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System Sundays: The Minor League Progress Report, Memorial Day Edition

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A semi-exhaustive look around the Cards’ minor league system as we approach the seam between spring and summer.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I know I’ve written before about how I like to divide a season into thirds; my trimester theory of baseball seasons is based around three 54-game chunks, generally speaking. The first third I tend to think of as figuring out what sort of team you have, and what you really need to do to it. The middle third is for making those course corrections; that’s where your bullpen reboot should happen, as well as any trades obviously. (hint, hint) And the final third is where you take your finished product into battle and fight for your postseason life.

In this telling of any given season, Memorial Day is a fairly important signpost along the way. You’re usually right around the 50 game mark or so as the unofficial start of summer rolls along; we’re a little short of the usual game count this year due to the WBC and a couple rainouts.

Nonetheless, Memorial Day still feels like a mile marker of import to me, and an opportunity to take stock of where things stand organisationally.

We all pretty much know where the big league club stands; incredibly frustrating, to the point some other fansites and/or message board communities have just gone completely off the deep end in terms of the negativity. Calls to fire Mozeliak, indictments of the whole organisational philosophy, and comically ludicrous chicken little narratives have become the flavour of the day at many of these places. And don’t get me wrong; I personally agree the club needs a refresh/reboot/retool/rewhatever, but some of the lamentations being bandied about are just completely out of line with reality. Wailing and moaning about how miserable the team is to watch for whatever reason. That sort of thing. Just come on.

Here’s the facts of the situation: the Cardinals this year are not failing because they’re cheap. They may not have spent as much as you would like, and they have almost certainly been too conservative, too risk-averse, at times over the past several years. But they went out on the market this past offseason and slapped down their money on the table to acquire two of the top free agents on the market.

And the Cardinals of 2017 are struggling, in large part, because those big investments they made have both, to date, been awful. Brett Cecil has torpedoed half a dozen games almost single-handedly, and Dexter Fowler has been one of the worst leadoff hitters in baseball in terms of getting on base. He’s also been bad defensively, which lends some credence to what certain internet writers might have been saying all along, which is that it seems strange to try and fix a bad defensive team by bringing in what is probably another bad defender. Luckily for us, Fowler’s offensive struggles look to largely be BABIP weirdness, and a lot of that will even out. He’s probably still a bad center fielder, unfortunately, but the offense will look a whole lot better when he’s running a ~.375 on-base percentage instead of a .310.

Where the big league club has basically been a frustration factory, though, there are some really good things happening down below. Not all good things, of course, but overall the Cards’ minor leagues in 2017 have been a significant positive to date.

The Good....

Jack Flaherty has been, to my mind, the single biggest positive breakout in the system this year. After falling out of several Cardinal top ten prospect lists this past offseason — though not ours here at VEB Central — Flaherty came into the season with, for the first time in his career, a little tarnish on his star. Well, good news: a strikeout rate north of 25%, a walk rate south of 5%, and a 1.42 ERA/2.26 FIP in 63.1 innings (10 starts), is about as good a polish as you’re going to find.

With Alex Reyes unfortunately missing the season with Tommy John surgery, at this point Flaherty would probably be my number one prospect in the system.

Paul DeJong is, as I just saw a couple moments ago thanks to a helpful news release from the Cardinals, on his way to join the big club while Kolten Wong deals with the recurring elbow soreness that has plagued him recently. DeJong’s line hasn’t been all positives, as he has been bizarrely allergic to walks this season (4.4% BB rate), but when he hits the ball, he really, really hits the ball. He has posted a .247 isolated slugging percentage as part of an overall .294/.331/.541 line good for a 123 wRC+ in his first go-round at Triple A Memphis. He’s hitting the ball in the air a ton — 45.2% flyball rate — which is good, considering his power is his best offensive attribute. DeJong has also made the transition from third base to shortstop, and I have to say: I’ve watched Memphis play a fair number of games this year, and in no way is Paul DeJong really noticeable at short. And I mean that as a compliment.

If Jack Flaherty isn’t the biggest riser in the system and the number one prospect, then Carson Kelly has to be both. And in fact, it’s pretty much a dead heat between he and Flaherty for top honours in both categories.

All Kelly has done so far this season at Triple A Memphis is put up a 148 wRC+ (.320/.400/.547), with a 10.3% walk rate and just a 13.8% strikeout rate. That .227 ISO is perhaps the biggest positive surprise, as prior to this season Kelly’s power potential hadn’t really shown up since the very beginning of his minor league career, back when he was still a third base prospect. Oh, that’s right; he’s also a catcher. And, in fact, almost assuredly the top catching prospect in the game now. Actually, I’m switching my vote; Kelly is the number one guy in the system. Flaherty, sorry, but you’re bumped to two. The one really huge question with Kelly is whether he represents such a valuable commodity that the Cardinals will almost be forced to move him in a trade this season.

