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System Sundays: Season in Review Pt. 4 — The Upper Levels

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The final installment of our system in review, looking at the top two levels in the Cardinal farm system.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

And so we’ve come now to the end of the road (cue Boyz II Men song — whose catalogue by the way has really held up remarkably well), the finish line of our little season review series. We’ve gone from the bottom of the system up all the way now to the top, and we’ve seen some successes and some failures both. There’s some tremendous talent potentially percolating up at the lower levels, certainly, but there are also some holes to be sure.

I’m running late this morning, so let’s dispense with the flowery intro, shall we? Into the breach once more, friends.

Springfield Cardinals — Texas League (Double A)

Season Record: 60-79, 4th place Texas League North Division

Woof. The Springfield Cardinals were...not good. In fact, they were pretty easily the worst team in the whole of the Cards’ system this year, and here we see some of the downside of a higher risk drafting philosophy, not to mention just some good old-fashioned bad luck.

Nick Plummer, had he not gotten hurt and then failed to develop (possibly related matters, obviously), would probably have been starring at Springfield this past season. It’s possible he could have developed faster, but a high school hitter drafted in 2015 on a good but not crazy fast track would probably hit Double A his third year in the system. Instead, Plummer looks more and more likely to go down as a big miss in Chris Correa’s ledger. Clearly not Correa’s biggest mistake, but still a miss of a draft pick. Ditto for Bryce Denton, who simply has never really hit. That extremely conservative, boring, and safe pipeline of middling pitching prospects that overperform expectations the Cardinals have built falls apart when you’re spending high draft picks on toolsy, raw high school hitters rather than the Luke Weavers of the world.

Please don’t think that’s a criticism, by the way; the Cardinals recognised a need to take some greater risks in the draft, and they’ve done so over the past few years. There is upside in the system right now, at least partially because of that change of direction. But the flip side, and the down side, of that riskier drafting style is an occasional club like Springfield this year, where one or two things go wrong and you end up with a black hole at some level of the system.

Springfield was also a bit of a transitional level for a few prospects this year, as there were a couple notable names who bounced between Memphis and the S-Cards. That’s not usually the case, but a logjam at the top level of the system caused a bit of a backup. That meant the Springfield fans did occasionally get to see top level talent, but it also means the team had a somewhat transient feel, and the roster was unsettled. It just happens sometimes.

Notable Names: Randy Arozarena, OF; Chase Pinder, OF; Jeremy Martinez, C; John Nogowski, 1B; Evan Mendoza, 3B: Evan Kruczynski, LHP; Junior Fernandez, RHP; Connor Jones, RHP; Roel Ramirez, RHP; Seth Elledge, RHP; Ryan Helsley, RHP

It’s not hard to spot where Springfield’s biggest issue was this season; all you have to do is look a the performances of the pitching prospects who called the city home this year. Junior Fernandez had an horrific season, going completely off the rails with an alarming lack of command and continued inability to miss any bats despite upper 90s heat. Connor Jones was, if anything, even worse, and really only rescued his season in the AFL, when he moved to relief work and instantly gained new life. (I’ll cover Jones at some point in the near future.) Roel Ramirez is included here as part of the Tommy Pham trade from Tampa, but wasn’t really with Springfield long enough to make much of a difference. Seth Elledge, acquired from Seattle in exchange for Sam Tuivailala, was present a bit longer, and pitched a bit better, particularly in terms of strikeouts. Evan Kruczynski was probably the biggest pitching success of the season for the S-Cards, or at least the biggest success who finished the season there. Ryan Helsley had a very good turn through the Texas League, but was moved up to Triple A fairly early in the season. Such was the luck for Springfield this year.

On the hitting side, things were a little brighter, if still not ideal. Randy Arozarena looked like a future superstar in Double A, but struggled to put things together with Memphis. John Nogowski was the S-Cards’ most consistent, productive hitter all season long, adding enough power to his usual absurd plate discipline to be really intriguing; we just have to hope now the Cards find some way to not lose him in the Rule V draft.

Meanwhile, a trio of recent draftees — Jeremy Martinez (4th round 2016), Chase Pinder (7th round 2017), and Evan Mendoza (11th round 2017) — anchored the Springfield lineup for most of the season. The lack of power amongst the three goes a long way toward explaining the often-anemic Springfield offense, but there were still glimpses of some possibly useful talent somewhere down the road. Mendoza beat up on Florida State League pitching early in the year, but showed little beyond contact skills in Double A. Still, he’s got a slick glove and could probably handle shortstop in a pinch, I believe, so I think his best way forward is a conversion to utility work. Chase Pinder showed very good plate discipline, speed, and defense in center field, but basically zero thump in his bat. Martinez, meanwhile, did his usual near-1:1 strikeout to walk ratio thing, but showed even less power than Pinder. Martinez is a solid enough catcher, though, that even a wet newspaper bat would suffice if he could continue to grind out at-bats, Greg Garcia style.

Memphis Redbirds — Pacific Coast League (Triple A)

Season Record: 83-57, 1st place in PCL American South Division

Google Maps tells me that it’s approximately 286 miles or four and a half hours to drive from Springfield to Memphis, but somehow that seems to far underestimate just how much distance there really was between the two teams this year.

This section intro was brought to you by the hack sportswriter association of America, who have been making sure your sports coverage is cheesy, prosaic, and reminiscent of bad wedding toasts and high school term papers since 1937. Thank you for your support.

