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The First Annual VEB Minor League Awards

Celebrating the best and brightest the Cardinals’ farm system had to offer in 2018.

St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Since it is Labor Day (notice I omitted my customary u in honour of it being an American holiday and thus a proper noun), we stand at the threshold of autumn, the door leading out of summer into the death of another year. The major league season is rounding into the home stretch, with little time left for moves in the standings, and no time left for moves on the roster. The minor league season, meanwhile, is just winding down. The performances that were going to happen have happened, breakouts and breakdowns have already occurred. It’s almost time to close up shop, and time to look back and consider the season.

Here at VEB Industries, we put a huge amount of time into covering the Cardinals’ minor league system. There’s the big annual offseason list, of course, to go along with the countless Daily Farm Reports throughout the season, team-specific coverage posts here and there, System Sundays articles, and the occasional minors-themed content sprinkled in as part of the normal content cycle of the site.

One thing that’s never been a part of the coverage here, though, has been any sort of award or awards. The Cardinal organisation hands out awards, of course, to players who have acquitted themselves exceptionally well during a given season, and there are a couple of websites devoted to minor league coverage that do the same. We’ve never really tried doing that here, though, until now.

So what we have here is a group of awards, carefully considered by our panel of experts (by which I mean me, making it up as I go along), to try and give representation to some of the top performers in the system this season. Without further ado, let’s start at the top with the big two awards, shall we?

Minor League Position Player of the Year

Second Runner Up: Andy Young, 2B, Palm Beach/Springfield

First Runner Up: Tyler O’Neill, OF, Memphis/St. Louis

Elehuris Montero, 3B, Peoria Chiefs/Palm Beach Cardinals

425 PA, 156 wRC+ (Peoria), 106 PA, 110 wRC+ (Palm Beach)

This was not, it must be said, an extremely difficult choice. There were lots of excellent performances in the Cards’ minor league system this year, but none more notable than that of Elehuris Montero, who turned 20 less than a month ago and already torched a vast swath of destruction across the Midwest League.

Featuring some of the best natural barrel-to-ball skills in the minor leagues, Montero just hits everything hard. His BABIP at Peoria was extremely high at .372, but having watched him quite a bit I feel comfortable saying that’s less an issue of good luck and more a function of simply killing the ball every time he hit it. The plate discipline could still use some work, I think it’s likely he eventually moves across to first base, and he’s been less dynamic at Palm Beach, seemingly fighting both the cavernous hitting environments of the Florida State League and, probably, some fatigue in his first full-season playing schedule. Those are all negatives. The positives, though, are still far more notable. Elehuris Montero was built to hit baseballs, and that’s what he’s done this year.

Author’s Note: In reality, Tyler O’Neill is probably the correct choice here, but I wanted to highlight a player still in the minors, if at all possible.

Minor League Pitcher of the Year

Second Runner Up: Evan Kruczynski, LHP, Palm Beach/Springfield

First Runner Up: Ryan Helsley, RHP, Springfield/Memphis

Dakota Hudson, RHP, Memphis/St. Louis

111.2 IP, 2.50 ERA, 57.5% GB (Memphis)

It was actually not really a banner year for the pitching in the Cardinal system, which made this award somewhat more difficult to consider. Really, though, that was more about trying to find suitable runners-up, rather than a winner, since Dakota Hudson grounder’d his way to a fantastic Triple A season and has prevented runs at an elite level so far in the big league bullpen.

It’s concerning long term that Hudson has never really struck out all that many hitters, failing to eclipse a 20% strikeout rate at either Double or Triple A, but he runs elite groundball rates and has one of the most difficult to square fastballs in all of baseball right now, making him a sublime contact manager. The shaky peripherals limit his ceiling somewhat, barring a step forward in his ability to miss bats with his curveball or change, but the sinker/cutter combo allows him to keep his pitches away from bat barrels and on the ground, giving him a chance to stick in the middle of a big league rotation in the near future.

Best Minor League Debut

Second Runner Up: Joerlin De Los Santos, SS/OF, DSL Cardinals

First Runner Up: Malcom Nunez, 3B, DSL Cardinals

Nolan Gorman, 3B, Johnson City/Peoria

167 PA, 183 wRC+ (Johnson City), 103 PA, 101 wRC+ (Peoria)

It was tough to choose between these two players, honestly, but in the end Nunez’s youth and incredible performance weren’t quite enough to overcome Gorman’s similarly incredible performance at much higher levels. You get promoted to full-season ball at eighteen less than two months after being drafted, you deserve some sort of award.

