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The Viva El Birdos 2018 Top Prospects List: The Just-Missed List

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The Cardinal farm system is ridiculously deep. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Yomiuri Giants v MLB All Stars Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Yes, friends, it’s that time again. December is here, and that means prospects here at VEB Industries, formerly Future Redbirds Incorporated. I have once again decided to do something incredibly stupid, and attempt to publish the giant top prospects list during the holiday season, which invariably leads to the whole endeavour becoming a miserable slog at some point along the way. The tradeoff, for me at least, is that I like the timing of finishing the prospect list right as the calendar turns over to the new year. It just seems appropriate, somehow.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to publish this year’s list, which comes to 30 players plus today’s just-missed list, in six installments. I had been planning on doing five players per post, but in the interest of getting it all in I’ve upped that to six. If everything goes roughly to plan, I’ll have the final installment, featuring an all-new number one prospect (spoiler alert, I guess), go up on the morning of Sunday, 30th December.

I have other columns planned out, at least tentatively, and so will not be doing exclusively prospect content over the next three weeks or so. My plan is to publish the first actual list installment next Sunday, then Monday the 17th, Sunday the 23rd, Wednesday the 26th, and finally finish up on the 30th. I have the extra day of New Year’s Eve morning built in just in case I have to push one back, to still be able to get it all in the 2018 calendar year. Supplemental materials, which I will probably put out as I think of it as is usually the case, will come later here and there.

Oh, one other quick housekeeping note: I will be keeping the list as-is for now, by which I mean any prospects traded away will remain on the list, in the spot they were ranked. The writeup might be shorter, but I want to keep the players in where I had them, so as to try and give as true a picture as possible of what I think the Cardinals may have given up in any trades. Thus, Andy Young will still appear at number eleven on my list, probably with a somewhat abbreviated writeup. On the other hand, any prospects the Cards acquire between now and the time I finish publishing these, I will likely try to work the player in somewhere, perhaps with an addendum to the list where I think he belongs. Conversely, I may end up waiting and adding in any new players later. I haven’t quite decided how to handle that just yet.

With all that in mind, I have 46 players ranked currently on my big list for 30 spots. I’m not going to write up all sixteen extra guys, but rather probably roll some of them into supplemental posts later on down the road. Instead, I’m going to put seven of those sixteen players I find really interesting for some reason into this post, in no particular order. Once you start getting down to this level in a system, the differences in potential future value are both so slight and so wide that rankings are sort of pointless. Thus, this is the just-missed list, but not the just-missed rankings.

Oh, and also: I know I say this every year, but I’m going to try and keep these writeups shorter this year than in the past, particularly on this list.

Carlos Soto, C

6’2”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 27 April 1999

Level(s) in 2018: Johnson City (Short-season), GCL (Rookie)

Relevant Statistics: 110 wRC+ at JC, 117 wRC+ at GCL, 13.3% BB at JC

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It’s really tough for me to put Carlos Soto this low in the rankings, to the point he’s not really even officially ranked, because he has been, and remains still, one of my personal favourite prospects in the Cardinal system. He’s a left-handed hitting catcher with power potential and an extremely patient approach at the plate, which makes him very difficult for me not to like.

That being said, I can’t ignore the fact that Soto has now played three seasons in the Cards’ farm system, has yet to advance into full-season ball, and was actually demoted late in the year from Johnson City down to the Cards’ complex league club. I haven’t heard any official reason for the demotion — and haven’t gotten an answer to the one missive I’ve sent asking about it — but I have a tough time seeing how it could be related to Soto’s offensive production, as he was putting up a line 10% above league average (which is fantastic for a catcher), at the time he was sent down. I am admittedly a terrible judge of catcher defense, and haven’t seen anywhere near enough of Soto behind the plate to feel like I have a good grasp on his defensive abilities, so perhaps the demotion had to do with him working at the club’s training facilities in Jupiter on his defense.

Regardless, Soto remains very young, not turning 20 until during spring training, and catchers generally tend to have somewhat slower development curves anyway. He remains, for me, the highest-ceilinged catching prospect in the system, though obviously very far away. I’m hoping to see him challenged with a promotion to Low A to begin 2019, or at least bumped up to State College when short-season leagues start up. I’m still very high on Soto, but the fact he’s been moved along so slowly tells me the non-hitting aspects of his game are viewed as lagging by the organisation, I believe.

