Over the weekend, I had the chance to watch all three games of a series between the Memphis Redbirds and the Iowa Cubs and see many of the latest additions to the AAA roster for the first time in-person.
As a Person Who Writes About the Cardinals on the Internet, I know most all of these players already. But I know them in abstraction, as stat lines and blurbs from prospect writers. So it’s always exciting to see them up close and get a feel for who they really are.
What I’m talking about are comps.
Throwing out comps is the language of discussing players - especially young players who haven’t quite reached their full potential. It’s a form of wish-casting, for sure, as the underlying assumption is always something like “if this guy reaches his full potential, he will be like this other guy you already know, who is really good.”
We can build comps through statistical analysis - in fact, that’s what Nate Silver’s PECOTA system was built upon. But we can also compare the look of two players: Similar body types, mechanics, etc. It’s probably a more flawed approach, but it’s reasonable for young players who are still being molded into their final form. Plus it’s fun!
Two Redbirds players really stood out to me during this recent series, and for each, a distinct comp sprung to mind, and once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it. Are these realistic expectations for who these two players will become? Of course not. But the similarities are there, and maybe if everything breaks right...
Dream with me, friends.
Austin Gomber / Jon Lester
If you’re going to watch a player for one game and make a crazy comp, a good game to watch is the one where they tie the club record for strikeouts in a game. Here was his final line for the day:
That’s good, folks.
Gomber is a guy who I haven’t been particularly high on, even as he’s made a steady ascent through the system, with solid results at each level. On paper, there’s not a lot there. The fastball velocity is low 90s. The curve and changeup aren’t pitches that minstrels write songs about. Gomber’s strength was reportedly great command and the ability to throw all three pitches in the zone. My concern was that we were looking at Tim Cooney 2.0 here.
But watching Gomber absolutely deal on Monday afternoon, Jon Lester was the name that kept popping to mind. Lester surely has better pure stuff, but like Gomber, he never throws a pitch that’s so nasty you think “nobody could hit that.” But he works inside, outside, throws his offspeed stuff to hitters on either side of the plate. It’s a great profile for a left-handed pitcher to have a very long career.
I bounced my Lester comp off former VEBer and noted Gomber Enthusiast Joe Schwarz, who approved, but noted Gomber himself has likened his stuff to Mike Minor.
My concerns about how Gomber’s stuff will play against big league hitters remains, but I’m still hitching a ride on the bandwagon. And it sounds like the Cardinals are buying in to Gomber’s AAA success as well, now talking about working him into the rotation mix in the next couple months.
One last reason to fall in love with Austin Gomber: His Monday start lasted just 2:06.
Oscar Mercado / Tommy Pham
Before Gomber’s dominant performance on Monday, the player who most stood out to me during the series was Oscar Mercado. Here’s what I knew about him going into this series: He’s a guy the Cardinals drafted as a shortstop, but moved to center field last year. He’s got speed, but hadn’t really hit much, except last year his bat came to life a bit.
With all the outfield depth in the Cardinals system, I’ve had a hard time imagining Mercado as a guy who would ascend to any kind of meaningful role. And he still faces a herculean task to emerge from a crowded field in the high minors, to say nothing of the very solid starting trio already in St. Louis.
But man, did Oscar Mercado impress me in person. And the more I watched him, the more he reminded me of Tommy Pham.
Mercado started all three games of the series in center field. He hit his third home run of the early season, and just missed on two other deep fly balls. He also doubled, walked twice and stole three bases.
The double, in particular, was an impressive example of Mercado’s athleticism. It was a hard liner just past the third baseman. But just as I was thinking “base hit,” I saw Mercado taking a wide turn approaching first. So then I thought, “okay, he’s going to take an aggressive turn and force a throw.” But Mercado kept going, and his head-first slide brought him into 2nd base well ahead of the throw.
Speed, power, athleticism... a guy drafted out of high school as a shortstop but moved into the outfield... blossoming a little late... call me crazy, but this movie is starting to remind me of The Tommy Pham story.
Now, just as Jon Lester is an upper percentile projection for Austin Gomber, it’s pretty unlikely that Oscar Mercado will ever become TOMMY PHAM. But if he’s going to get there, he’s in the right organization to do it. With Pham and Jose Martinez in particular, the Cardinals have shown a real knack for letting player development happen on its own timeline.
I’m getting a little crazy with these comps. But a big part of Cardinals Devil Magic has always been producing great players seemingly out of nowhere. The minor league system is stocked right now, with a few marquee names at the top that we’re all talking about. But even further down the prospect rankings, there are guys worth dreaming on.