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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List: #5-1

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The final leg of the journey.

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

#5: Ivan Herrera, C

6’0”, 180 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 1st June 2000

Level(s) in 2019: Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A), Arizona Fall League

Relevant Stats: 291 PA, .286/.381/.423, 136 wRC+, 12% BB, 19.2% K (Peo), 65 PA, 102 wRC+ (PB)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

The 2019 season felt, at times, like a disappointing one for the Cardinals’ system. Jhon Torres and Malcom Nunez were both pushed aggressively, probably beyond where they could reasonably be expected to perform, but the fact both struggled so badly in full-season ball was a tough pill to swallow. Genesis Cabrera obviously has premium stuff, but did not perform well overall. Elehuris Montero lost a season to injury, and Andrew Knizner seemed to stagnate a bit at the top level of the system. Coming into the year, it felt like the farm system had a ton of momentum, and some of that momentum seemed to dissipate by the time July rolled around.

There were, however, plenty of bright spots as well. We’ve already spoken about Angel Rondon, who made probably the biggest leap in the system in 2019. Johan Oviedo got back on track, in terms of stuff and process if not always results. Kodi Whitley took a huge jump and now looks like a future potential relief ace. Junior Fernandez made a big leap, Juan Yepez seemed to make serious improvements, and most of the new blood from the draft came into the system performing like gangbusters.

If Angel Rondon was the biggest riser in the system, going from fringe arm status to successful Double A pitcher at just 21 years old, then Ivan Herrera has to be first runner up. To be sure, Herrera was a known quantity coming into the 2019 season, having battered pitchers in both the Dominican and Gulf Coast Leagues his first two years. There are always caveats to keep in mind at such low levels, though, and Herrera mostly put up big numbers through crazy batted-ball luck. Yes, a seventeen year old kid posting a 150+ wRC+ is impressive, no matter where it happens. But when you look at the BABIP column and see .415, it’s pretty easy to worry you might be looking at an illusion.

Well, 2019 should have cleared up any doubts. Ivan Herrera is not an illusion.

All Herrera did in 2019 was move up to full-season ball for the first time (excepting a one-game Double A emergency fill-in in 2018), and improve in nearly every way. He posted the highest walk rate of his young career in Peoria, kept his strikeout rate below 20%, and just generally made some of the loudest line drive contact of any hitter in the Midwest League. Oh, and he did much of it before his nineteenth birthday, and while being a full-time catcher, and one who receives high praise for both his leadership and preparation behind the plate.

Herrera has exceptional bat speed, and he strides aggressively into his swing, giving him a notable level of oomph when he hits the ball. His swing is not really built to put a ton of loft on the ball, but he’s also not a ground ball machine. He’s capable of hitting the ball hard to all fields, and he manages the strike zone very well. Ivan Herrera does not, in short, look like a nineteen year old kid with a bat in his hands, at least most of the time. He did struggle some after being promoted to High A Palm Beach, where the combination of tougher parks in which to hit and tougher, more mature pitchers seemed to gang up on Herrera and push him out of his comfort zone. He struck out too much, mostly because he just swung too much, and the lack of results in the FSL seemed to get in his head a bit. We’ve seen this happen to hitters before, and I would be more concerned if not for Herrera’s star turn in the Arizona Fall League, when he backed up Tyler Stephenson as one of the youngest players in the whole of the AFL and posted big offensive numbers in exactly the same disciplined, intelligent way he did in Peoria.

As for the defense, Herrera shows all the tools to be a good defender, but he still needs time. His arm is solid and his release is extremely quick, giving him above-average pop times. He’s very athletic behind the plate, but his blocking and receiving are still that of a teenager. One of the concerns that often crops up with an offensively advanced catching prospect is whether his timetable of developing defensively will keep his bat in the minors too long, but Herrera’s defensive upside is great enough that the club will not, I don’t believe, consider moving him to some other position in order to take advantage of the bat.

