Morning, all. Last day of the year, and here’s the last leg of the prospect journey. It’s funny; in many cases I find myself with less to say about the players contained herein, despite the fact they are the best in the system, simply because they’re so much more known quantities. Not necessarily known quantities in terms of what their futures are, but known in terms of what they are right now. These are names that every reader of this blog is at least somewhat familiar with, and probably has at least some opinion of. When the audience knows the subject, there’s far less that has to be said.
Anyhow, enough of that. I’m going to have wrapup thoughts next Sunday, along with lists very helpfully provided by two of our resident prospect mavens, ebo and Josey Curtis. They cover the system all year long through excellent work in the Daily Farm Reports, and I’m thrilled both have agreed to share their own insights and opinions. But what that means for today is that I’m going to move right in to the player reports, and save the big-picture stuff for next week.
Onward and upward.
#10: Jordan Hicks, RHP
6’2”, 185 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 6 September 1996; Drafted Rd 3 2015
Level(s) in 2017: Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A)
Notable Numbers: 18.2% K, 11.3% BB, 4.38 FIP (Peo), 30.2% K, 5.7% BB, 1.83 FIP (PB)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
At the time of the 2015 draft, Hicks was a lightly-scouted high school kid who showed promising arm speed and a natural ability to spin the ball, but also had rough mechanics, little control to speak of, and was just generally raw even for a high-schooler. He wasn’t really even on my radar at the time, and I was actually down on the pick when the Cards took him in the third round, mostly because there were multiple other players still on the board I thought were better bets. (Some of those players I preferred look pretty good. Others, most notably Trey Cabbage, um, do not.)
Two and a half years later, Jordan Hicks is one of the fastest-rising pitching prospects in the minor leagues, and whoever scouted him deserves a raise. Maybe a promotion, too.
That natural arm speed he showed as a high-schooler has blossomed into elite velocity, as Hicks now works comfortably at 94-97, and has been clocked into the triple digits in shorter outings or reaching back in a start. Beyond just the velocity, his fastball also has hard running and sinking action, resulting in an upper-90s bowling ball that hitters simply cannot lift. The pitch has 70+ potential, if he learns to dial it in in terms of command.
Along with the fastball, Hicks boasts one complementary pitch that has at least plus potential, in a big power slurve that, at its best, is devastating against same-handed hitters. It’s closer to a curve than a slider, but it definitely has enough of that in-betweenness that I would insist on calling it a slurve. Part of the issue is that Hicks tries to throw both a curve and slider, and the two seem to bleed together a bit. Personally, I don’t think he needs the slider, and would probably advocate scrapping it and focusing on honing the command of the curve.
He also throws a promising changeup, with good action down and to the arm side, but it’s not consistent yet. Of course, the fact that he’ll pitch all of 2018 at 21 years old means there’s probably not a lot of reason for concern yet over an inconsistent changeup. The pitch will flash at least average, and maybe even a touch above when he really commits to it. He’s still tentative with the pitch, though, trying to baby it in the way many young pitchers do when they’re still trying to master the change.
It’s an open debate for me right now who has the best pure stuff in the system between Hicks and Alex Reyes. Reyes is further along in his development, yes, but Hicks’s fastball has better movement and is more of a groundball pitch, in addition to the great velocity. If forced to choose, I would probably go for Reyes, but it’s a close call.
Which leads to the question: why, if Hicks has such remarkable talent and stuff as to be neck-and-neck with the top prospect in the system (spoiler alert, I suppose), is he ranked tenth, instead of second, or third, or fourth? The answer is relatively simple; Hicks still has a lot of developing to do. He took a big jump when he moved up from Peoria to Palm Beach, as his walk rate dropped nearly by half and his strikeout rate exploded to over 30%, but it was in a small sample of less than 30 total innings. What Hicks needs is time and repetition to improve his command of his repertoire. If he continues to develop, and what he did at Palm Beach was not a small sample mirage, there’s a good chance he could be sitting at the top of this list next year.
