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2018 Viva El Birdos Top Prospect List, Part One: The Just-Missed List

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Prospect ranking season is here again, and we kick it off with our honourable mentions.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Here we are again, everybody, kicking off prospect list season. I had meant to get started on these a couple weeks ago, but work has been especially brutal this year, and I simply find myself with less time to devote to writing than I would like. Regardless, we’re going to start off today with a handful of honourable mention types; players who bring something of interest to the table, but for reasons of performance or distance from the majors or a simple lack of track record fall a little short of making it on to the list proper.

Right now, my plan is to do 30 players, in three installments of ten, published over the next three Sundays. Our countdown will finish up on the morning of New Year’s Eve, in fact, so we can all finish out 2017 by looking ahead to 2018, which at least for our baseball team we hope is brighter. I’ll then have a post after all that with a full wrapup overview, with general thoughts on the system put in then.

I will say this: I recognise I’m doing this in a rather risky fashion, trying to post a prospect list spread over the month of the year when prospects are, in fact, most likely to be dealt. I will deal with that risk as it comes, but my preference would be to write up the players where I have them now, even if they’re dealt, so as to give some context on where I saw the departing players in terms of the system and what I thought of them. Any new prospects acquired by the Cardinals this month I will either write up later and then place them in an updated list later, or maybe even try to shoehorn them in to the lists I’m publishing if at all possible. Just have to play it by ear, I suppose.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get started with the players who fell just short of the official rankings, shall we?

Sam Tewes, RHP

6’5”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

Level(s) in 2017: State College (SS), Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Numbers: 43.2 IP, 3.20 FIP, 15% K-BB% (all at Palm Beach)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Tewes is a Tommy John survivor. That is the first thing one needs to know about him. It is not, of course, a defining feature of him as a person, one assumes, but it is a defining feature of him as a prospect, at least to this point. A surgically-repaired elbow informs how we think of him going forward — particularly since we know there is an average number of innings TJ guys tend to get out of their new ligaments — and also goes a long way toward explaining the course of his career so far.

Tewes was taken out of Wichita State by the Cardinals in 2016, in the eighth round. For a guy with his frame, solid stuff, and projectability, that seems late. On the other hand, for a pitcher who pitched well for the Shockers his freshman season, missed much of his sophomore campaign with shoulder inflammation, and then popped his elbow less than fifteen innings into his junior year, the eighth round might seem a little generous. In fact, when you consider that track record of health, it would seem that relying on Sam Tewes to provide any return at all might be slightly foolish.

The best news about Tewes’s 2017 season is this: he was healthy all year. I mean, he was really good, too, which is awesome news, but the best is just the fact he wasn’t shut down, didn’t seem to have any real issues, and just took the mound when his turn came around. The miniscule walk rate? Well, that’s just gravy.

Tewes is kind of a throwback prospect for me, by which I don’t mean he’s somehow similar to players from the distant past. Rather, I mean he’s basically every pitching prospect the Cardinals had, say, ten years ago. Let me show you what I mean.

Sam Tewes’s repertoire is as follows: he throws a sinking fastball in the low 90s, delivered on a good downhill plane in addition to sink, which allows him to roll up big ground ball totals. I was told that he actually threw a little harder this year than he did in college pre-surgery, as his fastball sat more consistently in the low 90s, mostly 92-93, rather than the 89-91 he typically averaged for the Shockers. He augments the sinker with a pair of offspeed pitches, a curveball with good shape and a changeup that has good sink but is too often telegraphed. The change is probably a little ahead of the curve, but both need work.

See? Doesn’t that sound like literally every college pitcher the Cards drafted ten years ago? That’s the same scouting report I wrote for Clay Mortensen for the RFT in March of 2008, only with a curve instead of a slider. It’s the same scouting report Lance Lynn had coming out of Ole Miss, though we know he actually did evolve into a different sort of pitcher.

