Tommy Edman is the next middling Cardinals prospect to come out of nowhere and play a key role on a Cardinals team contending for a playoff spot. In 2016, Aledmys Diaz posted a 132 wRC+ en route to being named to the NL all-star team. While he did not provide much in the way of defense, the production that he provided at the plate was completely unexpected at the beginning of the season.
Diaz signed a 4-year, $8 million with the Cardinals back in 2014 as an international free agent. He then spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues with good, but not great production before bursting onto the scene in 2016. However, this breakout was not to last as Diaz’s production fell off a cliff in 2017 as his wRC+ plummeted to just 78. This was a massive change for such an integral player and it led to him getting traded to the Blue Jays in the winter following the 2017 season.
The Cardinals were able to handle this disappointing season from their former all-star because of another Diaz-like season from Paul DeJong in his rookie season, 2017. DeJong posted a 123 wRC+ after spending more than two seasons in the minors. The former fourth-round pick tore through the minors, never finishing a season with below a .786 OPS, despite never being considered a top prospect. Unlike DIaz, however, Dejong has proven that his rookie season was not a fluke. Even though he has yet to match the production of his rookie season, he has managed to tally average to above average offensive numbers in each of his next two seasons (103 wRC+ in 2018, 100 wRC+ in 2019).
Much like Diaz and DeJong, Edman is a former unheralded prospect picked in the early-middle rounds who had decent success throughout his minor league career, but was never considered to be a top prospect, or anything more than a utility infielder. However, his production with the big league team this year is casting doubts on the initial assessment of the diminutive former sixth round pick. Edman’s wRC+ (125) is similar to Diaz’s and DeJong’s in their rookie years. Also, much like Diaz and Dejong, Edman has benefited from a BABIP (.352) that is likely to experience some regression.
Even though his BABIP is much too high to be sustainable, this does not mean that Edman is guaranteed to regress to the utility infielder role that most people projected for him. This also does not retract from the invaluable production that he has provided for the Cardinals down the stretch as they chased, and eventually won, the NL Central crown. However, in the future it is unclear if he can keep an above average level of production. However, there is a chance that he could settle into a starting role at third base as Matt Carpenter appears to be in the twilight of his career.
One of the strengths of Edman is his ability to consistently put good wood on the ball. This is demonstrated by his 41.0% hard contact rate to go with just a 15.7% soft contact rate. Also, if Edman had enough at-bats to qualify for the leaderboards, he would place 20th in the league in line drive rate at 24.7%. The best combination of results, in terms of getting a hit is a hard hit line drive which would explain why his BABIP is elevated. This is a promising sign for the 24-year-old. Edman is also good at consistently connecting with the ball as he has accumulated a 17.7% strikeout rate in a league that has seen an increasing number of strikeouts each year. This is a healthy rate, especially for a rookie. Even though his walk rate is just a measly 4.4%, these are numbers that can be expected to improve as he gets used to MLB pitching.
One suspect area for Edman is his power. After never posting an ISO over .141 in the minors before this year, the infielder has tapped into his power stroke, tallying a .208 ISO in Memphis and a .199 ISO in St. Louis. The two most likely options are that his power is a product of the juiced ball that is being used this year, or that his power this season is a fluke. There is a chance that he has real power that is not related to either of these factors, but that is the least likely possibility of the three. If his power is a product of the juiced ball, then he will likely retain his power in the future, which bodes well for him as his .506 slugging percentage is a large part of his offensive value. Ultimately, if he wants to retain his value at the plate when his BABIP inevitably drops next year, then he will need to make adjustments. Part of this is learning how to take more walks and better identify the right pitches to swing at.
However, if he fails to make these adjustments, then it appears likely that he will become a utility infielder who provides value from speed and defense. He has graded out as a solidly above-average baserunner this season with a 6.2 BsR, according to Fangraphs. Edman has also played above-average defense at third (4 DRS, -0.3 UZR/150) and second base (3DRS, 11.8 UZR/150) this season. These aspects of his game are invaluable to his chances of at least securing a bench infielder role. These also make him a valuable late game pinch runner and/or defensive substitute in close games. If his hitting regresses mightily next season, then he will likely be relegated to such a duty, but if he can keep squaring the ball up at the plate, then he could stay in his current role of an everyday starter.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell at this point whether Edman will follow the path of Aledmys Diaz and lose his starting job next year, or the path of Paul DeJong and make the proper adjustments to keep his daily role. As a player who seems to have a knack for big moments and energizing plays, it will always be fun to watch him — even if it comes in limited quantities at first.