Adolis Garcia has been a solid outfield presence for Springfield after signing late in the offseason. The 24 year old Cuban has put up a 114 wRC+ in 172 plate appearances, all while shaking off the rust and playing primarily center field. He started off like gangbusters, particularly in the K:BB department, but has since seen the league make some adjustments. He’s still hitting, but I would like to see him adjust back and start pushing the plate discipline again. His best fit is probably still as an athletic fourth outfielder capable of playing all three spots, but it’s certainly encouraging he’s played well so far this year.

Yes, yes, he’s a first base-only defender, and he’s 26, and he’s putting up numbers in the Pacific Coast League, and he’s probably nothing more than a Quad-A slugger the likes of which we’ve seen before. All that being said, it’s the probably that makes Luke Voit so intriguing, as he is murdering Triple A pitching to the tune of a 160 wRC+. For the record, that’s a .331/.418/.580 line, with a strikeout rate of 18% and a walk rate close to 10%. And that’s why I find Voit much more interesting than the Xavier Scruggses and Davids Washington of the world; those were close your eyes and swing hard players who excelled with power alone and were exposed once major league pitching got hold of them. Voit’s profile, on the other hand, is more like what Allen Craig looked like in 2011-2012. I have a hard time discounting that entirely. At the very least, I’ll bet Voit could pinch hit like Matt Adams so that every media guy crowing about the Cards trading an all-time great one at-bat a game guy can shut the fuck up. Lenny Harris wasn’t a special player either, motherfuckers.

Zac Gallen has been awesome in High A Palm Beach, with a 28% K rate, a 5.3% BB rate, and a 2.07 FIP in 47 innings pitched across eight starts. He’s probably close to needing to be moved up, but the pitching is beginning to bunch up at the upper levels of the system.

Speaking of, Dakota Hudson has been solid so far at Double A, if admittedly in a far less flashy way. His strikeout to walk numbers are okay, not great (18.5% K, 8.5% BB), but he’s rolled up tons of groundballs (57% GB), while adjusting to the Texas League level of competition. The Double A jump is considered the toughest in the minors, and Hudson is holding his own in his first full pro season.

Dylan Carlson belongs in this good category in spite of the fact he’s seen his production dip the last couple of weeks all the way down to a 96 wRC+. The reason? He’s still eighteen years old, playing in full-season ball, and has kept his head above water. The strikeouts were appalling at first, but he’s brought those down as time has gone on, and he’s kept up a walk rate right around 15%. The power will come down the road, I believe. There aren’t many eighteen year olds in the Midwest League, period, and the fact the Cardinals pushed him there — and he hasn’t collapsed — is all you need to know.

Tommy Edman was recently promoted to Palm Beach, after slashing .284/.347/.439 (121 wRC+), over 174 Peoria plate appearances. His strikeout to walk ratio was close to 1:1, and he stole eight of ten bases successfully. There’s basically nothing not to like about Tommy Edman’s minor league career so far.

Junior Fernandez has been a somewhat muted positive this season. He’s still not striking out nearly as many hitters as you would like, considering the level of stuff he possesses (15.3% K rate), but he’s averaging over six innings a start in Palm Beach at just 20 years old and has turned in a couple dandy starts. He’s still very much a work in progress, but he’s competing well and is tough to square up, even if he isn’t missing that many bats yet.

Luke Weaver and Marco Gonzales both look on track to offer the Cardinals very good rotation depth options later in the season should that become a necessity. Weaver had a back injury early on and Gonzales is returning from Tommy John surgery, but both have been very good since getting on the mound. The strikeouts are down a bit for Weaver, but he isn’t walking anyone and is getting more groundballs than he has before, so it seems like potentially a conscious tradeoff. Marco, meanwhile, has made three starts, looked good in two of them, and is just generally getting himself back to where he needs to be. The numbers are fine so far, but more important is the fact he looks strong and has yet to have any setbacks.

Magneuris Sierra started the season at High A Palm Beach, showed improved plate discipline there, with a walk rate close to 8%, and a little more pop than he had shown in the past with a .136 ISO. He was then called up to the big leagues, showed off an exciting speed and defense game, and BABIPed his way to a .367 batting average and turned himself into something of a Rorschach test for Cardinal fans. He’s down at Double A now, getting out of the gate a little slowly to the tune of a 64 wRC+. Overall, though, Sierra has raised his stock a ton this year.

