar between the two players all the same.

via JD BASEBALL RD:

#24: Eliezer Alvarez, INF

5’11”, 165 lbs; S/R; 15 October 1994

Relevant Stats: 159 wRC+, 36/51 SB, 10.6% BB, 19.2% K, .400 BABIP, .152 ISO (Low A)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Simply put, Eliezer Alvarez can really hit. He can really run, too. The questions about him almost all revolve around physical projection and position.

Interesting point of order: we are now on player number three of the actual list of top Cardinal prospects (according to just one poorly-informed observer, admittedly, but still), and so far we are three for three in players with extremely intriguing tools or skills, but who are undersized, lack real physical projection, and for whom the biggest question is whether or not said player will ever be strong enough to compete at the highest level of the game. Probably a coincidence, but one I was just struck by all the same.

Here’s the thing: I’m really hoping, and at least somewhat expecting, to look completely silly with this ranking by this time next year. I’m hoping that Alvarez moves up one level — or perhaps even skips Palm Beach, as has been the case with several of the Cardinals’ top hitting prospects over the past couple years — and does exactly what he did this year, shows off the tools once again, and my rating of 24 looks preposterously low in hindsight. He certainly has the athletic abilities to make my ranking look silly; Alvarez has 60-65 grade speed, more natural pop than you might think on first glance, in a slashing, gap to gap sort of way, and was named the top defensive second baseman in the Midwest League this year by Baseball America. All of those things put together have the potential to make me look really late to the Eli party.

However, I’ve seen Alvarez play, and I’m still skeptical for some reason. I don’t know why, exactly, but I am. Obviously, he’s not going to keep up a .400 BABIP, but even when that comes down, if he’s walking at the rate he did this season and plugging the gaps with doubles, there’s no problem. But I’m not convinced the glove is as good as it was rated; the games I saw of Peoria’s this year I saw a middle infield guy who couldn’t figure out whether to charge or sit back, and ended up with a whole bunch of in-between hops as a result. The arm didn’t impress me either, though I admit that’s really tough to judge in fairly limited viewing.

I will say this: I don’t have much in the way of concerns about his ability to hit. That BABIP was flukily high, but we also know that, paradoxically, a high BABIP in the low minors actually translates well up the ladder, even as the BABIP normalises. The reason, of course, is because while at the big league level everyone’s true talent level is fairly tightly grouped, once you go down a couple levels, that’s no longer the case. A .400 BABIP in Low A can mean a hitter was getting lucky; it can also mean, as it did with Oscar Taveras in 2011, that the hitter in question is simply too good for the level and is knocking the hell out of the ball far more often than you’ll see at higher levels.

Alvarez is 22 already, so he isn’t amazingly young, particularly for a prospect in the Midwest League. Young for the league, yes. Young for a top prospect, not really.

I liked Allen Cordoba better as an infield prospect, because I thought he and Alvarez had similar hit tools, but with a bit of an edge for Cordoba in terms of pitch recognition and zone control. I also thought Cordoba had a chance to stick at shortstop, which Alvarez already does not play. Honestly, though, the two players aren’t all that far apart, really are quite similar apart from handedness, and if there’s one thing I can say for sure about Eli Alvarez, it’s that he can really hit. Which, yes, I already said. I think it bears repeating, though.

The coming season is going to be a huge one for Alvarez. Long touted as a toolsy player who just needed to start putting all the pieces together, he had his most complete season yet in 2016. If he starts off 2017 the way he did this past season, he jumps up prospect lists by midseason and is probably in the top ten. If not, well, a utility infielder who can hit a little bit isn’t the worst thing in the world to have.

Player Comp: Honestly, potential future Cards second baseman Eli Alvarez comps pretty well to Cards current second baseman Kolten Wong. Both are somewhat undersized middle infielders who lack the arm to play short and whose most notable tool is bat speed that jumps off the page.

via JW Fisher:

#23: Jeremy Martinez, C

5’11”, 200 lbs; R/R; 29 December 1994

Relevant Stats: 13.6% BB, 6.8% K, .419 OBP, 157 wRC+ (Short Season)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Jeremy Martinez was one of my favourite players taken by the Cardinals in this past summer’s amateur draft, with the Redbirds selecting him out of USC in the fourth round. He seemed like a potential bargain to me at the time, and while it’s far too early to make any definitive judgments about the payoff, his first year performance at State College was an extremely encouraging debut.

