18. Luken Baker, 1B
6’4”, 265 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 10 March 1997
Acquired: 2018 Amateur Draft, Comp Round B
Level(s) in 2018: Gulf Coast League, Peoria (Low A)
Relevant Stats: 240 wRC+ (GCL), .288/.359/.417, 123 wRC+ (Peo), 10.3% BB, 19.9% K
So, what’s so great about this guy?
We now start an odd little run of prospects, as things worked out on this list so that there are three bat-first (perhaps bat-only, you might say), prospects all right in a row. Luken Baker is the first of the group to show up, and places lowest here mostly due to youth and distance from the majors.
Baker was a high-end two-way prospect coming out of high school, but was strongly committed enough to TCU that teams stayed away from picking him high in the draft. After getting to college, he gave up pitching after an arm injury, and in fact struggled staying healthy all through his career as a Horned Frog. Torn ligaments in his ankle ended his 2018 season early, but he returned after the draft to get his pro career started. It is a bit of a concern for a player of Baker’s size to have lower body injuries, as you worry about him slowing down even more and becoming entirely immobile, but for now Baker remains more nimble than he appears, and boasts a rare level of arm strength for a first base-only defensive profile.
It’s in the batter’s box that Baker really shines, as he is possessed of a strong, level swing that generates a lot of contact, and plenty of hard line drives. He hits from a spread stance and employs a simple leg lift that gives him outstanding balance in his swing. The plate discipline is above-average, as Baker rarely chases bad pitches, but he’s aggressive enough on pitches within the zone (and makes enough contact on those pitches), that his walk rate has generally been fairly modest. If pitchers work around him, Baker will take a walk, but he goes into most plate appearances looking to attack something hittable.
There isn’t a ton of natural loft in Baker’s swing, but he hits the ball hard enough that even focusing on line drives he could send 25+ over the wall down the road. That number could jump much higher, too, if he were to embrace the pull-side power ideas that a player like Edwin Encarnacion rode to such offensive heights in Toronto. Baker is a good enough hitter naturally he could narrow his focus in such a way without giving up too much in terms of contact, as well.
The concerns about Baker, beyond the injuries that have plagued him up ‘til this point in his playing career, are nearly all concentrated around his body and mobility. He’s in good shape, and as I said is a better defender right now than one might think looking at him, but he’s still a physically huge individual whose conditioning will need a ton of monitoring and is already a lumbering, generally ineffective runner. He could end up problematically immobile with a little more age and weight on his frame, and having already had multiple lower-body injuries does nothing to alleviate those sorts of concerns. Still, the offensive talent is such that you’ll accept those limitations and concerns, so long as he keeps doing what he does best coming up the ladder.
If he’s good, it will look like: There’s something of a Jose Abreu vibe to Baker’s profile, for me, given the size, natural power to all fields, and aggressive approach to hittable pitches. Abreu’s biggest limiter on his performance has been pushing that aggression too far, to the point he doesn’t get on base to the level he probably could, and a greater willingness to wait for a hittable pitch or accept a free base will be a key component for Baker growing his offensive impact.
via Perfect Game Baseball:
17. Rangel Ravelo, 1B
6’1”, 225 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 24 April 1992
Acquired: Minor League Free Agent 2017; International FA 2010 (White Sox)
Level(s) in 2018: Memphis (Triple A)
Relevant Stats: 399 PA, .308/.392/.487, 133 wRC+, 10.5% BB, 12.3% K, 13 HR
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Rangel Ravelo has been kicking around the minor leagues for a long time now, having signed with the White Sox as a Cuban defector all the way back in 2010. His calling card has always been an ability to make tons of natural contact, but power has mostly eluded him, limiting his offensive ceiling.
What Ravelo did in 2018 was really more of the same, but perhaps the best overall version of that same he’s ever produced, and in doing so put up maybe his best overall offensive season ever — or at least the most complete. Even in such a successful season, though, when Ravelo pushed some of the best power numbers of his career to go along with an outstanding walk to strikeout ratio, he looks more like a ~15 homer a year kind of hitter. For a player down at the low end of the defensive spectrum, there’s a hard limit on the ceiling one can produce with such modest power.
Still, Ravelo is one of the best contact hitters in the whole of the system, capable of producing annual .300+ batting averages at pretty much any level, and getting on base at a .360+ clip to boot. He’s an average athlete for a first baseman, an average to maybe a little above defender there (though first base defense is really tough to scout, I believe), and roughly an average runner. In other words, he is very much the sort of player who has to hit, a lot, to be a contributor. The good news there is that hitting is what Ravelo does best, and given an opportunity at the big league level I think he could be a useful bench piece to offer a high-quality at-bat in part-time duty. He’ll play the 2019 season at age 27, though, and hasn’t yet been added to the 40 man roster (thanks to the alert commenter who caught my mistake previously, that Ravelo resigned with the club as a free agent, rather than being added to the 40; minor league transactions are easy to get mixed up on), so it’s questionable whether Ravelo will ever find that opportunity.
