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The 2020 Viva El Birdos Top Prospects List: The Just-Missed List, Pt. 2

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Continuing on with some more intriguing talents who didn’t quite make the big list.

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

You know, I was in the supermarket the other day, and there were popcorn tins all over the place. I’m a sucker for popcorn tins in general; if you’ve been reading me in this space for very long at all I would imagine you’re well acquainted with my penchant for nostalgia, and we always had popcorn tins at Christmas when I was growing up. Is it good popcorn? No. It is not. But it is also the best popcorn.

On this particular occasion, though, I was looking at the various tins, and silently lamenting the fact that most of them are pretty ugly. Yes, there was a Peanuts-themed one, but I already have it. A nice Rankin-Bass Rudolph design, and I will probably buy that one next time I have to get groceries. But for the most part, it was bad knockoff Thomas Kinkade paintings all the way down, and bad knockoffs of already-bad paintings are just not my bag, even viewed through the Vaseline goggles of Christmas nostalgia. It occurred to me, that of all the items the Bob Ross company has licensed and produced the past few years (including a very cool Chia Pet that got knocked off a shelf and broken by a feline in my home, and some boot socks that I’m totally in love with, and...), why don’t they produce popcorn tins? I feel like Bob Ross popcorn tins are something the world needs, very badly. He has dozens of wintry scenes in the old catalogue, just pull some of those and slap them on tins with his face on the lid. Certainly better than yet another scene of puppies.

Jumping right back in....

Seth Elledge, RHP

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

DOB: 20th May 1996

Level(s): in 2019: Springfield (AA), Memphis (AAA), Arizona Fall League

Relevant Stats: 3.78 ERA/3.30 FIP (Spr), 4.72ERA/4.81 FIP (Mem), 21.3% K-BB (Spr), 9.0% K-BB (Mem), 12:2 K:BB ratio (AFL)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Do you remember, back in part one of this list, when I specifically said that the players covered in the just-missed list were not numbers 31, 32, etc? Well, in this particular case I will let you know: this player is, in fact, number 31, and the next player listed is number 32. They were 29 and 30 on the original version of the list, and were then subsequently bumped when I went back and added two players I had forgotten. Thus, feeling guilty for having them on the list even briefly (and even though no one would ever know, were I not to engage in digressions such as this), I had to cover them. (Probably would have anyway, actually; they’re both interesting players in their own right.)

So anyway, Seth Elledge. Acquired as the return for Sam Tuivailala at the 2018 trade deadline, the big right-hander has basically done what one would expect, if not in quite such pyrotechnic fashion as he did in the low minors. He was very solid pitching at Springfield at 23, then struggled upon moving up to both the tougher competition and the juiced ball of the Pacific Coast League. A postseason turn in the Arizona Fall League represented probably Elledge’s best work of the entire year, actually, and offered a view of just how dynamic his stuff can be.

Elledge works with a very strong two-pitch combo, one well suited to relief. His fastball sits in the 93-96 range, and it has excellent running action to the arm side. He works up more than down with the fastball, but still manages to not be overly homer-prone, even pitching in the PCL. Elledge’s heater just isn’t easy to square up, due to the combination of velocity, movement, and excellent out-front extension in his delivery. He backs that fastball up with a big power slurve, which has evolved out of a more traditional slider he threw back in college. I honestly don’t know if he throws the pitch as a slider or curve — I think I’ve seen him refer to his slider, but not sure where or when that would have been — but either way, it’s a very good breaking ball. He can throw it to lefties or righties, in or out of the zone, and while he is a little prone to hanging the pitch occasionally, when it’s on Elledge becomes a very tough at-bat for any hitter.

The bugaboo for Elledge, as is usually the case for young arms, is a lack of fine command. He throws strikes most of the time, but he doesn’t always hit his spots. Sometimes that results in hits on pitches that would have been outs if located a bit better. Sometimes it’s a fastball just off the edge to start an at-bat 1-0 instead of 0-1. But those small misses are what really hold Elledge back, for now, from hitting his ceiling as a potentially dominant late-inning reliever.

