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System Sundays: Three Up, Three Down — 14th April 2019

Looking at the winners and losers of the minor league season’s first few weeks.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve used the ‘three up, three down’ construction in the past for update posts on minor leaguers. This year, though, I’m going to try and make this more of a rolling feature, rather than an occasional thing whenever I think of it. Probably about once a month I will attempt to remember this feature, and highlight three players whose stocks are rising, and three who are maybe not so much. The middle of the month seems a fine time for something like this; the one exception may be June, when the draft will have just been over and short-season ball will be just beginning, in which case I may rearrange the date, or perhaps simply plow ahead and wait to highlight any short-season or recently drafted positive impressions until July. We will see.

I will also be attempting to keep these as brief as possible. Yes, I know, I say that often, and it very rarely comes to pass. But I would like for these updates to feel breezy and refreshing, informative without requiring deep dives into player profiles and the like. Yeah, I’ve probably said things pretty similar to that before, too. This time I really mean it, though. Totally. I’m 100% serious about it.

Three Up

Uno — Nolan Gorman, 3B

Yes, it would seem difficult for the number one prospect in the system to really see his stock rise all that much. Don’t tell that to Nolan Gorman, though; he’s much too busy trying his damnedest to raise his stock to listen to you tell him his stock is already really high.

So far in this young season, Gorman has done nothing but hit, and hit, and then hit some more. His overall batting line currently stands at an absurd .395/.442/.868, in full season ball, and it bears remembering that Nolan Gorman is roughly a month away from turning nineteen years old. Obviously, a line like that is probably going to have some BABIP luck built in, and yes, Gorman is running a .458 batting average on balls in play. However, it’s also worth pointing out that his isolated slugging is a ridiculous .474, and he is hitting a home run every eleven plate appearances right now. It isn’t only homers, either; so far this year Nolan has fifteen hits in 43 trips to the dish, and of those fifteen hits only six have been singles. He has four doubles, four homers, and has even added a triple to the mix.

I wish Chris Mitchell hadn’t taken his KATOH system over to the team side; KATOH was one of the most interesting tools I’ve ever seen for trying to project prospect career paths, and one of the things I most liked about the system was how it actually treated high BABIPs as a positive, rather than an instant talking point in favour of regression. Yes, a .458 BABIP is not really sustainable, and in the majors or upper minors you’re safe in looking at that number and expecting it to move pretty heavily toward the mean. In the low minors, however, we often see players simply out-talent the rest of their level of competition, and one of the ways that often shows up is in extremely high BABIP numbers that we would ordinarily look at as indicators of near-term regression.

Admittedly, the fact Gorman’s non-contact numbers are not great this year puts something of a damper on the party; he’s only walked in seven percent of his plate appearances and is striking out just over a quarter of the time. However, it’s tough to really find too much fault with a hitter swinging when he’s doing damage at the rate Nolan Gorman currently is, so I’m not going to overthink it. Right now, the Cardinals’ number one prospect is on the warpath, looking to slug his way right out of Low A and up the overall prospect rankings. He can be patient later when he isn’t crushing the spirits of opposing pitchers.

One Number to Know: Did I mention he’s still not nineteen yet?

Dos — Dylan Carlson, OF

Speaking of players young for their levels, Dylan Carlson has, up to this point in his minor league career, been the constant avatar for age relative to level mattering more than raw performance. At every stop, Carlson has been among the youngest players in any league in which he’s played, if not the youngest, and at every stop he has held his own, showing off advanced plate discipline and a wide base of skills that suggest a well-rounded player at maturity. He’s also been slightly underwhelming, probably, to a certain segment of the fanbase who tire of hearing about how exciting a player is when the numbers just don’t really seem to back up the hype. Well, I told you this past offseason that Carlson would make it to Double A this season, and he was going to bust out when he hit the Texas League. So far, that looks downright prophetic. (Though admittedly I thought the Cardinals would send him back to Palm Beach to begin the year, at least until he showed up in spring training and performed out of the gate.)

It’s interesting that Carlson hasn’t really walked much so far this season, similar to Nolan Gorman; the difference is, where Gorman has run up a rather high strikeout total considering how ungodly good he’s been at smashing baseballs, Dylan Carlson is not walking a lot because he’s both making a ton of contact and also smacking the holy hell out of the ball every time he hits it. Carlson’s triple slash line so far is .333/.362/.667, good for a 149 wRC+, in 47 plate appearances to begin the season. He is not, as I said, walking very much (8.5% BB), but he’s also running the lowest strikeout rate of his career (12.8% K), while putting up a .333 ISO. In both cases, Carlson and Gorman both, I feel like they’ve been challenged early in the season by much older competition coming right at them, and both are making that look like a very bad strategy. I’m less concerned about Carlson making the adjustment when teams begin treating him more delicately, and I expect to see him add to his on-base numbers while continuing to produce career-best power totals in the hitter-friendliest league in which he has yet played. Consider his ETA moved up.

One Number to Know: In addition to thirteen hits and four walks already, Carlson also has four sacrifice flies this year. I don’t want to sound like a broadcaster, but making contact and putting the ball in play is a very good thing.

