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The 2019 Viva El Birdos Top Prospect List: The Final Tally

Wrapping up another year’s prospect list.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

So the work is all done, the reports are all written, and the list has been made. Sure, there are plenty more players who just missed out on being ranked to talk about, but we have now passed another offseason milestone, and the prospects have been ordered according to the inscrutable logic of a babbling (via keyboard, mostly), madman.

The List and Demographics

Here is the final list:

  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. Griffin Roberts — RHP
  10. Genesis Cabrera — LHP
  11. Andy Young — 2B/INF
  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 — SS/INF
  27. Max Schrock — 2B
  28. Jonatan Machado — OF
  29. Jacob Schlesener — LHP
  30. Steven Gingery — LHP

To sum up, that is:

  • Six right-handed pitchers,
  • Eight outfielders,
  • Four left-handed pitchers,
  • Three first basemen,
  • Three second basemen,
  • Three third basemen,
  • Two shortstops, and
  • One catcher.

It’s sort of amazing; it feels like there’s been this huge sea change in how the Cardinals’ system is arranged, where the strengths and weaknesses lie, and yet when I sat down and ranked everything, we still end up with more right-handed pitchers and outfielders than anything else. Meet the new Cardinals, same as the old Cardinals.

In reality, though, that’s really just more a reflection of how rosters are constructed, and what type of players are the most common. 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.

How They Were Acquired

Of the 30 players listed:

  • Thirteen were drafted by the Cardinals,
  • Eight were signed as international free agents by the Cardinals,
  • Seven were acquired in trades with other organisations, and
  • Two were minor league free agents.

This also feels like a marked contrast to the system in years past, when the Cards’ minor league system was almost entirely populated by their own draft picks and basically nothing else. Now admittedly, I’m not going back to the previous lists and counting players up or anything, but based on my recollections this seems like a group coming from a much more diverse origin set. At the very least, I’m certain the Cardinals have not usually had this many prospects who came over in trades from other clubs hanging around in the top 30. For all the complaining many of us have done (myself most definitely included), about the Cardinal organisation being unwilling to sell pieces in order to try and improve their future prospects, nearly a quarter of this list consists of players who were previously with some other team.

There is also more of an international flair to this list than any I can recall in the recent past. Elehuris Montero, Malcom Nunez, Joerlin De Los Santos, Randy Arozarena, Ramon Urias, and Jonatan Machado were all signed by the organisation as international free agents since 2016. The Cards seem to have beefed up their international scouting efforts to an even higher level, and it looks to be paying off with some higher-end talent than what we’ve seen in the past. That’s to say nothing of Alex Reyes, who has topped this list multiple years running as an international signing even though he was born in New Jersey.

Tiering Up

One of the more interesting and informative exercises I’ve found in the past when trying to evaluate or analyse a system is to go through and find where the drops are. No, not just because I’m a big dubstep fan from way back; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is going through and figuring out tiers of players, and where the dropoffs from one to another are. Some years you have five or six tiers in a group of 25-30 players, and other years you have four good players and then a vast expanse of nearly-indistinguishable talents, all with specific pluses and minuses rather than obvious differences in ability, that one can order however you like. (The Cardinals have had that second kind of system a couple times that I can think of, and those make for really irritating lists to make.)

This year, we have a fairly well-defined top tier, I think, and it runs through the first eight players. From Gorman through Torres, I think we have the elite group of the system. That includes the current big three of the pitching crop, two of whom have health-related concerns as warts on their profiles, as well as the true top of the scale hitting talents who have already performed at a high level on U.S. soil. The drop to the second tier occurs at nine, with Griffin Roberts. Now, that’s not to say I don’t think Roberts is a potential high-end talent; I do, in fact, think he could end up pitching toward the front of a major league rotation one of these days. However, between the 50 game suspension he’ll serve to begin the 2019 season, his overall lack of experience having been drafted with only one year starting experience in college just this past summer, and the more definite questions regarding his repertoire and development needs compared to the Reyes/Helsley/Hudson group, I think Roberts is pretty clearly a step down in terms of current prospect pedigree than that top group.

Interestingly, I think this second tier is actually a fairly small one. It runs from Roberts through either Malcom Nunez at fourteen or Lane Thomas at fifteen for me. I can’t quite decide whether Thomas fits in this second tier or the third, honestly; his tools would probably bump him up into the second tier, but much of his profile, that of an older prospect with some definite limitations that have held him back to this point, actually fits better into the beginning of that third tier, which includes similarly flawed-but-potentially-useful players like Nogowski and Ravelo.

To me, I think that group from 15-19 is extremely interesting, as all are either players at the top of the system who have big questions about how much they’re going to contribute or else a player with severe limitations relying on maybe one tool to hopefully get them where they want to go. Two tooled-up outfielders sitting at the top of the system waiting for opportunities or one more developmental bump and three bat-only first basemen, all of whom could probably contribute in some way or another but have pretty limited ceilings due to their profiles.