Winston Nicacio, RHP

6’2”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 29 December 1996

Level(s) in 2018: Peoria (Low A), State College (Short Season+)

Relevant Statistics: 3.51 FIP/23.2% K at State College

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Another of my personal faves in the system (at least in terms of under-the-radar guys, that is), Nicacio was promoted aggressively to full-season ball to begin the year, and pretty much fell flat on his face. He threw fewer than 30 innings at Peoria, posted an ERA north of 7.00 and a K:BB ratio of just about 1.00, and was quickly moved back down to State College once the short-season leagues started up. He was much better for the Spikes, if still not exactly dominant, and finished out the year on a significant upswing, giving some hope he’ll be ready for that Peoria promotion to begin 2019.

Nicacio is still a very raw pitcher for being nearly 22 years old, but the raw stuff is good enough I have to highlight him. He’s a low arm slot righty with wicked tailing action on his fastball, and he’ll occasionally flash both a plus slider and an average or above changeup. There’s a little Carlos Zambrano in Nicacio’s near-sidearm fastball, though he has not been a groundball monster to date the way Big Z was, as the pitch has a little more sail and a little less sink, if that makes sense.

I’m still hopeful for Nicacio to take a step forward in 2019, but the clock is beginning to tick a bit for him.

Seth Elledge, RHP

6’3”, 230 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 20 May 1996

Level(s) in 2018: High A in Mariners’ system, Springfield (Double A)

Relevant Statistics: 36.2% K in High A, 29% K in AA

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Elledge was the Cards’ return from the Mariners in the Sam Tuivailala trade, as they tried to reshape their bullpen on the fly and potentially grab an arm with a high ceiling who was not yet burning options. Personally, I think they did very well for themselves in grabbing the big righty, even if I was a little sad to see Tuivailala, who I scouted as a high school shortstop way back when, depart for the Pacific Northwest.

Elledge followed Brandon Koch as closer at Dallas Baptist, and continued that program’s legacy of ungodly relief pitching without missing a beat. He’s a big, physical presence on the mound who aggressively drives toward the plate, getting far down the slope of the mound and creating some deception that makes his mid-90s two-seamer even more effective. He’s also got one of the best sliders in the system to back up the heat, and the combination of the delivery, velocity, and a plus breaking ball gives Elledge some serious strikeout punch.

After being dealt to the Cardinals, Elledge was assigned to Double A and had an up and down first go in the Texas League. He’s not far off from being big-league ready, and depending on how things shake out might even be pushing for a promotion in 2019.

Leandro Cedeno, 1B

6’2”, 195 lbs (shakes head); Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 22 August 1998

Level(s) in 2018: Johnson City (Short-season)

Relevant Statistics: 258 PA, .336/.419/.592, 160 wRC+, 14 HR, .430 BABIP

So, what’s so great about this guy?

One word: power. Leandro Cedeno has some of the best raw power of any player in the Cards’ system, and he’s capable of bringing that over the fence pop into games even when he doesn’t make absolutely perfect contact. Cedeno hit one of the longest home runs in the history of Johnson City baseball in July, and while that .430 BABIP is obviously a red flag that there are tougher days ahead for him as regression takes a bite out of his numbers, the fact is Cedeno simply hit the living hell out of nearly everything in 2018.

All that being said, the power and damage on contact are going to have to remain elite in order to carry Cedeno far up the ladder. He’s a very limited player defensively, and while the organisation did try him out a bit in the outfield this season, I simply don’t see him having that kind of mobility. That 195 pound listed weight is hilariously out of date, and Cedeno is just a huge human being. He also has a ton of swing and miss to his game, striking out almost 27% of the time in short-season ball.

Cedeno has a tough profile in today’s game. He’s cut from the same cloth as a Chris Carter type, the low-OBP slugger limited to first base or DH, and teams just don’t pay for that profile much these days. The fact he’s right-handed puts even a bit more of a damper on his value. Still, a player who can put the ball over the wall can have value, particularly early on in his career before he gets expensive. It’s just not ideal for future earnings.

Connor Jones, RHP

6’3”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 10 October 1994

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

Relevant Statistics: 4.51 FIP (AA), 6.03 FIP (AAA)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Connor Jones, at the time he was drafted, was one of my least-favourite picks the Cardinals had made in several years. I saw a guy whose stuff had backed up significantly from his sophomore to junior seasons at Virginia, and really only possessed a plus sinker on which to hang his hat at that point. In the time since, Jones had really done pretty much all he could to make me look prescient, losing even more zip on his fastball and generally just posting some very, very bad numbers at most stops.

However, in the Arizona Fall League this year Jones finally made the conversion to relief that plenty of people had been pointing to as his only real hope of getting back on the prospect radar, and the changes were immediate. He didn’t exactly blow the doors off the league in terms of results, but the stuff took a huge jump, and he started missing bats at a rate he never has in pro ball. In fact, there was a time making out this list that I actually thought Jones, who I had almost completely given up on, was going to sneak onto the top 30. He didn’t, missing out by two spots officially, but it was a close thing.

