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System Sundays: It Comes in Waves

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Examining the Cards’ system through a different lens, and trying to plan ahead.

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

Morning, all.

In the course of doing the prospect list this year, there was one question/suggestion/complaint/whatever that came up a few times. There were a couple commenters who requested ETA type information included in the writeups, which I’m honestly not super keen on including. I already include the level at which a player played in the most recent season in each profile; at a certain point you just get tired of adding more lines.

However, I also received an email from a reader who was plotting out his own course of how he thought the various system guys might move up and arrive, and he was interested, it seemed, in how I saw the breakdown. So, I decided to go ahead and parse the Cards’ system in this other way as well, just in case there’s more interest here than I initially thought.

I did at least speculate on some of this back around the start of the Winter Meetings, when I wondered what a post-2019 Cardinal reset might look like, but I hadn’t really set the whole thing down on paper. Er, webpage. You know what I mean.

For reference, here is the list I’m working with for this exercise:

  1. Nolan Gorman, 3B
  2. Andrew Knizner, C
  3. Elehuris Montero, 3B
  4. Dakota Hudson, RHP
  5. Dylan Carlson, OF
  6. Alex Reyes, RHP
  7. Ryan Helsley, RHP
  8. Jhon Torres, OF
  9. Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP
  10. Griffin Roberts, RHP
  11. Genesis Cabrera, LHP
  12. Ramon Urias, 2B
  13. Edmundo Sosa, SS
  14. Malcom Nunez, 3B
  15. Lane Thomas, OF
  16. John Nogowski, 1B
  17. Rangel Ravelo, 1B
  18. Luken Baker, 1B
  19. Randy Arozarena, OF
  20. Conner Capel, OF
  21. Justin Williams, OF
  22. Joerlin De Los Santos, OF
  23. Jake Woodford, RHP
  24. Giovanny Gallegos, RHP
  25. Evan Kruczynski, LHP
  26. Tommy Edman, INF
  27. Max Schrock, 2B
  28. Jonatan Machado, OF
  29. Adolis Garcia, OF
  30. Jacob Schlesener, LHP
  31. Steven Gingery, LHP

Now, if you happen to have a copy of the official VEB list sitting nearby (which would be weird), you may notice a couple changes. I’ve left Andy Young off — he was #11 — since he no longer has an ETA with the Cardinals after being dealt for Paul Goldschmidt. I compensated by simply sliding Daniel Poncedeleon into the number nine slot, just ahead of Griffin Roberts. I’ve also added Adolis Garcia in, following my embarrassing omission of him from the previous list, slotting him just ahead of Jacob Schlesener. That technically bumps Gingery out of the top 30, but I decided to keep him in, and just make it 31 players for the purposes of this post. Got it? Good.

Okay, now quickly I have to acknowledge what we all know to be the case: not all of these players are going to make it, quite obviously. Some will fail completely, some will stall out somewhere along the way, a couple may accelerate their timetables hugely with a big season or leap forward in skill. So this is all obviously an approximation, and essentially ignores attrition entirely. I’m not going to give any of these players an ETA of ‘never’, even if there are several about whom I feel that is the most likely outcome.

With all that said, let’s talk about waves, shall we?

The Present Wave

These are the players who we could see basically any day from Opening Day to the middle of the 2019 season. The major-league ready players, you understand.

2. Andrew Knizner, C

4. Dakota Hudson, RHP

6. Alex Reyes, RHP

7. Ryan Helsley, RHP

9. Daniel Poncedeleon, RHP

12. Ramon Urias, 2B

13. Edmundo Sosa, SS

15. Lane Thomas, OF

16. John Nogowski, 1B

17. Rangel Ravelo, 1B

19. Randy Arozarena, OF

21. Justin Williams, OF

24. Giovanny Gallegos, RHP

27. Max Schrock, 2B

29. Adolis Garcia, OF

Now, the first thing we notice about this group is that it is the largest. That’s interesting to consider, because we have to ask the question of whether the Cardinals have more talent at the top of the system than anywhere else, or if it’s simply the nature of making these sorts of lists that weight proximity to the majors as a factor, particularly when we’re talking about the rank and file, rather than elite tools beasts who are going to sit high in the rankings regardless of level. My answer is that it’s probably like a 60/40 split, in favour of the latter. If you ask me which player I like more, Justin Williams or Scott Hurst, I’ll honestly answer Hurst all day long. However, the fact Williams is so close to the majors, capable of stepping on to the team at any time, makes him an easy choice for me to rank more highly than Hurst, who has yet to make the big Double A jump, who is more unproven, with injury issues, and lots of other things. So the seeming concentration of talent toward the top is a natural byproduct of the endless winnowing which is the purpose of the minor leagues.

However, it’s also true that the Cardinals still, as of this moment, have an tremendous glut of talent in the high minors, and the organisation doing things like trading Oscar Mercado for two younger, non-40 man prospects has only somewhat eased the logjam. There is still a lot of very useful potential talent sitting in Double and Triple A right now, and how to try and use that talent is going to be a serious challenge for Michael Girsch and John Mozeliak over the next year or two.

There is, of course, also some variation within this tier of players, in terms of their exact level of readiness. Giovanny Gallegos may be the most major league ready player in the entire system, as in, he really should have been in the majors for basically the last two years but was sitting in the Yankee organisation behind the best bullpen money can buy. Andrew Knizner, on the other hand, could make the Opening Day roster, but it would be a much better outcome for everyone long-term if he didn’t just yet. Rangel Ravelo is a finished product, just looking for an opportunity, while John Nogowski is nearly as finished, but with just a touch of uncertainty left in his profile. Dakota Hudson got major league hitters out last year, but I would be very happy if we didn’t see him in St. Louis again until at least midseason. (Hopefully with a new offspeed pitch of some sort in tow.)

