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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List: #30-26

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Kicking off the countdown proper, with a group skewed largely toward the most recent draft.

Peoria Javelinas v. Glendale Desert Dogs Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

#30: Andre Pallante, RHP

6’0”, 203 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 18th September 1998

Level(s) in 2019: State College (Short season advanced)

Relevant Stats: 11 G/9 GS, 35.2 IP, 2.78 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 26.8% K, 7.8% BB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

We begin our countdown of prospects with, admittedly, one of the rankings I’m least comfortable with, and one of the players I think has the best chance of making me look foolish this time next year, a la Tommy Edman in 2019. Not that I think Pallante is going to make the big league club next year or anything; I just meant that this ranking feels too low to me in my gut, even though every player ahead of him on this list is absolutely there for a reason.

Drafted in the fourth round this summer, Pallante was pushed to State College, the higher of the two short-season clubs the Cardinals run, and he excelled there. The strikeout rate was good. The walk rate was good. The homer suppression was beyond good, probably unsustainable in the long run. That being said, what Andre Pallante does better than anything else is keep the ball off the barrel of the bat, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if hard contact and home run management turn out to be long-term skills for him.

Let’s talk about positives. There’s the ability to avoid hard contact, obviously, which is kind of a big deal. Pallante also throws a lot of strikes. Early on in college he struggled with his control, but he came into the draft a fairly polished pitcher. He throws four, maybe five pitches, and all of them are at least usable. His fastball cruises in the low 90s, and it moves. A lot. There’s some natural cut, and a little bit of sink on the heater. The result is plenty of ground balls and a general lack of loud contact.

Pallante backs up his fastball with an above-average slider, an average curveball, and a fringy changeup. The curve and slider mostly remain separate, not always a guarantee for a young pitcher. I have also seen him throw a pitch that looks to me like a two-seam fastball, with more armside run and sink, but it’s possible I was seeing a firmer than usual changeup, or a funny-acting fastball, or some other thing that just came out of his hand strangely. In fact, I’m not entirely certain if his primary fastball is a four- or two-seamer, to be honest. It looks more like a four-seamer, but I could be wrong. Pallante gets great extension out front on his pitches, especially the harder stuff, and hitters don’t get great looks against him.

On the downside, the delivery worries me. Quite a bit, actually. He benefits from the deception his stabby arm action creates, a little like Tyler Clippard if I were pressed for a comp, but I worry about how well he will hold up going forward.

If he’s good, it will look like: Pallante has good stuff, but not great stuff. He’s polished and crafty, though, and there is still plenty of room for that kind of pitcher in the game, even in this era of velocity uber alles. Former Cardinal farmhand Zac Gallen doesn’t feel out of place here as a comp.

#29: Pedro Pages, C

6’1”, 235 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 17th September 1998

Level(s) in 2019: State College (Short season advanced)

Relevant Stats: 214 PA, .291/.393/.430, 149 wRC+, 13.1% BB, 18.2% K

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Coming out of college, Pages had all the markings of a classic collegiate catcher draft pick, one picked for his leadership, and game calling, and leadership, and intellect, and his leadership, and did I mention he’s a great leader?

All joking aside, Pages has the reputation of that team captain sort of presence, handling more responsibility for Florida Atlantic than most college catchers do. His catch and throw skills are above average, he’s a decent blocker and receiver (though his footwork is a little slow, and better conditioning would be a boon to his career, I think), and every coach or teammate immediately brings up how he’s almost an extra coach on the field. Yes, he sounds a little like a college version of Yadier Molina, and no, I don’t think that’s an accident.

What was surprising, including for yours truly, was how well Pages hit in the New York-Penn League after being drafted. Pages never hit for much power in college, and he continued to not hit for much power as a pro, but he did everything else in the batter’s box very well. He has a beautifully simple approach to hitting, almost never getting himself out trying to to too much, and it shows in his strong peripheral stats. He’s patient. He doesn’t swing and miss a whole lot. He thinks through at-bats in the way we think catchers should, but so few actually do.

On the negative side of the ledger, Pages isn’t much of an athlete, to be honest. He’s heavy and slow-footed, and while he certainly has a build that suggests power, he’s never shown much.

If he’s good, it will look like: The best quality Pages exhibits at this point is his mental acuity for the game, and that’s not at all a bad thing to be at the top of a catcher’s resume. I like Pages better now than I did when he was initially drafted, and while I’m not sure the offensive ceiling is extremely high, he shows an ability to get on base while serving as a stalwart behind the plate. Think of the IndiansRoberto Perez, though probably with the power slider turned down a bit.