Right now, Herrera looks like the best bet in the system to be Yadier Molina’s heir as the Cards’ full-time catcher of the future. The upside in both the bat and the glove are undeniable, as is the aptitude and intelligence for the game. He won’t turn 20 until this coming June, so it’s tough to forecast him reaching St. Louis much sooner than, say, 2022 or so, but the talent Herrera put on display in 2019 is impossible to ignore.

If he’s good, it will look like: Herrera has all the tools of a Russell Martin starter kit, and still has until 2023 before he turns 23, the age at which Martin made his big league debut.

Author’s Note: Randy Arozarena would have originally appeared here, at number four. I have chosen to omit his writeup now, but will publish it separately in an addendum post. — A.

#4: Andrew Knizner, C

6’1”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 3rd February 1995

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

Relevant Stats: 280 PA, 99 wRC+, 8.6% BB, 13.2% K (Mem), 58 PA, 78 wRC+, 6.9% BB, 24.1% K (StL)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Okay, so I just gushed on for a bunch of words about Ivan Herrera, and how he has become the system’s most likely heir to Yadi. And now, one spot higher on the list, we have Andrew Knizner, who I’m directly casting shade toward by saying some of those things, right? So what gives?

Well, here’s the thing: Andrew Knizner is still a very solid catching prospect. He looks like a league-average hitter based on plus contact ability, and while his defensive development has seemed to level off, he is not a bad defender behind the plate, only an unexceptional one. The Cardinals place as much emphasis as any team in baseball on defensive excellence behind the plate, and Knizner doesn’t really profile that way. With all that in mind, it would not shock me at all to see Knizner go the way of his previous competitor for the title of future Molina heir Carson Kelly and end up a trade chip.

Nonetheless, Knizner should hit for a solid average at the big league level, and while his swing simply isn’t geared for much in the way of power production (witness the below-average wRC+ in Memphis despite very good walk and strikeout rates), he isn’t strictly a slap hitter by any means. Actually, Knizner offensively resembles the man he’s looking to back up and possibly replace, Yadier Molina. Not the early career 6% K rate slapper Yadi, but the more mature version who combined high contact rates with just enough power to be dangerous at the plate.

The defense is really where Knizner has stagnated a bit, and the reason he’s no longer seen as quite so prominent a future piece as he was a year ago. His arm is average, but he’s very accurate in his throwing. It’s the small things, receiving and game-calling and the like, where Knizner has failed to take the step forward the organisation was clearly hoping for. I’m not great at evaluating catcher defense, so I’m relying mostly on the opinions of others here, but reading the tea leaves I think these perceptions square up with the organisation’s internal opinions as well. Knizner should be a good backup catcher for a good long time, one who brings more value with his bat than his glove, and it isn’t hard to see how even just moderate improvement defensively could push him back into the conversation as a starter at the position. He will be 25 in a week, though, so it’s fair to question if Knizner simply is what he is at this point.

If he’s good, it will look like: I’ll go with Kurt Suzuki as an offense-first catcher who has started for most of his career, but might have been better suited for a time share.

#3: Matthew Liberatore, LHP

6’5”, 200 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Left

DOB: 6th November 1999

Level(s) in 2019: Bowling Green (TB Low A)

Relevant Stats: 78.1 IP, 3.10 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 22.9% K, 9.3% BB, 57.3% GB

So, what’s so great about this guy?

It was honestly a tough decision for me whether to put Nolan Gorman or his buddy Matthew Liberatore higher on this list. Liberatore had the more steady, productive 2019 season, but Gorman pushed ahead in terms of level, even if High A ball wasn’t particularly kind to him. Both players have star-level upside, with some notable risks included. In the end, I favoured Gorman for his move to a higher level and his non-pitcherness, and thus Matthew Liberatore joins our countdown for the first time at number three after having been acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays only recently.