Which, hey, is fine. Big-framed righthanders with good sinkers and promising offspeed stuff will probably never go out of style, even with the bottom of the strike zone being less of a safe space than it used to be. The really exciting thing about Tewes is that ultra-low walk rate; if he can pound the zone with a quality sinker at the rate he has in the minors, he just might have a career in the big leagues. The health is a concern, certainly, and while the bullpen is always an option, I’m not sure he’s the kind of pitcher who would benefit a ton from maxing out in shorter bursts. Maybe he would; it’s tough to say who gets a boost and who doesn’t. But the best, most ideal route would be for the Cardinals to help him clean up a shortarm delivery that lends some deception but probably also contributed to his injuries, and hope his repaired elbow holds up over the long haul. The somewhat limited ceiling on Tewes, as well as some hesitation on my part to buy in on a guy with multiple arm issues in the past, are what have him here in the honourable mentions, rather than on the list proper, but another season like the one he just had and he’ll jump up a long way in a hurry.

If he’s good, it will look like: Jon Garland is the name that comes to mind for me with Tewes. Now, it should be noted Jon Garland’s greatest quality was probably his durability, so that’s obviously a question mark in terms of a comp, but that mid-2000s version of Garland who rode a tiny walk rate and lots of weak ground ball contact to success is the sort of pitcher I envision when I picture the good version of Sam Tewes.

via Jeff Zimmerman:

Derian Gonzalez, RHP

6’3”, 190 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 31 January 1995

Level(s) in 2017: Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Numbers: 21.4% K rate, 3.56 FIP

So, what’s so great about this guy?

I’ll be honest; I’m not a huge fan of Derian Gonzalez. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even be writing him up here if not for the fact the Cardinals recently added him to the 40 man roster, meaning there’s at least some chance we could see him in a St. Louis uniform this coming season, and I should at least inform you all in that case.

The stuff for Gonzalez is good; he works around 93-94 with his fastball, topping out about 95, and it moves, especially when it’s up. It’s not bad down, but it’s better up, if that makes sense. His best pitch for me, though, is a hard curveball that he can bury down and out of the zone for swings and misses consistently. He doesn’t put it in the strike zone nearly as well, but when he needs a strikeout he can get it on the breaking ball.

I’m told there’s a changeup, but it’s not very good, and I’ll be frank and tell you I don’t believe I’ve ever actually seen him throw a change. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Gonzalez pitch a ton, but from what I have seen I feel comfortable putting him down as a two-pitch pitcher. Which is fine, since both pitches are really pretty good.

Gonzalez hasn’t been particularly durable, dealing with shoulder soreness each of the last two seasons, and combined with his limited arsenal I think it’s time to move him to relief work. The Cards have continued to try and develop him as a starter, which I respect, but for me his best path to the big leagues is short stints, trying to get the velocity to play up and leaning on a very intriguing breaking ball.

If he’s good, it will look like: I could go multiple directions here, but the early-career Angels version of Francisco Rodriguez is my favourite pitcher of this type. Not real big, but throws hard and has a wicked curve that hitters just sort of flail at most of the time. K-Rod is obviously the best version of what Gonzalez could be, and has actually evolved a remarkable amount for a pitcher who had such a specific repertoire early on, but if the stuff does play up in the ‘pen, Gonzalez’s stuff isn’t far off that mark.

You may notice that I’ve done away with the vague ‘player comp’ label, and gone with a more specific take. This is to try and drive home the point that when I’m trying to compare a player to another, I’m going for a qualitative, not quantitative, sort of analysis. If Derian Gonzalez gets to the big leagues and succeeds, the player he will probably remind us of would be someone like Francisco Rodriguez. I hope the more specific wording will help everyone picture the type of player we’re talking about in their heads, without throwing the word ‘comp’ in there, which has come to be so closely associated with certain projection systems and the like.

via JW Fisher:

Ian Oxnevad, LHP

6’4”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Left

DOB: 3 October 1996

Level(s) in 2017: Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Numbers: 15.1% K, 9% K-BB%, 4.90 FIP, 132 IP, 134 H

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Ian Oxnevad has been in the Cards’ system for just three years now, but he feels like he’s already had enough of a minor league career to be hyped and then forgotten, even as he only turned 21 a couple months ago. Such is life in a farm system that churns out pitching talent like, um, some sort of machine that makes pitching talent. Look, they can’t all be gems, okay folks?

It wasn’t a great season for Oxnevad as he moved up to full-season ball for the first time, but it also wasn’t a complete disaster either. He’s dropped his arm slot from where it was as an amateur, when he was more over the top, and his delivery now reminds me a bit of Marco Gonzales’s. It’s simple and straightforward, with a 34 release point that gives him nice tail to both his fastball and changeup.

