I just got home from the gym about twenty minutes ago, and so am getting a later start on today’s column than I had planned. Thus, I should jump immediately into today’s topic, but it really wouldn’t be a red baron column if I did that, would it?
So anyway, while at the gym this morning, I was on the rowing machine, rowing and listening to a podcast, as I often do while rowing. The specific podcast in question was an old episode of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome, which I recently began re-listening to. In the episode, the name of a particular Roman general came up during a section relating to the year of four emperors.
The general in question was Marcus Cluvius Rufus, and at the mention of the name Marcus Cluvius Rufus, I immediately said aloud to myself, “and his top lieutenant, Chakus Khanus.” I then began laughing uncontrollably, lost my grip on the rowing machine handle thingy, and made a large racket that earned me a very unpleasant glare from the woman huffing and puffing away on the treadmill a little ways away.
Now that we have the unrelated-to-anything story out of the way, let’s on to the topic, shall we?
Pitchers and catchers officially report tomorrow, with the first officially official workouts of spring training officially scheduled for Tuesday. In other words, it may still be awhile before we start seeing games on television and getting a feel for those players generating enough buzz to win somebody a spring surprises competition, but baseball is very much on the way.
And in the spirit of camp nearly ready to open up, as well as sticking to the mostly minor league focus I’ve tried to maintain on Sundays, I thought we should take a look at a few players from the minor league ranks who could push their names into the collective consciousness through the course of spring training. We all know the top prospects who will be competing in camp; these are not those players. These are strictly role players, but role players who might be ready to play their roles sooner than later.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the majority of players I’m going to cover here are pitchers; there seems to always be extra opportunities for pitchers to make an impression in the spring as everyone works to get up to speed. We have three arms and one position player, with all three pitchers most likely looking at a relief role at the big league level, if they’re going to make it at all, I think.
Trey Nielsen, RHP
Nielsen has had a bit of a Trevor Rosenthal career path so far; he was a late round pick out of a non-baseball hotbed school who was mostly a position player but attracted the Cards’ attention for his arm. Admittedly, Nielsen isn’t nearly the talent Rosenthal proved to be on his way through the system, but after having been developed mostly as a starter the last couple years, it’s possible a full-time conversion to the bullpen could help raise Nielsen’s profile in the near term.
Nielsen pitched all of 2016 at Double A Springfield (well, all except for one emergency Triple A start when Alex Reyes was promoted to the big club), and reached a new career high in innings with 122. The downside is that his performance in those 120+ innings was decidedly mediocre, as he posted a 4.37 FIP and just a 15.4% strikeout rate in the Texas League. The good news is he doesn’t walk many hitters, either, and the fact he’s an extreme groundball pitcher could indicate a guy capable of outpitching his peripherals by limiting damage on balls in play.
In posting that career-high innings number, Nielsen also spent time on the DL in August with arm fatigue, perhaps not shocking considering he’s only been pitching full time for about three years now. Still, the relative shallowness of his arsenal and potential stamina concerns could point to relief work in his future.
Stuff-wise, Nielsen brings an above-average sinker to the table, sitting around 91, and complements it with a solid changeup. He has yet to really show much of an ability to spin the baseball, and so his breaking stuff remains very much a work in progress. He’s a little less advanced, but has some things in common with Matt Bowman. The Cards have shown an affinity for sinker-heavy relievers over the past several years, counting on guys like Bowman and Seth Maness to put the ball on the ground. With Maness gone and Bowman potentially set for a more important role this year than he began 2016 with, Nielsen could put himself into roster consideration with a strong showing.
Kendry Flores, RHP
You may not recognise Flores’s name, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you don’t. He’s new to the Cardinal system, after having signed as a minor league free agent this past November.
Flores has spent the last couple years in the Marlins’ system, after coming over from the Giants as part of the ill-fated Casey McGehee trade. He had a brief cup of coffee in 2015 and an even smaller cup in 2016, but hasn’t really made that much of an impression in the high minors yet, much less the big leagues.
