As we embark on the second, um, ‘half’ of the season, the Cardinals are in perhaps the worst spot an organisation itself: caught in the middle. Partly due to the abject awfulness of the National League Central this year, the Cards are hovering just under .500, yet are not so far out of the race they will wish to really aggressively sell. A club on pace for 85-87 wins can convince itself it’s a real contender; a club on pace for 79-80 cannot. Except, of course, when it looks like 85 might win the division, and you’re just too close.
That’s the bad news; the major league club isn’t very good, but it’s unlikely we’re going to see some big moves that would catapult them onto a new track pointing upward. That’s not to say the organisation won’t do what they can; I’m sure they will. But being stuck in the middle is a tough place to be.
The good news is there is a ton of talent percolating up from below in the Cards’ minor league system, and even if the big club is maddening most nights, the future is still an exciting place. What we have here today is a selection of five minor leaguers who could very well be important names to know the rest of the way this season. Note these are not all the Cards’ best prospects, mind you; these are, rather, prospects due for promotions, or who are getting close to entering the big-league picture, or have to prove themselves worthy of a 40-man roster spot, or some other situation that makes them intriguing to follow.
Oscar Mercado, OF
Current Level: Double A Springfield
You may or may not remember the story of Oscar Mercado; just in case you don’t, here’s a quick primer. Mercado was a high school shortstop with monster defensive tools and a very questionable bat when the Cardinals took him in the second round of the 2013 draft. Well, the bat turned out to be just as questionable as it was thought to be, but the surprise was how inconsistent and erratic Mercado’s play was at the shortstop position. His issues were not for lack of talent, as he possessed both plus range and an elite throwing arm, but his footwork was unpolished, his hands often seemed to be moving faster than the rest of his body, and he tended to sling the ball from all angles, a la Brendan Ryan, with the overall result being an error-prone shortstop who just seemed to be playing out of control much of the time.
Last season, Mercado was moved from shortstop to center field, and most prospect watchers (yours truly included), basically wrote him off at that point. The bat was barely good enough for a shortstop; if he wasn’t going to make it in the middle infield he just didn’t have much shot of being a productive player.
An interesting thing has happened this season, though: for the first time basically ever as a pro, Oscar Mercado has actually hit. Early on in the year, he was putting up big-time power numbers, and it looked as if he might have transformed himself into a different kind of hitter entirely. As the season has gone on, though, the power has waned to a certain extent, and his profile has begun to look more like the hitter he’s always been, only a better version.
Mercado has definitely put on weight and strength over the past year, and that’s been part of the change that’s led him to make harder contact. He’s also quieted his swing, though, which has helped him get the bat into the zone on a better plane, more on time, and with more oomph behind it.
It’s interesting; Mercado right now essentially looks like a remarkably similar player to Magneuris Sierra, only a right-handed-hitting version. Both are low-power speedsters who generate much of their value via outstanding defense at an up the middle position, with their offense being heavily dependent on good batted-ball results. Sierra has a little better strikeout rate and contact ability in general, while Mercado has a little more pop in his bat and baserunning ability. Both he and Sierra possess 65 or better speed, but while Mags has struggled badly to date turning that speed into value on the bases, Mercado steals almost at will, and is successful most of the time too. In about 420 minor league games and ~1800 plate appearances, Oscar has stolen 149 bases and been caught just 61 times. That’s a 71% success rate, which is admittedly just over the break-even line, but the volume of steals at that rate is very encouraging. If he could refine that area of his game even just a little, push that percentage up to 75% or so, you’d be looking at a source of value really no one else in the Cards’ system offers.
The biggest concern regarding Mercado right now — or at least the biggest difficulty — is the fact he will have to be placed on the 40 man roster this offseason or exposed to the Rule V draft. (And I’d really prefer not to see him in a Padres’ uniform next year, for the record.) He and Sierra occupy such a similar position in the system that it feels as if having the one makes the other more expendable. That’s not really how it works, obviously, but it’s not at all hard to imagine one or the other — Sierra having the higher value right now — ending up part of a trade package before the deadline, should the Cardinals try to bring in a major league asset. If Mags were to go in such a deal, Mercado would almost certainly be the beneficiary. Given that backdrop, it’s going to be very interesting to watch and see how much more the former shortstop can consolidate the gains he’s made this season, and if he’s done enough to put himself into at least the medium-term plans of the organisation.