If he’s good, it will look like: The mid- to high-90s velocity coupled with tremendous sink and run on the fastball put me in mind of no one so much as the Colorado version of Ubaldo Jimenez. As of right now, Hicks has the same control issues Jimenez fought pretty much his whole career; let’s hope Hicks is able to continue improving in that arena. (I wouldn’t hate seeing him learn a splitter, either.)
via Baseball Census:
#9: Ryan Helsley, RHP
6’1”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 18 July 1994; Drafted Rd 5 2015
Level(s) in 2017: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A)
Notable Numbers: 132.1 total IP, 16.3% K-BB%, 2.78 FIP (PB), 18.4% K-BB%, 3.85 FIP (Spr)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Ryan Helsley had a spectacular season in 2016, pitching all year at Peoria and amassing a strikeout to walk ratio near six to go with an overall 2.22 FIP. He was probably the most impressive pitcher in the system from a pure performance standpoint.
So what does one do to follow up a brilliant season spent showing off one’s stuff at a single level? How about pitch at three levels the next year, topping out just one stop shy of the big leagues, and all the while continue piling up some very solid statistics?
Admittedly, Helsley’s overall numbers in 2017 were more of a mixed bag than what he did in 2016. His walk rate rose, the strikeout rate fluctuated more, and particularly at Springfield he seemed to get bitten by the home run bug (not shocking in the Texas League), and then begin pitching away from contact more than he had previously. Still, he handled the toughest jump in the minors without too much trouble, continued to strike out more than his fair share of batters, and added a pitch to an already-intriguing arsenal that should make him an even more complete pitcher down the road.
Said new pitch is a sharp little cutter he features mostly against lefties, to get in under their hands a la Chris Carpenter, and it’s roughly an average pitch right now. He deploys it intelligently, and so it plays up a bit, but in terms of raw grade I’d put a 50 on it.
The really good news is that the cutter is probably about his third best pitch, behind a fastball that sits 94-95, mostly tops out around 98, and has been clocked as high as 100 in the past, and a really excellent changeup that features almost straight down forkball action and generates swings and misses from both left- and right-handed hitters. I’m higher on his changeup that most other prospect coverage types, and I’m not sure why.
Helsley throws a curveball, as well, and while it’s a below-average pitch, a little too soft and loopy, he locates it for strikes early in the count effectively.
So that’s four pitches, two I would put as above-average or better, an average cutter, and a 45 grade curve that he’s still able to steal strikes with. Given that repertoire, I find it inexplicable that there is so much opinion he’ll end up in the bullpen. I mean, seriously, what am I missing here?
The risks for Helsley are basically that his fastball, while certainly boasting impressive velocity, is a little straight, and his walk rate has risen as he’s moved up the ladder. Getting hit hard in terms of homers at Springfield and then seeming to move away from contact is a bit of a concern, but he also struck out nearly 30% of the hitters he faced in Double A. I wouldn’t worry too much just yet.
Overall, it was a positive season for Helsley, if not quite the slam dunk that 2016 proved to be. Still, he was clearly pushed on to the fast track, held his own, and expanded his arsenal. I’d call that a successful campaign.
If he’s good, it will look like: Last year when I wrote up Helsley, I comp’d him to Rich Harden, because of the high velocity and wicked splittery changeup. Having watched Helsley this year, though, as he continued to diversify his repertoire and evolve into a legit four-pitch pitcher, I was actually reminded more of another Oakland A’s starter from the same era as Harden: Dan Haren. I don’t think Helsley’s change is quite as good as Haren’s splitfinger was, but it’s in that same neighbourhood. Also like Haren, Helsley’s slightly straight fastball that he prefers to throw up in the zone than down may always lead him to be somewhat homer prone. I’ll take a few extra dingers for that kind of career, though. The big issue for Helsley to get anywhere near that level will be to get his control/command headed back in the right direction. His walk rate is trending the wrong way as he moves up the ladder, and one of the most important aspects of being a Dan Haren sort of pitcher is you have to limit walks.
