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2018 Viva El Birdos Top Prospect Supplemental: Three Potential Relief Arms

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Writing up even more players who didn’t make the official list cut, just because.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals
The face of an unexpected bullpen saviour.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Prompted by something I read yesterday, I bring you a brief addendum to the big prospect list I’m currently slogging through. We have three pitchers, all of whom I find intriguing as relatively near-term potential relievers.

Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP

6’4”, 185 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 16 January 1992; Drafted Rd 9 2014

Level(s) in 2017: Memphis (Triple A)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Here’s the thing: Daniel Poncedeleon is really the reason this column exists. I debated back and forth whether to include him in these write ups, as he was actually a pitcher I quite liked in the past, and would ordinarily have been an easy decision to include somewhere. Maybe the just-missed section, which is where he appeared last year, but definitely he would have been written up sometime during this process.

However, as I’m sure most of you know, Daniel Poncedeleon pitched very, very little in 2017 (hence why I didn’t even bother including the ‘notable numbers’ line), due to being struck in the head by a line drive back in early May. He was not as lucky as many other pitchers have been in similar situations, and ended up having emergency surgery to reduce cranial pressure. In other words, Daniel Poncedeleon came very close to losing not just his pitching career, but everything.

Given that situation, I just couldn’t decide what to do about writing him up this offseason. He was back with the Memphis club for the postseason, albeit in a non-pitching capacity, and all along the news was he planned on playing again. Still, until I was 100% sure he really was going to actually make it, I was hesitant to really go down that road.

But then yesterday I read Jennifer Langosch’s outstanding piece, published Christmas Day, at the Cardinals’ official website, and now I have to write Daniel Poncedeleon up. So here it is.

Poncedeleon was old for a draftee, having attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University his senior season of college after issues with his NCAA eligibility came up following his being drafted in 2013 by the Cubs. (It’s a long story, and I’m not sure the details we think we know are the actual details, so just go with me on this one, okay?) He always had talent in his arm that exceeded his draft status, and since basically day one in pro ball has done nothing but get outs.

Long and lanky, Poncedeleon cuts a very pitchery figure on the mound, and he throws some very pitchery pitches as well. He works off a fastball that sits in the 92-94 mph range, and can push his four-seamer up as high as 96 at times. Even better than the velocity, the pitch has above-average movement, and hitters struggle to square the ball up, even when they’re able to make contact. In fact, Poncedeleon, while capable of striking hitters out at a solid clip, really would seem to have the markings of a weak-contact FIP-beating sort of pitcher, as he just has a knack for avoiding the fat part of the barrel. Lots of broken bats when he’s on the mound, both from catching the ball of the end and getting jammed way in on the fists.

In addition to the standard fastball, Poncedeleon throws a solid two-seamer that sinks a little and has solid armside run, a curveball that will occasionally flash 55 but isn’t entirely consistent, and a changeup I’ve heard about, but have barely ever seen. It’s like the sasquatch mother in those Purple mattress advertisements.

By far and away my favourite pitch of Poncedeleon’s, though, and the offering I think he could lean on far more than he does, is his cutter. He’ll work over righties and lefties both with the pitch, and it cruises in the upper 80s, topping out about 90-91. He’s plenty capable of getting swings and misses with the pitch, but even better than avoiding contact with the pitch is when he actively seeks out contact with it, generating tons of weak grounders and sawed-off fliners.

Poncedeleon lacks a changeup, and while his curveball is good enough to combat hitters on both sides of the plate, it’s really his ability to throw hard and that cut fastball that stand out most. He’s been a starter, probably has the stuff to keep on starting, and in most cases like this I’m the one advocating for the pitcher to keep throwing the greater amount of innings over the lesser. But in the case of Poncedeleon, I firmly believe he could be not just good, but great if he were to move to the bullpen and just distill his repertoire down to fastball/cutter. And if he’s healthy, circumstances could make that a reality as soon as the 2018 season.

If he’s good, it will look like: Let’s see...hard, moving fastball; nasty, wicked cutter. Aren’t the Cards basically trying to trade for that right now in the form of Alex Colome?

via minorleaguebaseball:

Mike O’Reilly, RHP

5’11”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 3 September 1994; Drafted Rd 27 2016

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

Notable Numbers: 87.2 IP, 24.1% K-BB% (Peo), 54.2 IP, 14.9% K-BB% (PB), sub-4.0% BB rate both stops

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Early in the season, Mike O’Reilly was one of the more exciting stories in the whole of the Cards’ system. He began the year pitching in Peoria, and despite being of both modest stature and stuff, he absolutely dominated. A 1.75 ERA, 9.14 K/9, and 1.13 BB/9 all tend to jump off the page at you. He was slightly homer-prone even at that level, but given that opposing hitters were only batting .159 against him, the occasional bases-empty dinger wasn’t really hurting him much at all.