If he’s good, it will look like: Ravelo has a fairly easy analogue on the Cardinals’ roster right now, I think, in Jose Martinez. Very similar hitters, similar lack of value beyond the bat, similar profile as older prospects who could use a break somewhere to get a chance at hitting MLB pitchers.
16. John Nogowski, 1B
6’2”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 5 January 1993
Acquired: MiLB Free Agent 2017; Amateur Draft 2014 (Oakland)
Level(s) in 2018: Springfield (Double A)
Relevant Stats: 347 PA, .309/.392/.463, 136 wRC+, 12 HR, 11.8% BB, 6.1% K
So, what’s so great about this guy?
The third and final member of our first base trio here today, Nogowski is, by far, the strangest of the group. Baker is a hulking power threat with a good plate approach. Ravelo is a line drive machine with questions about his power ceiling. Nogowski is something quite different.
Plate approach has always been the strongest aspect of Nogowski’s game as he has walked and struck out in relatively equal measure throughout his career. Even more than Ravelo, though, he’s always appeared to be limited by a lack of power in his bat, and that hasn’t necessarily changed all that much even now. What has changed is the level to which Nogowski pushed his plate discipline numbers in 2018; a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio at any level is a very encouraging thing, but a near-2:1 walk to strikeout ratio at Double A? That’s something else entirely. Even as a 25 year old, hitters simply do not control the strike zone against advanced-level pitching capable of throwing strikes the way Nogowski did in 2018.
It’s really hard to find good comparables for a guy like Nogowski, at least to the degree of what we saw from him in 2018. Like I said, plenty of players are capable of running strikeout and walk rates of roughly similar magnitude; the degree to which Nogowski pushed things this past season is very much not typical in this era. Thirty years ago you might see guys who ran K:BB ratios like that, but not nowadays.
All of which makes it kind of fascinating, if very difficult, to really figure out what Nogowski’s ceiling might be. He comes with the same kinds of caveats the other first basemen in this group bring to the table; he’s not fleet of foot, plays only the one position down at the negative end of the spectrum, and just generally will have to absolutely crush opposing pitching in order to have real value. The fact his .154 isolated slugging percentage this season was the highest of his career in any reasonable sample is a further complicating factor. And yet, even with all those things going against Nogowski, his approach to hitting is so fascinating, and so extreme, that I’m far more intrigued by him than I probably should be by such a limited player.
If he’s good, it will look like: As I said, it’s really tough to find good analogues to Nogowski in the game today. A first baseman with no power and plate discipline to this extent brings to mind Gregg Jefferies, but Jefferies was also a perennial 20 stolen base guy and just played in such a different era context that it’s tough to lean on that one. Sean Casey is one of the very few similar players I can think of from the past ~20 years, and that is honestly not a very encouraging comp, considering Casey was sort of secretly terrible for a long time.
15. Lane Thomas, OF
6’1”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 23 August 1995
Acquired: Trade from Toronto 2017; Amateur Draft 2014, 5th Round
Level(s) in 2018: Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A), Arizona Fall League
Relevant Stats: 123 wRC+, .227 ISO (Spr), 110 wRC+, .221 ISO (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
Thomas was a tooled-up outfielder with huge swing and miss issues and a considerable injury history in the Blue Jays’ system when the Cardinals picked him up midseason 2017 in return for international bonus pool money. He made that gamble look downright brilliant this season, and if not for the overwhelming right-handedness of the Cards at both the major and minor league levels, Thomas would probably be a prime candidate heading into 2019 to earn the fourth outfielder job with the big club.
Quick: name the Cards’ minor league home run leader this past season. If you said Tyler O’Neill, I completely understand, but you’re wrong, and should feel bad about yourself. The actual answer is Lane Thomas, who eclipsed O’Neill’s dinger total by a single tally, largely because O’Neill spent so much of his time riding the pine in the majors, but still. Twenty seven home runs is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when it comes from a player with the defensive chops to play all three outfield positions and the speed to potentially swipe 15-20 bases annually.
It’s no coincidence that 2018 was both the best season of Thomas’s career and also the first season in which he had collected more than 400 plate appearances in single year. Multiple small injuries earlier in his career limited him, but in 2018 he stayed on the field and made an impact. His plate approach at Springfield was excellent, as he walked nearly 10% of the time, but took a step back when he hit the even more advanced pitching environment of Triple A. That will be one of the big questions for Thomas going forward, whether or not he can keep his walk rate up high enough to maintain a solid on-base percentage, because even at his best Thomas will probably always be a near-25% strikeout guy, I would think.
If he’s good, it will look like: If Thomas sounds like a little more polished Randal Grichuk to you, I don’t blame you for thinking that. Whereas Grichuk had to post a .250 ISO to make up for his plate discipline being so utterly horrifying, though, Thomas has shown a more well-rounded game of the sort that could make him more sustainably successful. It’s unclear where the opportunity for Thomas at the big league level will come from, but he’s knocking on the door for at least a backup job in the near future.
via Baseball Census:
14. Malcom Nunez, 3B
5’11”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 9 March 2001
Acquired: International Free Agent 2018
Level(s) in 2018: Dominican Summer League
Relevant Stats: 199 PA, .415/.497/.774, 238 wRC+, 13 HR, 13.1% BB, 14.6% K
So, what’s so great about this guy?
