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System Sundays: A Few Updated Season Lines

Checking in on some potentially pivotal players in the system.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, all. I’m writing this column Saturday evening, just before first pitch of tonight’s tilt, so if anything huge or momentous happened in the game, feel free to ignore this and discuss that. Perhaps a disoriented puma ran on to the field and sparked a comeback.

Anyhow, due to the intrusion of my day job, I find myself with very little time this weekend to write, and thus am in need of a quick something or other. So rather than try to cobble together a rushed column based on a half-baked idea (which, really, how different would that be from my normal writing, I can hear you asking, and I don’t understand why you feel the need to hurt my feelings), I thought I would simply update you on the season lines of what I consider to be a few of the more important prospects in the system. Our daily farm report crew obviously does a phenomenal job keeping the running updates going, but it’s easy to lose sight of how the season has actually gone for some of these guys, even when you’re following along.

It should be self-evident there’s quite a bit of subjectivity in the notion of “important” prospects in the system; considering we’ve seen Matt Carpenter become a centerpiece player for a contending club over the past five years, it’s important to keep in mind that even players with very little pedigree every once in awhile become something you don’t expect. But these are players who, at this moment, I think will have something to say over the next several seasons about what direction the fortunes of this organisation will break. (While also trying to avoid players I’ve specifically put in past roundup-style posts.)

Randy Arozarena, OF

Current Level: Springfield (Double A)

153 PA, .282/.379/.435, 3 HR, 9 2B, 11.8% BB, 15.0% K, 7/8 SB, 131 wRC+

It’s been quite a season for Arozarena, who went from Cuban lottery ticket to system star in a hurry, and who, if the season ended today, just might be my number one outfield prospect in the system.

He began the season at Palm Beach, and over the course of just under 300 plate appearances posted an almost identical 133 wRC+ to his Springfield line, but got there in a completely different fashion. At High A, Arozarena barely walked — just a 4.4% BB rate — and struck out a bit more often — 18.0% K rate — but made up for it with a very impressive show of power. He put eight balls over the wall in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Florida State League, while putting the athleticism on display with ten stolen bases in fourteen tries and what was, by all reports, occasionally spectacular outfield defense.

The power and speed at Palm Beach were tremendously exciting, and the contact rate was solid, but the lack of walks was a bit concerning. We’ve seen how difficult life can be at the major league level for players with such poor on-base skills (look how often Randal Grichuk has been up and down in spite of his physical tools), and a sub-5% walk rate can get scary in a hurry when you move even further up the ladder.

Since getting to Springfield, though, Arozarena has turned himself into, if anything, an even more exciting player. He’s actually hit for slightly less power in Double A (his isolated slugging has fallen from .196 to .153), but the plate discipline has been extraordinary. He’s played mostly in the corners at Springfield in deference to both Magneuris Sierra and Oscar Mercado being on the roster, but is a capable center fielder in his own right.

Arozarena is 22 years old, playing in Double A, and has speed, power, contact, and plate discipline all on the plus side of his ledger. I don’t know what argument one would make against him being rated somewhere near the top of the farm system at this point.

Dylan Carlson, OF

Current Level: Peoria (Low A)

376 PA, .229/.325/.341, 10.9% BB, 26.3% K, 6 HR, 92 wRC+

One of the most aggressively pushed prospects in the system, Carlson was sent straight to full-season ball this year at just eighteen years old, and is, in fact, still just eighteen, which is probably the most encouraging thing about his performance.

Early on, Carlson struggled to make contact, running a 30%+ strikeout rate for the first month or so. As the season went on, though, he began to bring that number down, pushed his walk rate up into the low- to mid-teens, and just generally looked like a player really beginning to adjust. It was very exciting to watch his wRC+ climb week by week, and I followed him diligently.

Now, though, as we move into mid-August, Carlson appears to be wearing down. Since the beginning of the month, he is just 8-for-43 with twelve strikeouts. He has not hit a home run, nor drawn a walk. It looks very much to be a case of fatigue setting in for a teenager playing later and longer than he ever has before, against the toughest competition of his life. Late summer showcase ball is not the same as full-season pro ball, and that’s the jump Carlson has made in just his first minor league season.

Tyler O’Neill, OF

Current Level: Memphis (Triple A)

74 PA, .254/.284/.522, 5.4% BB, 29.7% K, 4 HR, 93 wRC+

Since being acquired as the return for sending Marco Gonzales to Seattle, O’Neill has come into the Cardinal system and shown off the extra-base thump for which he was known in spades. So far in Memphis, O’Neill has run a .269 ISO, collected nine extra-base hits (four homers, four doubles, and a triple), compared to only eight singles, and just generally has made incredibly loud contact.