In the AFL, working relief, Jones’s sinker, which had fallen into the 88-90 range as a starter, jumped up to 94-96, and he hit 98 on the gun a few times. He still has great movement on the pitch, and that level of velocity puts him firmly in Blake Treinen territory in terms of raw stuff. His curveball came back, looking pretty decent, and he even got a few swinging strikes against lefties with a changeup. His command wasn’t great working at a higher effort level, but hopefully that comes with more repetition in short bursts.

Three months ago, Jones was basically off the radar entirely as far as prospects go. Now, with the new lease on life he seemingly has working out of the ‘pen, he’s an intriguing arm again. The perfect world outcome for Jones is either short relief in that Treinen mold, or perhaps a bit more flexible outcome as a groundball specialist, a la the early 2000s Boston version of Derek Lowe.

Brady Whalen, 1B

6’4”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Switch/Right

DOB: 15 January 1998

Level(s) in 2018: State College (Short-season +)

Relevant Statistics: 268 PA, .209/.341/.359, 111 wRC+, .250 BABIP, 14.2% BB, 20.9% K

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Brady Whalen is one of the more fascinating prospects in the whole of the Cardinals’ system, at least to me, largely because of the vast disparity between what he has shown so far, and what he physically is. He’s got plate discipline down to a science already, with one of the most patient approaches of any hitter in the system, and his contact abilities are above-average. The issue that has held him back so far from taking off is the quality of that contact.

Whalen has yet to really show much ability to impact the baseball, posting low isolated slugging figures and BABIPs both, essentially hitting the ball like a player with very little strength in his swing. It would make sense, really, if Whalen were an undersized middle infielder or something, struggling to create the bat speed or leverage to drive the ball effectively.

But then, of course, you look at the listed numbers for Whalen, and he’s 6’4”. And broad shouldered. And just generally built in such a way that would seem to suggest loud contact and booming line drives. And at that point, it’s a little hard to figure out why Whalen’s numbers look the way they do. He’s even an extreme fly ball hitter already.

There are two ways to look at Brady Whalen. Optimistically, he’s a physically huge young switch hitter who already possesses a polished plate approach and an understanding of where he’s going to do his damage, in which case you’re just waiting on the power to come as he matures and hones his swing. Pessimistically, he’s an overly passive hitter who simply doesn’t impact the ball enough, either because of approach or low quality of contact, and the fly balls are not really helping any at all because he simply doesn’t drive the ball. Me, I’m on the optimistic side when it comes to Whalen, and I think there’s a breakout coming.

via minorleaguebaseball:

Evan Mendoza, 3B

6’2”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 28 June 1996

Level(s) in 2018: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (Double A)

Relevant Statistics: 147 wRC+ (PB), 81 wRC+ (SPR)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Mendoza was drafted by the Cardinals in the eleventh round a just last year out of N.C. State, and for an eleventh-rounder he has absolutely crushed expectations to date. Of course, given how modest expectations are for any player selected in the eleventh, that’s not saying much. Regardless of that, though, Mendoza brings enough to the table he has a legitimate chance of making it to the big leagues, and with some development in key ways could possibly be a real contributor.

The calling card for Mendoza is his glove at the hot corner, as he can pick it about as well as any minor league third baseman you’ll see. He’s got the hands, reflexes, and arm strength to be an impact defender at third in the majors, and while he’s not the fleetest of foot in general he has plus range for such a reaction-heavy position. It’s the kind of defensive package that gets a player a lot of leeway in trying to develop.

As for the bat, that’s a much thornier subject. Mendoza shows promise with the bat in certain ways, such as making tons of line drive contact and spraying the ball to all fields. However, he also puts the ball on the ground too much, and simply doesn’t seem to drive the ball effectively even when he does elevate. If it sounds like I perhaps just copied and pasted sections of this from the Brady Whalen section, I assure that is purely a coincidence.

The good outcome version of Mendoza is something like a 60 grade defender at third base and an Aledmys Diaz type hitter. And that’s a hell of a player. Mendoza has quite a bit of development needed still before he gets anywhere near that offensive ceiling, though.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first installment of the just-missed list. I’ll have plenty more guys who nearly made the top 30 later on down the road; I could probably write up 60 players in this system if I really wanted to, such is the depth. But for now, this will do, and I’ll see you all back here next Sunday to kick off the list proper with players 30 through 25.