The 2019 season was a good one for Liberatore. In his first full season as a professional, he made sixteen appearances (fifteen starts), threw close to 80 innings, and just generally looked like a nineteen year old kid being cautiously developed even as he excelled. He was not pyrotechnically brilliant, but he was very good. And very good for a player this young, with as many weapons and as much pitching chutzpah as Liberatore, is just fine.

What Liberatore really brings to the table is a wide repertoire, and a precocious feel for matching and working his arsenal in a variety of ways to get outs. His fastball cruises in the 91-93 range, touching 95 at times, and it will occasionally show exceptional, Jaime Garcia-esque movement. What’s tough to gauge about Liberatore’s fastball, though, is what kind of place it has in the current game. Teams and players have all been rushing to the four-seam fastball over the past several years, looking for swings and misses and high spin rates, and Liberatore’s heater is decidedly sinkery. It has good depth and plus armside run, yes, but it is still very much a pitch out of fashion at the moment. I’ve seen Liberatore try to work up int he zone with his fastball, and the results have been mixed. He can beat left-handers inside at the top of the zone, but I feel like he’s not really suited for that kind of pitching, at least not with this current version of his fastball.

Liberatore adds three offspeed pitches to his fastball, and all three have plus potential. His curveball is the most notable of his offerings right now, and it is an exceptional breaking ball by any standards. It has power, depth, and location, and is one of the three or four best curveballs in the minor leagues as a whole right now, I think. His changeup is right behind the curve, and will flash 60 or even 65 potential at times, again with nearly as much movement as those Jaime Garcia whiffleballs we saw here in St. Louis for so many years. It’s a tossup whether the curve or change will end up Liberatore’s best pitch, which is a fairly remarkable thing to say.

Finally, just this past season Liberatore added a slider to his repertoire, and while it’s the most hanger-prone pitch he currently throws, when it’s on the slider can rate as a fourth above-average or even plus pitch for the big lefty. He doesn’t go to it as often as his other pitches, but it gives him an extra look and is exceptionally tough on same-handed hitters.

In addition to the quality of his stuff, Liberatore is a bit of an experimenter on the mound. He’ll vary the timing of his delivery, a la Adam Wainwright, and likes to quick pitch from the windup, especially with his fastball. His command is good for a pitcher of his age, but he still has some ways to go. The biggest challenge for Liberatore is simply better consistency with all his pitches, and specifically figuring out how best to use his fastball. I wonder if the organisation will try to get him to implement a four-seam fastball to complement his sinker, or if they will simply let him pitch as he currently does until such time as it stops working. At least for now, I don’t think his fastball is really a problem, as Liberatore posted a near-60% ground ball rate in 2019, but it’s definitely the pitch I’m most interested to see develop over the next couple years.

Liberatore is a couple years away still, at least, but has massive talent and the upside of a legit top of the rotation arm. I think the Cards will move him up just one step in 2020 to Palm Beach, but he could accelerate that timetable with a performance to match his obvious talent.

If he’s good, it will look like: I mentioned Jaime Garcia here already, and that’s an interesting potential outcome for Liberatore to me. The thing is, Garcia never really regained his curveball after Tommy John surgery, and so the version we saw in St. Louis was missing one of his defining weapons from his early minor league days. Cole Hamels is a good comp here as well, though again I feel like Liberatore actually has the potential for more weapons than Hamels really developed, though maybe not anything quite so dominant as that Philadelphia-era Hamels changeup.

#2: Nolan Gorman, 3B

6’1”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 10th May 2000

Level(s) in 2019: Peoria (Low A), Palm Beach (High A)

Relevant Stats: 282 PA, .241/.344/.448, 128 wRC+, 0.41 BB/K (Peo), 230 PA, .256/.304/.428, 117 wRC+, 0.18 BB/K (PB)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Nolan Gorman falls from the top spot this year only because Dylan Carlson’s explosive 2019 season and proximity to the majors pushes him ahead, but make no mistake: Gorman still possesses probably the highest potential upside of any prospect in the Cards’ system. The combination of high-end power production and solid defensive tools at a premium position could make Gorman a star. Of course, he still has a ways to go before he gets there — look no further than his line at Palm Beach for illustration — but Nolan Gorman could be Kris Bryant down the road.