So this is not an utterly monolithic block of completely comparable players, but this is a block of guys who could all contribute more or less immediately. We’ll see all of them in spring training, I have to believe (possibly with the exception of Reyes, whose rehab schedule I’m unsure of), and all will be worth paying attention to, since at least a handful of them will be making Busch Stadium appearances at some point in 2019.

The Next Wave — 2020

These are the players I see as being ready to begin contributing sometime in the first half of 2020, with a few of them potentially being September callups of 2019. If you’re getting a cup of coffee in September, I feel comfortable placing you in the next year’s crop, rather than the current season.

3. Elehuris Montero, 3B

5. Dylan Carlson, OF

10. Griffin Roberts, RHP

11. Genesis Cabrera, LHP

23. Jake Woodford, RHP

25. Evan Kruczynski, LHP

26. Tommy Edman, INF

Obviously, a much smaller group here, but that’s at least partially because there is some clear overlap with the first group. For instance, it was a tough debate for me internally to decide whether Ramon Urias belonged in the 2019 group or this one. I ultimately erred toward believing he’s ready a little sooner than later, but if pressed I would say it’s more likely we don’t see him until September of 2019, even if he appears ready for an opportunity.

Genesis Cabrera, on the other hand, could easily be pushed up into the 2019 group, particularly if you believe he’ll find a permanent home in a bullpen role. For my part, I’m hoping the organisation continues to develop him as a starter, which is why I have him here, but if they were to decided he’s a better fit long-term as a late inning reliever he probably arrives sooner. Griffin Roberts has a bit of a similar thing going on, and could easily be seen as more of a 2021 guy if he remains a starter. (Which, again, I would much prefer.) In fact, I probably see him as more of a September 2020 type, and I’m really debating whether to keep him here or move him.

Both Montero and Carlson I expect to hit Double A at some point this season, Carlson potentially as early as Opening Day, though that’s not a guarantee. Once a hitter reaches Springfield, they’re basically just a phone call away, though the 40 man roster can always make that a little more complicated depending upon how crowded it is. With that in mind, I’m thinking sometime by midseason of 2020 either or both could be pushing, hard, for a major league promotion, and that’s when we start to really see some of the serious upside in the system emerging.

The Rebuild Wave — 2021

This is, in part, the group of players I really focused on in that earlier piece when I proposed a Cardinal rebuild following a 2019 with Goldschmidt and Miles Mikolas and Michael Wacha and others all leaving. There are some potential core talents in the above lists, certainly, both on the pitching and positional side, but down here is where we start to get into some of the highest-ceiling talent in the system, but further off and with more questions to answer.

1. Nolan Gorman, 3B

8. Jhon Torres, OF

18. Luken Baker, 1B

20. Conner Capel, OF

28. Jonatan Machado, OF

30. Jacob Schlesener, LHP

31. Steven Gingery, LHP

The first three players of this group are the guys really worth focusing on in a big way, with Schlesener the possible breakout candidate for 2019 who could join a group like that if he can make a jump this year similar to the one he made in 2018. Gorman will open the season in Peoria, with three full levels above him still to go and only eighteen years old on Opening Day. Torres is only about a month and a half older than Gorman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals pushed him to Peoria as well to open the season, if only to get him on the field and playing immediately in April, rather than waiting for short-season ball to commence after the draft. Baker, as well, I would expect to open in Low-A, probably moving up at some point (so long as he stays healthy and performs, that is), so if you’re anywhere near the Peoria, Illinois area in, say, late April, you might want to make it a point to catch a Chiefs game or two while those three players are all together.

As for the others, Schlesener is one I’ll be watching heavily this season, as I said, because this will be a huge season for him. He played the whole of the 2018 season at 21 years old, essentially his draft year if he had gone to college, and posted a 2.99 FIP at State College, the more advanced of the Cards’ two short-season levels. If he had been drafted as a college junior, headed off to the New York-Penn League, and posted a sub-3.00 FIP, he would probably be getting more attention, honestly. However, past history does matter, and Schlesener has some very, very serious control issues in his past, and that factors in. Still, if he heads to Peoria to begin this season and pitches the way he did in 2018, he’s going to move up this list in a major way next year.

Gingery I’ve honestly placed here because I just don’t know. He could very well move faster than this if he returns from Tommy John strong, but predicting that feels risky. Machado and Capel are two of those players about whom I lack strong conviction in their futures, but if they fit anywhere I think it’s here.

2022 and Beyond — The Kids

This is the smallest group of all, being just two players, but both are potential stars. Obviously, we have some potential stars in the other groups as well, but what I’m saying is that these two players are so exceptional in terms of their performance right out of the gate that they made the list despite being from a demographic of player I often hesitate to rank at all.

14. Malcom Nunez, 3B

22. Joerlin De Los Santos, OF

It is also a strange aspect of this particular group that if they are, in fact, anywhere near the crazy talents they might be, then 2022 could very well be much too far off. Still, De Los Santos is only eighteen and won’t turn nineteen until almost the end of this coming season, and Nunez has not even hit his eighteenth birthday. Even in 2022 neither one will yet be 23 years old.

As for why this is such a small group, the answer is simple: most of the Cardinals’ top prospects heading into the 2022 season are either a) players we don’t know are prospects yet, or b) players who aren’t even in the system yet. We’re talking about players like Ludwin Jimenez, Mateo Gil, Fernando Brazoban, those kinds of guys. Some kid who is a college freshman right now will be number one on the list midseason of 2022, that sort of thing. It’s just impossible to really see any further off than about three years, and even that is usually stretching it.

So if anything, it should be seen as a mark of how special De Los Santos and Nunez just might potentially be to see them here at all.