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The Top of the Cardinals Farm is Changing

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It’s been some time since we’ve seen players like this populating top prospect lists.

MLB: All Star Game-Home Run Derby
Nolan Gorman represents something new in the Cardinals farm system.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Schafer wrapped up his splendid top prospect list last week. In the gripping series finale, he opined that the farm system seemed different.

There really has been a sea change in the Cards’ system, and we can spot it right up at the top of the list. Not just in the fact there is a new player, a position player, sitting in the top spot, but the fact that four of the top five slots are occupied by hitters. The Cardinal system, right now, does not look much like the Cardinal system we’ve gotten used to seeing over the past several years.

It sure seems that way. I touched on it briefly when writing about Dylan Carlson back in September, and the baron’s list bears it out. I wanted to explore that notion a bit with some quantifiable data. Are there more position players in the Cardinals’ top 10? Are they younger than past years? How were they acquired? Is there a change in handedness- more left or right handed? And finally, is this year’s top 10 different from a performance standpoint?

Baseball America also released their top 10 prospects recently and they offer historical lists. That will be my starting place. I’ve collected the top 10 Cardinal prospects going back to 2009, and filled in all the requisite demographic data- position, age during the season before landing on the list, highest level reached, handedness, how they were acquired, and whether or not they were Baseball America top 100 prospects.

Position Players vs. Pitchers

One of the obvious ways the top of the farm system- the top 10- seems to be changing is the balance between position players and pitchers. Here’s how that looks since 2009. I’m also including a three year rolling average, as this isn’t the first time we’ve noticed the change.

There are seven position players in the top 10 this season. That’s the most since 2009. Combined with the six on the list in 2017, it pushes the three-year rolling average up to 6.0, the highest it’s been in our sample.

These aren’t repeat prospects, either. None of the position players from 2017 are still on the list in 2019. The 2017 class has either graduated to the majors or been surpassed by new prospects. From the 2018 class, Andrew Knizner and Tyler O’Neill are the only holdovers. The other five are emergent prospects.

The top of the farm system is clearly skewing towards more position players in a way we’ve never seen before.

Age and Performance

It’s hard to ignore the youth on this year’s list. Nolan Gorman was just drafted out of high school last June. Elehuris Montero and Malcom Nunez started creating buzz last year as teenagers. Dylan Carlson has seemingly been a teen forever, and just completed his age 19 season. Is this year’s top 10 younger than recent history?

Let’s start with the average age of the Baseball America top 10 since 2009:

Average Age, Baseball America Top 10 Cardinals Prospects

Year Avg. Age
Year Avg. Age
2009 22.2
2010 22.1
2011 20.7
2012 20.7
2013 20.5
2014 20.9
2015 20.6
2016 20.2
2017 20.6
2018 22.1
2019 20.8

At first glance, this group isn’t noticeably younger than recent top 10s. Of the 11 years in the sample, this group is the 7th youngest. There’s more to the story, though.

Here’s the same table with the number of players who made the list immediately following a season in their teens. I’m also including the number of those teens who were position players:

Teens in Baseball America’s Top 10 Cardinals Prospects

Year # of Teens # Position Players
Year # of Teens # Position Players
2009 0 0
2010 2 0
2011 3 0
2012 3 1
2013 2 1
2014 2 0
2015 4 1
2016 5 3
2017 1 1
2018 0 0
2019 4 4

Now we’re getting somewhere. Only the 2015 and 2016 classes had as many teens as this year’s list. The 2016 list even surpassed this year’s group, with five teenagers- two pitchers and three position players. Where this year’s class really stands out is in the number of position players. The four teens on this year’s list make up more than a third of all position player teens the Cardinals have placed in the top 10 since 2009.

There’s another way this year’s class stands out. Here’s a scatterplot of how each teen on the top 10 has performed, using ISO (isolated slugging percentage) and minor league level.

The 2019 class is highlighted in red and labeled. Most of the other gray dots are toolsy youngsters who made the top 10 more on talent, less on performance at the plate- Magneuris Sierra, a very young Carson Kelly, Nick Plummer, and Delvin Perez. Those are most of the gray dots along with Edmundo Sosa and Oscar Taveras. The gray dot between Montero and Carlson in A-ball is Taveras.

