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My Top 20 Prospects Entering 2018: Prospects 1-10

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A ‘quick’ look of my own at the team’s top farmhands

St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

I’ve been writing at Viva El Birdos since May 2016, covering primarily the farm system with daily reports or player insight stories, along with ebo, Nick Cichielo, Pegasus, and countless contributions from many others along the way.

Leader of the farm writers (in my eyes, anyway) is Aaron Schafer, who just completed his annual look at the organization’s top prospects in a manner I wish to compare to. Aaron invited me to construct and dissect a list of my own, so I’ll begin to do that today. I’ll first present the list, followed by two sections - each section featuring five players. I’ll tackle the final two sections later in the week.

I’ll lead off by stating: it is just a list. Don’t take a player being rated a few spaces higher or lower than what you believe he should be for more than what it really is, as I did not.

As Aaron hinted in Part Five, performance does play a key part in my list. I do weigh upside, and I attempt to look at the players from several perspectives while weighing his performance and upside.. if that makes any sense.

The list, in full - with today’s prospects of discussion bolded:

  1. Alex Reyes
  2. Harrison Bader
  3. Jack Flaherty
  4. Carson Kelly
  5. Austin Gomber
  6. Tyler O’Neill
  7. Dakota Hudson
  8. Junior Fernandez
  9. Jordan Hicks
  10. Ryan Helsley
  11. Jake Woodford
  12. Delvin Perez
  13. Randy Arozarena
  14. Edmundo Sosa
  15. Oscar Mercado
  16. Tommy Edman
  17. Dylan Carlson
  18. Ian McKinney
  19. Max Schrock
  20. Yairo Munoz

Prospects 1-5: Reyes, Bader, Flaherty, Kelly, Gomber

Alex Reyes is the top prospect in the organization, even after missing the entire 2017 season due to elbow surgery. His upside clearly can’t be quantified, and his performance through the Minors (and briefly in the Majors) attests to what we anticipate from him in the future.

The second-rated player on my list is Harrison Bader, and this is likely the point to arouse the most disagreement. I understand. The hefty strikeout rates he has mounted and the discounted number of walks he has garnered are dispiriting, even for an optimist; nonetheless, these characteristics are fairly mutual among plenty of today’s polished players. We spend gobs of time researching analytics, streaming video, and skimming game logs in desire of finding a brand of player that is simply not populous in today’s world. A player who can smash to all fields, chase batting titles, and draw bases on balls while striking out no more than a handful of times per week just does not come around often enough to critique after - and I think we can agree on this. Instead, we discover several differing brands of players in our research, whose makeups feature peaks and valleys of skills - with some assets high, some low; some talents pretty cut and dry, some with obvious room to grow. Bader fits this profile.

To evaluate Bader, his power captures a great chunk of attention. When I look at Bader, I can awe over the slugging - but I don’t forget to study beyond that. To look over the bat, I see an ample defensive outfielder with keen base running skills - traits that complement his offensive skill set. With Magneuris Sierra now with the Miami Marlins, Bader most likely presents the best all-around case of those two skills (defense & base running) of those close to the big-league platform. Tie in the power and general offensive game to the equation, and Bader is my number two.

Jack Flaherty would be a formidable number-one prospect for several franchises. Don’t let him being ranked third on my list make you think I don’t value Flaherty as much or even more than Bader - who he is rated above on several others’ lists. A polished pitch arsenal results in smart pitching, and that has resulted in a measurable sample of fine results for the 22-year-old. Flaherty has been on my radar since St. Louis drafted him in 2014, and watching him climb through the farm system all the way to the Majors by September 1 of last year was thrilling.

My fourth-rated prospect is Carson Kelly. Before we get to Kelly, a notable omission from my list is Andrew Knizner. Instead of brainstorming and typing a detailed series of sentences on why I didn’t include him, I’ll refrain and just tell you all the truth: I don’t know how I failed to include him. I scribbled down several lists while narrowing out (and eventually typing) my final list, and I assure you he was in each of those chicken-scratched logs along the way. I would probably have placed him between number 11 Jake Woodford and number 12 Delvin Perez in my final list. Knizner has had respectable numbers at the dish as well as working behind it, and I wish to see one more solid season of both - and of more games, preferably - before ranking much higher. Maybe I’ll remember to include him at all then, huh? Anyway, on to Kelly..