Anyhow, Springfield sucked. Memphis did not. In fact, Memphis not-sucked as hard as any team in the minor leagues this year. Memphis not-sucked so hard, in fact, that even after losing an enormous portion of their roster to the big league club — particularly on the pitching side — the Redbirds still cruised to an easy Division crown, then finished off last year’s unfinished business by running through the playoffs to an overall Triple A championship.

Notable Names: Tyler O’Neill, OF; Adolis Garcia, OF; Oscar Mercado, OF; Lane Thomas, OF; Andrew Knizner, C; Carson Kelly, C; Rangel Ravelo, 1B; Max Schrock, 2B; Ramon Urias, 2B; Andy Young, INF; Dakota Hudson, RHP; Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP; Genesis Cabrera, LHP; Jake Woodford, RHP; Austin Gomber, LHP

The fact the notable names section is, by far, the longest of any club in the system should tell you what you need to know about the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate this year. There was an incredible concentration of talent at the top level of the system, and it both helped reinforce the big league club and allowed the Redbirds to get a little creative making moves.

Tyler O’Neill spent the majority of his season in Memphis and was absolutely dominant, while he struggled to make contact consistently with major league sliders. Personally, I think he just looked very jumpy on breaking balls in the big leagues, which I never really saw in the minors from him. The Cards’ two-headed catching monster continues to be the most fought-over future question amongst the prospect set, as there are plenty of people who come down on both the side of Carson Kelly and Andrew Knizner; it really just depends what flavour you prefer your catching prospect. Given the Cards’ long-term preferences and Kelly’s more polished defensive abilities, I somewhat expect Knizner to be used as a high-end trade chip this offseason as El Birdos look to add talent to the big league roster. I could be wrong, though.

Lane Thomas was one of the great finds of the system this past season, and is on the verge of a big league fourth outfielder gig. If only he hit from the left side.... Adolis Garcia has physical tools to burn, but showed serious contact issues both at Triple A and in the majors in 2018. Oscar Mercado consolidated his 2017 breakout, and allowed the Cards to make a deal with the Indians that returned one of their now-highest ceilinged talents in the whole of the system in Jhon Torres. Rangel Ravelo at Triple A wasn’t quite as exciting as John Nogowski at Double A, but he’s a very similar sort of lower-powered plate discipline-and-contact hitter who unfortunately plays first base. He’s a very limited player, but he can really hit, and probably deserves a shot to at least earn a bench spot with someone in the big leagues.

Ramon Urias had an interesting season, demolishing Double A pitching part of the time while just sort of existing at Memphis. I’m a big fan of his power and glove up the middle, and I’m hoping to see a big year from him at Triple A in 2019. Andy Young was one of the bigger breakout stars in the system this year, and zoomed up to the threshold of the majors. He played in the AFL and did quite well for himself as well. Max Schrock, on the other hand, began the season like a house on fire, but then fell completely apart in the middle of the season. He rebounded a bit toward the end, but it wasn’t at all the sort of year the Cards were hoping to land from the future MVP. (Speaking of, I’m thinking now is absolutely the time to trade Schrock to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Vlad Guerrero Jr. now that Carson Cistuli is calling the shots over there. Just saying. Also, I’m really, really going to miss FanGraphs Audio as it was. Really.)

On the pitching side, the Redbirds were even more dominant than offensively, if that’s possible. Dakota Hudson won PCL pitcher of the year honours despite spending the last two months of the season in St. Louis. Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber both succeeded at the big league level and were too good for Triple A. The Cards’ pitching depth is still enviable, even with some trades and graduations and flops, and it showed this year in Memphis to great effect.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the system in 2018. I’ll be starting up the offseason lists relatively soon, probably in six installments of five players each, and I’ll likely run two per week throughout December. But before we start drilling down on individual players, this has been your zoomed-out low detail view of how each club performed this season, and where the talent was concentrated. Basically, the Cardinals right now have a farm system that’s heavy at both the very top and the bottom, but with a weaker middle, the result of some bad luck, some iffy choices in the draft, and a couple of lost picks due to an iffy choice in hiring/promotion.

That top-level depth should serve the Cards well this offseason and next year, as they attempt to make the moves that will put this roster back over the top. There are bolstering pieces aplenty, whether it’s Lane Thomas making a fourth outfielder signing unnecessary, Andy Young hopefully pushing for a big league utility role soon, or the Hudson/Poncedeleon/Gomber trio giving the Cards both fifth starter and bullpen options to utilise. On the other hand, if it’s the trade market we’re examining, the Cardinals have as much near-big league-ready talent as almost any club in baseball, making them a solid trade partner for most teams looking to contend in the short- to mid-term future.

The downside, of course, is that the potential stars in the system (and yes, there are potential stars), are still a ways away. Dylan Carlson is probably the closest prospect to the big leagues with star upside (unless you’re really, really optimistic about Randy Arozarena, I suppose), and he’s still more projection and age relative to league right now than he is star performance. Nolan Gorman, Jhon Torres, Malcom Nunez, Joerlin De Los Santos, Elehuris Montero. Those are the names of the future stars of the system. Problem is, Montero is the most advanced, and he only just made it to High this year at midseason. If the Cardinals fail again this offseason to land an elite talent to help anchor the big league roster, they’re going to be waiting a while before the system delivers one to them.