You know, I’ve been thinking lately. Now, to be fair, I’ve been thinking a lot, about lots of things, most of my life. I tend to be a bit of a considerer. Perhaps even a brooder. That may not be strong enough, even; I tend to be the sort of person who is hopelessly trapped inside my own head at least ten hours a day, usually to my own detriment and the irritation of the people around me. I also tend to be the sort of person who composes looping, convoluted intro paragraphs to relatively straightforward baseball-related articles, usually to the detriment of my readers’ enjoyment of same. I also also tend to be the sort of person who gives remarkably little thought to my readers’ enjoyment, so the bad news here is that you’re sort of stuck with me, and I doubt I’m going to change anytime soon.
But anyway, I’ve been specifically thinking a lot lately about baseball. Which, yes, is probably not surprising, given how many hours of my life I dedicate to this slightly silly exercise of writing about baseball, but truth be told, even with the number of hours I spend writing about baseball, I don’t always spend a commensurate amount of time thinking about baseball. That actually varies quite a bit more.
Of late, though, I’ve been thinking about baseball, specifically Cardinal baseball, a lot. The trade deadline was a huge deal this year, and the mental debate of how I felt the organisation should approach the deadline really captured my attention. Day to day baseball I love, but big overarching baseball ideas are what I tend to really fall in love with. The 2019 trade deadline was nothing if not a big, overarching referendum on the state of the Cardinals franchise, the commitment of ownership and the front office to winning this year as opposed to giving equal priority to future viability, and where the organisation stands in the eyes of the people who follow it. Lots of the talk surrounding the trade deadline has been very negative, and for the most part I get it. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it — though I do agree with some of it — but I do understand why so many people are rather up in arms currently.
In thinking large thoughts about the trade deadline this year, I came back to one point multiple times. The point was this, sort of: the Cardinal farm system is good, but not great, and it’s thin at the top. The Cards have two truly elite talents at the very top of their system in Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson, along with a player in Andrew Knizner who is very good, only a little ways behind those top two in terms of potential value, and so important to the future of the franchise that you can’t really afford to trade him. Beyond that, things drop off pretty fast. Elehuris Montero has great hitting tools, but has had a terrible season and is quite possibly a future first base/DH type. Jhon Torres and Malcom Nunez have similarly elite tools, at least in part, but both struggled in full-season leagues and have since been rebooted at lower levels. Zack Thompson is a good pitching prospect, but I don’t feel like he should be the number five prospect in a top-quality system two months after being drafted.
So the point was sort of, but not entirely, that the Cards’ farm system is a little thin on premium assets at the top. (Apologies to my colleague Tyler.) But the point was really this: why is this system lacking in value? A couple years ago, either 2017 or 2018, I believe I wrote that the Cardinal system, in my estimation, was heading toward another top five farm ranking in the next couple years. Was I just wildly optimistic and totally mistaken? Because this is most definitely not a top five kind of system. It’s a solid system, but it’s not great. There’s a chunk of value I feel they should have that’s just...missing.
The answer is that yes, I was overly optimistic. But I don’t believe I was totally mistaken. I just underestimated how great a hole was going to be left in the system by the 2017 draft. And in thinking about that, I think there are a couple reasons we should really dig in on that topic and talk about it. Partially because I think plenty of other people looking at the system either forget or fail to recognise why there is a hole, and partially because if there’s ever a situation where we can illustrate just how much one truly terrible draft can set a franchise back, it’s the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017.
Let me make one thing clear before I get started: I do not say the Cards’ draft of 2017 was terrible because they just messed up and made a bunch of bad picks. On balance, I actually think Randy Flores did fairly well in his second draft with the resources he had available. The problem was there were not nearly enough resources, by which I mean picks at the top. And that has long, long ramifications for where the franchise is right now.
We all know the story, of course. We all remember the hacking scandal, and the penalty. I don’t feel it’s necessary to relitigate the whole thing. Personally, I didn’t like the way the penalty was structured, and felt like it should have been a larger fine, but only a fine. I didn’t like then, and don’t like now, the ramifications of messing with the competitive balance of the league as part of the punishment for Chris Correa’s weird little vendetta against Jeff Luhnow. But that’s really neither here nor there at this point. The punishment was what it was: the Cardinals lost their top two draft picks — more on that in a second — and the Astros gained two extra picks.