If Tommy Edman was a catcher, he would be Jeremy Martinez. Physical tools that don’t jump off the page, perhaps some question about the position long term, but the on-field IQ is off the charts, and the mentality is that grinding, relentless sort of makeup that seems to define so many of the overachievers we see in the game.

I covered Martinez in depth, in terms of his swing and offensive profile, back in September, and so rather than go on about all that I’ll just leave the link there. Suffice to say, Martinez has, if not the best, then certainly one of the best batting eyes in the whole Cardinal organisation. He’s an on-base machine.

Defensively, things are more cloudy for Martinez. He has a strong enough arm for the position, and in fact threw out close to half of would-be basestealers this year, but his receiving needs work. He’s not terrible; someone in the comments of the list that had Jordan Hicks on it expressed concerns about Martinez, but having seen him a fair bit, I think that may have been more about Hicks being difficult to catch, as I haven’t seen Martinez have that kind of trouble at any other time. Still, he’s not ideal back there. He’s quick up out of the crouch to throw, but his blocking needs work and just the general movements of a catcher don’t appear to come as naturally to him as someone like, say, Carson Kelly. Or Yadier Molina.

Bottom line, I love the offensive profile with Martinez, and I’m incredibly excited to see what he does in his first full season in 2017. But there is a question as to whether he’s a catcher long term, and the answer to that question will go a long way in determining what kind of prospect he actually is. The bat plays at catcher in a way you don’t often see; if he ends up a first baseman, that’s a very different matter altogether.

Player Comp: Martinez doesn’t have the speed of this player, necessarily, but the on-base skills, leadership, personality, and general peskiness of his game all put me in mind of Jason Kendall. And that is very high praise, considering how highly I think of Jason Kendall.

#22: Connor Jones, RHP

6’3”, 200 lbs; R/R; 10 October 1994

Relevant Stats: 17.4% K, 4.4% BB, 2.34 FIP (Short Season)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Okay, to get this out of the way first: I did not like the pick of Connor Jones at the time of the draft. I don’t like the delivery, the mediocre performance turned me off, and I just generally don’t see a pitcher who has been able to turn very solid stuff into anything resembling performance or really intriguing pitchability.

That being said, Jones came out in his first very limited taste of professional ball and did essentially what you wanted to see him do. He limited the free passes in a big way, rolled up lots of ground balls, and got his feet wet. He threw less than 15 innings total between two levels this year after the draft, so honestly, there’s a limited amount I can really say about him.

The stuff is solid; Jones will push his sinking fastball up to 94 regularly, and it’s one of those heavy heaters hitters tend to just pound into the ground. Coming out of high school, Jones was more a thrower than pitcher, who tried to just throw the fastball past everyone, but in his time at Virginia he gradually morphed into much more of a power sinker guy, and his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park is going to be his biggest plus going forward.

He throws a slider and a pitch that is alternately described as both a changeup and a splitter; to me it looks more like a regular old changeup, but it’s really tough to say. If he’s trying to throw a split, he should probably throw it a little harder, so it looks more like the sinker until the very end. Both pitches are pretty much just average most of the time, but every once in a while you’ll see him break out a 60 slider and get a big swing and miss on the change, and you can suddenly see a little of what the hype is all about. In general, though, there just isn’t a whole lot of bat-missing ability in Jones the way he is now, and I think the upside is fairly limited.

He should move relatively quickly through the system; this is a strike-thrower whose ticket to the big leagues is going to be his sinker, easily his best and most developed, polished offering. Jones isn’t all that different from Jake Woodford, the sinkerballer the Cards took out of a Florida high school in 2015, though I feel like Woodford potentially has a higher ceiling because of more ability to miss bats. So long as Jones stays healthy, he should take off pretty quickly in 2017. Long term, I honestly think his best fit within the organisation is probably as a trade piece in the next two years, as the Cards try to define which pieces they are going to keep and which to cash in to hopefully bring in some more core-level talent. A relatively polished college righthander whose ceiling falls a little short of being that core-type piece is exactly the sort of asset clubs need to produce from within.

