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The 2019 Viva El Birdos Top Prospect List #6-1

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The final leg of our journey through Cardinal prospectdom comes to an end.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Well, here we are again, folks. The final day of the year, and the final installment of our top prospect list. I had planned on taking today off, having published the final edition of the list yesterday, but then again, this is also why I built in a little buffer for myself. Once again, as much as I appreciate the symmetry of finishing this list of the future on the final day of the year, I’m also forced to ask myself why in the world a person would set themselves this task over the holiday season. I’ll probably do the same again in 2019, of course, but it still seems ludicrous.

I will be back probably this coming Sunday with a final thoughts/wrap sort of post on this whole thing, taking a longer view of the system, but for now let’s just stay in the micro and hit this final leg of the journey, shall we?

6. Alex Reyes, RHP

6’3”, 215 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 29 August 1994

Acquired: International Free Agent 2013

Level(s) in 2018: Low A, High A, Double A, Triple A, MLB

Relevant Stats: 40%+ strikeout rate at all minor league levels

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It’s hard to write about Alex Reyes at this point. There’s very little new I can really say about him. We’ve seen him. We know who and what he is. He will cease to be a prospect with the very next batter he retires in the major leagues. It is only because of a fluke of the rules and his stat line that he is still considered a prospect at this point.

All that being said, here is the good and bad from Alex Reyes’s 2018: the good is that he returned from Tommy John surgery, utterly destroyed all minor league hitters unlucky enough to face him while he rehabbed and worked his way back, and in doing so looked to have regained completely the stuff which made him the game’s top right-handed pitching prospect as recently as just a couple years ago. The bad is that he hurt his arm again, this time injuring a ligament near his lat muscle, and only threw four innings total in the majors. I’ve read people opine that the latest injury seems like a fluke, so they’re not worried. That seems utterly idiotic to me, to not think that a guy working back from an elbow injury who injures his shoulder has a potentially systemic, potentially permanent issue.

Alex Reyes is a transcendent talent. Alex Reyes may be so fragile as to never fulfill his promise. The huge velocity gains he made back in 2014-’15 came from, in my opinion, redlining his delivery to the point he’s putting so much stress on his arm that it may not hold up for any appreciable amount of time. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a terrible feeling Alex Reyes is going to end up in a Rick Ankiel-like what could have been category for Cardinal fans.

And yet, the talent is so incredible that even dropping him to sixth on this list feels ludicrous if he is, in fact, able to stay healthy.

If he’s good, it will look like: Justin Verlander remains my chief touchstone for what a fully healthy Alex Reyes might compare to, if he starts. If he relieves, I really have no idea who to comp him to. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a pitcher with Reyes’s level of stuff in a bullpen for a long period of time, at least in terms of breadth of arsenal. What would Craig Kimbrel look like if he added a 60-grade changeup?

via minorleaguebaseball:

5. Dylan Carlson, OF

6’3”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Switch/Left

DOB: 23 October 1998

Acquired: Amateur Draft 2016, 1st Round

Level(s) in 2018: Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A)

relevant Stats: 126 wRC+, 1:1 K:BB ratio (Peoria), 112 wRC+, .247/.345/.386 (PB)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Dylan Carlson has long been one of the stealthier prospects in the Cardinals’ system, sneaking along just under the radar due to his age being as much or more of a selling point than his numbers. I predict that’s about to change in a big way in 2019, when Carlson will most likely make his Springfield debut at some point in the season, and will move to a more hitter-friendly environment at 20 years old.

If 2017 was a year of taking lumps in the Midwest League against much, much older competition for Carlson, 2018 was the year he returned to Peoria, beat up on the now only much older competition for a couple of weeks and then very quickly headed off to the offensive black hole that is the Florida State League to continue being very good and very young and surprisingly hard to notice.

Carlson basically does everything well. He’s only an average runner, but still looks to be an above-average defender in an outfield corner. He has a plus throwing arm that makes him a good fit in right. He’s become a very canny baserunner. His plate discipline has always been impressive, but he made strides in improving his contact ability in 2018. He has above-average raw power from both sides of the plate, has gotten better about elevating the ball off the bat, and doesn’t sell out to pull the ball, instead maintaining his command of the zone and plate coverage even when pitchers work him out of his preferred area of the plate.