The intriguing thing about Flores is he’s been developed exclusively as a starter in the minors so far, but has the kind of dynamic two-pitch mix one could see taking off in a bullpen role. He has a firm fastball from 90-93 with some armside run, and complements it with a plus changeup that falls off the table at the plate. The biggest problem Flores faces is, much like Trey Nielsen, he doesn’t have much of a breaking ball to speak of.
It’s possible that moving to the ‘pen could allow Flores’s fastball to play up, and focusing on his two good pitches could make him a more effective pitcher overall. The Cardinals have had some success with fastball/changeup relievers in recent years, with Fernando Salas and Edward Mujica both springing to mind immediately as fine examples of the form. Flores at 92 with a 55-60 changeup is a struggling starter; Flores at 94 with a 60 change playing off that better fastball could be this year’s Miguel Socolovich.
Breyvic Valera, INF
The only position player on this little list, Valera makes it in as the most likely camp invite to turn into Aaron Miles.
Valera has been kicking around the Cardinals’ system for what seems like forever now, having made his pro debut all the way back in 2010, and finally being added to the 40 man roster for the first time this past November. Over those years, he’s made a name for himself as a high-contact switch hitter who also offers, um, did I mention he’s a switch hitter who makes lots of contact?
To be fair, Valera does offer some positional versatility, but second base is the only position where he seems to really be a good fit, and even at the keystone he’s no more than an average defender. Still, he can play pretty much any position except catcher (actually, I don’t know for sure he can’t catch), and while he’s certainly stretched playing shortstop, he can fake it for a game or two. Combine that flexibility with a bat that has produced high batting averages in the minors pretty consistently, and you have a player who certainly isn’t going to be a star, but who should have a way to contribute in the majors at some point in the near future.
Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no real power to speak of in the profile, which limits him to being basically a slap hitter. He also doesn’t have a ton of speed, so he isn’t going to bring that as a weapon. He plays lots of positions and he makes a lot of contact from both sides of the plate.
There’s a reason it’s the Most Like to Become Aaron Miles award.
Chris Ellis, RHP
You might remember the name Chris Ellis; he was one of the prospects acquired from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Jaime Garcia. John Gant was my favourite of the three players, and a pitcher I could see making a big time impact in relief, or serving as fine starting depth this year. Luke Dykstra I wrote about shortly after the trade was made, and barring some changes to his swing I see him primarily as minor league depth. Chris Ellis I haven’t really said too much about this offseason, though. Consider this me remedying that oversight.
Of the three players the Cards picked up for Jaime, Ellis sits right in the middle for me. He’s been a starter in the minors, but like the other two pitchers I’ve profiled here I see him as a better long-term fit as a reliever. He has two solid offerings, a very mediocre changeup, and below-average command. If that profile doesn’t scream future reliever, I don’t know what does.
The good news is, Ellis’s two good pitches might be good enough to make him a plus late inning reliever. His fastball isn’t anything to write home about, but at 91-93 as a starter there’s the potential of a plus heater if the pitch were to tick up in short outings. He complements the fastball with his best pitch, a hard slider in the 82-84 range that shows true two-plane break and gives right-handed hitters fits. As a starter, Ellis’s stuff is pedestrian, particularly considering his third pitch is a 40-45 grade changeup and he isn’t a wizard at hitting the corners. Concentrating his stuff down for relief work, though, and leaning on the slider more heavily than a starter could probably afford to could make Ellis’s stuff overall look much more impressive. We’ve seen pitchers with lesser stuff than Ellis take big jumps forward once moving to the bullpen; I have to believe the Cardinals see him as a relief option as much as they do a Triple A starter in 2017.
It will be interesting to me to see when and how much each of these players gets into games early in camp. The Opening Day roster would seem like a fairly significant long shot for all of them, but considering how often teams have to dip into the minor leagues to shore up sudden holes that open up, I would be shocked if we don’t see at least, and likely closer to two, of these players serving in some role at the big league level this year.