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System Sundays: State of the System

A high-altitude overview of the farm system, trying to spot trends, talent concentrations, and potential areas of concern.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Just the other day, my colleague stlcardsfan4 wrote up a piece in which he went through the big prospect list and offered updates on how every ranked player was doing this season. It’s always helpful when someone does that, as even with the daily farm reports it’s easy to lose track of the macro view on how a prospect has performed, and where his stock is headed.

In the comments, there was some brief discussion of where certain prospects might rank when this offseason rolls around, what the state of the pitching talent is, and various other things like that. There was also, in the comment thread of another post, some further prospect discussion in which we talked a bit about what next year’s top ten will look like. I don’t remember which one at the moment, but that’s okay. It’s around here somewhere.

Anyhow, all of this prospect discussion, combined with the fact we’re approaching the All-Star break, which isn’t really midseason but is usually treated as such, put me in mind to try and write up something about the overall state of the system. The short-season leagues have been underway for a little over a month now, so we have some data on the new guys who just came into the organisation, and we can see roughly where the talent is concentrated. That’s what I want to go over here today; to give you an idea of where the talent in the system is, what sort of talent it is in terms of position, and what the general shape of the talent curve looks like as of now.

I’m not going to go heavily into numbers on the players today; I’m not looking to dig down into performances specifically. These aren’t scouting reports. This is more of a 10,000 foot view of the Cardinals’ farm system, and what kind of system we’re looking at as head into the home stretch of 2018, both at the major and minor league levels.

The Current Top Ten

I sketched out a rough draft of my current top ten in the comments the other day, but I wanted to more or less officially put it down on digital paper here as well. This obviously isn’t final, and things could certainly change before we get into offseason listmaking time, but as of right now my mental top ten in the system is roughly this.

First off, we’re looking at several graduations, with Jack Flaherty, Yairo Munoz, Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader, and Jordan Hicks all coming off the list. Kelly hasn’t exceeded the at-bat limit, but his days of service time make him no longer a prospect, while the others have all fully graduated to major league status. Alex Reyes I’m less sure of; I think technically he’s still prospect-eligible, but I’m not going to include him here. Partially because the injuries make his future so cloudy, but more because we know pretty much what there is to know about Alex Reyes at this point. If he’s healthy, he’s still monstrously talented. If he’s not, well, he’s just another data point in the Cards’ fight against some really shitty luck that began in late 2014. In other words, not only is Reyes hard to rank right now, no ranking I could throw at you would really tell us much of anything.

The other two potential graduations from last year’s list are Austin Gomber and Tyler O’Neill, but if pressed I would say I don’t think either ends up with enough playing/service time to lose rookie eligibility this year. O’Neill might, depending upon what his service clock looks like, but for now I’m going to leave both players on the list.

So for now, my current top ten in the system, with O’Neill and Gomber still in, looks something like this:

  1. Tyler O’Neill, OF — Triple A performance has been incredible, and we’ve seen at least the power plays at the big league level.
  2. Andrew Knizner, C — Just keeps hitting, and the defense looks good enough to stay behind the plate to me. Wish there was a little more power, but everything else is undeniable.
  3. Dakota Hudson, RHP — The low strikeout numbers scare me, but he’s as hard to square up as any pitcher in the minors, and the contact is mostly on the ground.
  4. Dylan Carlson, OF — He held his own at an extremely young age last year in full-season ball, and is taking the step forward this year. The most advanced of a young wave of higher-upside position talent in the lower levels.
  5. Ryan Helsley, RHP — I think he’s a starter long-term, and the stuff has a chance to be special. Some control issues and a current injury are concerning.
  6. Nolan Gorman, 3B — The highest upside player in the system, and looks too good for Johnson City already. Looking for a cornerstone player down the line? Look no further.
  7. Oscar Mercado, OF — Resurrected his career last year, and has continued the improvement this season. Similar to Harrison Bader, but with better contact skills.
  8. Austin Gomber, LHP — I’m still not sold on Gomber having a very high ceiling, but he’s basically big-league ready, just needs to get a little more confidence at this level.
  9. Elehuris Montero, 3B/1B — I wrote up a scouting report on Montero last week. TL;DR — maybe a 3B, maybe a 1B, but he can really hit. The most helium in the system.
  10. Delvin Perez, SS — It’s been a little slow in terms of development for Perez, but the defensive tools are still elite, and he shows surprising patience and discipline at the plate, if still a notable lack of ability to impact the ball. Still needs many, many sandwiches.

