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System Sundays: Three Deep Sleepers to Consider

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A short selection of sleeper prospects from deep within the system.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at St. Louis Cardinals
Former sleeper prospect Tyler Lyons.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Morning, folks. I apologise in advance; this is going to be a rush job, as the day job has put me under the gun again this morning to try and just put a quick something together.

Luckily, I already was planning on putting together a list of sleeper prospects in the system, going five or six guys deep, which is pretty good when you’re already starting well off the radar. Due to the time crunch this morning, though, I’m going to just go with three names and blurbs to accompany. I promise I will try to make it up to you all at a later date.

Anyhow, these are players who are not in top prospect positions just yet, but who are doing intriguing things. All three are, in this case, playing at low levels. Sleepers get harder to come by at the higher levels of a system; by their nature, if players are doing something good at Double A, that tends to get noticed pretty quickly.

Brady Whalen, 3B, Johnson City

6’4”, 180, Bats: Switch, Throws: Right

Notable Numbers: 208 PA, .227/.351/.442, 30 BB, 33 K, 7 HR, 12 2B, 19 y/o

One of the real surprises for me from the 2016 draft class, Randy Flores’s first as scouting director, was how many players the Cardinals got signed that I didn’t really expect they would be able to. Whalen falls squarely into that category; he was a kid I liked when I saw a little of him at Area Codes in late 2015, but when the Cards popped him in the twelfth round last year, I didn’t think there was much chance he would sign.

I wrote at the time, “The Cards maybe get one of either he or [John] Kilichowski, but it seems almost impossible they get both.” The John Kilichowski to whom I was referring was, you may all remember, a lefty out of Vanderbilt who had an up and down, injury-interrupted junior season, but who I personally was very high on and thrilled when the Cards called his name. (In case you’re wondering, Kilichowski was very good in his debut last season, struggled badly with control early this season at Peoria, and has been on the disabled list with a hip injury since the middle of June. I need to make some inquiries in that direction, actually.) Whalen, a Washington state high-schooler, seemed to me a long shot to sign, particularly if the Cards were able to ink Kilichowski.

Well, they did indeed get both, which was somewhat of a sign of things to come, as the Cardinals inked players I thought they had no shot at this year as well. Either the scouts are doing one hell of a job figuring out signability numbers, or Randy Flores is a hypnotist.

Coming into the draft, Whalen was a shortstop, but mostly in that way that all high school draftees are shortstops, unless they’re left-handed, because they’re just by far the best athletes on their teams. He did have good hands and infielder feet, I thought, but he’s a pretty legit 6’3”-6’4”. That’s pretty rare air for the shortstop position, so I predicted a move to third base down the road.

Well, that move took place this year, along with a handful of games at second, but his future is at the hot corner. More importantly that his position, though, is what Whalen is doing with the bat in just his first full pro season.

First off, the batting average is low, but that’s mostly the function of an abysmal .239 BABIP. Now, a low batting average on balls in play can be a sign of a player making poor contact, but in the case of Whalen I don’t believe that’s the case. He’s got 21 total extra-base hits on the season and a .215 isolated slugging, so I don’t think quality of contact is an issue. What little I’ve gotten to see of him this year suggests the contact is plenty loud as well, though I admit I’m partially scouting the stat line and partially relying on a third-party report here. I’ve seen him a handful of times, but not nearly as much as I would like.

What stands out more than anything, even the surprising power from a player this young, is the plate discipline. Whalen has been absolutely unbelievable in terms of his patience and discipline this season. He posted a very good strikeout to walk ratio last season, in his brief GCL debut, walking in 9.6% of his plate appearances, while striking out in just 10.8%. This season, he’s turned that up to an even greater degree, with a 14.4% walk rate and 15.9% strikeout rate. Nineteen year old kids do not often walk near fifteen percent of the time; even more rarely do they do that while striking out at almost the exact same rate.

Whalen is, I believe, a good bet to stay at third base long term, and he has both power and tremendous plate discipline on the good side of his ledger. At this point, he’s trending toward not really being much of a sleeper for much longer; at the very least I think he makes my top 15-20 this offseason. But for the rest of the year, he’s a name to keep an eye on in the box scores even if the hype hasn’t really caught up just yet.