Then, from 20 on through the end, I basically see one tier. The players within that tier can be quite different from one another, obviously, but in terms of value I think we’re looking at a lot of very similar profiles. Exciting tools with bigger questions, more limited-upside profiles, guys who maybe only do one or two things well and it remains to be seen if their one trick is good enough to make them into major leaguers. All those guys have talent in one way or another, certainly, but have more doubt baked in to who they are as players right now.

A Few Questions and Debates

For the most part, I’ve said what I wanted to say about these players as part of the writeup for each. However, there have been a few things I’ve seen some discussion on in the comments which I thought I might offer my own thoughts on, or try to clarify why I see it the way I do.

The Ordering of the Pitching Big Three (Reyes, Helsley, and Hudson)

This one has been debated a fair amount, and I’m not surprised. I fully expected my dropping Alex Reyes all the way to number six to be fairly controversial, and it has been to a certain degree. So let me weigh in on the way in which the Cards’ three top pitching prospects appear ordered on this list.

For the record, if Alex Reyes were guaranteed to be fully healthy, he might very well have still ranked number one on this list. I’m not saying he 100% would have; Nolan Gorman to me is the most special bat the Cardinals have had in the system since Oscar Taveras. But there’s a solid chance Reyes still might have held the top spot, and would certainly have been the top ranked of the three pitching prospects here. However, we have no guarantee that Reyes is now beyond his arm issues, and the fact he has had both elbow reconstruction and a shoulder injury in the course of rehabbing his elbow is frankly terrifying to me.

It’s not a coincidence that of the three pitching prospects at the top of the list, Dakota Hudson is the highest-ranked and also the only one of the three who has yet to have any kind of arm injury. As risky as Hudson’s delivery appears to be, he’s been entirely healthy to date, and I have to weight that factor to some extent. I haven’t seen Reyes throw a healthy inning in the majors in over two years at this point. If he comes back completely healthy and is the same pitcher he appeared to be in his rehab work in 2018, then he’s the best pitcher in the system, and probably still the best player. But I can’t just pretend that I know that’s going to happen. The risk of Reyes ending up in the bullpen, or worse yet just never being able to stay healthy, is substantial at this point. That’s why he dropped to where he did.

Urias vs Sosa vs Edman

I also saw some debate on my placement of Tommy Edman, particularly in terms of how he ranked versus two other middle infielders in Ramon Urias and Edmundo Sosa. First off, let me say that if there’s one player on this list I can’t shake the feeling I have him ranked too low it’s probably Tommy Edman. Edman has consistently produced solid batting lines pretty much everywhere, his initial taste of Double A in 2017 notwithstanding, and he brings remarkable basestealing acumen to a middle infield spot to boot. He should probably be a little higher than 26th. However, as I go through and compare him to other prospects, I have a hard time deciding where exactly he should be, beyond just, well, I feel like he should be higher, if that makes sense.

However, in comparing Edman to the other two middle infielders listed here, I stand by my ranking, and I’ll explain why. Of the three players, Sosa is the only one I feel is a near-lock to stay at shortstop long term and be a plus defender there. Edman just doesn’t have the tools, mostly arm strength, to play on the left side of the infield at a high level. He can fake it at short, but you wouldn’t want to see him there every day. Sosa, on the other hand, is an above-average defender at the position, which gives him a pretty solid floor. For the record, I feel more confident in Edman hitting at the major league level, certainly, but defense alone I think could make Sosa an average-ish major leaguer.

As for Urias, I actually think he has a strong enough arm to play short, but he’s been moved off the position and I assume the club has a reason why. I hate appeals to authority, but in a case like this, where the party with the most knowledge and also incentive to keep a player at the more valuable position decides to move him, I think we have to give that some weight. Thus, I’m treating Urias as a second base only sort of player, at least for now.

However, in comparing Urias to Edman, there’s really no competition between the two in terms of offensive ceiling. I admire Tommy Edman’s approach at the plate and his general grit and intelligence in playing the game, but there is a complete lack of power and physicality in his offensive game that severely limits his ceiling. Urias, on the other hand, hit thirteen homers in less than 350 plate appearances this past season between Double and Triple A, and while he was playing in a couple of hitter-friendly leagues, it’s not at all a stretch to believe he could be a 15+ home run guy in a starting role over a full season. Tommy Edman just doesn’t drive the ball enough to have offensive upside to the level of Ramon Urias. Given that I think both are capable of plus defense at second base but are not going to be making an impact elsewhere on the diamond, that difference in offensive upside is, to me, a defining characteristic.

Thus, even if the voice in the back of my head keeps telling me I have Edman a little too low, I definitely see him as a step behind both Urias and Sosa. Sosa can play a position the other two can’t at a high level, and Urias has power potential neither of the others can match. Edman does have the best baserunning ability of the three, but that’s also the least valuable skill on the table here.