The next few players on the list for me are probably Evan Mendoza, Randy Arozarena, and maybe Griffin Roberts once he gets on the mound. Arozarena has had a very frustrating, disappointing season for me this year, but at various times he stills shows five plus tools, just not all at once. Mendoza doesn’t have much pop, but features great contact skills and slick defense at the hot corner. Roberts was one of my favourite pitchers in the entire draft this year, and should be able to move relatively quickly based on just the quality of his fastball/slider combo. Brady Whalen is a riser for me into the teens, and Max Schrock is still hanging around somewhere in there, despite his tough season trying to show some more power in Triple A.

Now, you’ll probably notice a couple of things about that list right off the bat. First, it doesn’t look at all like the list from the offseason, with a huge amount of turnover going on. That’s really interesting, to see that much churn in the system from a team that’s right in the middle of trying to contend. Second, not only does this list not look like last year’s, but it doesn’t look like a Cardinal list, period. Cardinal prospect lists, for the last half decade, have been overwhelmingly populated by pitchers. The pipeline has produced Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez and Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty. By comparison, the core-level position prospects to come through the system since Matt Carpenter basically consist of Paul DeJong and...well, that’s about it. Didn’t really need the plural there, did I?

However, over the past few drafts the Cardinals have focused on positional talent, whether by design or by circumstance, and the list above reflects that. The system as a whole is also richer in infield prospects than it has been in quite a while, reflecting an increased emphasis on positional value.

This list is also, finally, both riskier than many in the past and more loaded with upside than what we’ve seen the last handful of years. Well, in terms of position players, anyway; the pattern for awhile has been promising power arms and ‘tweener hitters, all of whom appear to fall in that 1.5-2.5 WAR kind of projection range if things go well in their development. This group, though, is very different. O’Neill could hit 40 homers in the big leagues, Mercado has 65 grade speed in center and on the bases, Carlson has offensive upside that fits in the middle of any order. The younger hitters — Montero, Perez, and Gorman — have extremely high ceilings, with quite a bit of downside as well. The organisation is incubating a potentially impactful class of hitters; it’s just a matter of whether they can bring those impact bats along to reach their potentials.

Level by Level

What I want to do now is go through the Cards’ system, level by level, and break out who are the potential impact players at each spot, who are the potentially useful pieces, and where the upside of the organisation is concentrated. Again, I’m not going into player stats, just giving the names and what each level has going on right now.

We’ll start from the top and go down. I won’t be covering anything below short-season ball; complex leagues and academy ball are so far away that a) it’s hard to get much of a feel for the players, and b) there are a ton of interesting guys there I just know nothing about. I might mention a couple names from the GCL, but Johnson City is basically the lowest level I really feel comfortable scouting.

Memphis Redbirds (Triple A)

Potential Impact Players

  • Tyler O’Neill, OF
  • Carson Kelly, C
  • Oscar Mercado, OF
  • Dakota Hudson, RHP
  • Ryan Helsley, RHP

Potentially Useful Pieces

  • Randy Arozarena, OF
  • Max Schrock, 2B
  • Austin Gomber, LHP
  • Conner Greene, RHP
  • Luke Voit, 1B
  • Rangel Ravelo, 1B
  • Edmundo Sosa, SS
  • Patrick Wisdom, 3B
  • Adolis Garcia, OF
  • Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP
  • Chris Ellis, RHP

There’s a reason the Memphis Redbirds are the best team in Triple A, and it’s easy to see when you look at that list of players. Lots of times the very best minor league clubs are those teams which are just loaded with older, quad-A guys, and while there are some of those players in Memphis this year (hello, Rangel Ravelo and Patrick Wisdom), there are also several legitimate top prospects, and just in general an incredible depth of potentially useful talent. This is where the real depth of the Cards’ system lies right now, and is the reason why the Cardinals could probably trade away half their major league club and suffer only a moderate loss in terms of player quality, if at all.

There are a couple guys in the useful piece category here that could actually have impact talent, notably Schrock and Arozarena on the position side, but have enough questions I can’t put them up top like that at this point. Daniel Poncedeleon intrigues me as having a higher ceiling, probably as a reliever, than he usually gets credit for.

Conner Greene still can’t throw strikes, which sucks, and Adolis Garcia has had a really bad time of it this year in terms of contact. Both are scuffling. However, while I’m not going to say the club wouldn’t miss Matt Carpenter if they traded him, I would bet dollars to doughnuts you could cobble together a fairly decent first base situation between Ravelo, Luke Voit, and a guy on the Springfield list. That’s the kind of depth of talent this organisation has, and it really shows up here.

