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System Sundays: Sierra Sunday, and Headline Redundancy

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Magneuris Sierra is on his way to the big leagues, it would appear.

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The big news of the day is that, with Jose Martinez likely headed to the disabled list with a strained groin he suffered in last night’s contest (side note: I’ve never had any sort of groin issue, thankfully, but that’s an injury that just turns my stomach every time I hear or think about it), the Cardinals are going to need an outfielder. Thanks to the injury just days ago of Stephen Piscotty, El Birdos are being required to dig deeper into their depth than they most likely would prefer to do.

And that’s why, in a move that I admit surprises the hell out of me, the Redbirds are apparently preparing to call up Magneuris Sierra.

While it’s not utterly shocking the Cardinals would eventually call up Sierra, considering that even on my own personal prospect list — and I was much more down on Sierra this offseason than many other listmakers — he was a top fifteen system talent, what is shocking, at least to me, is just how far the Cards seem willing to go to avoid filling up their last couple 40 man roster spots. There’s already one spot open, and Alex Reyes could be bumped to the 60-day DL and removed anytime. (Oh yeah, and Jonathan Broxton is still taking up a spot on the roster in spite of being the worst bullpen option the Redbirds have, which is saying something considering how terrible Kevin Siegrist appears to be these days.)

But for whatever reason, the Cardinal front office insists on always having at least one really baffling roster thing going on at any given moment, no matter what, and so we have the utter refusal currently to stick, say, a Harrison Bader or Chad Huffman onto the 40 man roster at the expense of admitting there’s no miraculous four-month Tommy John turnaround coming from Reyes or cutting bait on a pitcher actively hurting the club every time his name is announced over the PA system. Huffman might be 32, but he’s also currently rocking a 135 wRC+ and near-1:1 strikeout to walk ratio for Triple A Memphis. Bader is still a work in progress, but he’s worked to improve his plate discipline this season, keeping his walk rate around 10% and his strikeout rate mostly in the 18-21% range, rather than the 25%+ range he was in last year. Oh yeah, and he’s also playing for Memphis, just one actual step from the big leagues.

The concern, of course, is that Sierra just isn’t ready, and thus will not help the team in any meaningful way. And here’s the thing: Sierra is jumping straight to the big leagues from the Florida State League, also known as High A. In all likelihood, he isn’t ready. Not only is the jump from A ball to the show a massive one, Sierra is a deeply incomplete player at this point. I was down on him at list time this year because he has yet to develop anything resembling even gap power, doesn’t have the kind of high-contact profile to deal with a complete lack of power, and managed to run a sub-4% walk rate at Peoria in both an aborted first shot at full-season ball in 2015 and his return to the big boy leagues last year. In other words, he doesn’t hit for power and he doesn’t really have on-base skills. That’s a worrisome combination.

On the other hand, I will admit that Sierra appears to have made some progress on the plate discipline-slash-patience front this season so far. No one is going to confuse him with Matt Carpenter anytime soon, of course, but all the same he’s seemingly made at least an attempt.

Last season, over 562 plate appearances for Peoria, Magneuris struck out in 17.6% of his trips to the plate. That wouldn’t be a problem for a power hitter, but for a strictly slap-and-run type that’s too high. Combine that with a 3.9% walk rate and you have a player far, far too reliant on batted-ball luck to be worth anything with the bat. So far this year, he’s struck out in nearly the exact same percentage of plate appearances (17.3%), but he has, to his credit, better than doubled his walk rate to 8.2%. Again, not Joey Votto here or anything, but that’s a big jump from where he was last season, while moving up a level. So pretty good.

Sierra has also, so far, managed to hit for more power than he has in the past, improving his isolated slugging from .088 last season to a relatively robust .143 in 2017. The downside to that is the fact Sierra hasn’t upped that number by putting balls over the wall, which would suggest a real improvement in his power. In 2016, 36 of Sierra’s 161 hits went for extra bases (22.4%), while this season that number is seven of 21 (33%), so there is potentially a bit more driving of the baseball going on, but the really big improvement for Sierra in terms of ISO is simply the fact he’s already hit four triples in just 85 plate appearances. Sure, triples are nice and all, but I tend to think of triples as the flukiest of extra-base hits, more prone to variance based on hit location and running speed than the other types.

