So I’ve got a bit of a conundrum this morning. See, the thing is, I was planning on doing a relatively brief preview of the Rule V draft today, seeing as how said event will be taking place tomorrow, on the final day of MLB’s winter meetings. I was actually pretty excited to do so, as well; there are a couple guys potentially available I think could be really nice pickups for the Cards, filling in specific needs with useful young players.
A funny thing happened, though, when I pulled up the Cardinals’ roster to make sure I wasn’t forgetting about any players I needed to mention when covering this subject: I discovered that the Redbirds are already at 40 players on their 40 man roster, and will thus be unable to actually select anyone in the Rule V draft. This revelation basically torpedoes my post, rendering it entirely moot before I even got started. I honestly hadn’t realised the roster was back at a full 40; apparently claiming Ryan Meisinger recently pushed the Cards back up to the limit.
However, I have decided after a bit of consideration that I am going to go ahead and still write up a Rule V preview. The reason is this: there are more roster moves coming. I don’t know if any roster moves will happen today in time to make Rule V a possibility — though the fact I’m writing this column certainly improves the chances of something happening today — but I know for a fact more roster churn is coming. How do I know? Because it has to happen. As it stands right now, the Cardinals literally have only a single catcher on their whole 40 man roster, and as inhuman as Yadier Molina occasionally seems to be, even he cannot be the sole catcher on the roster going forward. Thus, I conclude further roster machinations are in the offing sooner or later, and so I will cover the event with at least the possibility in mind that something will change between now and tomorrow.
First off, we’ll take a look at a couple of players the Cardinals may be in danger of losing. There aren’t many in the system I see as serious possibilities, but there are a couple notable names.
Max Schrock, 2B — You know what would be really funny, to the point I’m hoping it happens? If Carson Cistuli made his impact on the Blue Jays’ front office felt immediately by taking Max Schrock in the Rule V draft tomorrow. I mean, it would suck to lose Schrock, who endured a miserable 2018 campaign but still possesses all the good qualities that made him such an attractive pickup around this time last year, but for comedy’s sake I would just have to be happy and accept such an outcome.
The thing is, I could see some really wretched rebuiliding club taking a chance on Schrock’s contact ability and average or better glove, hoping to pull a long-term three or four win asset in exchange for nothing more than playing time this season. If you’re already going to be bad, what does it matter if your second baseman turns out to not be able to hit? And if it works out, maybe you end up with a contact-heavy ~110 wRC+ hitter at an up the middle position. I’ll put the chances of Schrock being plucked at, say, ten percent. Actually, make that fifteen.
Junior Fernandez, RHP — If Schrock represents one broad category of player who often gets taken in the Rule V draft, specifically the near-ready position player who is blocked at his position on the parent club or is too risky for a contender to hand over a spot to, then Junior Fernandez represents perhaps the other most common type of player taken, i.e. the live-armed reliever you might be able to match up and parcel out to protect just enough to keep him on the roster all year.
The thing about Fernandez is, even with high-90s heat (which he didn’t always have in 2018), and a plus or even plus-plus changeup (which he only shows on occasion, and even more occasionally in ‘18), he just isn’t anywhere near ready yet. He missed significant time this past year with shoulder soreness, as well, only complicating the picture even further. On balance, I would say Fernandez is too risky and not ready enough for a club to take, but there have been picks much like this made in past Rule V drafts. I’ll put the chances of losing Fernandez at maybe five percent, though.
John Nogowski, 1B — Sadly, I think Nogowski is pretty likely gone at this point. The Cardinals have two very similar players in the upper levels of their system in Nogowski and Rangel Ravelo, and they chose to put Ravelo on the 40 man roster rather than risk losing him. The downside to that is that Nogowski, a right-handed hitting first baseman with absurd plate discipline numbers, is exposed. Personally, I like Nogowski a little better than Ravelo, and would have preferred to see him protected (it’s close, though).
Both types of Rule V club could potentially have interest in Nogowski, by which I mean the rebuilding club looking for a lottery ticket that might pay off down the road, and the contending team with maybe a bench spot they could use a bat to fill. It isn’t a slam dunk that Nogowski will stick on a big league roster all year, but he did just put up a 136 wRC+ in Double A, highlighted by a near 2:1 walk to strikeout ratio. And no, I didn’t type that backward. His power production is still somewhat questionable, but I think there’s a very good chance he could be a .375 OBP hitter in the majors right now. I would put the chances of some club selecting Nogowski at an even 50 percent, I think.
Okay, now we come to the fun part, when we can maybe talk about adding players to the team, rather than just fretting over losing them. I’m going to do these in more or less rapid-fire fashion, so don’t blink or you might miss someone.
Forrest Wall, OF, Toronto Blue Jays — I scouted Wall coming out of high school in the 2014 draft, and he was actually one of my favourite players in that class. At the time, he was a reed-thin second baseman with a natural ability to make contact from the left side of the plate and plus-plus speed that made him a threat every time he got on base. Basically, he was sort of a mirrored version of Trea Turner.