Springfield Cardinals (Double A)

Potential Impact Players

  • Andrew Knizner, C
  • Evan Mendoza, 3B

Potentially Useful Pieces

  • Jeremy Martinez, C
  • Ramon Urias, SS/2B
  • Tommy Edman, INF
  • John Nogowski, 1B
  • Jake Woodford, RHP
  • Sam Tewes, RHP
  • Austin Warner, LHP
  • Connor Jones, RHP

There’s a reason the S-Cards aren’t very good this year, and this list of players is basically that reason. Knizner is a hell of a player, and I’m still optimistic about Jeremy Martinez, somewhat strangely, but the talent at Springfield this year just isn’t great.

My favourite players on this club, aside from the catching duo, are probably Ramon Urias and Nogowski, the other first baseman about whom I was speaking a moment ago. I’m all the way on the John Nogowski bandwagon as a late bloomer with an indy ball story, due to unreal plate discipline and a little more power this year than he’s shown in the past. Still, he’s a 25 year old first base only guy with moderate pop. I really want to see what he can do, but am fully aware that what he can do is very likely quite limited.

Ramon Urias tanked at Triple A this year, but is laying waste to the Texas League to the tune of a 1.000 OPS. I’m hoping he moves back up to Memphis soon, because I feel like the Cardinals may have found something with him.

The really dark part of this team is the severe lack of pitching talent. Jones is probably a reliever at best at this point, and neither Woodford nor Tewes have anything beyond back-end starter upside, I don’t believe.

What we really see here at Springfield is the hole in the Cards’ system, where the loss of all those early 2017 picks and a few high misses in the 2015 draft really show up. I’m not saying Springfield would be great if not for the Cards not picking until the third round in 2017, but chances are there would have been at least one solid college pitcher taken in the first three picks that year, and he would probably be occupying space in the Springfield rotation right now. Similarly, a Nick Plummer without a wrist injury and lost year of development is probably at Double A right now. Ditto a version of Bryce Denton that hasn’t struggled. It doesn’t take a ton of misses or lost picks to open up a gap in a pipeline, and that’s what we’ve got here.

Speaking of the 2015 draft, the only one Chris Correa ran for the Cards, the club’s first three picks that year, Plummer, Woodford, and Denton, all look like misses at this point. The next four picks, though, were Harrison Bader, Jordan Hicks, Paul DeJong, and Ryan Helsley. I offer this without comment.

Palm Beach Cardinals (High A)

Potential Impact Players

  • Dylan Carlson, OF/1B
  • Juan Yepez, 3B/1B

Potentially Useful Players

  • Evan Guillory, RHP
  • Jacob Patterson, LHP
  • John Kilichowski, LHP
  • Ian Oxnevad, LHP
  • Casey Meisner, RHP
  • Chase Pinder, OF
  • Kramer Robertson, SS

Here’s the other half of the hole in the Cards’ system, where those missing 2017 picks are probably the most obvious. Pinder and Robertson were both drafted in ‘17, and could very easily have been teammates with a second round pick from that year, had there been one, if that makes sense.

We also, however, have the first outrider of the next wave of high-upside talent here, as Dylan Carlson shows up above the rest of the very exciting position prospects the Cards are accumulating. I spoke about Carlson up above, but it’s important to note that he’s currently sporting a 116 wRC+ in High A ball and is still nineteen years old. No, it’s not quite Juan Soto impressive, but it’s pretty damned good territory all the same.

Yepez has stalled since getting to Palm Beach, but was phenomenal in Low A to open the season and does have offensive upside. There’s some useful-looking pitching depth here in Palm Beach, but not a ton of ceiling. Kilichowski was one of my favourite guys in the draft a few years ago, but he’s had back troubles since that have more or less put his career in the failure to launch category, sadly. Ian Oxnevad has a good sinker, but just doesn’t strike anybody out. Maybe he moves to the ‘pen and has a Tony Watson career.

Peoria Chiefs (Low A)

Potential Impact Players

  • Elehuris Montero, 3B
  • Scott Hurst, OF
  • Angel Rondon, RHP

Potentially Useful Pieces

  • Nick Plummer, OF
  • Bryce Denton, OF
  • Dennis Ortega, C
  • Zach Prendergast, RHP
  • Bryan Dobzanski, RHP
  • Johan Oviedo, RHP
  • Andrew Summerville, LHP
  • Wood Myers, SS

And here in Peoria we have the final level that feels like it could be missing a solid prospect or two from the lost picks of ‘17, if those picks had been high school kids rather than collegians. It’s also where we find Bryce Denton and Nick Plummer plugging away, both putting up solid seasons in their own ways while still feeling like misses.