via Walt Hilsenbeck:
#8: Dakota Hudson, RHP
6’5”, 215 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 15 September 1994; Drafted Rd 1 2016
Level(s) in 2017: Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A)
Notable Numbers: 2.53 ERA/3.64 FIP (Spr), 4.42 ERA/4.57 FIP (Mem), 57.6% GB (All)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
If you’re really into strikeouts, and especially high strikeout to walk ratios, then Dakota Hudson of 2017 was very much not your cup of tea. He began the season in Springfield and stayed there most of the year, only striking out 16% of the hitters he faced. For a top prospect, that’s not exactly what you’re looking for. He paired that number with a solid-but-not-exceptional 7.1% walk rate. When he moved up to Memphis late in the season, those numbers both went in the wrong direction in a small sample, though it’s probably fair to to note he was pushing past 120 innings and on toward 150, establishing a new high workload, and so there may have been some weardown factor kicking in. Still, when it comes to peripherals, Hudson’s season was...not great.
On the other hand, if you’re really into pitchers who have tremendous movement, generate a huge number of groundballs, and just generally are nightmares to actually try and hit the ball off of, then maybe Dakota Hudson is more your speed.
Hudson still boasts one of the best 1-2 punches of any pitching prospect in the system, in the form of a wicked 93-96 mph sinker and a cutter that’s every bit as nasty going the other direction. When Hudson is going good and throwing strikes, he can work off just those two pitches and force some of the ugliest contact you’re ever going to see. Both are better at getting weak contact than swings and misses so far, largely because the command for Hudson still comes and goes pretty regularly.
Beyond the sinker/cutter combination, the tall righty throws a curveball with promising depth to it and a changeup that, well, kind of sucks. He did improve the change somewhat, to his credit, but it still needs work.
Really, ‘still needs work’ is basically the mantra when looking at Dakota Hudson. His command still needs work. His curve and change both still need work. His arm action still worries me, and I wish the organisation would try to get him to shorten it up in the back some so his arm isn’t so late. His ability to mix pitches to keep hitters off-balance and get empty swing still needs work. Hudson closed his first couple seasons at Mississippi State, and he’s not as far along the developmental curve as you might expect from a player of his experience level.
All that being said, the raw stuff Hudson can show at times is undeniable. He’s built like a workhorse, has premium velocity, premium movement, one of the sharpest offspeed pitches in the system, and has shown at least fair aptitude for throwing up to four pitches. He still needs work, but his ceiling is as high as any pitcher’s in the system if he gets there.
If he’s good, it will look like: Last year I compared Hudson to the late, great Roy Halladay, and while that seems hyperbolic, I’m going to stick with it. Obviously, what made Doc so special was his pinpoint command of an above-average repertoire, and Hudson definitely doesn’t have that yet. But stylistically, in terms of a big, physical sinkerballer who can attack hitters in the zone without fear they’re actually going to do much with the stuff being thrown, the best version of Dakota Hudson really does, I think, resemble no one else so much as the king of the sinker in the 2000s.
#7: Harrison Bader, OF
6’0”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 3 June 1994; Drafted Rd 3 2015
Level(s) in 2017: Memphis (Triple A), St. Louis
Notable Numbers: 479 PA, 20 HR, .283/.347/.469, 111 wRC+ (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Harrison Bader, in just his second full season of professional baseball, made it to the big leagues. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, and while his numbers in the majors weren’t all that good (70 wRC+), he showed off his athleticism and ability to impact a game in multiple ways at various times while he was up.
Tools-wise, there’s really nothing Bader can’t do. He’s a plus runner, I personally believe he has the glove to play center at at least an average level, if not better, and he makes as loud a contact as any hitter in the system. The swing shape is probably going to limit him more to 20-25 homer power, rather than 30+, but this is a player who hits the ball very, very hard, and it’s tough not to be excited about that.
On the other hand, Harrison Bader plays baseball a little like a football player, and while that’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world in certain ways — for instance, his fearlessness and doggedness in the outfield is great to see — it also leads him to have the sort of approach you would expect from a free safety who just loves to tackle people. Harrison Bader likes to swing the bat, he likes to swing the bat hard, he likes to make things happen on the bases, and the fact he would probably be a whole lot more productive if he did all of those things a little less, and let the game come to him, is going to be a tough sell to a player with his naturally aggressive mindset.
