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System Sundays: Season in Review Two — Short Season

In the second edition of the season wrap for the minor leagues, we move up to the post-draft short season leagues.

St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Today we return to our postseason wrapup of the Cards’ minor league teams in 2018, level by level. The complex leagues are out of the way, and so we move up the ladder to the short-season affiliates in the Appalachian and New York-Penn League.

By way of offering some context, short season ball begins after the draft each June, and is generally the first stop for most college players selected. Short season ball is an interesting mix of ages and polish levels, with kids as young as eighteen occasionally taking the field (especially in the Appy League), and going up against college senior signs, guys with four years of DI ball under their belts, already having figured out how to out-guile the guys getting the big bonus checks. As we progress up the ladder further, levels begin to become more distinct, with seemingly more well-defined benchmarks visible in terms of player maturity. Short season ball, though, is kind of a mess.

What I’m saying is, pay attention to the performances, but always always always keep age relative to level in mind, and also make sure you keep a whole big box of kosher salt on hand so you’ll always have a few large grains to add in.

Johnson City Cardinals (Appalachian League)

Season Record: 31-37, 3rd Place in West Division

Johnson City, on the whole, was not very good this season. Luckily, that didn’t stop them from drawing huge crowds (by Appy League standards, mind you), and I would heartily recommend to you that if you’re ever in the Great Smoky Mountains you should head to Johnson City for a baseball game. Gorgeous part of the country, and Johnson City is really a lovely little city. Great ballpark, too. Much, much better than you’ll find in a whole lot of other low-level affiliates’ home cities in other places.

You may notice I’m sort of deflecting here by not really talking much about the team, choosing instead to focus on how lovely the mountains and the city and the ballpark are. That’s...not an accident. Nolan Gorman passed through JC as his first stop coming out of the draft, but that was by and large the highlight of the season for the Cardinals, at least on the field. There were a few notable players on the roster, but a really brutal pitching staff largely sunk Johnson City this year. That’s just how things go some years; minor league baseball fandom is a really fascinating pastime, given how variable the teams can be from season to season.

Notable Names: Nolan Gorman, 3B; Donivan Williams, 2B; Michael Perri, SS; Leandro Cedeno, OF/1B; Evan Sisk, LHP; Parker Kelly, RHP; Dionis Zamora, RHP

Nolan Gorman appears here for the first time; he’ll be back in the next installment of this series, when I cover the Peoria Chiefs. This was the level at which Gorman did all his damage, terrorising Appy League pitching while barely being old enough to vote. Peoria is where he went to get knocked around by 22 and 23 year olds, giving him that dose of adversity I’m sure one of our broadcasters will say is all-important.

Donivan Williams had a very scary season, for one of my favourite sleeper prospects in the system. He struggled to make enough contact this year to keep his head above water, but when he did make contact he impacted the ball much better than he did in his pro debut in 2017. He also didn’t turn nineteen until the end of July, so he was very young for the level while mostly treading water offensively. Williams still possesses explosive athleticism and a big-time throwing arm, so I’m willing to be patient while he works on his plate approach. Michael Perri is actually one of my sleeper picks out of the 2018 draft; he was taken on the third day out of the University of San Francisco, and while he isn’t the most polished offensive player, he offers intriguing size (6’3”, 195), for a player capable of sticking up the middle of the field, as well as plus speed and some other offensive upside. Leandro Cedeno is a very limited player overall, but the bat is intriguing. He was only nineteen for most of the season, and tore up Appalachian League pitching. Bad plate discipline and not much of a defensive home are the negatives; lots of loud contact is the positive. Cedeno is sort of where Anthony Garcia was when he busted out in short-season play; we’ll have to wait and see if the stories remain similar going forward.

On the pitching side, there wasn’t a ton. Evan Sisk put up big strikeout numbers as a lefty reliever. Parker Kelly didn’t put up great numbers, but still has a dynamite slider. And Dionis Zamora, 22, put up some very solid numbers against somewhat younger talent, and has an intriguing long-term arm. And about it.

Hey, I said there was a reason the team wasn’t very good, didn’t I?

State College Spikes (NY-Penn League)

Season Record: 36-40, 4th place in Pinckney Division

Most years, the Cards’ Appy League affiliate is the stronger of their short-season clubs; this year was just the opposite. The Spikes were still a relatively mediocre team, but they had a greater concentration of some solid young talent than did Johnson City in 2018.

The pitching, in particular, was stronger, with some of the more intriguing young arms in the systems camping out in the NY-Penn this summer. Most all of them have warts, but there’s a chance for some impact talent in the coming seasons. Still, overall, State College was still a fairly weak club, which is concerning. Too many weak clubs tends to mean there’s a bare spot in the pipeline.

Notable Names: Delvin Perez, SS; Brady Whalen, 3B/1B; Stanley Espinal, 3B; Jonatan Machado, CF; Wadye Ynfante, OF; Lars Nootbaar, OF/1B; Winston Nicacio, RHP; Jacob Schlesener, LHP; Michael Baird, RHP; Cory Malcom, RHP

In the mood to hear about a really disappointing season? Delvin Perez still hasn’t made much offensive progress at all. His plate discipline is still very solid, given his youth and level of polish, but he still shows just no real ability to impact the baseball. Brady Whalen, on the other hand, was hampered by a very low BABIP, but showed signs at times of beginning to turn his ultra-patient plate approach into real production.

Stanley Espinal isn’t the most tooled-up guy in the system, but he’s a solid offensive producer at the hot corner and has the chops to stay there, I think. On the other end of the spectrum, tools monster Wadye Ynfante had a terrible season at the plate, with a huge strikeout rate that basically swallowed up everything else he did with the bat.

Lars Nootbaar got his feet wet but will be a project to get driving the ball more. Jonatan Machado struggled, no other way around it. He was promoted to State College only toward the very end of the season, and really should have been in the Johnson City section more than this. He appears here because I forgot to put him in up there.

The pitching was a similarly mixed bag, though with a couple of the more exciting arms in the system putting up those mixed-bag stat lines. Jacob Schlesener made gobs of progress this year in throwing strikes, but still needs to make gobs more. Even so, he has unbelievable strikeout punch of the Rich Hill variety when he’s right, and is the most exciting lefty starting arm in the system after newly-acquired Genesis Cabrera. Winston Nicacio was a pet prospect of mine before the season; he made a little noise this year, but still has a long ways to go.

Michael Baird is a big, physical control artist with a little funk who worked in a swingman role this season; I could see either starting or relief work in his future, depending on how the club wants to develop him. Cory Malcom needs work on throwing quality strikes, but can roll up the Ks with the best of them off a nasty fastball-slider combo.

Overall, the short-season level for the Cardinals in 2018 was not a particularly strong area of the organisation, but there were still some bright spots. The continued lack of improvement from Delvin Perez really hurts; it’s looking more and more like the kid from Puerto Rico may end up busting just due to a simple lack of physical strength. The Cards could have done better with that draft pick.

How the pitching at State College develops going forward will have a lot to say about what the 5-15 range on the Cards’ prospect list looks like going forward. Schlesener and Nicacio both have huge potential, but huge hurdles in trying to get there as well. If they develop, the system looks much different than if they do not.