Scott Hurst might be pushing the definition of ‘impact’ here, but I think he’s tooled-up enough that his ceiling is that of an impact outfielder. He’s another speedy, undersized outfielder with some pop cut from that Harrison Bader sort of mold.

The jewel of this level, of course, is Montero, one of the most potentially impactful bats in the system, full stop. He joins Carlson as one of the real gems of the system on the hitting side.

A note on Bryan Dobzanski: the former high school wrestling champion turned strong-armed starting pitcher has moved to the bullpen full-time at this point, it appears, and has had good results this season. He’s still got the power sinker I was so intrigued by when he was drafted, but didn’t really develop much in the way of secondaries for a long time. Now he’s working in relief, though, and it seems to suit his approach and repertoire. I’m pulling for him, just because I liked him so much way back when.

State College Spikes (Advanced Short Season)

Potential Impact Players

  • Delvin Perez, SS
  • Brady Whalen, 3B/1B
  • Winston Nicacio, RHP
  • Wadye Ynfante, OF

Potentially Useful Pieces

  • Edgar Gonzalez, RHP
  • Jacob Schlesener, LHP
  • Nick Dunn, 2B
  • Brendan Donovan, 3B
  • Lars Nootbaar, 1B
  • Brett Seeburger, LHP

Now here is where we really start to pull some of those really high upside pieces in, as the first of two affiliates where that future championship core might be found. Part of why these pieces can be seen as having higher upsides, it must be admitted, is because there’s just less track record on them, and less failure to grind down that perceived ceiling. However, even with that bias acknowledged, the fact is there is a tremendously talented group of position players beginning to percolate in the lower reaches of the system, and this is a chunk of that group.

Delvin Perez, if his physical tools all come together, has a chance to be a top-flight shortstop defensively, and has shown tantalising offensive skills as well. He needs more size and strength, but he’s got near-Andrelton Simmons level upside with the glove. Brady Whalen is a big, strong-looking switch hitter with extraordinary plate discipline (seriously, like Joey Votto levels), who hasn’t yet shown a ton of power. The size and strength are there for him to add power to his game, though. Long term I think he’s a better fit at first base, particularly considering some of the other players in the system right now, but the offensive upside could be huge. Ynfante is as tooled-up as any outfielder in the system, but needs lots of polish and development in his offensive game.

On the pitching side, Winston Nicacio has some of the best natural fastball movement of any pitcher in the system, but needs a lot of work still harnessing that stuff. Jacob Schlesener is one of the most unhittable pitchers in the system, but the control is still kind of terrible and the club has him working as a reliever at the moment, which I find very disappointing. There’s a lot of upside in those two arms, but they’re also nowhere near major league ready, and are both long shots to ever get to that point.

Johnson City Cardinals (Short Season)

Potential Impact Players

  • Nolan Gorman, 3B
  • Carlos Soto, C
  • Donivan Williams, INF/OF
  • Jonatan Machado, OF
  • Zach Jackson, C/1B

Potentially Useful Pieces

  • Michael Perri, SS
  • Sanel Rosendo, OF
  • Dionis Zamora, RHP
  • Jacob Sylvester, RHP
  • Leandro Cedeno, 1B

And here, finally, is probably the strongest concentration of upside, especially in terms of bats, in the system. Gorman is obviously the headliner, as he’s basically the best bet in the system as a whole right to turn into that Kris Bryant-level foundational talent, but he’s not the only high-upside bat to be found here. Carlos Soto is stealthily one of my favourite hitters in the system, with surprising plate discipline for a player so young and solid power potential. Donivan Williams is another under the radar guy I really love, although he’s had a rough patch of low contact recently and the organisation is moving him all over the place positionally now that they have greater depth on the infield. He’s capable of playing third, second, and all three outfield spots, and could probably fake it at short for awhile if need be. He’s also patient at the plate and has great bat speed; it’s just a matter of how much contact he makes. There’s serious swiss army knife potential with him.

Jonatan Machado was a little overmatched at Peoria, but has been outstanding at Johnson City and is still one of the most intriguing pure hitters in the system. He’s actually made less contact this season than I would have expected, but he’s also taking more walks. It’s been a somewhat odd development for the skinny Cuban, but he’s still got plenty of time to grow into whatever he’s going to be. I’m including Zach Jackson in the potential impact players section even though I’m not a huge fan because he has light-tower power potential and could be a left-handed hitting catcher. That’s a pretty rare combo, even if I personally think it’s more likely he ends up moving out from behind the plate.