At this point, I’m honestly more optimistic about Bader’s glove than I am his bat. He posted a sub-.200 ISO in Memphis, and that combined with the aforementioned bad plate approach I find very concerning. On the other hand, I watched Harrison Bader play a lot of center field last year in Triple A, as well as some in St. Louis, and he has easy plus range out there, as well as an accurate throwing arm that should lend him some extra value. A center fielder who is a +5ish defender out there, has ~.175 ISO kind of power, and carries a high enough BABIP to prop up his otherwise shaky OBP is a very valuable player to have on your team.
If he’s good, it will look like: Yes, the easy comparison is Randal Grichuk, and so I’ll make it, but I just don’t think Bader is going to be as extreme a player as RANDAL in the big leagues. I’m actually thinking Bader may settle in closer to something like an Aaron Rowand type player, who plays a plus center field, runs a bad K:BB ratio, but hits well enough to be valuable all the same. Bader is a little more on the power side and less contact than Rowand, but that kind of hard-nosed run-into-a-wall intensity is present in both guys, and like Rowand, I think any big years Bader has are to be fueled by outlier seasons in terms of quality of contact.
The other name I really like, in terms of a current player, is Michael Taylor of the Nationals. His plate discipline numbers are more in line with Bader’s than what Rowand’s are — a reflection of the era, more than anything else — and the rest of the physical package fits pretty well.
We’ve all seen video of Harrison Bader, right? Sure we have.
#6: Andrew Knizner, C
6’1”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 3 February 1995, Drafted Rd 7 2016
Level(s) in 2017: Peoria (Low A), Springfield (Double A)
Notable Numbers: 4.7% BB, 11.5% K, .201 ISO, 124 wRC+ (Peo), 6.9% BB, 13.4% K, .137 ISO, .355 BABIP, 133 wRC+ (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
In the 2016 draft, the Cardinals took two mid-round shots on college catchers, both of whom I was very intrigued by. One of them, Jeremy Martinez, came out of USC with one of the most well-developed batting eyes of any player I think I’ve ever seen, had tons of success right out of the gate, and then crashed and burned this season due to an inability to make any kind of impactful contact whatsoever. The other was Andrew Knizner. Things went better for him this year.
I won’t swear to it, but Knizner looked in 2017, to me at least, to be in better condition than he had been in college. A little slimmer, a little stronger, and really moved around well behind the plate. He looks good blocking balls in the dirt, looks good receiving pitches, and while he doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, he gets rid of the ball in a hurry and overall appears to be at least an average catch and throw guy. All of that is extremely encouraging, and doubly so because of how much progress he seemed to show in his first full season in pro ball.
It’s in the batter’s box that Knizner is really the most exciting, though. He’s the offensive yin to Carson Kelly’s defensive yang, and it will be fascinating to see how the catching prospect drama plays out in the Cards’ system over the next handful of years.
Knizner has an easy, simple swing that generates tons of line drive contact. Some players simply have a natural feel for the barrel of the bat, and he appears to be one of those to me. The power in Peoria was surprising, and actually watching Knizner hit I feel like he’s much more of an all-fields, line drive hitter than a big power guy going forward. He’s great at going the other way when being pitched away, but has the hand speed to turn on inside velocity as well. He’s not the most patient hitter, which I would like to see him work on, but he’s such a natural at making contact I don’t worry overmuch about his ability to get on base.
The Cardinals haven’t had much luck developing catching prospects over the past fifteen years, which is surprising given how much emphasis they put on the position. With Knizner and Carson Kelly, though, the Redbirds have two very intriguing such prospects, and how they decide to use those two assets in the coming years is going to be a very interesting story. Kelly is the more polished defender, while Knizner is the more natural hitter, and has shown significant aptitude for improvement at the position. If pressed, at this moment I might actually say I personally prefer Knizner, even though I have Carson Kelly a few spots higher on this list for being closer to a finished product.
If he’s good, it will look like: The ease of contact and solid glovework Knizner brings to the table puts me in mind of Kurt Suzuki, though I think Knizner should hit for more power than Suzuki has. I have a hard time going as far as the all-around excellence of Russell Martin, particularly because so much of catching is barely visible (i.e. pitch framing, etc.), and I’m just not a great scout of catchers, but Knizner’s ceiling is something in that neighbourhood, at least.
