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Justin Toerner and Johan Oviedo Named Players of the Month

The Cards’ minor league player and pitcher of the month awards for April have been announced, and one of the two deserves a quick spotlight.

St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals
There are no photos in the database of the players written about here. So here’s a celebratory moment to enjoy.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

I get press releases from the Cardinals. Anytime they make some announcement, be it a contract extension or a Triple A optioning or pretty much anything else, I get an email notifying me of whatever it was. I don’t say this to brag; I’m fairly certain just about anyone who wants to get on their email list can do so. I think I was automatically put on the list back in 2008 when I first got credentialed through the RFT, and they just never bother to purge the rolls, I don’t believe.

Anyhow, I got an email this morning notifying me that the Cardinals have named Justin Toerner their minor league player of the month for April, and Johan Oviedo their minor league pitcher of the month. Toerner grabbing player of the month honours is not at all surprising; he is still, as of this moment, running a wRC+ over 200 and getting on base exactly half the time. I wrote about Toerner just last Sunday, and very little has changed for him in the past week. He’s still benefiting from absolutely insane batted ball luck going his way, and when that turns I’m worried the majority of what looks like a breakout is going to go up in smoke. Then again, he’s also still walking 19% of the time, so maybe he’ll be able to cushion his landing when it comes.

It is fair to ask whether Toerner was the best choice for the award; it’s always interesting to see how the organisation handles things like in-season or postseason awards for the system. There’s an argument to be had, whether awards should be given solely to the players who perform the best, or who catch the eyes of the coaching staffs, or who put up big numbers, or whether those awards should go to legitimate prospects over performers. Should Nolan Gorman’s 180 wRC+ month net him an award over Toerner’s 210 or whatever it was, simply because Gorman is seen as a much better prospect? In other words, should the awards be used as rewards, encouragements, public relations tools, or a combination of all those things?

When we look into our collective crystal ball and try to parse out which player of Gorman or Justin Toerner has made more of an impact on the Cardinal organisation five years from now, it’s pretty tough not to give Gorman the huge edge in terms of odds. But then, does that matter? Nolan Gorman being awarded a minor league player of the month award now probably doesn’t mean anything to what he’ll be as a player five years from now, and if he turns out to be the player most think he could turn out to be, then the public is going to be well aware of who he is, and any sort of hype you attempted to build along the way is likely not going to be needed. So again, how do you want to use the tool that is an award. So much in life is about carrots and sticks, and while I’ll bet every player in the minor leagues would trade a plaque saying they were the king of April 2019 for a month’s worth of major league at-bats (and the accompanying salary), handing out public acknowledgement does still have value. This isn’t really an important point, or even particularly germane to the central thrust of this column, but it’s a tiny little thing I’m always at least a little interested in considering.

While I covered Toerner (along with another POTM candidate, albeit one with a weaker statistical case, in Lars Nootbaar), the other player mentioned here, Johan Oviedo, I realised I haven’t really said anything about yet this season. I covered him back during the offseason as part of the big list, of course — he actually fell off the list, landing in the second just-missed section — but I haven’t brought him up so far in 2019. Well, an email informing me he just won the system pitcher of the month award seems like as good a sign as any I need to rectify that situation.

In case you don’t remember — and don’t have time to go back and read that scouting report from January — here’s the quick history of Johan Oviedo: born in Havana, Cuba, signed by the Cardinals during the 2016 July 2 signing period, 6’6”, big dude just in general. At the time he was signed out of Cuba, Oviedo was a towering physical presence on the mound, and one who could boast plus raw stuff to go along with his size. The fastball would push 97-98 at times, and his height and high 34 arm slot gave the pitch really good tilt. Big but soft curveball, sort-of-there changeup. It was a lot of very exciting raw materials, in other words.

A funny thing happened on the way to maturity or Oviedo, though. Actually, ‘funny’ probably isn’t the right word; frustrating and possibly a bit depressing are both better descriptors of the way Johan Oviedo has pitched the past couple years. Frustrating for those of who follow the minors in close fashion, and probably not just frustrating but a little worrisome and depressing for Oviedo himself. It’s great to be chasing a dream, after all, but when that dream looks like it’s starting to get away from you, it can be a rough thing. And over the course of 2017 and ‘18, there were a lot of times it looked like Oviedo was falling behind in that chase.