Tres — Ronnie Williams, RHP

Okay, I admit there is definitely some sentimentality involved in this pick. I could just as easily have highlighted several other players, including a guy like Ryan Helsley, whose numbers so far are just fine but not spectacular, but who deserves at least a shoutout for showing absolutely no residual ill effects from the shoulder issue that ate up much of his 2018 season, touching 100 on the gun in his second start of the season recently.

However, I chose Ronnie Williams because he has long been a favourite of mine, and after a couple seasons spent fighting the health of his arm, Williams has been moved full-time to relief at this point and has come out of the gate strong. Through four appearances covering four innings, Williams has faced sixteen total batters, struck out six against a single walk, and allowed just three balls into the outfield. Unfortunately, the one fly ball he’s allowed this year went for a home run, but at least it was a solo shot. Even better than the results, Williams has looked more like the pitcher I liked so much two years ago than the guy struggling to find his form and his stuff we saw for so much of the time recently. His fastball has looked to have a bit more zip from what I’ve seen of him in 2019, and his changeup has morphed into almost a splitter at this point, and has gotten multiple swings and misses in a very small sample. It’s too early to say Williams is back all the way, and it’s still bittersweet to see him working in short relief only now, but the early returns are encouraging enough I wanted to highlight him here.

One Number to Know: 31.3%. That’s Williams’s K-BB% in 2019.

Three Down

Un — Elehuris Montero, 3B

Oof. Elehuris Montero came into the season with pretty much all the momentum in the world going his way, having utterly decimated Midwest League pitching last season at just nineteen years old, then moving up to Palm Beach and more than holding his own. His plate discipline numbers were not outstanding even in Peoria last year, but he made so much loud contact that it was really difficult to complain. Like Dylan Carlson, Montero was challenged by the organisation with a promotion to begin the 2019 season, going straight to Double A Springfield rather than returning to the Florida State League.

So far, the biggest jump in the minors looks a little too big for Montero, as he has stumbled badly out of the gate. He’s hitting for a reasonable, if not exactly great, amount of power, with a .179 isolated slugging percentage so far, but his strikeout to walk ratio is the stuff of nightmares. He’s walking in less than 5% of his plate appearances, and is running a downright ghastly 34.1% strikeout rate. From my own limited viewing so far this year, he looks overanxious at the new level of competition, and Double A pitchers, far more mature than any he’s really faced before, are taking full advantage and getting him to expand his zone pretty easily.

Deux — Genesis Cabrera, LHP

Another player who came into spring training 2019 with a huge amount of momentum on his side, Genesis Cabrera had some buzz back in January and February that he might very well force the Cardinals’ hand and basically pitch his way on to the opening day roster. Such was the impression Cabrera made in winter ball, working in relief, pushing his fastball up close to triple digits and leaning on a devastating slider. He looked for all the world like a Felipe Vazquez starter kit — which ironically actually means he was moved out of being a starter — and it seemed that the most intriguing piece of the Tommy Pham return might be, dare I say, a spring surprise of sorts, and go all Dennis Dove circa 2007 or, more relevantly, Jordan Hicks circa 2018.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and Cabrera has followed up a very pedestrian showing in spring training with a rough start to his 2019 season. Still working only in relief, Cabrera has opened the year by walking four hitters and allowing seven hits in just four and two-thirds innings, and that doesn’t really fully capture just how all over the place he has been. The stuff looks mostly fine, though his slider has been flatter from what little I’ve seen than it was last season, but he just seems to have very little command over where his pitches are going right now. He’s missing both over the plate and out of the zone, which is not a good combination. Obviously we’re talking about a very small sample here, but the fact Cabrera looked so ordinary in training camp makes his slow start a bit more concerning.

Trois — Evan Kruczynski, LHP

Hopefully, the Cardinals will not need any left-handed pitching help anytime soon, because between Genesis Cabrera walking the world and Evan Kruczynski looking extremely hittable there doesn’t seem to be a ton of help on the way past about Austin Gomber.

To be fair, Kruczynski so far has actually put up fairly decent peripherals, at least in terms of strikeout rate. The downside? Well, pretty much everything else. That 28.3% K rate looks good, until you combine it with a 13% walk rate, sixteen hits allowed to just 46 batters, ten runs allowed total, and a pair of homers as the cherry on top of this rather depressing sundae. Unfortunately, I haven’t really gotten to see Kruczynski pitch yet this year, so I don’t have a great feel for what has gone wrong so far in his starts, but those kind of contact numbers would suggest to me he’s missing over the plate far too often. The high strikeout rate shows he’s got the stuff to miss bats in Double A, but hitters at that level don’t miss mistakes very often, and I would guess that Kruczynski has made an awful lot of mistakes in a very limited amount of time to start off this season.

Bonus Up — Kramer Robertson, SS

No, I don’t think Kramer Robertson is suddenly a slugger, not at 5’10” and a buck sixty five, but so far this year the LSU product, playing for Double A Springfield, has hit three homers in just 40 plate appearances, is walking and striking out 15% of the time both ways, and is running a .281/.400/.594 line. What’s strange is that he’s doing that with only a .250 BABIP. The power won’t last, as Robertson simply doesn’t hit enough fly balls to really do that sort of damage long term, but it would be very exciting to see him push his patience at the plate to a higher level this year.