#5a: Sandy Alcantara, RHP
And here is Sandy Alcantara, the highest-ranked of the players sent away in the Marcell Ozuna trade. I’m not going to give a full rundown of Alcantara here; most people here saw him pitch late in the season with the Redbirds, and most are pretty familiar with the scouting reports overall. He made a lot of progress this past season in moving from thrower to pitcher — though his fastball is, bizarrely, still the pitch he has the most trouble locating — and the Marlins bought his improvement with an eye toward him continuing that trend in the future.
The stuff for Alcantara is so good that if it all comes together for him, you could see a #1/#2 kind of ceiling for him. Personally, I have concerns regarding the arm action and whether the command will ever get to that point, so I’m probably a little lower on him than those lofty numbers. If he can avoid injury, though (which is maybe my biggest worry, actually), then his combination of velocity and movement should give him a floor of a late-inning reliever, and a really, really good one at that.
#5: Randy Arozarena, OF
5’11”, 175 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 28 February 1995; Signed 2016 (Cuba)
Level(s) in 2017: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (Double A)
Notable Numbers: 8 HR, .196 ISO, 18% K, 134 wRC+ (PB), 13.8% BB, 17.4% K, .366 OBP, 115 wRC+ (Spr)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
When considering Randy Arozarena, I feel there’s an important bit of context I have to get out of the way right up front, so everyone can keep it in mind while you think about his season. Randy Arozarena defected from Cuba at the end of 2014. Due to difficulties establishing residency and going through all the other steps required of Cuban defectors at the time in order to be able to sign with an MLB club, Arozarena sat out all of 2015. He played a short stint in the Mexican League in 2016, signed with the Cardinals late in the year, and was then pushed straight to Palm Beach to begin 2017, his first season playing in the United States. Oh, and also his first full season since 2014. So, you know. No hill for a stepper, as they say, right? (And by they I mean people during the Depression, apparently.)
So keeping that context in mind, that Randy Arozarena defected from Cuba and then barely played organised baseball for close to two years, what he accomplished in his first season stateside is, well, more than a little amazing. He headed straight to the Florida State League, to Roger Dean Stadium, also known as the place where hitting prospects go to die, and he showed surprising power there. Eight home runs in almost 300 trips to the plate may not sound like much, but trust me; in that ballpark, both a ~15 homer per season pace and an ISO of almost .200 are both things to be appreciated.
Arozarena was bumped up to Springfield, and the power seemed to go into hibernation somewhat. Eight homers in 300 FSL at-bats is actually fairly impressive; three homers in 200 Texas League at-bats is not. However, what Arozarena did show in Springfield was another aspect of his game that actually hadn’t really been present in his stay at Palm Beach. While playing in Cuba, Arozarena was known as one of the more disciplined hitters on the island. At Palm Beach, he was extremely aggressive, and I thought perhaps the patience he once seemed to possess just wasn’t going to translate. Then he got to Springfield and started taking walks like a mini Matt Carpenter. Even better, he didn’t see any rise at all in his strikeout rate moving up to Double A. That’s a hell of a thing.
Tools-wise, Arozarena is one of the best athletes in the whole system, with 60-65 speed, a 55-60 glove, an above-average arm, and plus bat speed that actually gives him some intriguing power potential. The plate approach and on-base skills are obviously a huge boon, if he can figure out how to incorporate all the parts of profile together at once. He played some center, but just as much in the corners this year; that’s as much a function of he, Oscar Mercado, and Magneuris Sierra all playing at similar levels during the season as it is Arozarena not being cut out for center, I believe. He’ll probably never be a 25+ homer guy, but, funny thing about that: in the current offensive environment at the major league level, it’s kind of tough to tell what kind of power potential a player coming up from the minors might have. Randy Arozarena hits the ball hard. What that means exactly I don’t know. But he has more pop, certainly, than you would think on first seeing him.
At this point, if I’m being honest, Arozarena is probably my personal favourite prospect in the system. He has legitimate five-tool potential, with the power probably being the one most likely to hold him back. But the things Arozarena does well are some of my favourite things, and I admit I’m smitten.