If there’s any reason to be concerned about Carlson, it’s that he’s really only an average athlete, and one might wonder a bit about how he will age. There’s a part of me that would still like to see him moved back to first base, where his footwork as a seventeen year old was among the best I’ve ever seen at the position, but he seems pretty well locked in to a corner outfield spot at this point. Relying too heavily on age relative to level can be a somewhat risky game at times if a player is more advanced than talented, but in the case of Dylan Carlson I think the talent is absolutely there, and we’re going to see him surge this coming season in the Texas League.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’ve long had Lance Berkman down as a mental comp for Carlson, and I still like that. Of course, whether Carlson actually reaches that kind of level of performance is doubtful, simply because Berkman was one of the best hitters in baseball for a significant period of time, but a switch-hitting on-base machine who plays a fairly solid right field at least early in his career sounds just about right to me. And if it sounds hyperbolic to you looking at Carlson’s numbers versus Berkman, just remember that at the age Carlson just posted an above-average batting line in High A ball, Berkman was a sophomore at Rice.

via 2080 Baseball:

4. Dakota Hudson, RHP

6’5”, 215 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 15 September 1994

Acquired: Amateur Draft 2016, 1st Round

Level(s) in 2018: Memphis (Triple A), MLB

Relevant Stats: 111.2 IP, 3.54 FIP (Mem), 27.1 IP, 3.86 FIP (StL)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Consider, for a moment, that Dylan Carlson and Dakota Hudson were the second and third picks, respectively, that Randy Flores ever made as scouting director of the St. Louis Cardinals. (The first was Delvin Perez, who sadly looks like a bust at this point, having been unable to physically develop whatsoever since being drafted.) Consider he also popped Andrew Knizner, still to come on this list, later in that same draft, and it would appear Flores might have pulled a 2009 Jeff Luhnow in his first shot at the gig. Might, I said.

Anyway, Dakota Hudson made his major league debut late in the 2018 season, arriving from Memphis to help stabilise a bullpen that was more or less on fire at the time. He did a mostly okay job, despite some really ugly peripherals, because no hitter, even at the major league level, seems able to really do too much against Dakota Hudson’s fastball-cutter combo.

The problem, of course, is that the peripherals were, in fact, pretty ugly, and have been somewhat ugly at other levels in the minors as well. Returning to Triple A in 2018 after a late-season callup the previous year, Hudson still only struck out 18.4% of the hitters he faced. His 8% walk rate wasn’t terrible, but those are not the numbers of a future ace, by any means. Dakota Hudson, for all the sheer quality of his stuff, simply doesn’t seem to have an ability to miss bats at an elite rate.

And yet, the fact remains that hitters simply don’t do much with what Hudson throws. His groundball rates are regularly up near 60%, and even when hitters manage to get the ball into the air against him the contact is nearly always of the weak to medium variety. He works 94-97 with his fastball, and the pitch has that bowling ball quality to it that drives batters crazy. He can push his cutter up to 92-93, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hitter get a really good swing off against it.

What Hudson needs is more time to develop, and specifically needs to work on some other breaking or offspeed pitch he can get hitters to chase. A better curveball, converting his below-average changeup into a splitter, something. If he can’t come up with another weapon, it would seem his likely future home is in the bullpen, but I don’t really feel like a contact manager like Hudson is a great fit for short relief work. It’s a somewhat strange profile, but Hudson is on the doorstep of the big leagues, simply refuses to allow hitters to put the ball over the wall, and in general makes anyone in the batter’s box look mighty uncomfortable. He’s not quite ready yet, but the outline of how he could be very, very good is definitely visible.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’ve comp’d Hudson to Roy Halladay in the past, but that was based on an optimistic reading of Hudson’s ability to build his repertoire beyond just sinker/cutter, which he unfortunately has not been able to do. Boston-era Derek Lowe feels like a more realistic comp for him at this point, but there’s still the possibility Hudson could make a tweak or two and start missing far more bats, given the quality of stuff he’s working with.

via MLB.com:

3. Elehuris Montero, 3B

6’3”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 17 August 1998

Acquired: International Free Agent 2015

Level(s) in 2018: Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Stats: 425 PA, .322/.381/.529, 157 wRC+ (Peo), 106 PA, 110 wRC+ (PB)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

If you’re looking for probably the biggest breakout star in the Cards’ system in 2018, look no further than Montero, who kicked down the door of the Midwest League and made his presence felt in a huge way. You could, of course, make an argument for one of the first-year players in the system, or even for the insane post-trade run of Jhon Torres, but looking for a player who took a leap forward in the system this past season will likely lead you to Montero.