Nogowski and Ravelo

Finally, there was some question about my inclusion of John Nogowski and Rangel Ravelo here, both of whom I admit very much stretch the definition of a traditional prospect. However, here’s the thing: despite both players being significantly older than many other prospects, neither one has yet exhausted their rookie eligibility, and are thus still considered prospects. If I feel either or both of them have real value, then the prospect list would seem to be the place to highlight that value.

However, this really gets at the heart of what is so difficult about making these lists, and trying to analyse a minor league system in general. How do you directly compare a 25 year old reliever in Triple A who might never be worth more than half a win but could do it right now to a wiry Dominican shortstop you may never see, certainly won’t see for three years or more, but could be a star? This year’s list was especially difficult in that regard, given the new blood coming in by way of the Jhon Torres/Nunez/De Los Santos crew, versus the extreme amount of upper-level depth the Cardinals still possess in guys like Lane Thomas and the aforementioned gruesome twosome of first basemen.

So here’s the thing about Nogowski and Ravelo: if I called them assets, rather than prospects, would that make them easier to appreciate? I would bet — not a lot, not like next month’s mortgage or anything, but a small bet — that if you were to have to dip down into the system and call up either Nogowski or Ravelo for a large chunk of the season in 2019, either of them could give you...a win. Maybe half a win, depending on playing time, but if pressed into service I think either player could hit enough to be worth about one win. I cannot say the same about Nolan Gorman, who if called up in 2019 would strike out 60% of the time and retire after a couple months with his confidence utterly shattered. And yet Gorman is much, much higher on this list because of the potential payoff, which makes him a better ‘prospect’.

However, how do we value those assets at the top of the system who can come up pretty much immediately and keep you from having total black holes in production? If I offered you ten dollars today or a hundred dollars in two years, which would you take? Well, most likely you’d take the hundred dollars, because that’s a lot more money, and you probably don’t need ten bucks so badly today to make it worth passing on more later. But if we were standing in line at the sandwich shop and you suddenly realised you forgot your wallet, that ten dollars just might be worth more than the hundred down the line, right? The immediacy of guys like Nogowski and Ravelo has some value, even if they don’t feel like traditional prospects. Now, you can argue I have them in the wrong place or whatever, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that assets like that have real value, if only to stave off potential disaster if something goes wrong in the near term.

Wrapping Up

So what do we think of the Cardinal system as a whole right now? Well, first off, it is once again an incredibly deep system. In fact, it might even be deeper now than it has been the past few years, when it seemed like the Redbirds had one of the deepest collections of talent in baseball, if also one lacking in top-end upside at times.

I wrote up 30 players for the list, have already covered seven more who didn’t fit into the rankings but deserve to be acknowledged, and will probably write up seven or eight more players on Wednesday for part two of the just-missed list. Oh, and that doesn’t include Ryan Meisinger, who is also technically a prospect and who I wrote about briefly yesterday. In other words, by the time this is all done I will have probably written around 45 proper scouting reports for the Cards’ system, and not a one of them will come from a sense of simple obligation. Now, obviously, I don’t believe all of those players will make it, but nearly every one of them has at least the potential to make it to the big leagues at some point in time. Every player I write about has, I believe, something about him that makes him worthwhile to cover.

What is really different this year is the level of upside we find at the top of the list. Actually, that’s not quite right; it’s the level of upside we find pretty much throughout the list that is notable, particularly on the position player side of things. That historic 2013 group of Cardinal prospects certainly had more pitching upside, which is what pushed them to the top of the farm system rankings overall, but I don’t think there’s ever been a group since I really started following the minors seriously with positional talent like this one.

This group of hitting talent is why I find it so fascinating to consider what direction the Cardinals are going to try and move over the next couple of years. For the longest time, the Cards’ system has produced this seemingly neverending stream of useful, roughly average sort of players, with a few overachievers sprinkled in here and there in the Allen Craig/Matt Carpenter vein. And that model of pipeline is extremely useful; it’s what has kept the Cardinals from ever having to rebuild, kept them afloat even as bad luck and some poor decisions have hurt them. But average talent, even in bulk, will only get you so far. And that so far is basically an 86-76 season, year after year, and probably just missing out on the playoffs.

What the Cardinals have right now, as 2019 dawns on us, is a farm system with real championship upside. Perhaps even dynastic upside. Even losing draft picks from Chris Correa’s foolishness, even with Nick Plummer losing his career to hand injuries, Delvin Perez staying at 140 pounds, and guys like Luke Weaver not living up to the billing, the Cardinals have a potential monster core group percolating in this system. What they do to try and set the stage for this group to come up and take their place in the franchise is going to be one of the more intriguing storylines in baseball over the next 2-3 years, I believe.