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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List: #15-10

Names mostly known populate the low teens.

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

#15: Rangel Ravelo, 1B

6’1”, 225 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 24th April 1992

Level(s) in 2019: Memphis (AAA), St. Louis

Relevant Stats: 381 PA, .299/.383/.473, 111 wRC+, 9.7% BB, 16.0% K (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Honestly, there’s not really that much to say about Rangel Ravelo. He is, at this point, as close to a known quantity as it’s possible for a player to be without actually, you know, performing at the major league level. He’s been an above-average hitter in the upper minors for years now, and while his glove is markedly inferior to that of John Nogowski, I still think he’s a very competent first baseman. He has steadily improved his conditioning in recent years, and there has been real talk of him possibly seeing time in the outfield. I doubt he could be much worse than Jose Martinez, which is obviously not the highest bar.

The reason Ravelo is listed here, despite what I’m sure will be protestations from the comments section that he doesn’t really feel like a prospect, is the simple value of certainty. Given playing time, in 2020, I would bet good money (especially someone else’s, but maybe even a small amount of my own), that Rangel Ravelo will replace the offensive production the club received from Jose Martinez in 2019, and probably more. Ravelo didn’t put up great numbers in ‘19, but I’m chalking that up to the inevitable nerves and adjustment period of a major league debut, combined with a .231 BABIP over a very small sample. Over the course of, say, 300 plate appearances, I would expect Ravelo to put up a 110ish wRC+, play solid defense at first base, hit 8-10 home runs, and just generally perform at a perfectly fine level for a bench bat. Having players like this available constantly to fill the gaps in a roster is how you never get stuck paying Ty Wiggington, and there is real value in that.

If he’s good, it will look like: I don’t know if Ravelo can be as productive a hitter as Jose Martinez was in 2017 and ‘18, but he is overall a similar hitter, and likely to fill that same role, hopefully with a little more discipline in how he is deployed.

#14: Junior Fernandez, RHP

6’1”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 2nd March 1997

Level(s) in 2019: Palm Beach (A+), Springfield (AA), Memphis (AAA), St. Louis

Relevant Stats: 1.54 ERA (PB), 1.55 ERA (Spr), 1.48 ERA (Mem), 29.6% K (StL)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Another player about whom we already know quite a lot, due to him making his way to St. Louis in 2019, this will almost assuredly be Junior Fernandez’s final appearance on a prospect list. And it feels like he’s been hanging around these lists much longer than should be possible for a 22 year old, doesn’t it?

We didn’t see the very best of Fernandez at the major league level in 2019; he posted an ERA close to six due to a gruesome 50% HR/FB rate. Even considering that, though, the context of Fernandez’s meteoric rise from stalled-out High A afterthought to major league reliever in one season makes for a pretty remarkable story. He pitched at three minor league levels in 2019, posting ERAs right around the 1.50 mark at all three, and while the homers were obviously a downer, he showed more than enough strikeout punch at the MLB level to make himself a very exciting follow heading into 2020.

Fernandez gets the job done with a mix of three pitches, two of which are good. His fastball comes in from 96-99, and has just enough movement to be hard to square up. His command of the pitch is no better than average, which has long been his biggest obstacle to taking the next step. His best overall offering is his changeup, a diving, mid- to upper-80s job that can be unhittable when he locates it properly. The arm speed is excellent, the movement is outstanding, the location...has the same issue as the fastball. Fernandez’s third pitch is a slider, thrown roughly the same speed as the changeup, which did improve during the 2019 season. It is, however, still very much a third pitch, and I felt like Yadi called for it way too often when I watched Fernandez in St. Louis last season.

The stuff is not a question for Fernandez. He throws hard and has one outstanding offspeed pitch. Where he struggles, and where he will have to improve if he wants to go from middle relief to fireman or closing duties moving forward, is in placing that very good stuff where he wants consistently, as well as choosing what pitch to throw in what situation. Fewer sliders would be a good start; 10% better command would be an even better one. Fernandez’s arm talent has always exceeded his feel for pitching, but at the big league level he’s probably going to have to make some strides with that feel if he wants to excel, rather than simply survive.

If he’s good, it will look like: How about we stick with recent Cardinal history and go for another hard-throwing changeup artist with a penchant for occasional lapses in control? Trevor Rosenthal, come on down!