Below Johnson City, there are certainly plenty of intriguing talents, from Terry Fuller to Luken Baker to Francisco Justo (especially Justo, actually), but I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole. Griffin Roberts is on the GCL roster but hasn’t appeared in actual games yet, as the organisation presumably tries to manage his workload following a season at Wake Forest in which he was ridden fairly hard. There’s plenty more talent in the complex and academy leagues, but until those players graduate up a little farther, I hesitate to try scouting them too very closely.

Final Thoughts

The Cardinals’ system right now is in a very interesting spot, as they seem to have focused the last couple years on trying to add offensive upside, player position upside, to a system that has struggled to produce stars on the hitting side of the ledger. It’s a little worrisome how weak the pitching pipeline looks right now, honestly, but the positional side is stronger than it’s been in a long time.

There are also fewer complementary players in the low minors than I think we’re used to seeing. The drafting strategy under Randy Flores has felt a little riskier, a little more focused on upside, and there are a bunch of players in the low minors with tools but not skills, who I just don’t see turning into those fourth outfield and backup middle infield types the Cards have been so good at producing over the years.

If we look at the shape of the talent curve in the system right now, we have a very high spot at Memphis, where all the depth is concentrated, as well as a decent amount of upside. There’s a big dropoff at Springfield, with Knizner really being the one strong bright spot, and continues at Palm Beach. However, at Palm Beach we also get our first of the really exciting group which will probably have a lot to say about the Cardinals’ mid- to long-term future in Dylan Carlson, and the curve starts to go back up as we hit Peoria and then, especially, the short season clubs.

That group of Carlson, Eleheuris Montero, Gorman, Whalen, Soto, Perez, and maybe Donivan Williams or Machado could form the basis of a championship-level core between them a few years down the line. Combine that with Tyler O’Neill, Knizner/Kelly, and the pitching the Cards should have in place for a decent chunk of time, and it’s not hard to see the future four years out looking remarkably bright. It’s also possible much of that potential core doesn’t come to fruition, and we’re left wondering what happened to all that talent we thought the club had coming. It’s also concerning that the pitching looks to be drying up, following such an incredibly fertile period of arms development over the past near-decade for the organisation. Then again, these things tend to be cyclical, and if you’re focusing your picks toward hitters then you aren’t taking pitchers with those same picks.

It’s a group of prospects currently with plenty of upside and solid depth, but it’s also a group that could use some augmenting, it seems to me. The early-round failures in 2015 hurt, and the lost picks of 2017 are a killer. Giving up a second-rounder for Greg Holland doesn’t help matters any either, but that’s a smaller issue.

With the recent news of Mike Matheny’s departure from the organisation — it came down the pipe when I was writing about the Peoria prospects, I believe — it would appear more likely the Cardinals are heading for that soft reset and mild selloff many of us have been saying is for the best for awhile now. If that’s the case, there should be an inflow of talent into the system that will help bolster this group further, which would be a very good thing. You can look at the Cards’ farm system right now and outline a championship-level future core of players, but they’re a long ways off, and a whole lot can go wrong between now and the majors for all those guys. Taking steps to strengthen the system now would go a long way toward ensuring that even if some of those players fall down, as will inevitably happen, you should still have plenty of homegrown talent to jump right back into contention in relatively short order.

Speaking of the Matheny ouster, I’ve decided I’m going to schedule this post to go up in the middle of the afternoon, so that there won’t be some new, non-managerial change related post going up while that news story is fresh in everyone’s minds. There’s a press conference this morning, where the club will officially announce Mike Shildt as interim manager, and presumably promote Mark Budaska to hitting coach. Can’t say I’m not excited to see what a new era of leadership might bring, even if the short term results are probably not likely to change all that much. Matheny lost the confidence of the front office, and I think he lost the clubhouse almost completely this year, but as little real impact as managers have on individual games I don’t see the Cards ripping off twelve straight now or something.

Still, it was time to make the change. Past time, actually, I thought, but there’s also the unavoidable fact that the organisation has had a devil of a time building a bullpen or finding core level talent around which to build the last couple years. It’s why we’ve seen the move from pitching-heavy drafts to these more high school heavy, more athletic, more hitterish draft classes the last few years as well, I think. Which is how we’ve gotten to where we are right now in the farm system.