#28: Tony Locey, RHP

6’3”, 240 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 29th July 1998

Level(s) in 2019: Gulf Coast League (Rookie), Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Stats: 15 IP, 2.58 FIP, 41.2% K, 14.7% BB (Peo)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The first three players on our countdown here all entered the system via the draft just this past summer, which is interesting, not least of all because of how it forces one to examine the players from various angles when attempting to separate and rank them. The pair of Locey and Pallante here in this post makes for an interesting debate as well, trying to determine which is more likely to remain a starter long term, who is destined for the bullpen, who has the better build for durability, and so on and so forth. Where Pallante is undersized and all about polish and a variety of offerings, Locey is big, nearly Lance Lynn-sized, and all about power.

In the end, I ranked Locey higher because I simply cannot ignore the ungodly strikeout numbers he rang up after being drafted this summer. Pallante was good, very steady, showed some of that Dakota Hudson ability to keep the ball off the sweet spot. Locey, on the other hand, got knocked around to the tune of a .483 BABIP in Peoria, a number I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, walked a ton of hitters, and just generally seemed to not know where the ball was going about half the time he let it go. But he also struck out more than four of every ten hitters he faced, and the stuff he showed in relief was absolutely stunning at times.

At the time he was drafted, I was not all that optimistic about Locey’s chances at a relief career. To my eye, he was a guy with a solid but not overwhelming fastball, a 55 grade slider, and very little else to recommend him. I didn’t see a guy who was going to miss a ton of bats; I thought he would either develop a third and maybe fourth pitch — as well as better command — and become a starter, or else wash out completely.

I now believe I was completely wrong. The guy I saw pitch in Peoria (only a little, admittedly), did not look all that much like the guy I remember seeing take the mound for Georgia. Locey in relief was a revelation, in terms of pure unhittability, and while the organisation will probably at least consider developing him as a starter, I now think the easiest, and fastest, path for him to the big leagues runs straight through the bullpen and a dominant two-pitch mix.

Those two pitches are a fastball and slider, with the slider playing up to a 55-60 in short stints and generating solid swing and miss rates. Locey’s bread and butter, though, is a riding fastball that sat around 93-96 when he was starting, but jumped straight into the high-90s in relief work. Sitting 95-99, Locey is capable of simply throwing the ball past most hitters, thanks to both the velocity and what appears to be a very high spin rate on his heater. The pitch is very true, and pretty much untouchable at the waist or above.

Locey is now one of the more interesting spring assignments for me heading into 2020. Not only am I curious to see where the Cardinals place him — I’m guessing Peoria again — but I’m watching to see what role they push him toward. Attempting to get him back on a starter’s track certainly makes sense, but if it were up to me he would be all ‘pen all the time from now on. Adding a changeup or splitter would certainly be a boon, but at least for now his one-two punch in relief is so good that I would prefer to see him simply try to hone his command and ride that stuff straight to the big leagues.

If he’s good, it will look like: Big guy, power fastball-slider combo, extreme strikeout punch. You can pick from a whole genre of this type of pitcher, but I’m going with Jonathan Broxton as one of the more classic examples of this guy.

#27: Kodi Whitley, RHP

6’4”, 220 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 21st February 1995

Level(s) in 2019: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (Double A), Memphis (Triple A)

Relevant Stats: 39.1 IP, 1.83 ERA/3.17 FIP (Spr), 23.2 IP, 1.52 ERA/2.02 FIP (Mem), 20% K-BB% (Spr), 24% K-BB% (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Another year, another crop of intriguing relief arms in the Cardinals’ system. Tony Locey is the new kid on the block, the smoke artist with the crazy stuff, but if you’re looking for a preemptive spring surprise pick, Kodi Whitley just might be your guy. He’s been in the system since 2017, and has made solid, steady progress year over year.

Always possessed of solid strikeout stuff, Whitley’s big step forward in 2019 had less to do with unlocking some new level of bat-missing, but in honing his command to a level previously unseen. He walked just 4.2% of the hitters he faced in Memphis, and carried that stinginess forward into his star turn in the Arizona Fall League, handing out just one free pass in eleven innings, striking out thirteen over that span. He’s more than capable of striking hitters out, but if this level of command is real then Whitley has jumped into a very different bracket of pitching prospect.

Whitley’s stuff is good, particularly his fastball, which cruises in the mid-90s and is just as untouchable at the top of the zone as Tony Locey’s. He wasn’t a particularly hard thrower in college, so far as I’ve been able to tell, so the velocity is either a pleasant surprise or the payoff for delivery changes or possibly both. He complements the heater with an average slider that might be better if he tightened it into a cutter and a solid-average changeup that is more notable for Whitley’s ability to locate it than any overwhelming inherent quality of the pitch.