If he’s good, it will look like: That’s easy, because the player whose all-around game I most think of when Arozarena isn’t far from our minds at the moment. The young Cuban might not have quite as much power, but otherwise he reminds me quite a lot of...Tommy Pham.
#4: Tyler O’Neill, OF
5’11”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 22 June 1995; Drafted Rd 3 2013 (Mariners)
Level(s) in 2017: Tacoma, Memphis (Triple A, Cards/Mariners)
Notable Numbers: 557 PA, 31 HR, 0.41 BB/K (Tac), 0.23 BB/K (Mem), 106 wRC+ (Tac), 111 wRC+ (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
One word: power. That’s what’s so great about Tyler O’Neill.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t other things about Tyler O’Neill that are good, maybe even pretty great; I hear he dances a magnificent rumba. But when it comes right down to it, the thing the Cardinals were looking for when they pulled together the trade which sent Marco Gonzales from the St. Louis system to Seattle, the thing which puts O’Neill above the player I just stated was my personal favourite in the system, is power.
Arozarena has plus bat speed, Harrison Bader makes loud contact, Adolis Garcia can really drive the ball, particularly to the opposite field. But none of them have the kind of raw power Tyler O’Neill does. And it’s that power potential around which everything else really revolves for the Canadian slugger.
O’Neill doesn’t necessarily cut the figure of a slugger on first glance. It’s easy to picture Giancarlo Stanton at 6’6” and however many pounds hitting majestic home runs. Tyler O’Neill, on the other hand, at sub-six feet, isn’t quite so obvious. Then again, upon closer inspection, he essentially looks like someone just took Aaron Judge or Giancarlo and sort of squished them down a little, until they’re half a foot shorter than they began. O’Neill is every bit that jacked, just without quite so much verticality. One could even argue his shorter stature should give him an advantage over the giants, considering how pitchers are often able to exploit the long levers and large zones of hitters of 6’4”+. I’m not sure that argument holds, but one could make it, I think.
I’ve written about O’Neill on a couple of other occasions, so permit me to offer the abridged version here: he’s made multiple changes to his swing over the seasons since being drafted, and I think the version of his swing we see now, with the lower hand load and less spread out stance, is probably the best. He’s always struggled to find a good trigger mechanism for his swing, leading to issues timing up pitches, but I think he’s headed in the right direction. There’s still a lot of swing and miss to his game, but that seems to be getting better as well. He struck out less than 20% of the time over the last few weeks of the season and into the playoffs for Memphis. And a Tyler O’Neill who could get his K rate under 20% is an elite, elite, elite prospect.
As for the non-power hitting stuff, O’Neill runs well, probably a 55 runner, and it translates into what I think is at least average, and probably a touch above, defense in a corner outfield spot, as well as an efficient, if not especially prolific, stolen base threat. Over the past three seasons, Tyler has swiped 42 bags in 51 attempts. If he were to get aggressive some year, he could probably put up a 20/20 season. His throwing arm is strong enough to fit in right field long term. The Cardinals tried him in center off and on later in the season after acquiring him to see how he looked, but I expect he’ll settle into right, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
The Cardinal system, in general, has much the same makeup as the Cards’ current major league team: an enormous amount of depth, but not a ton of true star power. The player who ranks above O’Neill, Carson Kelly, kind of embodies that. But in Arozarena and Tyler O’Neill, the Cardinals do have, I believe, two prospects with legitimate star ceilings. The fact I believe O’Neill’s power is such a carrying tool to the point it makes him the more likely star of those two, rather than Arozarena having to do multiple things well to ascend to that level, is why the two are ranked in the order they are.
If he’s good, it will look like: Again, stature aside, Giancarlo Stanton serves as a decent comp for the kind of player the really good version of Tyler O’Neill looks like. Before this past season, Stanton was more of an all or nothing hitter, but really improved once he closed off his stance and started to push his strikeout rate down. Similarly, O’Neill in the past was always searching for a good swing trigger, and vulnerable to offspeed pitches as a result. Perhaps it was just a hot streak late in the year when he made more contact without sacrificing power, but there’s a chance he simply found a mechanical cue that works better for him, and actually improved. He’ll likely always be a fairly high strikeout guy, but if he can keep his walk rate up in the double digits he can get on base enough to be a real offensive force even when he doesn’t put the ball over the wall. If his plate discipline slides at the big league level and looks more like his overall line at Memphis, rather than what he did after the swing changes seemed to take hold, then Randal Grichuk is, in fact, a pretty solid comparison.