Kelly is unique because he has proven himself at, literally, every level: Rookie ball, Low-A, Class-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. In other words: he doesn’t have much else to prove, does he? There’s always room for improvement, as the case with everyone, but as far as needing to further establish his brand? Not necessary. It’ll be interesting to see how the club handles Kelly in 2018. He won’t be taking notable playing time from Yadier Molina, as long as he’s healthy able to argue his way to another jam-packed workload. But, it’d be a shame to see Kelly’s development hindered by him not progressing beyond the Triple-A level. Does that mean he should be the big-league backup, catching maybe (maybe) one game’s worth of innings a week, on average? It’s tough to conclude.

I’ve always had a liking for Austin Gomber, and perhaps that bias shines through with his ranking in the top five. Gomber was excellent in 2015 and 2016, progressing from Class-A Peoria to Double-A Springfield in the span. Spending the entire season at Springfield, Gomber’s statistical performance did take a noticeable step back. Home runs and walks were up, but his strikeout rate increased as well. Opponents continued to hit minimally, average wise (a .218 BAA in 143 frames in 2017), and Gomber maintained a 73.1 left on-base percentage across his 26 games and starts for the Cardinals.

Prospects 6-10: O’Neill, Hudson, Fernandez, Hicks, Helsley

The trade involving Tyler O’Neill was fantastic for all parties involved - especially the team this site revolves around. For Seattle, they received a controllable, left-handed starter in Marco Gonzales, who - though it was a small amount - had some experience in the Majors and had already had Tommy John surgery. With several pitchers above him in the organization, Gonzales would not have received a fair and forgiving chance to prove himself in St. Louis. For the Cardinals, they acquired an attractive, young outfielder with legitimate power and rich defensive capabilities.

O’Neill provided a spark in the top of the batting order for the Memphis Redbirds, helping propel them to the PCL Championship. In 37 games with the Redbirds in 2017, O’Neill hit a dozen homers with a 110 wRC+ and logged 213 13 frames of fieldwork, committing just two errors with four assists.

Dakota Hudson has dazzled since joining the organization in 2016 as a first-round draft selection. He has a superb fastball, highlighted even more by a vicious cutter/slider - I say it’s a cutter. The curveball and changeup are in his back pocket as well, but Hudson’s real money maker will be the combination of his fastball and cutter.

In 2017, Hudson worked to a 3.64 FIP in 18 starts for Double-A Springfield, managing a 77:34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 114 innings. Hudson’s performance with Springfield resulted in a stint at Memphis, where he logged 38 23 frames in seven starts for the Redbirds.

Junior Fernandez is one who, while performance is acknowledged, I pay especially close consideration to his upside. In the organization since 2014, the 20-year-old is armed with a blistering fastball and a decent changeup. Fernandez made 16 starts for High-A Palm Beach in 2017, charting 90 13 innings with a 3.69 ERA. Fernandez missed the majority of the second half of 2017 dealing with biceps soreness - an issue that affected his results late in the first half. Fernandez was the Florida State League Pitcher of the Week twice, named on April 23 and May 14. He was also a mid-season All-Star for the first time in his budding career.

Jordan Hicks is my ninth-rated prospect. Another young guy with a big arm, the 21-year-old Hicks cracked High-A Palm Beach in the 2017 season, spending the majority of the summer at Peoria. We saw more of Hicks in the Arizona Fall League, where the right-hander was able to reach high 90s velocity consistently with his fastball after spending much of the summer in the 93-95 MPH range. It was hit hard though, with very little downward movement. However, the increased speed of his fastball led to more deception on his raw changeup and unfinished breaking ball. If Hicks improves his command, there’s definitely potential for him to own a starter’s role for an MLB team in the future. If he’s able to only truly refine bits and pieces of his arsenal and overall mound presence, a job in the back of a bullpen seems very sensible.

The final player we’ll chat about for today is Ryan Helsley. Drafted in 2015, Helsley immediately drew my attention after shining in 40 innings at short-season ball that year. Followed by a dominant 2016 with the Chiefs, Helsley twirled through High-A in 2017, eventually touching Double- and Triple-A by the end of the summer. Helsley’s strikeout rate dropped between ‘16 and ‘17 (for purpose of this discussion, we’ll consider his stats with Palm Beach), while the walk rate increased over a full walk per nine innings. Helsley’s home run rate remained nearly impeccable though (0.29 HR/9 in 93 23 IP), and opponents actually hit for a lesser average - .210, as compared to a .215 batting mark in 2016.

Check back Friday for talk on prospects 11-20. For now, I invite you to craft a list of your own and discuss with the community in the comments!