Well, as is pretty much always the case with prospects who dominate to some absurd degree early in the season, O’Reilly was promoted up the ladder, and stopped dominating nearly so much. He still didn’t walk anyone at Palm Beach, but his strikeout rate plummeted from 27.6% to just 18.8%, and he allowed even more home runs, in spite of the Florida State League’s proclivity for knocking down the long ball. He wasn’t bad at Palm Beach, exactly, but the peripherals were fairly concerning, particularly in light of the fact he’s a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher, and what percentage of those fly balls leave the park is going to have a major hand in determining how productive he is.

O’Reilly works at 89-91 with his fastball, and the pitch doesn’t have a ton of movement or plane to it. Even so, he’s fearless in attacking the zone, and he has impeccable command of the pitch. He complements it with a solid-average slider that could be a little better down the line, perhaps, and what I personally think is his best offering, a 60-grade changeup that he’s especially good at beating lefties with.

The problem with O’Reilly’s stuff is that it just doesn’t give him a huge margin for error. His fastball in particular, as good as he is at putting it where he wants, is prone to getting whacked, hard, when he’s even just a hair off with location. As I said, he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, and sometimes those fly balls are going to go out.

Which is why I really would like to see him out of the ‘pen, just to see if the stuff plays up. If he could air it out for a limited time, and gain a couple ticks of velocity, that could make a world of difference for a pitcher who is already so, so good at execution. If his fastball could go from averaging 90 to 93, then suddenly his outlook begins to look substantially different. Maybe it wouldn’t make a huge difference, or maybe he wouldn’t be as good at locating 93 as he is 90. But I’m really curious to see what it would look like.

If he’s good, it will look like: The modest stuff pitcher who simply refuses to walk anyone out of the ‘pen thing can absolutely work. That’s basically the Edward Mujica plan, and look how well he pitched toward the ends of games for the Cardinals (and others). Ryan Franklin had a couple of really good seasons for the Redbirds out of the ‘pen at the end of his career when he simply refused to walk anyone with incredibly mediocre stuff. Addison Reed throws harder, but not that much harder than a hypothetical cutting-loose-on-every-pitch O’Reilly. He doesn’t have a pitch in his arsenal as good as Koji Uehara’s splitter, but O’Reilly’s change could be a weapon if he deployed it a bit more, and Uehara rode a 90 mph flat fastball, one truly great offspeed pitch, and an utter refusal to walk anyone to being one of the best relievers in baseball for a few years. Keith Foulke had a ten-year career doing the same thing.

The most usual path is to take a hard thrower with terrible control, put them in the ‘pen, and see if they can get away with just throwing as hard as they can for an inning rather than trying to manage a lineup multiple times through. The other path, though, that I’m hoping to see the Cards take with O’Reilly, is to take a pitcher with exquisite confidence in, and command of, his stuff and see if a move to shorter outings could help said stuff play up enough to make him a force.

via minorleaguebaseball:

Hector Mendoza, RHP

6’2”, 175 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 5 March 1994; Signed 2017 (Cuba)

Level(s) in 2017: DSL Cardinals (Rookie), Palm Beach (High A)

Notable Numbers: 33 IP, 37 K, 16 BB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Technically still part of the Cardinals’ 2016 international spending spree, Mendoza was signed after having left Cuba and made his system debut in the Dominican Republic this spring. He showed some rust in terms of command, having had a modest layoff from competition, but also showed solid stuff in terms of generating swings and misses, even after being challenged with a jump all the way to High A ball.

Mendoza works off a two-pitch arsenal, complementing a firm fastball at 91-93 with an above-average changeup that looks like a split-grip to me. I could be wrong on that, but the ball has that kind of tumbling look to it that you get with forkball or split style grips. He’s never really shown a ton of talent for spinning a breaking ball, although I know he did throw a curve in Cuba. For the most part, you’re getting fastball/change, and good enough on both to miss a fair number of bats.

I’m very interested to see what Mendoza can do with a proper offseason to prepare, and where the organisation places him to begin 2018. I could see a return to Palm Beach, certainly, as he didn’t exactly dominate there, but he’s closing in on 24 years old already, and they might want to challenge him again with a Double A assignment to see what they have.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’m going to invoke, for the second time in this same column, Edward Mujica as a potential player comp for a guy. Mendoza actually throws harder, but it’s a similar shape to the changeup. Tyler Clippard is maybe the current best-case scenario for the mid-velocity changeup artist. Mendoza also has a bit of a Japanese/Asian feel to his approach, as he incorporates a pause in his leg kick at times, and the change almost acts like a forkball on occasion. I really wanted the Cardinals to sign Yoshihisa Hirano this offseason; maybe they hired his non-union Cuban equivalent?

via Hector Mendoza:

See you all again Sunday, when I’ll have yet another epic-length list to present. ‘Til then.