Kramer Robertson, SS

5’10”, 165 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 20th September 1994

Level(s) in 2019: Springfield (AA), Memphis (AAA)

Relevant Stats: 246 PA, .729 OPS, 114 wRC+, 15.9% BB (Spr), 209 PA, .719 OPS, 80 wRC+, 12.9% BB (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Kramer Robertson is a very interesting player. Drafted out of LSU as part of the Cardinals’ brutal 2017 class (brutal because of the lack of first and second round picks, specifically), Robertson has very quickly moved himself through the system and into a position only a phone call away from the big leagues. The problem is that Robertson, while capable of doing lots of things very well on the field, is part of a surprisingly large group of very similar players in the upper levels of the Cardinals’ system right now. Tommy Edman broke through last year as a middle-infield capable plus hitter without a ton of pop, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t half a dozen more of those guys just waiting for a chance, not to mention the increasingly irritating presence of Yairo Munoz on the big league roster taking up a spot that could be used for one of these players.

The other issue for Robertson is most straightforward: he’s just not a very big dude. Now, in a baseball world where Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are both among the best hitters in the game (with an asterisk....), it’s pretty clear that being a not very big dude is not a career killer. However, in Robertson’s case, his stature is basically a stand-in to talk about his power, of which there is not much. This lack of punch shows up not only in middling power numbers, but also low BABIPs, suggesting the overall quality of contact is an issue.

On the other hand, Robertson has one of the best overall plate approaches in the system. He was a contact machine his first two seasons in the system, then pushed his walk rate up into Carpenterian territory this season, without seeing his K rate explode. He did strike out more, yes, but not to excess. Matt Carpenter is a pretty good comp for Robertson in general, in fact, not so much for similarities to their defensive games, but for their cerebral batting approaches and general mind-over-matter natures in terms of how they go about creating value.

Robertson is capable of playing all three infield positions (and I’m sure could stand at first, but why?), and is probably a roughly average defender at short. That versatility should get him a major league opportunity at some point, but it’s hard to see where or when exactly right now. He’s in the mix with guys like Edman (at least so long as there’s no clear starting spot at second base available), Ramon Urias, Edmundo Sosa, Max Schrock, and the aforementioned Yairo Munoz. I’ve pulled out the Luis Alicea comp around here before, and I’ll pull it out for Robertson again. He’s a middle infielder, capable of super utility duty, who consistently gets on base at a high clip despite struggling much of the time to really impact the baseball. I hope to see him get an opportunity, but it’s not obvious what form that opportunity would take.

Francisco Justo, RHP

6’4”, 215 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 12th October 1998

Level(s) in 2019: Johnson City (Short Season)

Relevant Stats: 54 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 19.9% K, 5.6% BB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Francisco Justo is a name I’m not sure I’ve really highlighted in these pages as of yet, but I think there’s a good chance that changes in 2020. He was drafted by the Cards out of a New York junior college in 2018, and at the time was extremely raw, with plus arm speed the one real exciting marker on his profile. You don’t expect slam dunks in the twelfth round, you look for diamonds in the rough. Basically, you look for exactly Francisco Justo.

Honestly, I don’t have a ton to say about Justo just yet; I’ve seen only a little bit of video on him as a pro, and have some pretty vague scouting reports. But here’s why I like him: coming out of Monroe College, he had been clocked up to 94 with the fastball, with a fairly raw delivery. Less than two years later, he’s sitting mostly 89-92, has the arm speed to spin a really strong curveball, and walked under six percent of the hitters he faced at Johnson City this season. Basically, he’s following a similar progression so far as Angel Rondon, a formerly raw right-hander who moved slowly until this season, when he vaulted up to Double A and won the org’s minor league pitcher of the year award.

To be sure, Justo still has a ways to go. He just turned 21, and is even a little young for that age in terms of innings and experience. But he’s got a great frame, good energy in his delivery, and has made huge strides in refining his command of the strike zone already. He’s one of my main picks to make a large jump in terms of stature come 2020.

via Francis Santos:

Terry Fuller, OF/1B

6’4”, 210 lbs: Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 5th December 1998

Level(s) in 2019: Johnson City (Short Season), State College (SS Advanced)

Relevant Stats: 123 wRC+ (JC), 109 wRC+ (SC), 16.7% BB (JC), 12.7% BB (SC)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It has been a slow start to the professional career of Terry Fuller. When he was drafted in the fifteenth round back in 2017, he was a hulking slugger, seen as inevitably consigned to first base and boasting some of the craziest batting-practice power you’ve ever seen. Since that time, Fuller has spent a lot of his time in extended spring training, remaking his body and his swing to try and improve both.

