Overall, 2019 has not been an especially strong year for the Cardinal farm system. Obviously there has been good news; Nolan Gorman has cemented himself as an elite prospect at just nineteen years old, and Dylan Carlson has put himself just a phone call away from the major leagues with the power surge nearly everyone believed was in his future but was still only a hypothetical until it happened.
There have been smaller successes, as well. Ramon Urias turned a brutal first half of the season around and has been one of the best hitters in the minors, full stop, since the beginning of July. John Nogowski remains one of the more singular hitters in baseball, and it is very frustrating to me how unlikely it seems we will see him get a chance to prove himself in a Cardinal uniform. Junior Fernandez has had a rebirth as a relief weapon after several years of waiting for stuff to translate into results.
On the whole, though, it’s been a rather disappointing season to be an admirer of the Redbirds’ minor leagues. Alex Reyes is in the process a third consecutive season, and is basically a non-factor in the Cardinals’ future at this point. Elehuris Montero has suffered a lost season of his own. Malcom Nunez and Jhon Torres both pumped the brakes for us on their futures. Genesis Cabrera makes the Tommy Pham trade look worse on a more or less daily basis. Overall, the Cards’ system has had a tough go of it in 2019.
There is, however, one breakout that has taken place this year which I feel bad I have not highlighted before now. The player has been in the system for a couple years now, and prior to this season basically just muddled along with a roughly average batting line, which considering his lack of defensive value is a rather damning place to be. But this year, he has been something entirely different. And that something different is an extremely intriguing thing. How large a part of the franchise’s future this player might be is still very much up in the air, as he is blocked right now — and for the foreseeable future — at the major league level. But all the same, this is a breakout about which we should be talking.
I’m talking about one Juan Yepez, first baseman and to this point a player best known for being the Cardinals’ return received from the Braves for Matt Adams. He came to the club early in the 2017 season, and has primarily served as an occasional reference joke brought up by those who deride the front office for selling the all-time great talent that was Big Mayo short. However, if this season is any indicator of future prospects, Juan Yepez just might be a name we all need to start paying more attention to. And for good reasons, rather than bad.
In 2018, Yepez played at two levels: Low A Peoria and High A Palm Beach. He torched the Midwest League, then crashed and burned in the Florida State League. In 106 Low A ball plate appearances, Yepez posted a stunning 198 wRC+. Admittedly, it was fueled by a ridiculous .469 BABIP, but all the same, he just absolutely killed the ball for a few weeks there. His strikeout rate was a very good 13.2%, and he was posting an ISO near .200 in the cold Midwest spring weater. Things were looking up. Then came the bump up to the FSL, and the wheels came completely off. If the Midwestern chill was a challenge, the miasmic oven of Florida was simply too much. He never did get properly on track, unable to hit for any kind of power in the pitcher-friendly parks of the FSL, and his walk rate nearly disappeared. Pitchers were unafraid to challenge him, and Yepez had no plan B to which he could turn.
He returned to the Midwest League this spring, last summer’s disaster fresh in everyone’s mind, and he immediately took to laying waste to the competition again, albeit in a different way than before. Whereas the 2018 Yepez was a high contact line drive machine who barely made an out, the model who took Peoria by storm this year was a newly-minted capital S Slugger. His strikeout rate was higher, but so was his walk rate. More importantly, he had flipped his former batted-ball distribution on its head. The 2018 Low A version of Yepez featured a 41.3% ground ball rate versus a 32.5% fly ball rate. The 2019 version put the ball in the air a full 50% of the time, compared to just 32.8% of his batted balls staying on the ground. He socked four homers in just over 100 plate appearances, which isn’t exactly Cody Bellinger territory, but is still a ~25 homer pace over the course of a full season. It’s not far off from a 30 homer pace, either.
The real test, of course, would be to translate those results to higher leagues. After all, Yepez had already beaten up the MWL once before, albeit in a different way. But moving up to High A ball was when we would see what sort of progress Yepez has really made.
At this point, we can consider that test passed, and with flying colours, I believe. In Low A ball this season, Yepez posted a 146 wRC+. Playing for Palm Beach over the course of 115 plate appearances, his wRC+ was 135. He hit four homers, not an easy task in the FSL, and while his walk rate dropped from almost 11% to just under 9%, he also improved his strikeout rate from 23.8% to 18.3%. His BABIP in Peoria was .344, in Palm Beach it was .312. In other words, there was nothing really unsustainbale-looking about how Yepez succeeded at Palm Beach this season; he just...improved. In all facets.