Here’s what Nolan Gorman does better than almost any other hitter in the Cardinals’ system: he hits the ball hard. Now, there are some caveats to that; Gorman hits the ball hard when he hits it, and Gorman hits the ball hard but gets pull happy. He is too much of an all-or-nothing hitter right now, vulnerable to shifting and with a serious swing and miss issue (again, look at his FSL numbers), and needs to work on his approach. Still, if you’re looking for pure volume of loud contact in the system, Nolan Gorman is your guy.

Defensively, Gorman is a work in progress at third base, but he has the tools to stay there long term. His arm is solidly above average, and he gets rid of the ball quickly on his throws. It’s not a Rolen-esque cannon, but he’s also not Matt Carpenter and his magical rainbows at third either. He’s got good range and reactions at the hot corner, but his hands need work. Particularly going to the backhand side, Gorman tends to be a little stiff with his glove, knocking the ball down as often as he catches it. To his credit, he usually recovers, keeps the ball in front, and makes the play, but those backhand plays in particularly tend to be a bit more...interesting than they need to be.

Despite Gorman posting above-average hitting lines at both Peoria and Palm Beach this season, I will admit to being a little concerned about some developments I saw with him. He was clearly struggling to keep his head above water in High A ball, but even in the Midwest League he swung and missed at a rate much higher than I was hoping to see. Joey Gallo manages to get away with striking out at these absurdly high rates, but he’s also one of the most patient hitters in baseball and hits for more power than anyone this side of Aaron Judge. I don’t know that Gorman is going to be that kind of hitter, and so the strikeout rate spike spooked me a bit. Really, though, it was part of a more general collapse of his plate approach once he got to the Florida State League, and while that’s certainly nothing we haven’t seen before, that doesn’t make it okay. Nolan Gorman was very young for the league, facing higher level pitching than ever before, and doing so in a notoriously brutal hitting environment. All the same, it was disappointing to see him lose his command of the strike zone so completely.

Equally concerning to me is how much higher and slower Gorman’s leg kick seemed to be this year than in the past. I saw him hit at Palm Beach a few times, and he seemed to really be hanging that front foot in the air for quite a while, whereas in high school and during his pro debut it was a much shorter, quicker leg lift. Usually leg kicks are a good way to keep a hitter from getting out on the front foot, but in the case of Gorman he seemed to be both getting his foot down late and letting his weight leak forward. His swing lacked some of the snappiness and conviction it previously possessed. Hopefully this is something that’s correctable, because I felt like the swing was a big part of what was holding Gorman back in 2019, particularly as the year wore on.

On the other hand, the natural loft in Gorman’s swing was still on full display, and while he didn’t put balls over the wall as often in 2019 as he did during his Johnson City debut, he showed easy extra base pop at pretty much all times. He got too pull-happy at Palm Beach, again probably fighting his own mechanics, the more advanced pitching, and the ballparks, but in Peoria he peppered outfield walls from foul pole to foul pole.

I expect Gorman to return to Palm Beach to open 2020, but I could be wrong. The Cardinals have shown a penchant in the past for skipping their elite hitting prospects past the FSL either quickly or completely, and it wouldn’t shock me to see them challenge Gorman with a Double A assignment, both to gauge him against even better pitchers and to get him away from the extra bit of frustration that seems to come with hitting in Roger Dean Stadium.

If he’s good, it will look like: I mentioned both Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo as potential comps for Gorman, and I feel like that represents sort of the range of major league outcomes he could experience. (I say major league outcomes because obviously the downside for any nineteen year old is he just fails and never makes it to MLB, but I’m interested in the worlds where Nolan Gorman does, in fact, make it to St. Louis.) Both are big-time power hitters, but Bryant tempers his approach with intelligence and better than advertised contact ability, while Gallo goes for broke fully, hunting only the pitches he wants and turning back to the dugout following a strikeout more often than any other single result. Obviously I hope Gorman has the kind of aptitude and focused work ethic Kris Bryant possesses, but that’s a tough ask.