So here’s the deal with Elehuris Montero: he is a hitter. And, as I have said many, many times before, hitters hit. It’s just sort of what they do. Birds fly, fish swim, hitters hit. Montero hits everything, and hits everything hard. He is still learning to elevate the ball, which should lead to bigger home run totals down the line (he hit 15 in over 400 plate appearances at Peoria this year), but he’s already a feared presence when he steps to the plate, simply because every pitch thrown to him has the potential to come right back out a screaming rocket.

On the downside, while Montero is most definitely a hitter, he’s not all that much of a walker, if you know what I mean. He’s more aggressive at the plate than you might prefer, always looking to attack rather than waiting for a pitch he can really drive, but when a hitter has such natural talent it’s tough to talk him into being more patient sometimes. Still, how his plate discipline holds up and develops as he moves up the line will go a long way toward determining his ultimate offensive ceiling.

Montero’s tools beyond what he offers at the plate are not remarkable. He’s already a big guy, and will have to watch he doesn’t become an even bigger guy. A below average runner and defender at third, I think there’s a good chance Montero will end up having to move across the diamond at some point down the line, which hurts his future value. He does have a strong throwing arm which could help him stay at third, but he’s just not particularly mobile over there.

Overall, Elehuris Montero is actually a more limited prospect in a lot of ways than many of the other players who rank below him in the system. However, what he has is one tool, one ability, that is so noteworthy it pushes his ceiling up higher than many of those players who might have more ways to potentially contribute than he. The fact it’s one of the most elemental abilities a player can have — the ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball, loudly and often — is why he sits here at number three on this list.

If he’s good, it will look like: It’s tough to forecast the ceiling for Montero. He could end up like Nick Castellanos, a third baseman who really shouldn’t be, riding a high hard contact rate to offensive relevance, if not stardom. On the other hand, Montero isn’t that far off, maybe a tweak or two, from looking like Hanley Ramirez, at least offensively. Matt Kemp is another name that always comes to mind for me when considering hitters like this, who excel despite weak plate discipline numbers simply by bashing the living hell out of the ball when they do hit it.

via Journal Star:

2. Andrew Knizner, C

6’1”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 3 February 1995

Acquired: Amateur Draft 2016, 7th Round

Level(s) in 2018: Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A)

Relevant Stats: 313 PA, .313/.365/.434, 119 wRC+ (Spr), 114 wRC+, 13.1% K (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Over the past couple years, one of the biggest debates taking place amongst the prospecty crowd in Cardinal fan circles has been the seemingly neverending, and seemingly philosophical as much as practical, debate of Carson Kelly vs Andrew Knizner as the future of catching in St. Louis. One had the glove, the other had the bat. One was a little younger, one had been catching for less time. On and on it went.

Well, that debate has seemingly been settled, at least for now, as the Cardinals traded away Carson Kelly earlier this offseason as part of the package that brought Paul Goldschmidt into the fold. Of course, we can’t really conclude that Kelly was seen by the organisation as the more expendable player, or the less valuable player, or whatever else, since it could be as simple as the Diamondbacks just liking Kelly better, or the lack of minor league options on Kelly making him a tougher fit for the roster, or a number of other things. Regardless, the fact is that Andrew Knizner is now the Cardinals’ top catching prospect, most likely heir apparent to Yadier Molina, and the guy fans will be complaining about still being in the minors while Francisco Pena gets at-bats that we cannot justify.

With Knizner, the story has always been about his bat, about the offensive upside he brings to the catching position, and that remains the case. Carson Kelly was not a bad hitter by any means, but Kelly succeeded through approach and understanding his game. Knizner, meanwhile, is simply a natural hitter, one of the best in the system in terms of contact ability and a natural feel for spraying line drives around the ball yard. There’s not a lot of loft in the swing, limiting Knizner’s power potential, but he should always be a high BABIP player despite below-average speed (he runs fine, for a catcher), because of the simple knack for barreling baseballs. He doesn’t walk a ton, but strikes out so seldom that he still gets on base at a solid clip.

The hands are what defines Knizner as a hitter, as in, he has fantastic hands. Quick, balanced swing, excellent plate coverage, capable of waiting and using the opposite field as well as pretty much any hitter in the system.