I mentioned before when talking about Joerlin De Los Santos that I struggled with where to rank both he and Nunez this year, considering how incredible each was in the DSL yet how far away that is from any level of competition I feel comfortable assessing. If I’m being honest, I really badly want to push Nunez even higher than this, but my natural conservatism in ranking players at a level this low prevents me from doing so.
That being said, if Nunez were number one on this list next year it wouldn’t surprise me a bit; he is that precocious a hitting talent. I won’t try to pretend I’ve seen enough of him to have any real feel for his defense, beyond him having an obviously above-average arm, so basically all I’m going to focus on is the bat. And the bat, ladies and gentlemen, is phenomenal.
Nunez has one of the most naturally powerful hitting strokes of any player in the system, already has an advanced feel for waiting on the pitch he wants, rather than the pitch the pitcher is trying to give him, and covers everything knees to navel, inside and out, with relative ease. The competition level in the complex leagues, and even moreso the overseas academy leagues, can vary so much year to year that it’s really difficult to place a given player’s performance into context sometimes. Even so, what Nunez did this year was nearly unprecedented.
I’m hoping, desperately, that the Cardinals push Nunez very aggressively in 2019, perhaps even trying him out at Peoria to begin the year. More likely they’ll bring him stateside and wait until the short-season clubs start playing and place him at Johnson City or somewhere, but I would personally like to see them try to get him on the field immediately as soon as the minor league teams get going. If he is really what he looked to be this past summer in the DSL, he’s a top five guy in the system next year, if not higher, and probably a top 100 overall prospect. We just need time to see how that all plays out, though.
If he’s good, it will look like: Nunez’s compact, muscular build and natural lofted swing put me in mind of Josh Donaldson. And I don’t say that lightly.
via Baseball America:
13. Edmundo Sosa, SS
5’11”, 170 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right
DOB: 6 March 1996
Acquired: International Free Agent 2013
Level(s) in 2018: Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A), MLB
Relevant Stats: 279 PA, 99 wRC+ (Spr), 209 PA, 88 wRC+ (Mem)
So, what’s so great about this guy?
It’s really interesting having players like Malcom Nunez and Edmundo Sosa so close together on a list, because how in the world do you actually compare the two? One is five years younger than the other, has never even played in America, but has the talent of a legend, while the other is on the cusp of the big leagues but is probably a league-average player. How do you square the circle on weighting each of their potentials, given the variables of ETAs, positions, and offensive which all diverge wildly? It’s tough, is what I’m saying.
Here’s the thing about Sosa: he has slowly climbed through the system in a post-hype sleeper sort of way, after having burst on to the scene back in 2015 at Johnson City. He showed exciting bat speed and raw power at that level, as well as plus natural defensive tools at shortstop. The combination put him on the map as a player to watch in a big way.
In the three years since that time, Sosa has never again shown the same sort of dynamic offensive upside, and has rather climbed steadily up the ladder as the most skilled, steadiest shortstop in the system, all the while hitting just enough to keep his name in the conversation as a future starter at the position, rather than being relegated to Cesar Izturis status.
That being said, Sosa added a leg kick in 2017, and his offense has been stronger ever since. His balance is better now, and while he’s still far too aggressive a hitter, his strike zone judgment seems stronger than a few years ago. He probably still tops out as a middling hitter, maybe an 80-90 wRC+ guy, but that’s more than good enough to make him valuable given how strong his glovework is. The presence of Paul DeJong on the Cardinal roster makes Sosa’s road to playing time in the big leagues much more complicated, because as well as Sosa plays the position, he’s not going to trump DeJong’s upside. He may be best served as a trade chip, honestly, because while he would profile fine as a utility player — he can certainly handle all the infield positions as well as Greg Garcia, for instance — it would seem like some club out there with a need would be willing to offer more value for a plus defensive shortstop.
If he’s good, it will look like: Finding glove-first shortstops to compare Sosa to isn’t all that tough to do, but for my money the best version of Edmundo Sosa actually looks a lot like another Panamanian shortstop: Edgar Renteria. Sosa probably never hits those ‘02-’03 heights, when Renteria was legitimately one of the best shortstops in the game, but he’s not a dissimilar player by any means. Edit: Edgar Renteria is not, of course, Panamanian but Colombian. The only notable Panamanian player I can think of is Mariano Rivera. Apologies for the vapour lock of the brain. Renteria does, however, remain a solid comp for Edmundo Sosa, I think. Rivera less so. — A. Second edit: Oh, and Rod Carew, too. — A.
Three down, two more to go, folks. I’ll see you again soon.
In the meantime, here’s one of my favourite Christmas songs, which in nearly five years has only ever been viewed a little over 450 times. That seems like a terrible tragedy to me. it was on one of the Burt Dax Christmas albums several years back, which probably means absolutely nothing to 98% of the people reading this, but probably means a whole lot to the remaining 2%. You should listen to it. Like multiple times.
via Lo-Fi Saint Louis:
Happy Christmas, everybody. Or Saturnalia, if you get down like that.