The bad news is that since being drafted, Wall hasn’t really managed to put on much size or strength, still being listed at what appears to be a more or less accurate six feet and 175 pounds. He still makes contact at a good clip, and can spray line drives with the best of them, but the power is on the low side and he isn’t a sub-10% K rate guy, more of a sub-20% K rate guy. That would be fine if he were still playing the infield, but Wall has also been moved to outfield duty in the years since the Rockies drafted him. He’s fast enough to play center and steal 25+ bases annually, but he also hasn’t made it past Double A yet and struggled at that level with both the Rockies and Blue Jays.
Tyler Jay, LHP, Minnesota Twins — Another guy who was a personal favourite of mine at the time he was drafted, Jay has struggled with a bit of back and forth from starting to relieving in the Twins’ organisation, though they seem to have settled on keeping him in the bullpen now. (Personally, I think he’s also just struggled due to the fact the Twins have no idea how to develop pitchers, but that’s an entirely unfounded opinion based on just observation, so take it with a huge grain of salt.) He’s also not been entirely healthy the last couple years, which has slowed his development. He still has above-average velocity and the great slider at times, though, and I would be more than glad to take a chance on him over, say, a Tyler Webb if I had an open roster spot.
Patrick Mazeika, C, New York Mets — If there was one player on this list I could officially wish for and make him a Cardinal, it would probably be Mazeika, who fits the club’s needs so perfectly that it’s stupid. He’s a left-handed hitting catcher with modest power but incredible plate discipline (11.4% BB to 10.3% K at Double A in 2018), and perfectly adequate defensive tools behind the plate. He’s not a stand out defensively, but as a lefty counterpart to the ageless Yadi? He would be, to my eye, the absolute perfect pick for the Cards in the draft tomorrow. No decent backup catcher wants to sign up to caddy for a guy who never takes days off; pull the dude from the Mets’ system who you could actually use as a pinch-hitter in addition to spelling Molina once or twice a week.
Art Warren, RHP, Seattle Mariners — Colour me very surprised the Mariners couldn’t find a way to protect Warren, who shows the makings of a dominant relief arm in spite of just finally making it to Double A in 2018, and then missing a sizable chunk of the season with a sore shoulder. He can push his fastball up to 98 and will flash both a curve and slider that could rate 55s, but rarely in the same outing. He’s got a funky, delayed arm action that probably adds stress, but looks to me like it also makes his pitches tougher to pick up out of his hand. If a club was sure Warren would be healthy, to me he’d be a no-brainer to pick tomorrow.
Richie Martin, SS, Oakland A’s — Here’s the bad news: Richie Martin will not make it to the Cardinals’ draft spot, if they even do manage to open a roster spot in order to participate in the Rule V. Martin has been a plus defender at shortstop since his days playing at Florida, but has never really hit. That changed this past summer, when he put up a 121 wRC+ and stole 25 bases for Double A Midland, though it must be pointed out he still didn’t really show much power. However, he did drive the ball more effectively than he ever had before, and the fact Oakland left him unprotected has nothing to do with Martin not being a desirable prospect, and everything to do with the Athletics having just as much of a 40 man crunch as the Cardinals, if not maybe even more.
Foster Griffin, LHP, Kansas City Royals — Way back when, Foster Griffin was the pitcher I hoped the Cardinals would draft with the pick that actually became Luke Weaver. At the time, Griffin was a high school lefty with a fastball that touched 94 and a big, bending curveball from a willowy 6’3” frame that looked built to pitch. Griffin has, at times in the minors, pitched extremely well, such as a dominant stint in High A in 2017, but his velocity has never really improved, parking in the 90-92 range more or less permanently, it seems. That wouldn’t be bad, if it weren’t for the fact his curveball has backed up badly; we call this ‘Pulling a Kaminsky’ in the business. At this point, Griffin’s changeup is probably his best pitch, but he throws strikes and has never been tried as a reliever at any point by the Royals. Perhaps an organisation with a reputation for developing pitchers could figure out a way to get him back on track.
Josh Ockimey, 1B, Boston Red Sox — Ockimey does not, in really any way, shape, or form, match up with the Cardinals’ needs. So why am I covering him here? Because he possesses perhaps the most intriguing bat available in the Rule V draft this year, as a big-power, big-patience, big-swing and miss left-handed masher who just might make some club very happy as a primary bench bat. He’s likely a much better fit for an AL club, who could utilise the DH to get him more plate appearances, and the fact he regularly posts strikeout rates near 30% in the minors is a little scary. However, he also walks 15+ percent of the time and is just beginning to really tap into his natural power, so there’s plenty of promise there as well. Probably not for the Cardinals, though.
Josh Graham, RHP, Atlanta Braves — Finally, we come to one of the more intriguing strikeout arms on this entire list. Josh Graham has a combination of pitches and deception that make him basically the prototype of the high strikeout, flexible-role reliever everyone seems to be searching for right now. He works in the 93-96 range with his fastball, and complements it with a slider and changeup, both of which will flash 60+ potential on any given day. If there’s a Chris Devenski in the minors right now, Graham isn’t a bad bet to be that guy.
The problem with Graham is that for all that stuff, his control kind of sucks most days, and hitters do as well just trying to wait him out as they do trying to hit him. He’s struggled two years in a row at the Double A level, and he just turned 25, so the clock is ticking. Still, this is the kind of stuff dream relievers are made of, if only a club could figure out how to help him harness it.