#13: Malcom Nunez, 3B

5’11”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 9th March 2001

Level(s) in 2019: Johnson City (Short Season), Peoria (Low A)

Relevant Stats: 146 PA, .254/.336/.385, 103 wRC+, 8.9% BB, 21.9% K (JC)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It’s pretty clear to see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the excitement level over Malcom Nunez’s ungodly 2017 season in the Dominican Summer League became a bit overheated. Not hard to understand why, though; you don’t often see seventeen year olds putting up .415/.497/.774 slash lines at any level. Tabbed for the Midwest League as a barely-eighteen year old to begin the 2019 season, Nunez flopped. Hard. He started off on the wrong foot, outpaced a bit by the relative sophistication of full-season pitchers, and then nearly screwed himself into the ground trying to outswing his struggles. The organisation, mercifully, did not let him go on too very long, pulling the plug after 21 games to try and spare him from creating any more bad habits or hitting a crisis point of confidence.

Reassigned to short-season Johnson City once those leagues started up, Nunez was much better. He wasn’t necessarily good; a 103 wRC+ is fine, but not anything to go screaming about from the rooftops. As always, though, it’s important to keep the context of a player’s age in mind, and a slightly better than league average line from an eighteen year old going up against players two to three years older is more encouraging, obviously. His strikeout rate at Johnson City was on the high side, but his walk rate rebounded as well, giving him a respectable K:BB ratio.

Physically, Nunez is not tall, but he’s built like a tank. Broad across the shoulders (and a little thick through the middle in 2019 based on what I’ve been told), he’s built to hit for power, and his swing is similarly oriented. He wants to get the ball in the air, he wants to pull the ball, he wants to do damage. Against higher level competition, though, that didn’t really happen for Nunez. He wasn’t overmatched in terms of making contact, even at Peoria. However, pitchers did consistently lure him into swinging at pitches he shouldn’t have, and his ground ball rate skyrocketed as a result. Too often we forget how much of a player’s plate discipline is not captured in raw strikeout and walk totals, almost completely ignoring the question of which pitches a hitter is swinging at and which he’s choosing to let go. In 2019, Nunez swung at a lot of the wrong pitches.

Defensively, Nunez has more than enough arm to play third base, and his actions on the field are fine. The arm gives him a leg up on playing the position, obviously, and at this time I don’t think there’s any real reason to expect he’ll have to move off the hot corner. Whereas Elehuris Montero, still to come on this list, is big and stiff enough in his movements there’s some definite doubt he stays at third, Nunez has the physical abilities to stay there, even if he often looks a bit raw executing certain actions. He is not fast, and never will be. Hopefully he stays not fast, and does not slow down further to the point comedic categories of not-fastness must be invented.

In all, 2019 was not a lost season for Nunez, but it was a sobering realisation of how far he has to go. He looked like a man among boys in the Dominican in 2018, but looked like an eighteen year old kid in the cold spring light of Peoria. He should make a return to the Midwest to open the 2020 season, and hopefully he can take a step forward this year. Time is obviously on his side, but the way his plate approach was exploited last year was very concerning. He could be an offensive force if he can clean that up and develop a better command of the zone, but how many players could that have been said about over the years?

If he’s good, it will look like: I compared Nunez to Josh Donaldson last year, and I’m going to stick with that comp for what the good version of Nunez resembles now. They’re very similar physically, and the idea behind Nunez’s approach to hitting is the same as Donaldson’s pull-power approach.

#12: Justin Williams, OF

6’2”, 215 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 20th August 1995

Level(s) in 2019: Springfield (AA), Memphis (AAA)

Relevant Stats: 119 PA, .353/.437/.608, 152 wRC+, 13.4% BB, 25.2% K (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The co-headliner of the Tommy Pham return package, Justin Williams went out of his way to make a bad impression on Cardinal fans over the offseason, it seems. Punching a television and subsequently breaking a finger before reporting to your first spring training with a new organisation just isn’t the sort of behaviour designed to earn respect right off the bat. Further injury issues during the season coupled with a miserable Double A batting line only made things worse even after Williams returned from his offseason misadventure. Tommy Pham was doing Tommy Pham things in Tampa, and this is what the Cardinals got in return?

And then came Triple A, and Justin Williams’s season suddenly became something very different.