#3: Carson Kelly, C
6’2”, 220 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 14 July 1994; Drafted Rd 2 2012
Level(s) in 2017: Memphis (Triple A), St. Louis
Notable Numbers: .283/.375/.459, 120 wRC+, 11.8% BB, 14.3% K (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Carson Kelly, former third base prospect and overslot high school draft pick signing, has become one of the best, if not the best, defensive catching prospect in the minor leagues. The 2017 season represented a long-awaited offensive breakthrough for Kelly, but even so, it’s the glove that makes him such a strong prospect.
And that’s why Kelly is my highest-rated positional prospect in the Cards’ system this year: positional scarcity and value. There are other position players in the system I personally like more than Carson Kelly, but the combination of a potentially average-ish bat with plus defense at the single most difficult to fill position in the game is just too valuable not to rank him here, I believe.
Offensively, Kelly has always been able to make contact, keeping his strikeout rate below 15% at the majority of stops in his minor league career, but the quality of contact has been an issue. He showed significant power potential in high school before being drafted, and even in his professional debut season (9 homers, .174 ISO in 225 plate appearances), but since that time it’s been a struggle to keep his isolated slugging percentage even over .110. He showed some real maturation on that front in 2017, and suddenly what has always looked like a strong frame finally began to deliver some strong results. I don’t expect him to turn into a slugger, but a full-time line for Kelly could produce fifteen homers and a ~ 100-105 wRC+, I would think. Maybe that’s on the high end, slightly.
Defensively, there really aren’t any questions about Kelly. He moves beautifully behind the plate, his form on blocking balls is excellent, he has a big time throwing arm, and the finer points of his receiving generally get very good marks as well. Pitchers speak glowlingly about throwing to him, which I really have no idea how to parse, but it’s certainly better than the alternative. Long story short, Carson Kelly checks the box behind the plate the Cardinals seem to most value having checked, and that’s why, in spite of my personal preference for Andrew Knizner, I expect Kelly to get every shot possible to take the reins as the catcher of the future for the organisation, starting this season with a full-time backup role. Let’s just hope the bat doesn’t stagnate too much sitting on the bench.
If he’s good, it will look like: Basically, Kelly’s upside looks a lot like the man he’s being groomed to replace, Yadier Molina. Now, we’ll have to wait, probably years, before we know if he brings the same kind of intangible qualities to the job that Yadi has over the past decade plus, the leadership and intelligence and a calming influence on developing arms, but the tangible stuff, the stuff we can see, cuts a very Yadiesque profile. Probably minus the still-kind-of-shocking mid-career MVP run.
#2: Jack Flaherty, RHP
6’4”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 15 October 1995; Drafted Rd 1 Supp 2014
Level(s) in 2017: Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A), St. Louis
Notable Numbers: 25.6% K (Spr), 25.1% K (Mem), 21.3% K (StL), 4.6% BB (Spr), 7.1% BB (Mem), 10.6% BB (StL)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
As I said at the beginning of this column, there’s a certain irony in the fact that, the higher we move on this list, the less there really is to say about the players despite them being the best and most important assets the organisation possesses. For instance, what am I going to tell you about Jack Flaherty that you don’t already know? We all saw him on a St. Louis mound near the end of the season. He wasn’t ready. He was 21 years old and not ready. Close to being ready, but not quite there yet.
This time last year, I was pushing Flaherty into the top five on my list, and railing against the fact so many others had decided to bump him way down based on what I personally saw as really dumb criteria. This year, if you see a Cardinal prospect list and Jack Flaherty is not in the top three, the person writing that list is not to be trusted. (he said, hoping neither of his fellow prospect writers happened to be mysteriously disdainful of the young righthander and thus worthy of distrust and scorn...) His 2017 season was a bit of a coming-out party, a season in which the various components of his game came together and he really showed what kind of upside he has.