Player Comp: Pick your favourite middling-strikeout sinker-heavy guy. Jason Marquis isn’t a bad comparison to make, with the caveat that you have to hope Connor Jones doesn’t believe, as Jason Marquis seemed, that a ‘hanger’ is an actual type of pitch, leading him to try and perfect it.

via Jheremy Brown:

#21: Randy Arozarena, OF/2B/INF

5’11”, 175 lbs; R/R; 28 February 1995

Relevant Stats: Played in Mexico, got 20 at-bats.

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The Cardinals made a splash on the international market this year, going well over their bonus allotment and signing a ton of promising players. Among that big group of players was a trio of Cuban signees, all of whom have now been covered for this list. Johan Oviedo, the huge righthander with the upper 90s fastball, appeared in the just-missed section. Jonathan Machado showed up a few spots ago. And now we have Arozarena, the oldest of the three and most advanced player, whose stock I’m expecting to take the biggest jump in the next eight to twelve months.

Arozarena is an absolute bundle of athleticism, compact and explosive. He might be a 70 runner, right in competition with Machado for raw speed. He’s quick as well as fast, making him a constant threat on the basepaths, and a dynamic defender in the field. He put up very solid offensive numbers in Cuba, based on that speed and a swing that generates a decent amount of pop, as well as a surprisingly well-developed idea of the strike zone for a player so young. Until we see him against competition here in the states, though, it’s all a lot of conjecture as to how his game is going to translate.

The question of what his offense is going to look like, though, doesn’t change the dynamism of his game. He’s played all over the infield in the past, as well as in center field, and it would seem to be center where he’s projected to fit long term. The jumps and straight-line speed speak to a player capable of plus defense there, and simply allowing his legs to carry him should make for an easier transition than worrying about infield footwork and the like.

I had a tough time locating Arozarena on this list. I love the athleticism so much I wanted to put him higher, but the track record is so thin (to the point of being nearly non-existent), that I could barely justify to myself putting him higher than any of the other players I’ve covered here today. He is one of the players I’m most looking forward to seeing against real competition in 2017, so we can get a better feel for how far along he is in terms of development. (Which isn’t to say the Mexican League competition is terrible; we just don’t have a great feel for where that league fits most of the time.) Once he gets into pro ball here, we’ll have a much better idea what the bat looks like, and how far off he might be from the big leagues. (I do think he makes it to the big leagues in some capacity, though.)

Player Comp: With plus-plus speed in center field and a dynamic offensive game, Arozarena feels a little like a Carl Crawford starter kit. Also like Crawford, he lacks the arm for right field, so if he has to move off center, left is the most likely destination. Unlike Crawford, though, Arozarena throws with his right, so he could potentially move back into the dirt at second, or possibly become a super utility player, should center field not work out for him.

via Baseball America:

#20: Dylan Carlson, OF/1B

6’3”, 200 lbs; S/L; 23 October 1998

Relevant Stats: 17 years old, 115 wRC+, .153 ISO (Gulf Coast League)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Like Walker Robbins, the lefty-swinging first base/outfield type who showed up in the just-missed section, Dylan Carlson was selected by the Cardinals this past June for what he can do with a bat in his hands. Unlike Robbins, however, Carlson proved he was up to the challenge of professional ball at just seventeen, putting up a productive hitting line as a key part of the Cards’ GCL championship club.

Not that it was easy for Carlson; he got off to a very slow start initially before seeming to find his stride in the second half of the season. He also put up those numbers while playing center field, a position he most definitely will not be playing by the time he gets into the upper minors.

The offensive package Carlson brings to the table is tough not to be excited about; he offers power potential from both sides of the plate (left especially), remarkably sound swings both lefty and righty, and strike zone judgment that is advanced beyond his years. He’ll grow into greater power as he matures, but even at seventeen he showed an ability to put the ball in the air with power.

Carlson moves well enough for now to handle center, but I doubt that will last. And in fact, position is one of the real questions I have regarding his future. He runs well enough to play in the outfield, and his arm is strong enough to handle right. I don’t think he’s going to be Jason Heyward out there, but he moves around well enough out there. On the other hand, simply watching Carlson run through fielding drills is enough to be struck by how elegant and graceful his footwork is, to the point I think he could be a truly extraordinary defender at first. I understand wanting versatility from a player, so you aren’t locked in to a Matt Adams at first base situation, but there’s a chance Carlson could simply be so good on the infield that you don’t really want him to play anywhere else. Time will tell, but I have to say watching his footwork at first base is like watching a fish swim.