Admittedly, Sierra driving a ball into the gap or down the line and letting his legs get him three bases isn’t a negative, by any means, but I still have serious concerns about him succeeding with just a slap and run offensive game.

On the other hand, Sierra does bring to the table something that really no other immediately available outfielder under consideration for the big league club offers: elite center field defense. Magneuris Sierra is all about speed, and that speed manifests itself best in center field, where he can chase down pretty much any ball any opponent wants to try and get past him, over him, or around him. It’s possible Sierra could be the best defender in the outfield in the whole of the Cardinals’ system. There are a couple other guys I would at least consider, but Sierra is probably the guy at the top of the pyramid. He’s a 70 runner and chews up huge swaths of ground in the outfield. Even if he doesn’t hit at all in the bigs right now, he could probably be an okay player based on runs saved at a very valuable position.

Also, there’s an interesting side story going on here. The Cardinals declined, this past offseason, to use a 40 man roster spot to protect Allen Cordoba, the talented young shortstop prospect who was subsequently snatched by the Padres in the Rule V draft. The thought in the organisation, I’m sure, was that no one would be crazy enough to pluck a kid, even a remarkably talented hitter like Cordoba, out of short-season ball and try to keep him on a big league roster. Well, surprise, because San Diego is not a real baseball team, and are basically just trolling the rest of the league at this point. But now, just a scant few months later, the Cardinals are asking a player with only slightly higher-level experience than Cordoba — and, it should be said, a much, much less impressive track record offensively — to make a similar jump. I doubt the fact Cordoba has mostly held his own so far this year (despite not being anywhere close to ready), is really factoring into the Cards’ decision to push Sierra so aggressively to the majors, but I do find it interesting they’re trying to jump a kid almost as far as what seemed unthinkable back in December with another player.

Anyhow, the question, really is this: can Sierra do enough on defense and in terms of baserunning to make up for the fact he will likely not be at all productive with a bat in his hands? Personally, I have my doubts, particularly since he’s not a very productive basestealer in spite of that very good speed. (He’s successfully swiped only three bases in eight attempts this year, because apparently the Cardinals simply teach idiotic baserunning, and teach it better than pretty much any other fundamental.) However, the Cardinals likely don’t need him to play that much, unless something else goes wrong, so perhaps he can get his feet wet successfully in a defensive replacement sort of role or something.

The very best version of Magneuris Sierra probably looks something like Ender Inciarte (though Sierra needs to bring his K rate down further to make that comparison really accurate), so if you’re searching for how a player like Sierra can be valuable in the big leagues, look no further than the Cards’ current opponent. Maybe Magneuris can pick up a few pointers from watching his best self play on the other side of the field as well.

Regardless of my reservations and concerns, it’s always exciting when a highly-touted prospect makes his way to the big leagues, and we’ve been hearing the name Magneuris (which, for the record, is pronounced Mahg-Nair-Ree), Sierra since he won the Cardinals’ minor league player of the year award as a teenager back in 2014.

It’s also perhaps slightly unfair of me to complain about this move, when throughout the offseason and into the current season I’ve been critical of the fact the Cardinals have seemingly been talking out of both sides of their mouth about wanting to get more athletic and improve the defense of the club, while simultaneously doing nothing to improve the defense for real, and then doubling down on the whole not-giving-a-shit-about-defense thing by playing Matt Adams (who, by the way, was once again fellated by the announcing crew last night following his home run, prompting Dan and Al to talk about how badly they want to see him get 600 at-bats and prompting me to hit the mute button and put on a Gary U.S. Bonds record as my game soundtrack instead, because I just don’t understand why Matt Adams is worthy of the continual adoration from people who should be smart enough to understand he’s just not a good major league baseball player), in the outfield. At the very least, calling up Magneuris Sierra absolutely does make the Cardinals more athletic, and absolutely does improve the defense. So from that perspective, perhaps I should simply be happy they’re willing to at least consider run prevention as a possible route to victory.

Either way, congratulations to Sierra, who will make his big league debut at barely 21 years old. That’s sort of amazing, and puts him in pretty heady company.