And that upside is substantial, even if it’s not ace level. Flaherty commands a four pitch arsenal, in which every pitch is somewhere between a 50 and 55 grade. The fastball is firm, sitting 92-93, but not overpowering. He mostly puts it where he wants it, and I’d grade it a 55. The curveball has its moments, and it definitely took a step forward in 2017, but it’s not, say, Alex Reyes’s or Adam Wainwright’s curve. It’s probably a 50, with a chance for a little more. The changeup is a solid 55, as Flaherty sells it and commands it, getting outs more on location and deception than crazy movement. The slider is Flaherty’s best pitch, and the one that is probably closest to a true plus, a 60 grade pitch. In fact, probably half the time I see him I would grade it a 60; the other half of the time he babies it in for strikes and tends to miss in the zone, rather than out. Still, it’s his best offering, and a legitimate out pitch when he throws it with conviction.
Nothing in Flaherty’s profile really screams out future ace; he just doesn’t have any stuff that’s quite that overpowering. But he’s brimming with useful weapons and mound smarts, as well as solid command of all his offerings. There’s a chance he’s able to ascend beyond mid-rotation starter through depth and breadth of stuff, rather than pure quality, but most likely the ceiling remains something like a number three starter. A good one, I happen to think.
If he’s good, it will look like: I think I went with James Shields last year, and I’m sticking with that. Flaherty has a similar package of multiple solid-average offerings, even if none of them are off the charts good, and an aggressive, fearless mentality in deploying those various and sundry weapons.
#1: Alex Reyes, RHP
6’3”, 220 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 29 August 1994; Signed 2013 (Dominican Republic)
Level(s) in 2017: None; missed season due to Tommy John surgery
Notable Numbers: See above
So, what’s so great about this guy?
It is a testament to the talent of Alex Reyes that, following a season in which he missed the entire year due to an elbow injury, and other prospects performed and produced, developed and demonstrated their talents, Reyes remains tops on this list, with no one else able to touch him. There were reasons to worry about him before — the command has always been shaky, the arm action was scary, the body was soft — and elbow surgery certainly doesn’t make him less risky. And yet, Alex Reyes’s talent is so far and away the best that he remains a fixture at the very top of this list.
Honestly, there’s not much to say about Reyes at this point. We all know the stuff; 95-97 on the fastball, touching 100+, hammer curveball that could rate a 65 if you saw him on the right day, and a 55-60 grade changeup that really came along in its development in 2016 to be maybe his most consistent offspeed pitch, if not his most awe-inspiring. The talent is undeniable; the ability to turn that talent into results is still yet to be seen, largely due to injury.
The funny thing about Reyes missing the whole season is that he essentially is frozen in time right now; he did nothing in 2017 to truly effect our perception of him, outside of perhaps raising some more risk flags due to injury. He neither failed nor succeeded, and so the snapshot we have of Alex Reyes mowing down Cubs at the end of the 2016 season remains the most current version of him we have to go on. He will not appear atop this list again; success or failure will lead to him moving one way or another. Whatever Alex Reyes is going to be was simply delayed for a year.
If he’s good, it’s going to look like: Justin Verlander remains my favourite point of comparison for Reyes; Verlander has the closest comp in terms of elite velocity and ridiculous curveball of any pitcher I can immediately think of over the past ten to fifteen years. Of course, perhaps the most notable quality Verlander has brought to the table since 2006 is incredible durability, which we can already be fairly certain will not be the case with Reyes, unfortunately. But when he’s on the mound, that’s the kind of performances Reyes is capable of.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the list. We will have a new number one next year, no matter what, and probably substantial turnover in the top ten, I expect. I’ll have my overall thoughts on the system next Sunday, but for now I’ll say that, even with the Marcell Ozuna trade having been made, there is a critical mass of prospect talent accumulating in the upper levels of the minors right now, and the Cardinals need to figure out how to best take advantage of that situation, whether that’s by using those players, playing those players, trading those players, or perhaps building a little fort comprised entirely of mid-rotation righthanders and fourth outfielders.
I’ll see you all again soon. I hope you enjoyed reading these as much as I did putting them together again this year.