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System Sundays: Three Up, Three Down 14th July 2019

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Time again for an update on the winners and losers of the moment in the Cards’ minor league system.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Three Up

Junior Fernandez, RHP — It seems like so long now that we’ve been waiting for Junior Fernandez to break out, yet he is somehow still only 22 years old. Back in 2015 when Fernandez first put his name on the radar with a rookie-ball show of dominance, he was an eighteen year old wunderkind, blessed with unbelievable natural arm speed and basically nothing else. Toward the end of that season he was bumped up to Palm Beach, his very first full-season stop, and made a couple late appearances heading into the playoffs. He was fine, limiting damage as he has at basically every stop (Fernandez is incredibly difficult to homer against), but the strikeouts more or less disappeared. Against rookie ball competition, he was able to get away with just a hard, moving fastball, but once he came up against more seasoned opposing hitters, they just stopped missing the heater.

Since that time, it’s basically been the same story every year with Fernandez. Fastball up to 98/99 at times, changeup that occasionally makes you blink after it comes in, trying to figure out what your eyes just saw, not much ability to spin the ball, and nowhere near the number of strikeouts you would expect from a player who throws as hard as Fernandez does and even features a plus secondary pitch. There were injury concerns that crept in over the past couple years as well, from shoulder fatigue to a strange spate of control issues with no real explanation that felt like the warning light for a loosening elbow ligament.

We can consider Fernandez’s career back on track as of now, and it seems a near-guarantee at this point we’ll see his major league debut sometime this season. Beginning the year in Palm Beach (again), Fernandez showed some rust early on, walking too many hitters but showing a little more strikeout punch. It was once he was promoted to Double A, though, that things really started to get interesting. Suddenly, the velocity monster with no strikeout ability started missing bats like crazy. His strikeout rate over 29 Texas League innings was 36%, while he pushed his walk rate under 10% in a decent sized sample for the first time since 2015. Since moving up to Memphis, Fernandez has seen the strikeouts tail off a bit, but he’s also pushed his walk rate even lower — down to just 6.3% — and he’s still as tough as ever to square up. All of this adds up to a high-octane relief arm on the cusp of the big leagues, and depending on how things break heading into the trade deadline we could see Fernandez sooner rather than later.

Randy Arozarena, OF — Speaking of player who feel like they’ve been on the radar longer than they actually have — or maybe just seem older than they actually are — Randy Arozarena had been an exciting bundle of tools that had never quite managed to perform in all aspects of the game at the same time coming in to the 2019 season. When he showed power, he struck out too often. When he showed good plate discipline, the power wasn’t there. The speed was a constant, but even with his ability to cover ground in the outfield his glove has never been viewed as a lock to play in center field.

Consider that narrative busted, as the Randy Arozarena of 2019 is, in fact, doing basically all the things on a baseball field. Seriously, just all the things.

Arozarena posted a 158 wRC+ at Springfield to start the season off — that was after suffering an injury in spring training that pushed his timetable back — and since being promoted to Memphis has continued to do nothing but hit, to the tune of a 151 wRC+. To be fair, Arozarena’s performance is largely being driven by a .451 BABIP, but I’ve also watched a lot of those games, and he isn’t lucking into lots of hits; he’s just killing the ball right now. The power is not exceptional, but it’s good enough, the strikeout rate is very solid, the walk rate is pretty good, and he plays occasionally exceptional defense in right field. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle Arozarena the rest of this season; he’s really just putting all his skills together now for the first time, but he’s also rule V draft eligible this offseason. It would be nice to see what he looks like against major league competition, but as always the Cardinals have a plethora of useful but not essential outfielders all jockeying for playing time.

Dylan Carlson, OF — Sorry to be so predictable here, but it’s impossible, really, to ignore the season Carlson is having in his first go-round at Double A. He made the all-star team, appeared in the Futures Game, and his wRC+ is up to 142 on the season. And he’s still only 20.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Carlson’s season is that there is so little about it that actually appears noteworthy. He’s just...good at pretty much everything. His isolated slugging percentage is .230, and he’s on pace for about a 25 homer season. His walk rate is over 10%, while his strikeout rate is under 20%. He’s in better shape now than he’s ever been, and while he’s not a burner, he runs well enough that he looks like a future plus in the outfield and has stolen 13/18 bases this year. I would never have pegged Carlson as a possible future 20/20 threat, but there it is. He does pretty much everything on the baseball field well.