Nick Plummer gets a qualified good rating, as he’s healthy and putting up a slightly above-average hitting line for Peoria. He’s striking out way, way too much (34.1%), but he’s still drawing a lot of walks (13.6%), and so getting on base at a solid clip. I don’t have a ‘neutral’ category here, so Plummer gets into the good. Barely.

Jordan Hicks also just sneaks into the good category, by dint of the reports on his stuff being glowing and his groundball rate being very high. He’s walking way too many batters and the strikeouts aren’t there yet, the result of shaky command, but he’s working regularly at 95-97 with his fastball now, and it has crazy sink and run when he’s on. Hicks is still a project, but the raw material is fantastic.

Speaking of raw material, Oscar Mercado has seemingly discovered a way to turn some of his into actual production, jumping back onto the prospect radar after falling completely off for me this past offseason. After moving off shortstop last year and still just not hitting at all, I pretty much gave up on the former second-rounder. This season, though, Mercado has done nothing but hit the ball hard since Opening Day, en route to a 138 wRC+ that’s largely driven by a sky-high .400 BABIP. However, I’ve seen Mercado play a handful of times this year, and he clearly managed to add some size and strength to what was previously a desperately thin frame. He’s hitting the ball on the ground way too much, but is doing so with authority. There’s enough functional strength here now I think you could actually work with him, and I wouldn’t have said that this time last year. He’s also still got wheels for days, stealing 15 of 21 bases and playing what looks like an outstanding center field. Mercado has very much put himself back into prospect conversations, and has to be a going concern now at Double A. Kind of an amazing rebirth. Oh, he’s also striking out quite a bit more than in the past, which is a concern, but he’s walking at a decent rate and hitting the ball hard. The arrow is pointing up.

The relief depth at the top level of the system is becoming pretty intriguing. We just saw John Brebbia called up to the big leagues after posting a strikeout to walk ratio close to 6 at Triple A, and a 3.18 FIP overall there. Mark Montgomery should be next on the list as the Cards hopefully remake the ‘pen this second trimester of the season, as he’s striking out over 30% of the hitters he’s faced in Memphis this year and seems to have finally gotten his control honed in where it needs to be after years of struggling with walks (and injuries, admittedly), in the Yankees’ system. And Rowan Wick, the converted outfielder/catcher now working for Memphis, has struggled with homeritis this season but is striking out plenty of Triple A hitters while continuing to hone his command and just general quality of stuff.

....and the Not So Good

Jake Woodford has continued to roll up grounders at a healthy clip (52%), but his strikeout rate has fallen at every stop, and in order to survive with a K rate under 15% (his is 13.9%), you either have to not walk anyone at all or keep the ball on the ground at an absurd rate. To Woodford’s credit, he’s pushed his walk rate down below 6% this year, but I worry that with so low a strikeout rate he’s going to hit a wall soon. Hopefully he’ll sharpen up one of his secondary pitches to get some swings and misses, because the sinker is still a great pitch for Jake.

On the other hand, while Woodford gets a qualified not so good grade, Connor Jones gets a full-blown terrified of his future grade. I wasn’t a fan of the Jones pick when the Cards selected him last year, and so far I haven’t seen anything to change my opinion. He’s walking just over 10% of the hitters he’s faced in Palm Beach this year, which is only sort of bad, but when you consider his strikeout rate is 11%, it suddenly becomes a holy shit sort of moment. On the upside, Jones is getting hitters to put the ball on the ground over 70% of the time this year, so he is proving pretty much impossible to lift. The Boston closer version of Derek Lowe or current day Zach Britton both beckon as dream scenarios for a pitcher who can’t miss bats but also can’t be elevated, but to see a guy unable to miss bats in High A after playing in the ACC is really scary.

Ronnie Williams has long been one of my favourite pitching prospects in the whole system. Ronnie Williams has been horrible this year, and left a start early at the beginning of the season. I wonder if he’s healthy. I don’t want to talk about it any more.

Jeremy Martinez was similarly one of my favourite players in the system coming into the year, and he’s been pretty bad as well. Not a disaster; Martinez is still walking and striking out at similar rates, but his quality of contact has been awful. No power at all (ISO of .010), and a low BABIP. He’s just not hitting the ball with any authority at all this season. He still has time to figure it out, though, and he wouldn’t be the first hitter to struggle with Palm Beach’s hitting environment.

Bryce Denton had to move off third base last year, and now this season he’s hitting .157/.200/.257. He’s still only nineteen, but Dylan Carlson is over a year younger and putting up a league-average hitting line as part of the same outfield as Denton. I’m beginning to officially worry that Bryce Denton is failing to launch.