There is also the matter of the Dexter Fowler signing, aka the gift that just keeps on giving. Fowler came with draft pick compensation attached, so when the Cards signed him they forfeited their first round pick. It’s arguable whether they would have still lost their top two picks or just that first rounder in the hacking punishment if they had not signed Fowler, but I tend to lean toward the latter. It’s also debatable whether they would have signed Fowler had they not already been facing down a draft pick penalty, hoping to grab some talent to try and offset the loss of a couple young players entering the organisation, but on that one I don’t really have an opinion. I tend to think the Cardinals just needed what Fowler appeared to provide at that moment, and between their stated goal of every-year contention and a possible extra bit of pressure to make something happen to try and erase the bad taste Correa left in everyone’s mouth, Fowler took on an added bit of perceived importance. Of course, we all know what sorts of things that signed led to, but it’s also worth remembering right off the top the Fowler contract put a dent into the club’s draft pool.
The net result of all this is that in the 2017 draft, the Cardinals forfeited the nineteenth overall pick for signing Fowler, and then the 56th and 75th overall picks for the hacking situation. Their first pick came at #94 overall, which they used to select Scott Hurst. Hurst was, at the time, a very athletically gifted outfielder with a small frame and a checkered injury past. In short, he was exactly the sort of player who falls to the third round, but also maybe the highest-ceiling bet you’re going to place at that point. Flores and his office did the best they could, but when you don’t pick until 94 your draft haul is almost certainly going to suffer. Not only do you miss out on players, you lose all your financial flexibility due to a lack of bonus pool space. The bonus part we can quantify; anyone interested in adding up the figures can do so. Me, I’m more interested in the players. So what did the Cardinals miss out on with those three picks?
We’ll start at nineteen, where the Cardinals would have had their pick of, obviously, a large number of players. We’re talking about a draft pick of the same value as what they’ve had each of the past two years, and while that’s not usually one of the truly elite talents in a given draft, you’re still talking about a tremendously valuable slot. To be fair, you can also screw up a pick at any point in the draft and end up with nothing — just ask the Astros about Mark Appel — so I don’t want to imply there’s a 100% success rate. The Cards could have made a boneheaded pick at nineteen quite easily. But for all the issues the organisation has had the past few years, they haven’t really seemed to lose much of their touch for drafting.
So what sort of specific player are we talking about here? Well, at eighteen the Detroit Tigers took Alex Faedo, the right-handed pitcher out of Florida, and at nineteen the San Francisco Giants selected Heliot Ramos, a tremendously talented young outfielder. Ramos has had some struggles in terms of plate discipline in his young career, but has made improvements in that area this year and is currently posting a 148 wRC+ in High A ball and is still shy of his 20th birthday. He’s also ranked number 55 on MLB.com’s midseason top 100 prospect list, three spots behind Dylan Carlson. So, that’s the sort of player we’re talking about missing on at nineteen.
There’s also DL Hall, a personal cheeseball, who is ranked 64th on the top 100 currently. Hall was a high school lefty with a plus curve at the time of the draft, and his stuff has only improved since then. He works at 93-95, still has the curve, and while he’s struggled some with walks this season he’s also striking out 35% of the hitters he faces in High A. David Peterson was a tall lefty out of Oregon, went 20th overall to the Mets, and is currently their seventh-ranked prospect. Nate Pearson went 28th out of a Florida Juco, nabbed by the Blue Jays, and has blossomed into a premium prospect. He’s six-foot-six, has thrown as hard as 104 in a single inning in the Futures Game. and is the fourteenth-ranked prospect in baseball right now. (Basically, he’s new-model Syndergaard, down to the same organisation.)
All of those players I just mentioned were drafted in the 19-28 range, essentially the list of players you would be considering with the Cards’ first pick. There were a couple duds in there as well, obviously, but there were three top 100 prospects drafted in those nine picks, and at least two others who look to be solid major leaguers in Peterson and Logan Warmoth. Tanner Houck is in there as well, though I’m a little less sanguine on his major league chances with the Sawx. In other words, you had about a one in three chance of drafting a top 100 guy with that particular pick, if you were just working off sort of a general consensus list.
Let’s move on.