After signing in 2016, Oviedo came out of the gate fast, posting a 1.66 ERA, 1.27 FIP, and 16.3% K-BB% in his first shot at pro ball. In 2017, though, his control deserted him for long stretches. When he struck batters out, he also walked a ton of them. When he worked inside the zone, he was unable to generate swings and misses. The stuff was good, but not refined enough to dominate, and he just generally struggled to command the strike zone effectively. Last year, though, things really started to get ugly, as not only did he post much worse numbers than he had previously, his stuff showed real signs of decline. That fastball which had reached the upper 90s as an amateur and early on in his pro career fell off badly. There were times last spring and early in the summer when he was topping out at 92, sitting 89, and struggling to throw anything but a loopy, mostly-gravity curveball to complement his heater. His conditioning was not great, his delivery wandered, and from start to start it seemed an open question what stuff he was going to bring to the mound.

There was, however, good news toward the end of the season, as Oviedo started to really turn things around in the second half. His mechanics got more consistent, and the stuff started to as well. He was still shaky in terms of command from start to start, but more in the way most 20 year old pitchers are, rather than the more worrisome, does-he-look-healthy-and-if-he-is-why-does-he-look-like-this way that May and June of last year presented. The silver lining of the dark cloud that was 2018 was that as his stuff improved, he looked better and better, like a pitcher who was not only improving physically, but also had learned some valuable lessons from his struggles.

Now we have a month of Oviedo, 2019 edition, to look at, and things are looking rosier than ever for the big Cuban. In the month of April, Oviedo threw 33.2 innings for Palm Beach and posted a 1.60 ERA (2.91 FIP). The strikeout rate was up — 21.8% in 2018, 24.8% in 2019 — and the walks were way down, as he cut his BB% from 14.6% to 8.5%. His K-BB% more than doubled, from 7.2% to 16.3%. That’s the kind of across the board improvement you look for when a prospect is ready to take that big leap forward, and at this moment it looks to me like Oviedo is making that jump. I haven’t seen him pitch very much at all this season, but from the limited looks I’ve gotten I think the changeup has improved markedly. He also looks leaner and stronger this year, which is a really good sign.

And actually, the jump in performance has already led to a jump in level, as the Cards bumped Oviedo up to Springfield over the weekend. He struggled in his first Double A start, perhaps not a shocking development, and I honestly don’t know if this is meant to be a permanent promotion or if Johan was pushed up to take a spot start in someone else’s place. Minor league back and forth is hard to keep track of, and if there was an injury in the Springfield rotation I missed it.

Regardless, the fact is Johan Oviedo, barely 21 years old at this point, has reached Double A. He has had high-level success in the Florida State League. He’s not exactly on the cusp of the majors just yet, but the fact he is either at or near Double A now puts him in a very different class of pitcher than where he was this time last season, struggling along in Low A with three very big jumps between himself and the big leagues. I was excited by the possibility of Oviedo taking a step forward back in the offseason, but couldn’t justify to myself pushing him over multiple other prospects who either had equal talent or better results or both to make a spot for him on the list proper. Suffice to say, at this point Oviedo is not only a top 30 system prospect, he would likely be somewhere in the mid-teens were I to put together a new list with the info from this young season included.

The Cardinals have had a tough time the past few years developing high end starting pitching talent, which feels surprising to say. For a long time, that was the bread and butter of the organisation, always having talented young pitchers ready to step in and contribute right away, but the most recent wave of arms (with Jack Flaherty a fairly notable exception), have looked more like modest role players rather than potential rotation stalwarts. (Also worth noting Dakota Hudson could have something to say about that, but we’re going to need more performances like his last start against the Nationals, rather than the 1:1 K:BB guy he’s been for most of his career so far, before that comes to fruition.) I like Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon as much as the next guy, but neither of them really project as anything more than back of the rotation or setup relief type pitchers. Johan Oviedo, though, does project as potential much more than that, and along with Griffin Roberts gives the Cardinals a group of arms to dream on for the future.

So congratulations to both Oviedo and Justin Toerner on their awards, and let’s hope we see much more of this Johan Oviedo going forward. The Cardinal organisation looks a whole lot better in the short- to mid-term future if Oviedo turns into what he looked like he might be when they signed him a few years ago.