Admittedly, Gorman has hit a bit of a wall recently in Peoria, seeing his strikeout rate balloon as he faces better competition later in the year than he ever has before, but even so he’s never looked overwhelmed or out of place facing players three and four years older than him on average. He’s also still managed to draw enough walks and hit for enough power to keep his numbers afloat as he tries to ride out the last of the season.

It’s really the Appalachian League performance that wins this for Gorman, though, as the young third baseman clobbered the league to the tune of a .350/.443/.664 line, with a walk rate of 14.4% in his first taste of minor league ball. How he ever fell to nineteenth overall is bound to go down as an all-time draft surprise, I believe.

The Matt Carpenter Award

Presented to the least-heralded, most-performing hitter in the system

Runner Up: Rangel Ravelo, 1B, Memphis

John Nogowski, 1B, Springfield

343 PA, .310/.394/.456, 135 wRC+. 12% BB, 6.1% K

This category was as close a call as any for me, as both Ravelo (131 wRC+), and Nogowski put up fantastic seasons in the high minors as journeyman bats. In the end, though, Nogowski’s absolutely absurd plate discipline numbers gave him the slightest of edges over Ravelo.

The lack of power shown by Nogowski has always been his one real downside in terms of offense, and a .146 ISO isn’t exactly going to light the world on fire. However, even a modest amount of pop plays when a player is capable of running a 2:1 walk to strikeout ratio. Of course, how well that plate discipline holds up in the majors is an open question; it’s a little hard to see how in today’s pitching environment a Gregg Jefferies-type player sticks in the big leagues, particularly one who hits from the right side. However, Nogowski is blessed with one of the best batting eyes I think I’ve ever seen, as well as outstanding bat-to-ball skills, so if anyone could perhaps make such an unusual profile work, he might just be the guy. (Though to be fair, Nogowski also isn’t stealing 46 of 55 bases the way Jefferies did in 1993, either.)

The Future Relief Ace Award

Patrick Dayton, LHP, Peoria

34.2 IP, 0.78 ERA, 1.73 FIP, 34.5% K

One of a pair of low-arm-slot lefties drafted by the Cardinals in 2017 (the other being Texas Tech’s Jacob Patterson, who had a much more uneven but still successful 2018 season), Dayton moved up to full-season ball in his first full season, and did nothing but dominate.

There are plenty of other pitchers I could highlight here, such as Giovanny Gallegos, who I believe we’ll see sometime this September and for years to come, or Zach Prendergast, who split time starting and relieving but who I believe will ultimately find his home in the bullpen as a guy who funks his way to high strikeout totals. However, Dayton’s numbers are so much fun to look at I wanted to get him in as one of the less-heralded arms in the system that performed in a huge way this season.

And finally, our last award....

Next Year’s Breakout Award

Presented to the player who will be lighting up the awards conversation this time next year.

Jacob Schlesener, LHP, State College

52.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 29.4% K, 11.9% BB, 64.2% GB

That’s kind of mixed bag of numbers, wouldn’t you say? The strikeout rate is borderline elite, the walk rate is quite bad. The groundball rate is elite, but the ERA is most definitely not. So what combination of facts and stats should we be buying with Jacob Schlesener?

Well, here’s the thing: Schlesener was drafted in 2015, making this his third full season of pro ball. From the get go, control was always an issue for the talented lefty from Rogersville, Missouri, as he walked 14% in his abbreviated pro debut and then 31.5% in a disastrous 2016 season that nearly throttled his career in the crib. He got partially back on track in 2017, still walking far too many (18.5%), but seeing his strikeout rate explode to nearly 30%. This season, Schlesener kept the strikeouts essentially even, but cut his walk rate by seven percentage points, which is a remarkable improvement. Another stride or two forward, and we could be talking about Schlesener as a future #2 type starting prospect.

Whether those improvements take place or not is still an open question, of course, and it’s possible Schlesener tops out at Low A ball or something due to just never getting his control and mechanics ironed out. However, if I’m betting on one player who could be the talk of the system this time next year, Jacob Schlesener is a name I’m putting my money on.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the VEB minor league awards for 2018. The positional prospects in the system had a banner year, while the pitching side of things was far less inspiring, a notable change from most seasons past. The strength of the system is also down at the lower levels, rather than concentrated at the top as it has been the past two years.

Down the road, say, five years from now, 2018 will likely be most remembered as the year Nolan Gorman was drafted, with perhaps a Malcom Nunez or Joerlin De Los Santos peeking into the picture as well. There were other breakouts and steps forward, though, that shouldn’t be forgotten, and this is an attempt to make sure they are not.

Everyone have a happy end of summer holiday. I’ll see you again Wednesday.