Dakota Hudson, RHP
Current Level: Double A Springfield
When Hudson was drafted in the first round last year, there was some thought he could end up one of the fastest-moving pitchers in the whole draft class after serving as both a starter and late-inning reliever for Mississippi State. He wasn’t the most advanced or polished pitcher as one might think, hearing about his potential to move quickly, but he did feature one of the most dominant two-pitch combos in all college baseball, with a 65-grade sinking fastball and a wicked cutter that on its best days might rate a 70. It doesn’t take much more than that to succeed in a bullpen role, and so the thought was Hudson could hop on the fast track were the team drafting him to stick him in relief and push him up the ladder.
Well, the Cardinals decided they would try to develop Hudson as a starter, thinking the overall package of stuff was just too tempting to relegate him to the ‘pen so soon into his career. (For the record, I couldn’t agree more with that approach.) They did push him aggressively, however, placing him in Double A to begin his first full pro season.
So far, the returns have been mostly positive on Hudson, as he has made sixteen starts, thrown just over 100 innings, and kept his walk rate under control at right around 7%, which was one of the biggest concerns about him coming out of college. He’s allowed roughly a hit per inning, which isn’t too very bad at all, but the one real black mark on his 2017 record has been a lack of strikeouts. In those 100 innings, Hudson has only struck out 69 hitters, which is a little worrisome for a pitcher with his level of stuff. Still, he’s rolling up grounders at a very high clip, minimising the damage he allows, and is averaging over six innings a start. It’s been a very positive season for Hudson so far.
The reason he’ll be so interesting to watch the rest of the way is, mostly, because of that original thought that Hudson could slide into a bullpen role and be a fast mover through a system. There are other pitchers in the minors likely due a relief callup before Hudson — Mark Montgomery chief among them — but an extreme groundball profile and a power arm can always come in handy. I don’t necessarily expect to see Hudson auditioning in relief at any point this season at the big league level, but it also wouldn’t shock me, particularly if he really turns it on here over the next month or so.
Zac Gallen, RHP
Much of what I just said about Dakota Hudson somewhat applies to Gallen as well, with the added wrinkle that the former North Carolina Tarheel has been simply stellar this season, and actually has leapfrogged the more highly-touted Hudson. In fact, Gallen has already reached Triple A in his first full season of professional baseball, and his early Memphis performances suggest a pitcher not at all far away from being major league ready.
Possessed of one of the best changeups in the system — if not the minors as a whole — Gallen began the season at High A and dominated, striking out over a quarter of the hitters he faced and walking less than 5%. The Cardinals seemed disinclined to push him as hard as Hudson early on, but after 55 innings of beating up on Florida State League hitters, Gallen was promoted to Springfield. When Luke Weaver was promoted to the majors for a period of time, Gallen was the pitcher bumped to Memphis rather than Hudson or one of the other more experienced hurlers. He was sent back down to Springfield about a week ago as pitchers were once again shuffled around, and will probably stay at Double A for awhile. Then again, while at Memphis Gallen made three starts (15.2 innings), and struck out 31.3% of batters faced, against just a 4.7% walk rate. So...with those kinds of numbers, you might think the Cards would be very interested in getting him onto the 40 man and potentially even up to the big leagues sooner than later, just in case they wanted him to be available come October.
For now, though, Springfield is Gallen’s home, and while he’s been fine there, he hasn’t yet dominated the Texas League the way he did either the FSL or Pacific Coast League. Granted, it’s only been 23.2 innings, but his K rate in Springfield is just 15%, so he isn’t getting the swings and misses he has elsewhere. Strangely enough, he’s also been a groundball pitcher at his other minor league stops, but has allowed mostly air contact for the S-Cardinals. It’s almost certainly just small-sample weirdness, but it won’t hurt Gallen’s long-term development to spend the rest of the season honing his craft in the Texas League.
Then again, considering the gaudy strikeout rates, and how much trouble the Cardinals have had finding good bullpen performers this year....
Ryan Helsley, RHP
Current Level: High A Palm Beach
Having recently appeared in a Carson Cistuli fringe five column, one would think Ryan Helsley’s life is probably about as good as it’s possible to even imagine. However, let’s all hope as hard as we can he continues to pitch as hungrily as he has to this point, and doesn’t let the admiration and acknowledgment of the internet baseball analysis community’s answer to Woody Allen go to his head.