Coming into the season, Sandy Alcantara was the official Buzz Guy on the pitching side, and so far that buzz is looking a little premature. He’s striking out almost a batter per inning after having jumped to Double A (although the actual K rate is down below 20%), but is getting pounded by Texas League hitters to the tune of a 7.12 ERA powered by tons of home runs and hard contact. You could look at the elevated HR/FB% and .361 BABIP and say he’s been unlucky, but I’ve seen those games. Not a whole lot of luck in most of those hits. There’s still time, though.

Eliezer Alvarez jumped from Peoria to Springfield, the same as Alcantara, and the promotion looks almost as over-aggressive for Alvarez. He’s on the disabled list with a high ankle sprain now, so he’ll be out of commission for awhile, but even aside from that this season has been a very poor showing for the Cards’ young slashing second baseman. He tore the Midwest League up in 2016, but Double A pitching is way, way tougher, and Alvarez has struck out in over 30% of his trips to the plate this year. He’s still drawing walks at a solid clip, but the strikeouts and weak contact have been a big issue. Maybe he can work on some things while rehabbing and get his hitting back on track.

Edmundo Sosa’s power has evaporated, and with it his plate discipline. He posted a .185 ISO at Johnson City in 2015, but since then has struggled to make quality contact. He’s sporting a .068 ISO and a 5% walk rate right now at Palm Beach, and while he’s not striking out at a huge clip he’s probably not going to survive if pitchers can challenge him with impunity going forward.

Austin Gomber has been okay. Good strikeout numbers, but too many walks and a flyball-heavy profile are concerning. He doesn’t necessarily need to be in this negative category, but I definitely don’t think he fits in the positive column either. I still think he fits best as a reliever, but he’s earned the chance to stay in a rotation for now with how good he’s been the last couple seasons.

Coming into the season, Randy Arozarena was one of my big breakout bets, and he’s been solid so far, putting up a line a little better than league average, but he’s shown a shocking aversion to walks (3.2% BB), and is striking out more than you want to see from a hitter who simply refuses to take a pitch. He’s slashing the ball around the Florida State League, showing a power/speed combo I still can’t help but love (not to mention he plays a damned impressive center field), but the plate discipline worries me long term. Hopefully that’s something that will improve as Arozarena gets back into everyday game action, as he did miss a lot of time over the last two years due to defecting from Cuba.

And finally, we come to Harrison Bader, the closest outfield prospect to the majors, who could very well see major league time this year if things break a certain way. And here’s the thing: I can’t really say that Bader has been a disappointment. After all, he’s putting up a 122 wRC+ right now in Memphis, which is actually better than Adolis Garcia in Springfield, who made the ‘good’ section of this post. However, direction matters, and early in the season Bader looked like he was making a concerted effort to improve his plate approach. At one point his walk rate was up around 11%, and his strikeouts were down under 20%. He was still hitting the ball hard, putting up solid power numbers, and the BABIP suggested hard contact as well. Things were looking extremely exciting for Harrison Bader.

Well, since that time, Bader has basically turned right back in to the very Randal Grichuk-y sort of hitter he appeared to be in the past. He’s now walking at just over a 7% clip, and striking out just under 23% of the time. Those aren’t terrible numbers, particularly if a hitter is putting up huge power production, but Bader isn’t really doing that. A .192 ISO is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not elite power that would make up for shaky-at-best on-base skills. What Bader is doing is running a .350 batting average on balls in play, which just as when Grichuk himself did it a couple years ago, is propping up what is overall a suspect hitting profile.

Honestly, Bader doesn’t really deserve to be in the down section of this post. However, it really looked early in the season like he had taken a step forward, and that step forward was in the form of a deliberate move toward a better plate approach. The fact that has seemingly evaporated and proven to be a mirage is extremely disappointing to me, and that’s why I’ve got Harrison Bader at the end of this post, still doing most of what he’s done in the past that makes him so intriguing, but having taken exactly zero steps forward and breaking my heart, a little, in the process.

And the Cardinals could really, really use an outfield prospect to break out.

There are plenty more players, of course, that I could cover. However, this post is already something like four and a half hours late (sorry about that; I planned on getting this done ahead of some holiday traveling, but failed), and so I’ll call it there. If you have a favourite pet prospect in the system you would like to discuss or hear more about, feel free to call them out in the comments. I’ll try to check in here regularly over the holiday. And happy Memorial Day, everyone. The first third of the season is just about over. We know pretty well what kind of team we’re watching this year.

For better and for worse.