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System Sundays: The Best of the First Years

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In which we examine the Cardinals’ draft crop of 2019 and see who stands out the most.

Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Last Sunday, I wrote a column in which I handed out a few awards for the minor league season now concluded. Dylan Carlson was, unsurprisingly, one of the winners, taking home a co-Player of the Year award with Randy Arozarena. Starting Pitcher of the Year was kind of tough to come up with, considering the kind of season most starters in the Cards’ system had in 2019. I picked out a couple guys I think likely to have breakout seasons in 2020, and celebrated the Johnson City Cardinals’ championship, the only one in the system this year.

There was, however, one omission from that column. I had intended to include a First Year Player Award, to celebrate the player drafted in 2019 who had the best season. (I would say drafted or signed, but there were no crazy Malcom Nunez explosions this year like last, so it was going to be a drafted player.) My winner was likely going to be Zack Thompson, who came out of the gate this year firing bullets and, despite extremely limited (deliberately so), playing time, was very impressive against much older competition.

But then I got to looking at some other players, and what they had done to kick off their professional careers, and I decided I wasn’t quite sold on Thompson 100%. I would think about it some more as I wrote the rest of the column, then come back. And then, of course, I wrote the rest of the column, and completely forgot about it.

So I’m going to return to that subject today, and hand out some (imaginary), hardware for the best first-year player. However, one doesn’t seem like enough, so we’re going to highlight five, count ‘em, five players from the 2019 draft class who performed at an eye-opening level in their first taste of pro ball.

Zack Thompson, LHP — Drafted out of the University of Kentucky with the 19th overall pick, it’s probably a little disingenuous to say Thompson performed at an eye-opening level this season once he got into pro ball. There was enough hype on him following a very strong junior season that he had already opened plenty of eyes, and no one really should have been sleeping on him. Indeed, pretty much all the things that pushed him down draft boards were unrelated to his actual on-field performance at UK, and if those concerns do not crop up again (health and delivery-related), then the Cardinals may very well have found themselves a gem at nineteen.

Thompson did not pitch much after the draft, having been pushed hard his junior year at Kentucky, always a concern with college pitchers. All the same, he spent the majority of his time at High A Palm Beach, facing players with two to three years minor league experience, on average, and he more or less dominated. His ERA was just 4.05, largely the product of a crazy .467 BABIP, but his FIP was a much more representative 2.03, and he struck out over 31% of the batters he saw, against just a 6.6% walk rate. It would have been nice to see Thompson throw a little more — he got into eleven games and threw just 13.1 innings at Palm Beach — but the reasons are easily understandable. And with the time he did get, he took full advantage to make an impression.

Patrick Romeri, OF — One of the few position players taken in this year’s draft — and one of the even fewer high school position players — Romeri comes from IMG Academy, the Florida powerhouse prep school which has produced talent such as Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford in recent years. At the time of the draft, Romeri was seen as an intriguing tools bet, but one who was only beginning to show raw power in his bat, and would need a fair amount of physical development before really starting to show much in the way of usable power, plus a somewhat raw hitter to boot.

The bad news is the raw hitter thing isn’t completely off base, as Romeri did show a strong tendency toward swinging and missing in his GCL pro debut, with a 28.4% strikeout rate in 162 plate appearances. The good news is, well, basically everything else. Rather than waiting for power to show up, Romeri clubbed six homers and posted a .217 isolated slugging percentage playing in the dense Florida air. He also stole four bases, walked almost 12% of the time, and collected fifteen total extra base hits. It all added up to a 129 wRC+ for Romeri, who only turned eighteen at the end of June. The contact rate will obviously be something to watch going forward, but Romeri showed one of the most well-rounded games of any player in the Cardinal system right off the bat.

Connor Lunn, RHP — I’ll be honest: I didn’t know very much about Connor Lunn when the Cardinals took him out of USC this June. I was aware of the name, given he was a pitcher for one of college baseball’s most prestigious programs, but he had been a reliever his first two years at school, and did not exactly light the world on fire when he moved to the rotation this spring.

Unfortunately, at this point I also can’t tell you a whole lot about what may have changed with Lunn in pro ball, whether he simply pitched better against wood bats than metal, or if the player development staff worked with him on something specific, or if he simply put up a random hot streak this summer. But pitching for the State College Spikes, the more advanced of the Cardinals’ two short-season affiliates, Lunn put together a fantastic debut season. He 1.96 ERA, 2.20 FIP, and struck out 27% of the batters he faced over 18.1 innings. He also kept his contact mostly on the ground, posting a 53.2% ground ball rate, and if there’s one way that’s almost always guaranteed to make a pitcher successful, it’s preventing balls from ever reaching the outfield.

Pedro Pages, C — I was not a fan of the Pages pick when the Cardinals made it, but his pro debut has gone a long way toward making my opinion look downright stupid. (As it very often does.) A defensive standout in college at Florida Atlantic, but not a particularly exciting hitter, Pages nonetheless came out in his pro debut and posted an .823 OPS and 149 wRC+ against older competition in the New York-Penn League playing for State College. He didn’t show a lot of power (.140 ISO), and his performance was aided by a high BABIP (.355), but what really stood out about Pages was his plate discipline. He walked 13.1% of the time, while striking out in just over 18% of his plate appearances. His offensive profile, in short, is basically very similar to that of Jeremy Martinez, the USC catcher the Cards drafted a few years ago who has yet to really translate his remarkable plate approach into overall success. Where Martinez is almost overly defensive at the plate, though, Pages is aggressive enough to attack pitches in his zone, rather than taking the Sean Burroughs route of flipping everything to the opposite field as a humpback liner. Pages is a defensive plus and had a reputation for leadership in college, so if he can maintain anything approaching this kind of plate approach as he ascends the ladder, he could very well find himself with at least some sort of job at the major league level.

Logan Gragg, RHP — This last one was a real doozy to pick. I wanted to highlight several players still, from Jack Ralston’s huge strikeout totals early on to Michael YaSenka’s dominance at Johnson City (and, admittedly, much more middling performance at State College), to Cameron Dulle’s excellent relief work for the Spikes and Andre Pallante’s intriguingly strong starting campaign. In the end, though, I settled on Gragg, who I knew basically nothing about in June but who pushed his way up to Peoria before the season was over, and posted solid numbers there as well. There weren’t many 2019 draftees who made it to full-season leagues this summer, but Gragg did so, at 20 years old for almost the whole season, and he was good there as well.

At State College, Gragg dominated. He made eight appearances, threw eleven innings, and struck out 32% of the hitters he faced. That translated to a 2.45 ERA and 2.67 FIP, which was good enough to convince the organisation he needed to be pushed. At Peoria, Gragg did not dominate, but he more than held his own even while showing a touch of fatigue at the end of a long season. A 23.5% strikeout rate and 8.1% walk rate are more good than great, but he was also a 20/barely 21 year old facing Midwest League competition just a few months after being drafted. In that context, a 3.38 ERA and mid-3s FIP/xFIP deserves quite a lot of attention.