Pick number 56 was obviously far less valuable than nineteen, but a second round draft pick is still nothing to sneeze at. With that pick they received from the Cardinals, the Houston Astros selected...Corbin Martin. If the name sounds familiar, that’s not a coincidence; Martin is a big-stuff righty currently on the shelf following Tommy John surgery. More to the point, he was also one of the players sent from Houston to Arizona in the Zack Greinke trade. So, yeah. Where do big-name trade chips come from? Well, in this case he came from the 56th pick, directly from the Cardinals courtesy of Chris Correa.
Martin was not the only valuable, useful player on the board, of course, though the hit rate of guys in the ~60 range is obviously lower than around nineteen. Daulton Varsho, the tremendously talented Diamondbacks catching prospect (Arizona #5), went at 68, and Hans Crouse (Rangers #3, overall #83), went at 66. Mark Vientos, a tooled-up third base prospect with huge raw power, went to the Mets at 59 and is posting an above-average hitting line in full-season ball this year at nineteen. He’s currently sixth on the Mets’ list, and really intriguing. In other words, you didn’t have nearly the chances of nabbing a top 100 guy here you did at nineteen, but there were multiple guys available who currently rank in the top five or six in their respective teams’ farm systems. You know, great trade assets, again.
Let’s move on.
At pick 75, the Astros took the Cardinals’ pick and selected J.J. Matijevic, whose name I am glad enough not to have to spell constantly that I almost don’t mind not having him in the system. I say almost because Matijevic shows signs of being a really exciting hitting prospect, so I would still rather learn to spell it than not have the player at all.
At the time, Matijevic was a second baseman primarily, coming out of Arizona, but has since been moved to the outfield. He’s got some serious swing and miss in his game, but also makes some of the loudest contact of any player in the minors right now, and is currently posting a 123 wRC+ in Double A. He’s 23, so not super young, but his ISO is .221, and even that undersells the kind of contact he makes when he does, in fact, make contact. It’s a little like a lefty Randal Grichuk, but with more patience at the plate. Again, that’s not a slam dunk prospect, but you sure could trade that kind of player for something, or just hold on and try to keep developing him.
Don’t like Matijevic? Okay. Taylor Walls was one of my favourite players in the 2017 draft, a switch-hitting middle infielder with tremendous natural feel for hitting. He went 79 overall to the Rays and is putting up a 113 wRC+ at Double A right now, just past his 23rd birthday. He’s ranked nineteenth in the Tampa system, which is a fantastic farm system. Blayne Enlow went 76th to the Twins and is currently twelfth in their very good system. Nick Allen, glove-first shortstop extraordinaire, went #81 overall to the A’s and has taken off this year in High A ball at the age of 20. He’s ranked sixth in their system.
Obviously, comparing player placement across various systems is an activity fraught with questions, unless those players also happen to make the overall lists, but regardless, we can see some trends. At nineteen, you easily could have selected a guy currently ranked in the top 100. At pick 56, you could have come away with another top 100 guy, though the chances were much longer. More likely, you would have picked a player currently ranked in the 5-10 range in the system. And at 75, maybe it was more a 10-15 slotted player, or maybe you liked Nick Allen and have a potential multi-Gold Glove guy in your system.
Regardless of the specifics, here’s what I’m saying: we shouldn’t forget just how much talent the Cardinals missed out on in the 2017 draft. I won’t go into what they could have done differently with picks in the third round and later; the extra financial flexibility could certainly have changed those decisions, but I’m not looking to do a whole butterfly effect thing here. With their full complement of picks in 2017, the Cardinals could easily have picked up one overall top 100 player, maybe even two, and added three more players ranked in the top dozen prospects in the system. If you’re looking for the reason why the Cards’ system is a little thinner right now than maybe it feels like it should be, the 2017 draft is absolutely the place you start looking.
All of this is not to argue in favour of one position or another; I’m not trying to say the Cards with their 2017 picks make a deal at the deadline, or don’t, or are in some hugely different position, or aren’t. What I’m saying, ultimately, is that here is another thing that has gone wrong for the Redbirds the past few years, taking talent away and putting them in a worse spot than they would otherwise be. Does missing out on three draft picks require you to completely alter your strategy? No. It does not.
However, missing out on three draft picks, when those picks had a reasonable chance of netting you at least one premium guy and a couple other very useful players, definitely sets you back. And when you’re looking around at the deadline and just aren’t matching up for the major league upgrades you want, or are looking at your two guys in the top 100 and feeling like it should be more, well.... Making your first pick at 94, even for one year, can end up making a big difference in what you have to work with.