More specifically, though, Carlson appears on this edition of the three up list because he has been on an absolute tear since the beginning of July. In 45 July plate appearances, Carlson has fourteen hits, seven of which have gone for extra bases. (Three homers, four doubles.) His OPS over that time frame is 1.177, and his wRC+ is 218. It will be interesting to see how much longer the Cardinals can keep him in Double A, considering how good he’s been and the fact the organisation may have some tough decisions to make as soon as this offseason about how they want to direct their outfield in the future.

Three Down

Jake Woodford, RHP — The funny thing is, on the surface Woodford’s numbers look just fine. After all, a 3.56 ERA from a 22 year old in Triple A is nothing to sneeze at. Here’s the problem: Woodford’s perfectly fine ERA is not at all supported by the underlying numbers, which paint a picture of a pitcher playing with fire pretty much each time out. Don’t believe me? Woodford’s ERA of 3.56 is accompanied by an FIP of 5.22 (ouch) and an xFIP of 6.46 (double ouch).

The trouble with Woodford is that he changed his pitching pattern last year, attempting to move away from an extreme groundball profile to one based more on high fastballs generating more swings and misses. Well, the good news is he has moved away from the grounder thing; his groundball rate, previously in the mid-40% range, has fallen all the way to 31.7% this season. The bad news? Those swings and misses have not shown up yet to make up for the loss of grounders. Woodford’s K rate in his first shot at Triple in 2018 was 15.9%; this year it has only risen to 20%. Worse yet. his walk rate, never elite in the first place, has jumped up to 12.7%. Flyball pitchers who walk lots of hitters and don’t strike out very many do not tend to have long, successful major league careers. Yes, yes. Mike Fiers. Okay, so there’s one. (And we could really debate what our bar for ‘successful’ is in that case.)

Wadye Ynfante, OF — Ynfante has always been a player whose tools were more exciting than his actual playing ability, and a couple years ago his name popped up on a few of the more hyperventilation-prone lists after a 133 wRC+ performance in the Appalachian League as a nineteen year old. Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like Ynfante is a bona fide tools goof, the sort of player who can hit a 450 foot dinger in batting practice and run a 6.2 60 in shorts, but then strikes out 30% of the time and can’t actually hit a breaking ball once the lights go on.

Ynfante began the season at Peoria, and struck out...30.9% of the time. Combine that with a walk rate below 6% and just two home runs in 223 trips to the plate, and you have a recipe for a disastrously bad hitting line. Like a 70 wRC+ level bad hitting line. He was recently pushed up to Palm Beach, likely because there were more outfielders entering the system below who needed space, and so far he has walked three times in 15 plate appearances. That’s the only real positive.

This felt like a really important year for Ynfante. His performance last season at State College was a big disappointment, as he struck out over 35% of the time. Even so, he showed off enough athleticism in bursts that you could see how even as a below-average hitter he could potentially make it to the big leagues in some capacity. Unfortunately, this season Ynfante has been completely overmatched by the pitching in the Midwest League, and I doubt moving up to Palm Beach is going to help matters any. He is steadily sliding off the prospect radar at this point.

Edmundo Sosa, INF — No, I’m not just putting Sosa on here because Tommy Edman has pretty clearly established himself as the guy who’s going to be getting all the big league infield utility time for the foreseeable future. I’m putting Edmundo Sosa on here because, despite following up a twelve homer campaign in 2018 with ten bombs already in just over 300 plate appearances this season, he has been a well-below average hitter overall in 2019.

The problem for Sosa is a complete lack of anything resembling patience at the plate. His strikeout rate isn’t ungodly, at 19.3%, but his walk rate is barely extant at 4.3%, and his on-base percentage as a result is just .310. Put that together with solid but not exceptional power production, and that’s how you get a 76 wRC+ season from a guy who, coming into spring training this year, looked like a potential breakout candidate in the system. Sosa has never really shown much patience, but a sub-5% walk rate really only works if you have Javy Baez-level power, and Sosa most definitely does not.

Admittedly, it does also sting a little extra that Edman has made such an impression this season. Shortstop is obviously filled for a while for the Cards, but with Kolten Wong remaining an ardent mediocrity at the plate and approaching the end of his contract in the medium term, there is a path to possible future playing time as a middle infielder in the Redbird organisation. Sosa was as good a candidate as anyone coming into 2019 to make a run at some of that playing time. Now he seems an afterthought.