#1: Dylan Carlson, OF

6’3”, 205 lbs; Bats/Throws: Switch/Left

DOB: 23rd October 1998

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

Relevant Stats: 483 PA, .281/.364/.518, 142 wRC+, 10.8% BB, 20.3% K (Spr), 79 PA, .361/.418/.681, 161 wRC+ (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

There are a lot of things a baseball player can do to help his team. He can hit. He can field. He can throw. He can run. Some players do one of those things well. Most do a couple things well. It’s pretty rare, though, to find a player who does everything on the field well. Dylan Carlson does everything on the field well.

Coming into 2019, Carlson was a rising name in the organisation, but his performances had always been tempered by relatively modest production. What always set Carlson apart was how young he was while putting up those modest, but promising, numbers. Always one of the youngest players in any league, Carlson was a darling of some, while others looked at his raw numbers and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Well, that has all changed now after the 2019 season, which is why Dylan Carlson grabs the top spot on our list this year.

In just under 500 plate appearances at Double A Springfield, Carlson hit 21 home runs. He stole eighteen bases, while being caught only seven times (72% success rate). He walked almost eleven percent of the time, and held his strikeout rate to right around 20%. He posted an isolated slugging percentage of .237, hit grounders and fly balls at an almost even rate, and avoided infield popups exceptionally well. Here’s the thing: none of those numbers on their own are elite. They’re all good, but not necessarily so good that you would say there, that’s Carlson’s carrying tool. But when you add up all the things Dylan Carlson does well, you get a player who put up elite production, simply because he does everything well.

Oh, and did I mention Carlson did all that good work in 2019 while playing mostly center field? Now, he’s probably not a center fielder long term, particularly with a player like Harrison Bader sitting at the major league level, but Carlson handled the job just fine, and has a reputation as one of the better corner defenders in the system. He has an extremely accurate arm, and always makes the smart throw. He’s a smart baserunner, even beyond the steals. Again, this is a player who simply does everything well.

The biggest question with Dylan Carlson at this point is probably just how long the Cardinals will wait before promoting him. The organisation has not really taken part in too many service time shenanigans over the years, but it is a fact that Carlson only played at the Triple A level for about three weeks or so at the end of the season. Yes, he did put up some eye-popping numbers in Memphis for the three weeks he was there, but it would be totally understandable if the Cardinals did not want to push Carlson straight to the majors without seeing him face Triple A pitching for a decent chunk of time. On the other hand, it’s possible — not probable, but possible — that Carlson is the Cards’ best outfielder already, and needs to be on the roster posthaste. He may be the most interesting man in spring training this year.

If he’s good, it will look like: Once upon a time, I compared Carlson to Lance Berkman, but that’s probably hyperbolic. Switch hitters are always tough to come up with good comps for, simply because there are so few. Carlos Beltran is another name that comes to mind as an all-around excellent player, but Beltran’s center field bona fides and amazing baserunning (early career), are out of Carlson’s reach. In the end, I’m going to turn away from switch hitters and go with another all-around outfielder whose game compares pretty favourably to Carlson’s, I think: Jayson Werth. Werth didn’t really establish himself until his late 20s, as he had serious swing and miss problems early in his career with the Blue Jays and Dodgers, but I don’t think Carlson will contend with nearly so slow a start. That Phillies version of Werth feels like a very good comp for the kind of multi-dimensional player Carlson could be.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that. Another year, another list in the books. This was the year that choosing to try and do this over the holiday season finally caught up to me, and I couldn’t get it all done. Hopefully the 2021 list comes together more easily. I’ll be back soon with a wrapup post looking at the system as a whole, and the scouting report I was planning on including for Randy Arozarena. Until then.