He has a big frame, with broad shoulders, and he’s got plenty of room to fill out. He looked soft through the middle when I saw him this spring, but that’s most likely part of the simple growth spurt cycle teenagers go through. What little video I saw of him after the draft he looked a little leaner, closer to the athlete he appeared to be on the showcase circuit last summer. In all likelihood, he’s fine, but this is a big kid all the same, and he’ll need to be diligent about his conditioning to maintain his athleticism as he fills out and gets stronger.

There’s no player the Cardinals took in the 2016 draft who is going to outstrip the excitement of Delvin Perez, the closest thing to a consensus top five talent the Redbirds have gotten hold of in close to 20 years. (At the time of the draft, I mean.) Carlson is tremendously exciting in his own right, though, and could, I believe, end up looking like a draft-day bargain down the road a bit, even as he was seen as a money saving pick at the time. The offensive ceiling is that high.

Player Comp: Switch hitter, power from both sides, advanced plate discipline, best at first base but can handle the outfield. If Carlson ultimately makes it, he’ll probably end up looking something like Lance Berkman, though admittedly without Berkman’s pure hitting ability. But as far as the type of player Carlson could become, that’s what you’re looking toward. (Side note: I love the sponsor of Big Puma’s Baseball-Reference page. I’ll let you look it up on your own if you like, though; I don’t feel like listening to any bitching this morning.)

via The Prospect Pipeline:

#19: Zac Gallen, RHP

6’2”, 191 lbs; R/R; 3 August 1995

Relevant Stats: 9.2 IP, 15 K, 0 BB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

As much as I was not a fan of the Connor Jones pick at the end of the second round this past June, I loved Zac Gallen in the third. Admittedly, the stuff for Gallen doesn’t jump out the same way the radar gun readings do for Jones at his best, but the overall mix of pitches I like significantly more, and more importantly, Gallen is one of those guys who just flat-out knows how to pitch.

The stuff is good, but not overwhelming. Fastball at 90-92, bumping a little higher on occasion. A really nasty cutter he throws to lefties, and tends to lean on a bit too much. A big loopy curve that could be good with more power and conviction, and a changeup that acts like a forkball when he’s on. It’s the way he uses those pitches, and the command with which he throws them, that makes Gallen so intriguing to me.

At his best, Gallen can command three of his offerings — fastball, cutter, and change — to both sides of the plate, and hitters just sort of flail at whatever pitch they guessed on. Even when he’s going well, the curve is more of a show pitch right now, and needs the most work. He works from a very high arm slot, a little like Michael Wacha, and that gives all his pitches good downward angle. The change in particular can look like it’s just falling out of the sky on a good day.

I will say, I don’t love the delivery. I’ve seen worse, but it would really be nice if the Cardinals could find some way to get Gallen’s arm up a little earlier. Maybe it would ruin his deception, maybe it would cost him velocity, and so maybe it isn’t feasible. But I love the potential, and I worry about the injury risk.

There’s also plus athleticism here, which is always a big deal for me with any pitcher. Athletic pitchers tend to repeat their deliveries better, leading to better control/command and just better results in general.

Gallen is another player I think could end up looking like a steal for the Cardinals in a couple years, where they got him in the draft. He’s never going to wow you on first blush with the stuff, but the longer you watch him pitch the more impressive he is.

Player Comp: There’s something about Gallen that puts me in mind a bit of the starter version of Tyler Clippard when Clippard came up with the Yankees, in terms of the way the stuff looks. But going into Cardinal history for a comparable pitcher, Woody Williams comes to mind as a pitcher whose depth of arsenal, and his ability to command the same, was more notable than any single pitch, and who could think his way through a lineup as well as anyone I can remember.

via UNCTarHeelsAthletics:

So that’s the first installment of the list proper, everyone. Eight players in, and it only took me roughly 5000 words. Sigh.

I’ll be back Sunday with nine reports, and nine more next Wednesday, as we count our way down to the least surprising number one prospect ranking in the history of prospect rankings.

Until then.