Speaking of, the fastball has just average velocity at 89-90, but it’s got enough wiggle to it Oxnevad doesn’t get killed in the zone. The change is his strongest offering overall, with really nice drop and fade, as well as excellent deception. He sells it with identical arm speed to the heater, and then the ball just...doesn’t get there. Again, very similar to what we saw with Marco Gonzales.

Unfortunately, the similarities to Gonzales don’t stop there, as Oxnevad has yet to really develop any kind of reliable breaking ball. If I remember correctly, he threw more of a curve in high school, but the pitch has a bit more tilt to it now, putting it closer to a slider than a curve, I think. Either way, it’s not great, and is a big part of the reason why Oxnevad’s strikeout numbers are so low. He’s very good at getting hitters out on their front foot with the change, but he doesn’t miss that many bats. Still, he’s big, has an easy delivery, and one plus pitch. There are worse places from which to start building, and he’ll pitch all of 2018 at a college junior’s age.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’ll go with Jeff Francis as a lower arm slot lefty who succeeded primarily by changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance. The entire genre of pitcher is, of course, the John Tudor mold, but Tudor is sacrosanct for me, having been seven year old Aaron’s favourite pitcher.

Kramer Robertson, SS

5’10”, 165 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 20 September 1994

Level(s) in 2017: Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Numbers: 8.7% BB, 14.9% K, 109 wRC+, 10/14 SB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Robertson, selected in the fourth round just this year out of LSU, brought plenty of attractive qualities to the table for the Cardinals. He was cheap, for one, being a college senior. The fact he’s a pretty interesting player is a solid bonus.

Robertson isn’t big, and he’s not flashy, and he’s probably never going to slug 25 homers in a season. However, a lot like Tommy Edman from the Cards’ 2016 draft, Robertson has plus contact ability, a control of the strike zone that should help him grind through at least the lower levels of the minors without much trouble, and tremendous baseball IQ. He is, in point of fact, exactly the sort of player people are talking about when they trot out the dreaded S word: Scrappy.

The good with Robertson is this: he has very good bat control, at least 55 speed, and I believe enough defensive ability to stay at shortstop. If he can’t hack it at short, the outlook becomes cloudier, but if he can stick there the horizon widens out quite a bit. I have my doubts Robertson will ever hit enough to hold down a starting job in the big leagues, but would it shock me to see him take over for Greg Garcia in the same way Garcia took over for Dirty Dan? No. No it would not.

If he’s good, it will look like: Yes, David Eckstein is the way-too-easy answer. And yes, that’s pretty much exactly the kind of player you’re hoping a Kramer Robertson becomes.

via 2080 Baseball:

The Slightly-Shorter Mentions Section

In which the author very quickly runs through a handful of other names he’s intrigued by, and may wish to return to in the future.

Caleb Lopes, 2B — Lopes is short (5’8”), thick-bodied (195 lbs), and limited to second base, where he gets defensive reviews like, “He’s fine.” (That’s a quote from an email.) He also has virtually zero power, with a .045 ISO this season at State College. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Caleb Lopes.

And then, of course, there’s the fact he walked more than he struck out his first season in pro ball after being a 33rd round selection in 2016. He went to Johnson City and walked 30 times, while whiffing only 24. He advanced to the New York-Penn League this season, collected 136 plate appearances, and struck out only ten (10) times.

He walked eighteen times.

Yes, he’s probably the latest version of Mike O’Neill. And yes, the tools will probably, eventually, prove unequal to the task of advancing up the ladder.

But isn’t it fun to have some completely weird player to follow?

Winston Nicasio, RHP — I haven’t seen Winston Nicasio pitch. Ever. He made a short appearance in the High A playoffs this year, but I didn’t get to watch any of those. However, I was told in the course of bothering one of my very few organisational sources that Nicasio was a guy I should pay attention to. So here I am, throwing the name out.

Here’s what I know: Nicasio will turn 21 soon, is 6’2”, wiry, and slings a 92-94 mph fastball from a low arm slot that gives him tremendous run on the pitch. He’s very raw, but has great pure arm speed and a fastball that at least gives him a chance.