In truth, Whitley’s repertoire as a whole is probably stronger than the sum of the parts. The fastball is very good, but neither of his offspeed pitches are particularly dominant. What Whitley really does remarkably well is throw all his pitches from the same arm slot, an almost straight over the top slot which seems to add deception in addition to creating that quality fastball, and put each of his pitches where he wants most of the time. The slider is not great, but it’s almost always on the very outside corner to a right-handed hitter, enticing the batter to reach. The changeup is deceptive enough, but not Marco Gonzales quality or anything. However, it’s usually thrown for a strike, and not over the middle of the plate. Kodi Whitley has good stuff, but not dominant stuff. He does, however, use that good stuff to remarkable effect. He’s on the precipice of the major leagues right now, and actually seems to be improving. He’s ranked this low on the list because he is a relief-only right-hander, but make no mistake: he could be an impact arm as soon as 2020 for the Redbirds.

If he’s good, it will look like: Whitley’s multiple solid-average weapons, plus control, and heavy fly ball tendencies put me in mind of Chris Devenski. And much like Devenski, if Whitley is going to struggle, I would expect the cause to be the home run ball.

#26: Luken Baker, 1B

6’4”, 265 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 10th March 1997

Level(s) in 2019: Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Stats: 496 PA, .244/.327/.390, 115 wRC+, 10.5% BB, 22.6% K, 10 HR

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Luken Baker had a very interesting first full professional season. He was sent to High A Palm Beach right out of the gate, an assignment which felt, at the time, like a fairly aggressive challenge for the just-turned-22-year-old. He held his own in the Florida State League, posting an above-average batting line in the notoriously tough hitting environment there. A funny thing happened along the way, though: Baker just...stayed at High A.

Now, that may not seem all that unusual; Baker was somewhat young for the league, and performed at a solid, albeit unspectacular, level. Him remaining at a stop he was handling but not exactly dominating might not jump out as particularly noteworthy. However, the fact it was Palm Beach is, I think, somewhat unusual. The Cardinals have shown a preference over the past handful of years to move their high-end hitting prospects past the Florida State League and Roger Dean Stadium as quickly as possible. I don’t know if it’s a simple case of not wanting top-flight hitters to hit warning-track fly balls for years at a time or if the org feels like they let Anthony Garcia wither on the vine in the FSL and get his confidence crushed by Roger Dean, but the Cards have largely pushed their elite hitters to Springfield, or kept them in Peoria a little longer, or found some other solution.

Except Baker.

Seeing the big Texan labour in Palm Beach for a whole season makes me wonder just how the organisation views him and his bat. It’s possible I’m reading too much into this, but it just feels odd to me the Cardinals wouldn’t have tried getting Baker into the friendlier hitting environs of the Texas League, if only to see how his power looks rattling balls off the wall at Hammons Field instead of getting bogged down in the swampy heat of Florida.

Make no mistake: if Luken Baker is going to make it as a big leaguer, his bat is going to have to be special. He’s a massive physical presence, and while that can be intimidating in the batter’s box, it also means he is less than ideal in terms of mobility, even for a first baseman. Baker does possess an incredible throwing arm going all the way back to his high school days as a two-way prospect with a mid-90s fastball, but that’s really his only defensive tool.

How likely is it the bat will be that special? Well, Baker has some of the best power potential in the system, but posted an isolated slugging percentage of just .146 in 2019. He’s walked right around ten and a half percent of the time at each stop of his pro career, but his strikeout rate pushed up almost three percentage points going from Peoria to Palm Beach. It still wasn’t crazy high, but it bears watching that the numbers are trending in an iffy direction.

There is one very intriguing thing to note here, which is that Baker finished the season on a tear, demolishing the Florida State League to the tune of a 1.067 OPS in August. The power finally showed up for real, as he posted a .654 slugging percentage and a .308 ISO. In other words, at the end of the 2019 season, Luken Baker was hitting like the player the Cardinals had hoped they were getting when they drafted him a year and a half ago. He should move up to Springfield to open 2020, and if ever there was a time for that power to show up, the debut of the major league baseball in the Texas League would seem to be the moment.

If he’s good, it will look like: To be fair, Matt Adams managed to both turn himself into an above-average defender at first base and remake his body after being in the big leagues for a couple years, neither of which I’m certain Baker will be able to do. But in terms of the type of hitter Baker could end up being, the good version of Adams, i.e. the non-Mike Matheny telling him to Tony Gwynn the ball to the opposite field, would seem to be a reasonable outcome for the big man.