Defensively, I hesitate to stick hard and fast grades on a catcher, because I don’t feel like I’m very good at evaluating catcher defense. Still, Knizner looks just fine to my eye, with a strong arm and quick release that should serve him well in controlling the running game. Framing and the like is more nebulous, particularly when watching minor league feeds, but from what I gather he’s seen as roughly average or so behind the plate. He will be a step down defensively from Yadier Molina, because basically anyone would be, but he can hold his own back there while contributing with the bat in a way not a ton of catchers can. The position is what gives Knizner his floor, but it’s the bat that gives him his ceiling.

If he’s good, it will look like: I think Knizner is a better hitter overall than Kurt Suzuki, but that’s the sort of package he might resemble as a major league catcher. Lots of contact, limited power, solid defense. Suzuki’s career wRC+ is 90; I think Knizner can better that, but he’s not a dissimilar hitter all things considered.

via FanGraphs:

1.Nolan Gorman, 3B

6’1”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 10 May 2000

Acquired: Amateur Draft 2018, 1st Round

Level(s) in 2018: Johnson City (Short-season), Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Stats: 167 PA, .350/.443/.664, 183 wRC+, 14.4% BB (JC), 97 wRC+ (Peo)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

For the first time in quite a while, we find a player not named Alex Reyes sitting atop these rankings, and it’s a player who only entered the Cardinals’ fold in June of this year. Nolan Gorman was the Cards’ first pick in the draft this year, and headed straight off to the wilds of the Smokey Mountains to ply his trade in the Appalachian League. (Beautiful town, Johnson City, by the way, if you ever want to check out a Cardinal affiliate somewhere.)

It didn’t take long for everyone to see that the kid from Arizona was way too good for the Appy League, despite being barely eighteen years old. He absolutely walloped the competition in short-season ball, beating up opposing pitchers to a degree you don’t often see, even in the minor leagues, and was quickly promoted to Peoria. He struggled in Peoria, perhaps unsurprising considering he was playing more baseball later in the summer than he probably ever had before, and doing so against competition anywhere from three to five years older than he on a nightly basis. Still, he kept his head mostly above water, and should probably return to the Midwest League again to begin 2019.

It’s not hard to see what’s so exciting about Nolan Gorman. He had the best raw power of any hitter in the 2018 draft, and can already put the ball over the wall in basically any park, anywhere. (Maybe not Yellowstone.) Easy loft, incredible hands, 70 grade power. He’s a pull-heavy hitter, so may be vulnerable to the shift down the road, but much as is the case with Matt Carpenter, if Gorman is hitting the ball on the ground then he’s not doing what he was trying to do anyway.

He carries his hands low at address, a little like one of the Seager brothers, and hits with a simple leg kick that keeps him back in his swing quite well. He’ll chase a breaking ball, but he’s also eighteen. The patience is already there; the strike zone judgment has time to mature.

Defensively, I think he sticks at third long term, and I think there’s a chance he ends up an above-average defender. The arm is very strong, and he moves around pretty well for me at the hot corner. He’s not Nolan Arenado, but I think he’ll be solid over there. He’s already very mature physically for an eighteen year old, so I don’t think there’s a ton of growth left, but that doesn’t matter when the tools, particularly power, are already so notable.

If there is a potential dark cloud in Gorman’s game, it has to be his penchant for swinging and missing. It wasn’t a problem in the Appy League, but once he got to Peoria pitchers really started honing in on his weaknesses and exploiting them. Again, a big part of that is simply the fact he’s so young, but it will bear watching whether Gorman can keep his strikeouts under control as he climbs the ladder. If he’s walking ~15% of the time and putting up a .250 ISO it won’t matter how much he strikes out, but if he’s going to turn into the franchise player his talent would suggest is in there cutting down on the whiffs will probably be an important step.

If he’s good, it will look like: As a hitter, I think Gorman’s ceiling is something along the Cody Bellinger line. Maybe even a little more patient, actually. That plus average defense at third base is most definitely a franchise core sort of player, and Gorman has the highest ceiling of probably any hitter in the system, with the possibility of Jhon Torres challenging him for that title. He’s almost certainly the most exciting position prospect in the system, and the player basically everyone will be watching for the next couple years.

via Nolan Gorman, which is handy:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the list. As I said, I’ll be back with a wrapup post and some thoughts on the overall state of the system, but for now have a safe and happy New Year, and I’ll see you all again soon.

Take care.