Connor Jones, RHP — A 2016 draftee I was not a fan of at the time (which was unusual for me that year, as I liked almost everything Randy Flores did in his first go-round as scouting director), Jones has been mostly fine so far as a pro, but there are some serious red flags in his peripherals. The stuff he possessed in college — three 60 grade pitches in his sinker, slider, and changeup — has largely evaporated. The one thing he still has is a sinker from hell, with the kind of boring, heavy movement that makes him nearly impossible to lift. He still throws hard enough, sitting around 91-92, but that’s a huge turn down from where he was at Virginia.

Jones has been a starter so far in the minors, but with one truly great pitch and not much else, I think he should be in a bullpen sooner than later. If the velocity plays up closer to the mid 90s, he looks like Blake Treinen all of a sudden. If not, Seth Maness still isn’t the worst outcome.

Nick Plummer, OF — The first official draft pick of the Chris Correa era — and, ultimately, the only first pick of the Correa era, for reasons we’re all very familiar with by now — I was a fan of Plummer at the time the Cards selected him, even if I was on Team Walker Buehler as a matter of preference. There was a point during the summer before the draft when Plummer looked like a lock to go in the top ten, if not the top five. He just hit and hit and hit some more on the showcase circuit that summer.

Sadly, since that time Nick Plummer’s stock has taken about as big a nosedive as it’s possible to imagine, as he has missed a huge chunk of time over the past two years due to injury. A wrist injury cost him basically the whole season in 2016. An oblique injury cost him another hunk of playing time this year. Nearly a year and a half lost to injury, at age 19-20. That’s bad. Very bad, in fact.

When on the field, Plummer has shown extreme patience at the plate, walking over 15% of the time at both stops where he’s played. The bad news? He hasn’t made contact at anything resembling an acceptable rate for the low minors. To wit, he walked 15.3% of the time this season in Peoria, which is good. He also struck out 31.5% of the time, which is not just bad, but damningly bad.

I see 2018 as a bit of a make or break year for Plummer. He still shows plus bat speed, enough range in the outfield to at least fake it in center, and that obvious patience at the plate that keeps his OBP high even when he isn’t hitting. He’ll play 2018 as a 21 year old, though, so while he isn’t old by any means, he doesn’t have the excuse of playing way above his age, and the contact rate simply cannot stay down where it’s been so far.

Wadye Ynfante, OF — As tooled-up a prospect as there is in the system, Ynfante could jump up this list in a big way next year if he has a strong season in 2018. He possesses easy plus speed, probably closer to a 65, and both covers a ton of ground in the outfield and wreaks havoc on the bases (11 of 14 stolen bases). He played most of the season at 19 for Johnson City and put up a 133 wRC+. He walked over 9% of the time. He slugged near .500.

Those are the good things. Now for my concerns, and the reason he’s here in the mentions, rather than sitting at #22 or something.

Ynfante struck out over 27% of the time in the Appalachian League this year. That...is problematic. Now, he did post a .192 ISO and put seven homers over the fence, which are both very good things, but his line was largely driven by a .394 BABIP. Now, low-minors BABIPs are weird, and exceptionally high figures are often actually positive signs that the player is simply too good for the level, rather than simply fortunate, but I admit I’m still worried about Ynfante regressing, hard, in the very near future.

The Cardinals have moved Ynfante along almost painfully slow so far; he spent two and a half years playing in the Dominican, and then came over to the big leagues for half a season in the GCL last year. This year they bumped him up only one notch, to Johnson City. The fact he struggled so badly to make contact against Appy League pitching scares me. He has outstanding bat speed, but a very complicated swing that seems tough to time up. (There’s a little Javy Baez to Ynfante’s game, for good and ill both.) The tools are undeniable, but a contact rate that low at such a low level is terrifying for his future.

I do believe Ynfante stays in center field, so that helps the floor. The glove and baserunning both could be real assets. I just don’t know if he’s going to swing and miss his way out of a career.

I’ll stop there. There are other players I would like to mention, of course, as there always are, especially since this might be the deepest farm system I’ve ever seen. It’s unreal just how many players I would really need to cover to get them all here. Probably, after I get through the list, I’ll do the same thing this year as I did last, throwing out periodic profile posts with 2-3 players who didn’t make the cut spotlighted, just to get as many names out as possible.

Until next Sunday, though, that’s all for now. I’ll see you back here next weekend when we begin the list proper with numbers 30 through 21.