One of the really telling stats for me in Yepez’s profile the past two years is his home runs per fly ball rates. In 2018, he posted a HR/FB% of 3.8% in the Midwest League and just 3% in Florida. Those are minuscule numbers, particularly when we consider that Juan Yepez is 6’1” and 200 pounds, not exactly a waterbug middle infielder. In 2019, however, his HR/FB% while in Peoria was 12.5%, and in the Florida State League it was 12.9%. Despite hitting in a brutal environment which kills power, Yepez managed to put a very solid percentage of his fly balls over the fence. Sometimes it isn’t just the distribution of batted balls, but the quality of the ones you hit. Yepez isn’t just hitting more fly balls this season, he’s hitting much better fly balls.
What makes this improvement most intriguing is that a) Juan Yepez completely retooled his swing over the offseason, and b) Juan Yepez is still only 21 years old. Twenty-one years and six months old, to be exact. And as a reward for his success at two levels this season at 21 years old, Yepez is now in Double A at 21 years old. Which is, as many of you know, quite young for that level. Yepez is the same age right now as this year’s college draftees (he’s almost four months younger than the Cards’ first round pick this year Zack Thompson), and has had high-level success already in High A ball. It’s easy to lose track of extremely young prospects if they just sort of middle through the system without posting huge numbers, but then one day you look up and they’ve broken out, figured out some aspect of their game, and are still young for whatever league they may be playing in. Such is the case with Yepez, who was only nineteen when the Cards picked him up from Atlanta.
As for the swing change, Yepez used to hit standing very tall in the box, and carried his hands up near his right ear, bat nearly parallel to the ground. Now, he has dropped his hands considerably, holding the bat down in front of him, a bit like Pete Alonso of the Mets. His stance is slightly wider now, and he has replaced a step forward with a more pronounced leg kick, similar to Justin Turner almost. In other words, it’s the sort of change to setup that we’ve seen some guys employ to tap into much more power than they previously had shown.
Most important, though, is the change Yepez has made to his hand load. Before, when he carried the bat high and nearly flat, his hand load was long and complicated. Lots of pre-swing movement, and Yepez seemed to often be fighting to get the bat to the zone on time. His hands came down, then back up, then dropped the bat into the slot, and between the path being a little too steep coming in and some issues with timing, his hand load was probably the thing most holding him back. Now, though, his hands go from down in front of his chest almost straight back into a fully loaded position, and then he easily triggers the actual swing as soon as his foot comes down. His hands travel far less distance to get to that cocked position, and as a result he doesn’t have to rush to get his bat into the zone. His swing path is also much more conducive to hitting the ball in the air, and with power, now than in the past. He’s not only hitting the ball in the air more often this year, but also pulling it more often. Again, this is how you turn your batted balls into damage. Balls to the pull side, in the air, are where the power comes from.
So far at Double A, Yepez has struggled. It’s only ten at-bats, however, so we should probably wait a bit before declaring how he performed in his first crack at the minors’ biggest jump. And again, at 21 years old he’s the same age as this year’s college draftees, who are mostly trying to get their footing in short-season ball, rather than trying to adjust to Double A pitching.
There is one final crimp in this situation, however, and that is the Rule V draft. Due to his youth when he was signed, Yepez will, despite being just 21, need to be protected this offseason with a 40 man roster spot, lest he be lost. And while I wouldn’t think he’d be ready to really contribute as a major league hitter as soon as 2020, he’s also in Double A, which is close enough that a bad team could very well view him as a medium-term asset, rather than strictly a long-term project. If the Cardinals leave Yepez exposed this December, I have a feeling they will lose him. That presents a problem for an organisation with a perpetual 40-man crunch, and a long-term solution already entrenched at first base.
All the same, in 2019 Juan Yepez has put his name on the map in a way that I don’t feel has gotten nearly enough attention. This past offseason he was not a part of my top 30 prospects list; this offseason he’s probably going to crack the top half of said list. A 21 year old beating up on High A ball to the tune of a 35% above average batting line is nothing to sneeze at, defensive limitations or no. And given the changes he’s made to get to this point, it’s worth paying attention to where Juan Yepez goes next.