The point is that these hitters carry more power, by level, than just about any other under-20 hitter the Cardinals have had going back to at least 2009. Oh, and there are more of them than the Cardinals have had since 2009. The Mashers are coming.

Acquisition Methods

How about the way these players were brought into the organization?

This year’s group of international free agents includes three players, which is fairly typical in recent years. They’ve had at least three in five of the last eight seasons, cresting at four in 2016 and five in 2017.

The unique aspect here is that three of the top prospects were acquired via trade- Tyler O’Neill, Genesis Cabrera, and Lane Thomas. O’Neill was a depth swap for Marco Gonzales in an effort to get more power in the system. Thomas was picked up from Toronto for international cap space, and Cabrera came over in the Tommy Pham deal last July. The natural inclination would be to think that the Cardinals acquired top prospects in trades during out-of-contention seasons. That’s not true, as Cabrera is the only one who came over in a trade targeted at another team’s major league squad.

The bounty of trade targets in the top 10 is hard to call a trend. It seems more like an anomaly. Still, it’s one more way this top 10 is different from other recent seasons.

Handedness

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the front office clamoring for more balance. It was allegedly one of the drivers behind the inclusion of Justin Williams and Genesis Cabrera in the Pham deal. Looking at the top 10 lists, we can see that their top prospects have had a strong tendency to the right side recently.

Cardinals Top 10 Prospects: Left/Right Balance

Year Left Right 3 yr Avg Right
Year Left Right 3 yr Avg Right
2009 4 6
2010 3 7
2011 1 9 7.33
2012 4 6 7.33
2013 3 7 7.33
2014 6 4 5.67
2015 5 5 5.33
2016 4 6 5.00
2017 2 8 6.33
2018 0 10 8.00
2019 3 7 8.33

Once again, I’ve included a three-year rolling average. In this case, it’s for right-handed hitters and pitchers. I’ve counted Dylan Carlson- a switch-hitter- as a lefty for these purposes since his switch-hitting ability satisfies the requirement of having a platoon advantage.

After bottoming out with no left-handed hitters or pitchers on last year’s list, the front office drafted Gorman and acquired Cabrera. Combined with Carlson’s arrival on the top 10, the dearth of lefties has been temporarily addressed. Considering the age of Carlson and Gorman, they’re likely to have at least two lefties and/or switch-hitters on next year’s list, as well. It’s less a case of the top 10 being unfamiliar and more of a course correction back to the balance we’re used to seeing.

The Baseball America Top 100

There’s one final place to look. Has the shift produced more prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list? This year’s list hasn’t been released yet, but in his post top-10 chat, BA’s Kyle Glaser said that he expected the top five players to make the cut. That would be Reyes, O’Neill, Dakota Hudson, Nolan Gorman, and Elehuris Montero. Here’s how that compares to recent years, again with the caveat that this year’s list has not been released yet:

Number of Cardinal Prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100

Yr Top 100s
Yr Top 100s
2009 3
2010 1
2011 2
2012 6
2013 6
2014 4
2015 3
2016 1
2017 4
2018 4
2019 5
As of 1/16; 2019 figure based on Kyle Glaser chat

It’s not the 2012-2013 peak, which saw six players each year land in the top 100. Nor is this year’s farm system likely to see anyone as highly ranked as Shelby Miller and Oscar Taveras were those years (Miller in the overall top 10 each year; Taveras in the overall top 10 in 2013). However, this year’s (potential) five would be the highest figure other than 2012-2013. While none of those five are likely to land in the overall Baseball America top 10 in 2019, the potential is clearly there for several to make it on future lists.

Conclusion

Amazingly, the farm system isn’t really producing noticeably more top-end talent than they have in recent memory, nor is the average age of the top 10 out of line with recent iterations. They’ve gotten a little more left-handed this year, but they have some work to do to restore order in that vein. This year’s list has more trade acquisitions than we’re used to seeing, but don’t expect that to continue.

The biggest shift has been in the type of players populating the list. There’s more position player talent, in their teens, with the ability to hit for massive power than we’ve seen in the Cardinals farm system... maybe ever. The baron was dead-on accurate in his assessment. It may be 2022 or 2023 before this group begins to bear fruit but it truly has the chance to be something special.