Of course, the trouble is that contact has not come often enough; even hitting for the kind of power he has a near-30% strikeout rate is very troubling. Worse yet, the double-digit walk rate O’Neill put up in both Double and Triple A the last two years in the Mariners’ system has basically been chopped in half. I’ve watched a fair amount of O’Neill at Memphis, and while I wouldn’t say he’s been pressing, he does look very eager to make a positive impression. Hopefully as he settles in to a new organisation he can relax and start taking walks again. As it stands now, the power is incredibly exciting, but we really don’t need another Grichuk/DeJong style hacker in the lineup.

O’Neill’s performance over the final month of the minor league season, and where his stock is at the end, could have an impact on the Cardinals’ plans as soon as this offseason, considering where he is, how close to ready he is, and what the upside could be.

So looking over the column so far I realise I’ve only done outfielders. Hadn’t planned on this turning into the outfield update, but that sort of says something about where the system is, doesn’t it? Let’s get someone who isn’t an outfielder now.

Dakota Hudson, RHP

Current Level: Memphis

3 GS, 16.2 IP, 4.86 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 58.5% GB, 16.4% K, 9.6% BB

Dakota Hudson, still in his first full pro season, has made his way up to the Triple A level, just a phone call (and a 40-man roster move, admittedly), away from the big leagues. We all know about Alex Reyes as the crown jewel of the system, even after arm surgery, and Jack Flaherty as the big riser this season, potentially kicking Reyes out of the top spot if one were to have doubts as to the big man’s future. But Hudson shouldn’t be overlooked as a slightly less pyrotechnic, but still potentially productive, future rotation staple.

Hudson played most of the season at Double A this year, and basically followed the Dave Duncan Plan for Pitching Success to a ‘T’, rolling up big groundball totals (57.6% rate), and mostly avoiding handing out free passes. What has been a bit concerning this season for Hudson has been a lower than expected strikeout total, considering the quality of stuff he brings to the table. He struck out 16% of the hitters he faced in Double A, and is just above that in Triple A. Hitters in 2017 have had very little luck getting the ball into the air against Hudson, but with his stuff he should be missing more bats. Still, he was considered somewhat raw by college standards coming into pro ball, the result of closing his first couple seasons at Mississippi State, and he has definitely made some refinements to his game this season.

Jordan Hicks, RHP

Current Level: Palm Beach (High A)

22 IP, 1.23 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 28.6% K, 4.8% BB

Okay, so that stat line right above this sentence is a little bit misleading. No, it’s not inaccurate; those are the numbers Hicks has put up at Palm Beach this year. However, it’s also worth pointing out he spent most of the season at Low A Peoria, where his numbers were far less dominant.

In Peoria, Hicks struck out a little under 20% of the hitters he faced, while carrying a walk rate just over 11%. That’s not a terrible strikeout rate, but it’s a bad ratio between free passes and whiffs. There was a period in mid-June, particularly, when Hicks really struggled with his command. Not unexpected given his youth, of course (Hicks won’t turn 21 until September), but it was a tough stretch all the same.

The Cardinals have been careful with Hicks this season, though, and gave him almost two weeks between starts in early July, and their careful handling appears to be working. He got a bunch of hype back in spring training for the quality of his stuff, but as we move into the late stages of the minor league season it’s his performance that should be generating excitement. He’s been a heavy groundball guy in his career so far, and as he sharpens his repertoire more and more he’s beginning to really miss bats. Hicks will probably return to Palm Beach to begin next season, and if there’s any single place in the Cards’ system that should give a pitcher confidence to execute his game, it’s Roger Dean Stadium. I don’t know where Hicks will rank on my offseason prospect list yet; he’s certainly moving into pretty high consideration, but we’re also talking about a 20 year old kid with plenty of development still needed. If pressed right now for 2018’s system breakout, though, Jordan Hicks would probably be my answer.

Okay, I’m going to call it a day here. That’s five players, all of whom could prove pivotal in the direction of the Cards’ system over the next couple years, I believe. We’ve got a breakout in Arozarena, a learning experience for Carlson (hopefully), a player on the verge in O’Neill who needs just that tiny bit more refinement, a fast riser who could be munching big league innings sooner than later (or, just as likely, one of the big trade chips of the coming offseason remake), and next year’s big breakout prospect. How things break for these five players between now and, say, 2019, will go a long way toward determining what the future of the St. Louis Cardinals looks like.