Luckily, we have the horrible affront Helsley is suffering every single day he remains at Palm Beach, because frankly, he’s flat-out too good for the Florida State League. Not quite as much too good for the FSL as he was for the Midwest League last year, when he spent the entire season in Peoria despite posting a 1.61 ERA and 2.22 FIP, but still too good all the same. It’s interesting to me the Cardinals are seemingly so committed to moving Helsley along slowly; this is two years in a row he’s dominated the level at which he is pitching and yet has not received the kind of midseason promotion so many other prospects receive when they excel in the St. Louis system.
Helsley throws as hard as just about any starting prospect in the Cards’ farm ranks short of Alex Reyes, topping out close to triple digits with his fastball. Even better, the fastball really moves, at both the top and bottom of the zone, making Helsley extraordinarily hard to square up. His command isn’t always the sharpest, but he throws strikes, avoids walks, and has so far proven incredibly difficult to homer against. In his pro career, which at this point covers just under 220 innings, Helsley has given up just six home runs, and the highest HR/FB percentage he’s allowed at any stop is 3.3%. Now, that could be due for regression, but anecdotally, the few times I’ve gotten to properly watch him pitch he generates a ton of weak contact in the air. Lots of soft pop flies that go nowhere.
Helsley is very much in line for a promotion to the tougher competition — and more hitter-friendly environment -- of the Texas League and Double A ball, but there is a developing logjam of pitchers at the higher levels. Personally, I would consider bumping Sandy Alcantara down to Palm Beach, where he could work on his command at the Cards’ complex, but that’s just me. As things stand now, Helsley is just going to have to keep pitching so well he forces the issue of a promotion.
Randy Arozarena, OF
Current Level: Double A Springfield
Prior to the season, Arozarena was a personal favourite of mine, but a player I had to be conservative in ranking simply because there was so much unknown with him. The tools were certainly exciting, based on what could be gleaned from the video available, but low-quality Cuban Serie Nacional footage and the occasional international tournament appearance wasn’t a ton to go on.
Well, I’m happy to report that, after half a season of stateside ball, I feel absolutely no need to be conservative in my ranking of Arozarena come this offseason’s list. The plate discipline that received high marks from scouting reports in his Cuban league days hasn’t really shown up yet, as Arozarena walked less than 5% of the time in the Florida State League, but the electric athleticism and consistent loud contact certainly have. In just under 300 plate appearances in the FSL (remember, one of the most brutal hitting environments in the minors), Arozarena slugged eight home runs, stole ten of fourteen bases, posted an OPS over .800, an ISO of .196, and a wRC+ of 133. All while playing center field pretty much every day and drawing solid reviews.
Arozarena isn’t as close as a couple of the other prospects on this list, and isn’t coming up on an impending roster spot crisis either. He’s just interesting to watch and follow because he’s...interesting. Intriguing. Even in a system that has seen an infusion of athleticism the last handful of years, Arozarena stands out as a special kind of electric. I don’t know where I’ll rank him when I put together the 2017-’18 VEB prospect list, but I do know it will be much, much higher than last time.
I resisted putting any brand new draftees on the list, even though many of them are going to be as exciting/interesting/intriguing/whatever to follow as anyone in the system the rest of the way. (No, I’m not saying you should check the box scores for TERRY FULLER ever day the rest of the season. I’m just thinking it very loudly.) Those players have novelty and newness on their sides. These players are, for one reason or another, potentially important in the short- and medium-terms. Are they going to make or break the Cardinal organisation? Not individually, no. But taken in the aggregate, how the season goes the rest of the way for these players could have a lot to say about what moves are made, what moves aren’t made, and where the farm system is when the cold days of January roll around.
Okay, as is basically always the case with every list I make, I can’t get through this one without a couple honourable mentions. In this case, the two players who probably just missed out on the list are Adolis Garcia on the position side and Mike O’Reilly on the pitching side. Garcia has put himself into long-term fourth outfielder consideration with his play this season, potentially competing with Harrison Bader for a near-term opportunity, and O’Reilly isn’t yet anywhere near high enough in the system to be a long-term consideration, but despite pedestrian stuff he’s been absolutely dominant this season. He works with a funky short-arm delivery that makes him very deceptive, but also worries me for his durability. Still, the change looks like a legit weapon, and the cutter/slider isn’t bad either. I’m really fascinated to see if he can maintain any kind of performance as he moves up into the high minors.