Once he got to Memphis, Justin Williams basically became exactly the player the Cardinals were hoping he could be. He stopped hitting the ball on the ground nearly so much. His walk rate more than doubled. He only cut his strikeout rate slightly, but his isolated slugging percentage more than tripled. For about 120 trips to the plate, Justin Williams looked for all the world like a top prospect beating up on Triple A pitching on his way to a highly-anticipated major league debut.

Williams’s best physical tool is plus raw power, power which he has only really begun to get to in games. The culprit in limiting his power production has always been an excess of ground ball contact, and that remains an issue still. The one and only time in his career Justin Williams has not hit too many grounders? Well, that would be Memphis in 2019, where he also just happened to post a 152 wRC+, the highest mark of his career, at any stop.

At his best, Williams will show that power to all fields, and while he struck out more in 2019 that he has in the past, he also walked substantially more. He was, in fact, just generally a much different hitting in Memphis this past season than he had ever really been before. Maybe that’s a coincidence, maybe that was by design. Only time will tell.

In the outfield, Williams is roughly average in a corner spot. He’s about an average runner, maybe a step off that, and features a very good throwing arm. It’s the bat that will determine his future, with the rest of his game being just fine to support a good hitter, but not enough to raise up a bad one to even average players status.

If he’s good, it will look like: This is honestly a really tough comp for me, because I kind of don’t know what sort of hitter I’m comping Williams as right now. If he’s really the hitter he was pre-2019, then that’s one type of player. If he’s really the guy we saw in Memphis this past summer, though, then he’s something else entirely. I’m going to choose to believe the changes in Williams’s game in 2019 were conscious and deliberate, and that’s the sort of hitter he’s at least aiming toward. In that case, I’ll stay within Cardinal history and pull out a left-handed version of Ryan Ludwick as the type of hitter, and outfielder, we might expect from Williams.

#11: Johan Oviedo, RHP

6’6”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 2nd March 1998

Level(s) in 2019: Palm Beach (High A), Springfield (AA)

Relevant Stats: 2.86 FIP, 24.8% K (PB), 4.13 FIP, 24.9% K (Spr)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Johan Oviedo is a big, powerful guy with powerful stuff, and while he doesn’t look likely to live up to the kind of hype he had during his first go-round in the Cardinals’ system back in 2016, there’s still plenty of stuff and an emerging feel for using that stuff, more than enough to make him a solid candidate to slot into a number three or four rotation spot.

It all starts with the fastball for Oviedo, and his is above average, while probably falling a touch short of plus. When he was signed out of Cuba in 2016, Oviedo threw as hard as 97 mph pretty regularly, but that velocity was nowhere to be found the next year, in his first full minor league season. At that time he worked 89-92, and he often seemed to be labouring even to get there some days. Since then, the velocity has crept back up, and current-day Johan Oviedo is a 92-95 guy, and he mostly puts it where he wants to. He doesn’t have pinpoint command of the fastball, necessarily, but he throws strikes and works to all quadrants of the zone with the pitch.

It’s in moving over to the secondary stuff that we see where Oviedo’s issues — and his potential for growth — really come in to the picture. His primary offspeed pitch is an overhand curve that will flash 55 or even 60 at times, but all too often he loses up and to the arm side when he doesn’t finish it. To his credit, he can actually throw the curve for a strike when he needs to, while it seems like he loses the pitch more often when he wants to bury it for whatever reason. He also throws a slider and a changeup, with both needing a lot of work still. I would consider moving him off the straight change to a forkball, if it were up to me, just to try and create some more depth to the pitch. The slider, meanwhile, has improved some, but is probably always going to be a get-over kind of pitch, more suited to working off the barrel to lefties rather than trying to get swings and misses, closer to a cutter, I think. My grading on the slider is tentative, to be honest, because I just haven’t seen enough of the pitch to have a great feel for it.

Oviedo will pitch the entire 2020 season at 22 years old, and will probably open the year in Memphis. He’s not quite as close as being at Triple A might suggest, I don’t think, but he’s also not far away at this point. His ceiling is probably a three or four, but one tweak to his repertoire could probably change that, too. I think this time next year Oviedo is half a dozen spots higher on this list, and the year after that he’s not on it at all.

If he’s good, it will look like: Watching Oviedo pitch, the guy I usually call to mind is the Cincinnati version of Aaron Harang, for probably no good reason. But that’s the guy I’m always reminded of.