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System Sundays: Three Breakouts in the Early Going

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Checking in on some of the most encouraging early-season performances down on the farm.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

In general, I like rain. I really do. It makes a nice noise on the roof of my house. It keeps me from having to water my hollyhocks every single day. A rainy Sunday afternoon spent indoors with a country record spinning away on the turntable (something like Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Another Place, Another Time”, Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors”, or Sammi Smith’s well, anything), is my idea of perfect romance.

I even like thunderstorms, for the most part. It tends to scare my cats, yes, but I love thunder. Lightning is less fun, particularly if it happens to hit something important, but distant lightning off north as you’re driving from St. Louis to Columbia? Life is rarely better than the smell of ozone and a purplewhite light show.

That being said, seriously, just fuck off, rain. This is completely out of hand. (Which is an awesome Gary Stewart song and album, by the way, speaking of great old country records.)

Anyhow, we’re going to talk about prospects this morning. Hence the ‘system sundays’ header, which was probably a dead giveaway. (“Dread Giveaway” was a very funny Garfield and Friends short from 1993 about Nermal being offered for sale in an infomercial, which was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time — the infomercial, I mean — and yes, I’m thinking of writing a whole column in this format of random cultural references to things I like. I could be like Benjamin Hochman except not terrible. Well, less terrible, anyway.)

Okay, okay, enough of that. We really are going to talk about prospects. Specifically, three prospects who, early though it may be in this season of two thousand and seventeen, have made some serious noise of the breakout variety. And, because I am who I am and cannot ever, ever, ever stick to a format properly, we’ll probably have one or two honourable mentions as well. In fact, we don’t really need ‘probably’ at this point; I’m literally just telling you I’m going to throw a couple extra guys in.

Adolis Garcia, OF

Relevant Stats: .290/.389/.500, 8 BB, 11 K, 3 HR, 151 wRC+, 72 PA

The Cardinals signed Garcia in spring training, and at the time the consensus seemed to be they had just thrown a couple millions bucks away, with the potential for maybe — maybe — a fifth outfielder sort of ceiling. I liked Garcia better than many others, and even I thought the best we could hope for would probably be a handy fourth outfielder, mostly because it looked, to my eye, like the recent Cuban defector could probably handle center field.

Well, there’s still a really good chance that Garcia doesn’t amount to anything more than an extra outfielder, if I’m being honest. The numbers in Cuba were good, but the quality of competition there has eroded badly over the past half decade. And sure, he’s putting up big numbers here, too, but it’s Double A, and a hitter’s ballpark in a hitter’s league (though not to the extent it was a few years ago, strangely enough), and he’s 24 years old, so he really should be beating up on Double A competition.

On the other hand, Garcia has already shown far better plate discipline than I expected him to. And the home runs he’s hit haven’t been cheap wall-scrapers whatsoever. They’ve been flat-out bombs, and he’s running a near 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio. And he’s playing center field, and what I’ve seen of him looks pretty damned good. He’s walking over 11% of the time, and striking out just over 15%.

Obviously, there’s time for this all to go wrong, and Garcia to fail to develop into anything more than the roster filler most expected when the Redbirds signed him. But I have to say, I’m very, very impressed so far. He’s quickly become one of the first players I check in the box scores if I couldn’t catch the game, and while I’m not completely convinced he’s not just a 24 year old from a foreign pro league beating up on Double A competition, I’m beginning to think there might be something more here after all.

Jack Flaherty, RHP

Relevant Stats: 4 GS, 27.1 IP, 24.5% K, 3.1% BB, 0.33 ERA, 2.04 FIP

So far this season, Flaherty has probably been the breakout player, even if it’s kind of tough to really be a huge breakout surprise when you were a top five prospect before the season. (Or a top whatever the BA people had him; I’m still a little confused-slash-miffed they dropped him so far with what looks to me to be absolutely no good justification.)