Zach Prendergast, RHP, Johnson City

6’2”, 175, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Notable Numbers: 26 IP, 2.77 ERA, 2.25 FIP, 35 K, 5 BB, 29.1% K-BB%

There was a very brief discussion of Prendergast in the comments the other day, when he appeared in a DFR for striking out twelve in a start. Even before that, though, I was keeping an eye on him, just because his path to pro ball was kind of unusual. He attended Seton Hall for four years, was a solid if unspectacular starter for the Pirates, and ended up signing a free agent contract with the Cardinals in July after failing to be drafted. I remember looking at him a little in college, and while the stuff wasn’t huge, it surprised me he had slipped through the cracks to the extent he ended up undrafted entirely.

The big culprit, as is usually the case in these situations, was a lack of big velocity; it’s hard to make an impression when your fastball isn’t lighting up scouts’ guns. And that’s very much the case with Prendergast, whose heater is best described as pedestrian. All the same, he always had good feel for pitching in college, and actually showed better his senior season than he ever had before, throwing an 82-pitch no-hitter on Mother’s Day this spring against Villanova to get the Pirates into the Big East tournament.

I’ve only gotten to see Prendergast a little since starting his pro career in Johnson City, but his stuff looks crisper now than I remember it in 2016 when I looked at him for the draft. He’s still not blowing the fastball by anybody, but he has a very nice slider he can throw in or out of the zone and a pretty passable changeup as well. What’s really been impressive since he turned pro is just how well Prendergast has avoided walks; that 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio is far superior to anything he ever posted in college. In all likelihood, he’s just an older, more experienced pitcher taking advantage of pitching to a wide range of competition in the Appy League, where you get both Prendergast at 22 and Brady Whalen at just over 19, but it’s also possible he’s a bit of a late bloomer and has legitimately sharpened his stuff.

Personally, I think Prendergast’s best road forward is a bullpen role; moving him to relief could help his stuff play up, adding a tick or two to the fastball. His ability to fill up the zone, and the quality of his slider, would be big positives for him in that role. He’s obviously still a very long shot to make it, but the early returns are pretty remarkable, and my eyeball test tells me he looks better than I remember. So maybe there’s something really going on here.

Calep Lopes, 2B, State College

5’8”, 195 lbs, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Notable Numbers: 118 PA, .269/.397/.301, 121 wRC+, 14.4% BB, 5.9% K

Before you go pulling up FanGraphs to check, no, those last two numbers are not typos. Caleb Lopes really is walking almost three times as often as he’s striking out this season playing for the Spikes. He also walked 17% of the time last year in his pro debut for Johnson City, while posting a strikeout rate under 14%.

Caleb Lopes is a weird player.

He’s short, stocky, not particularly athletic-looking, and has absolutely zero power. (His ISO this season is .032, .084 last year, and he has yet to hit a home run as a professional.) What he has is one of the more extreme batting eyes you’re going to find anywhere in the minor leagues, and he’s had that going all the way back to his amateur days. (‘All the way back’ is probably misleading; he was drafted in 2016.) In his draft season, playing for the University of Western Georgia (nope, I haven’t heard of it either), Lopes walked 30 times in 266 plate appearances, which isn’t an absurd amount, but he also only struck out ten times. His line that season was a ridiculous .427/.521/.641. He did whack nine homers that year, albeit with non-wood bats, so one would hope there’s a little future pop in his profile.

I honestly haven’t seen enough of Lopes yet to have a really strong opinion on him, but anytime a player with this extreme a profile comes along I’m always fascinated. You have to expect that, as he moves up the ladder, Lopes will find pitchers unafraid to challenge him if he continues to show no power whatsoever, and his extraordinary batting eye will eventually be rendered useless. Then again, the fact his contact rate is so high suggests he might be able to just hit everything thrown in the zone, although again, if there’s no power to go with that contact it may not matter.

It remains to be seen if advanced pitching will effectively neuter Lopes by simply working in the zone without fear; that’s what happened to Mike O’Neill, the former Cardinal farmhand whose plate discipline was the stuff of legends. The fact Lopes looks capable of handling second base, though, puts a checkmark in his ledger that O’Neill, strictly a left fielder, never had. Maybe Lopes has louder contact in his future, in which case the former 30th-rounder could be quite a find.