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System Sundays: An Overdue Note About Ivan Herrera

The Cardinals have a catching prospect with a very exciting bat beginning to make real waves in the minors. No, I mean another one.

Glendale Desert Dogs v. Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Buck Davidson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

A little while ago, I posted an update on all the Redbird prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League. At the time, the hitters were mostly struggling, the relievers were mostly dominating, and the samples were all still tiny. Well, the samples remain small, simply due to the nature of a one-month league, but not quite so small any longer. The Fall Stars Game, which is exactly what it sounds like, has now been and gone (Royce Lewis, top Twins prospect, took home MVP hardware), and the AFL season will wrap up just under two weeks from now.

I’ll update things again as we close down the fall league, but right now I’m going to focus on one AFL participant in particular, a player I should have covered much more heavily this season than I did, actually. The player is Ivan Herrera, and consider this my attempt to make up for not getting him into these columns as much as I should have by starting up a serious hype train for the young man.

Here’s the thing: we should really be talking way more about Ivan Herrera. Like, a whole lot more.

Let’s start with a current update on the young catcher’s performance in the AFL. Remember, Arizona is often seen as a finishing school of sorts for prospects, one of the final steps many young players take on their way up the ladder to the big leagues. Tyler Stephenson, a catching prospect in the Reds’ system and a former eleventh overall pick, is 23 years old, a polished presence behind the plate, and just put up a fantastic season at Double A. He’ll likely show up in Cincinnati sometime in 2020 if things go as planned. He’s also the first-string catcher for the Glendale Desert Dogs, and the guy Ivan Herrera is backing up.

That’s the normal context for AFL players. Not all of them, of course, but a large majority are near-finished products. Compared to that, Herrera is a bit of an anomaly. Not only is he just nineteen years old, he’s a nineteen year old catcher, which is even further from finished developmentally than most other positions.

Thus, when I tell you that Herrera, facing some of the very best competition the minors have to offer, is hitting .300/.419/.400 right now, and running a 4:3 walk to strikeout ratio, that’s something very much worth paying attention to. Now, obviously we’re talking about very small samples here, so caveats apply. All the same, this is a kid performing against prospects who are often three or more years older than he, at or near the top of the pyramid, and very much holding his own. He’s not hitting for power, which is somewhat surprising given the conditions in the desert-based league, but any time a player is walking more than he’s striking out it’s a positive, and considering the extreme youth of the hitter in question it’s even more remarkable to see the approach Herrera is holding.

Really, though, this successful run through the AFL is just the cherry on top of what was a tremendous 2019 campaign for Herrera, who as I said we should really be talking more about. He began the season as an eighteen year old and went straight to full-season ball out of spring training, basically the same assignment Nolan Gorman received. Also like Gorman, Herrera excelled at Low A Peoria pretty much right out of the gate. His bat wasn’t as loud as the Cards’ monster third base prospect, but big-time power isn’t really ever going to be Herrera’s calling card anyway. And in the end, Herrera was actually the better hitter of the two, remarkable considering how much of a catcher’s attention and energy is usually occupied by the position. Gorman’s Midwest League stint lasted 282 plate appearances, over which time he posted a 128 wRC+. Herrera ultimately collected 291 PAs — admittedly, over a longer period of time — and put up a .286/.381/.423 line that translates to a 136 wRC+.

Herrera’s power output in the MWL was similarly modest to what he’s done in Arizona, with just a .137 isolated slugging percentage, but he built that 36% better than average line through a combination of above-average patience at the plate (12% walk rate), and plus contact ability (19% strikeout rate). Again, this was player performing in full-season ball at 18 and 19 years old showing the plate approach of a much, much more mature player than his years would suggest. He moved up to High A ball for the month of August and kept his head above water, though he did see all his numbers go in the wrong directions. It was only 65 plate appearances, but Herrera did look like a hitter just trying to survive in the Florida State League. I’m sure he’ll return there to open 2020, and should probably stay at least half the season. The Cardinals have been cagey in recent years about how they’ve handled prospects in and around their somewhat troublesome High A affiliate, where the hitting environment is tough enough it actually seems to mess with some hitters’ approaches and mental well-being, but even so I think Herrera would benefit from more time there, rather than a bump to the much friendlier but also much higher level of competition to be found in the Texas League.

Defensively, I don’t have a ton to say about Herrera. Most of the public reports you’ll read will say something vague about his defense still needing work, which is more or less a useless statement. Of course his defense needs work; he’s a nineteen year old catcher. Going by the few firsthand reports I have, though, he seems to have promising tools and just needs repetition, with his catch and throw skills ahead of the pitch framing. From what little I’ve seen of Herrera behind the plate, it looks like he has very good bounce in his legs. He’s quick up out of the crouch and gets rid of the ball quickly. Receiving wise, I don’t know. I’m terrible at judging those finer points of catcher defense, honestly, and so I won’t go too far out on a limb trying to read Herrera’s framing ability. He’s not wildly stabbing unless the pitch comes in somewhere it clearly wasn’t supposed to, but that’s about the best I can do for you.

I haven’t started putting together the big offseason prospect list just yet, but I have a fair idea of how the top will shake out. As things stand now, without really laying out all the numbers and going through the whole process, I think Herrera is something like my number five prospect in the system. It’s also fascinating at this point to consider whether Herrera factored in to the Cardinals’ willingness to move Carson Kelly as part of the Paul Goldschmidt trade package. Andrew Knizner and Kelly both being more or less major league ready was obviously the biggest consideration, but how much the organisation thought Herrera might become a part of their major league solution at the position in the relatively near term is something I’m really curious about.

Regardless of all that, though, the fact is that right now Ivan Herrera is putting his name very much in the organisation’s medium-term plans. Knizner is the heir apparent to Yadier Molina, but Herrera’s performance at such a young age has absolutely put him in a spotlight heading into 2020.