Even coming in ranked highly, though, it’s impossible not to be extremely impressed with what Flaherty has done so far. The Double A jump is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, in organised baseball — certainly the toughest jump to make in the minors — and Flaherty has made it look extraordinarily easy. Some of his success this season has undoubtedly been aided by good batted-ball luck (his BABIP is just .211), but having watched a couple of his starts I can also unequivocally state I have yet to see anyone step into the box against Flaherty this year and really look at all comfortable.

Back in spring training, I wrote some small thing about Flaherty having impressed me with what looked like significant improvement with his curveball, which in the past had always been his least consistent offering; I’m standing by my earlier analysis that the curve has taken a huge step forward from where it was last year. The two breaking balls are now much more distinct, with less bleeding together, and he’s thrown a surprising number of early-count curves for strikes. Double A isn’t going to be this easy for Flaherty all season, I’m sure, but he’s looked, in the two full games I’ve managed to catch this year, like he came down from a higher league, as the saying goes.

Is it too early to bump Flaherty to Triple A? Almost certainly; I would like to see him get at least 8-10 starts in Springfield, even if he continues to dominate. A dozen would be even better. But so far, he’s simply outclassing the competition, and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him headed to Memphis before midseason.

Magneuris Sierra, OF

Relevant Stats: 62 PA, .296/.387/.389, 127 wRC+, 16.1% K, 11.3% BB, .364 BABIP

There are a couple of players I could have chosen to highlight here, and really, there are probably a couple I feel even more strongly about if I’m being honest. However, I ultimately decided to highlight Sierra in this first minors breakout post specifically because I was so down on him this offseason.

Really, Magneuris hasn’t shown a whole lot so far this year that he hasn’t shown in the past. He’s posting a high batting average on balls in play, unsurprising since he’s left-handed and fast, and the reports on his defense continue to be glowing. He’s also running a bad stolen base/caught stealing ratio in spite of excellent speed because he’s in the Cardinal system, and apparently the Cardinals literally teach players to be stupid as hell on the bases. It’s the only explanation I can think of.

However, there is one thing that looks significantly different about Sierra this year, and it’s that highlighted number up above there. Yes, it’s early, but considering Sierra ran a walk rate just a touch under 4% last season, a threefold increase, even in a small sample, really jumps off the page.

The bad news is he’s still not hitting for basically any power — that .093 isolated slugging is basically just two triples — and so it’s difficult to really project he’s going to keep walking at that rate. At some point, pitchers are just going to throw it down the middle if the hitter can’t do enough damage to scare them off the plate. Even in a limited sample, though, the mere fact Sierra seems to have made such a concerted effort to change his approach at the plate is very exciting.

Honourable Mentions

Harrison Bader — Speaking of making a concerted effort to adjust one’s plate approach, Bader has seemingly taken a serious shot at improving his on-base skills so far this season. After never walking more than 7% of the time at any previous stop in his minor league career, Bader in 2017 is walking over 11% of the time. He’s kept his strikeouts under control so far as well; his 20.0% K rate is a significant improvement over his 2016 numbers. It’s early, but a .191 ISO and a .375 OBP has to get your attention.

Also, he did this, which was pretty cool.

Zac Gallen — One of my favourite stealth prospects coming into the season, Gallen would probably be the number one pitching breakout in the system right now if not for what Jack Flaherty has done in his first shot at Double A. Working in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Gallen has thrown 23.1 innings so far this season, striking out 31.5% of hitters faced and walking just 6.5%. Obviously, he’s doing what he’s doing as an advanced college arm in pretty much ideal circumstances for a pitcher, but all the same, a 25% K-BB% is quite a feat right out of the gate in one’s first full pro season.

Dylan Carlson — I have to give a shout out to the youngest full-season player in the Cards’ system, as well, in spite of the fact he’s currently running a strikeout rate close to 40% at Peoria. Carlson won’t turn nineteen until this October, but is still managing to get on base at a .329 clip in Low-A. He’s shown some impressive power, as well, when he’s made contact. Peoria at eighteen is a hell of a challenge promotion, and neither the 37% strikeout rate nor the .250 BABIP is tremendously encouraging, but all the same I don’t think Carlson is completely overwhelmed.