The work appears to be starting to pay off. He actually didn’t hit for a ton of power this season, but the oomph is still there in his swing. He’s cut down on his swing and miss problems, and has pushed his walk rate way up. He’s still a high strikeout hitter, and probably always will be, but if he’s walking ~15% of the time that’s not a problem.

More impressive — and immediately noticeable — are the changes Fuller has made to his body. He’s probably 30-35 pounds lighter now than he was coming out of high school, and actually looks pretty good patrolling the outfield. He’s not exactly Harrison Bader speed-wise, but he moves well for a guy built like a defensive lineman. The throwing arm fits just fine in right.

For now, Fuller’s results have been middling, to say the least. He was a one-dimensional batting practice hero when he was drafted, and in the years since has tried to remake his game. He still has tremendous physical upside, probably even more so now than in 2017, and I’m really interested to see where he is assigned to begin 2020. At 21 years old, he’s still extremely young, but has been in the system long enough I wonder if the Cardinals won’t try to push him to Peoria in order to get him playing time right off the bat rather than waiting for short season ball to start up again.

Brendan Donovan, 3B/2B

6’1”, 195 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 16th January 1997

Level(s) in 2019: Peoria (Low A), Memphis (AAA, just one game)

Relevant Stats: 480 PA, .266/.377/.405, 131 wRC+, 13.1% BB, 19.0% K

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The last few years, the Cardinals have made an interesting habit of drafting infielders with great plate approaches as kind of their thing. We already talked about Kramer Robertson here today. Tommy Edman was cut from that cloth. It seems Randy Flores’s scouting department has keyed in on players who can stay on the dirt and who grind out at-bats as a skillset that gives the player an instant leg up. Brendan Donovan is absolutely that kind of player.

Possessed of a sound line-drive stroke and a great deal of patience at the plate, the German-born Donovan was drafted out of South Alabama by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. Unfortunately, an injury put him on the shelf almost immediately after starting his pro career, and the Cards didn’t get to see what they had until this year. He attempted to make up for lost time, beginning the season at Peoria and excelling there overall. His first half was not great, admittedly, whether that was due to a simple jump in competition or remaining effects of the broken wrist that derailed his 2018 campaign, but he hit much better in the second half.

In college, Donovan played third base, but he worked primarily at second for Peoria this season. That was the case in large part due to the presence of Nolan Gorman on the Chiefs’ roster, but also Donovan’s lack of power would seem to fit better the traditional idea of a second baseman, rather than the mental profile one associates with the hot corner. Regardless of the specific position, though, Donovan appears to be a competent fielder, albeit one not really capable of playing short, which limits his upside as a super utility player a little bit. He’s not really a runner, and his power is lacking (just eight homers in almost 500 plate appearances this year), so he’s going to have to contribute offensively through superior on-base ability.

The good news is that superior on-base ability is pretty much the name of the game for Donovan. He walked about 50% more than he struck out in both his sophomore and junior seasons at South Alabama, and while he definitely saw his strikeout rate go up this season as a pro, he still managed to push nearly a .380 on-base percentage due to walking 13% of the time. I invoked Matt Carpenter earlier in reference to Kramer Robertson; the comparison is probably even more apt here. It certainly doesn’t hurt Donovan’s case he hits from the left side, giving him the platoon advantage most of the time, and if one were to assign a single adjective to him as a player it might very well be ‘grinder’. Now, he’s not as nickname-friendly as Carp; the Galveston Grinder rolls off the tongue far more easily than anything involving Wurzburg, Donovan’s place of birth. (The Wurzburg Walker? Meh.) But still, that’s the sort of mindset he brings to the plate, and we have seen the Cardinals make hay with this sort of profile before.

Long term, I think Donovan will probably get some reps in the outfield, as the organisation attempts to push him toward adding versatility to his game. A guy capable of playing third, second, and two outfield corners fits very well onto the modern baseball roster, and if Donovan can translate his on-base excellence up the ladder anywhere near as well as Matt Carpenter has, he could prove a very valuable sleeper prospect in the coming years.