I think one thing every baseball fan agrees on is that a player needs opportunities in order to reach their upside. There are of course disagreements on the upside itself, on whether the player deserves opportunities, and how long the leash needs to be before giving up on the player, but it’s impossible for a player to become anything without playing time.
Opportunities don’t always come at the major league level, although in order to be a “success,” you do need opportunities there. With a few historical exceptions, every MLB player needs to create MLB opportunities through their play in the minor leagues. Teams require that you show them what you have in the minors first, which itself a type of opportunity. You need to constantly prove yourself to make the majors.
However, there comes a point in most professional baseball players’ lives where this is the last year you get an opportunity. If you fail this year, the team will give up on you, or it probably should. For example, when a prospect is playing in his age 25 year, he becomes less relevant to the team’s plans if he doesn’t show why he’s worthy of being a prospect. Think Jose Adolis Garcia last year. Yes, he was on the 40 man all year, but I don’t think he at any point was a serious consideration for promotion for the MLB and because he had a bad year in AAA in his age 25 season.
That’s what this post is for: the players’ last shots at being relevant to the team’s future plans. It doesn’t mean their professional career will end if they fail. It doesn’t even mean they will stop getting major league opportunities. But the St. Louis Cardinals will probably erase their name from their future plans and work towards trading them if possible. Some players are constantly on this list, like Jose Martinez. He was always on this list, because he needed to be an elite hitter, and the moment that stopped, he was traded.
So here’s an incomplete list of players who are entering a “make or break” year.
2020 ZiPS: 104.7 IP, 21.1 K%, 10.3 BB%, 1 WAR
John Gant is a reliever in arbitration who has no minor league options left, so of course he’s on this list. Unless you’re an elite reliever, which Gant is not, you’re probably on this list if you are earning “real money” and can’t be sent down. Even so, Gant’s second half performance left enough doubt that a lackluster 2020 could lead to a DFA when the season is over.
2020 ZiPS: 58 IP, 22.9 K%, 9.2 BB%, 0.2 WAR
I think he probably makes the team, but there’s a decent chance he’s cut and doesn’t make the MLB team, so he’s even a level more in danger than the majority of this list. He only has 1.076 years of service time in the majors, so he’s still making league minimum, but he’s not that great of a pitcher and can’t be sent down, so it’ll be somewhat of a surprise if he can last the whole year on the MLB team.
2020 ZiPS: 372 PAs, .254/.313/.382, 84 OPS+ 1.3 WAR
That WAR is predicated on him having +2 defense, which is very much in doubt for the record. Knizner turns 25 next week, and is coming off a disappointing AAA season (and to a lesser extent, disappointing MLB results). He’s considered an offense first, pray for defense prospect, and even though he plays catcher, you’d hope for better than a 99 wRC+ in AAA for that guy. He’ll spend most of the year in AAA and will have to hit better than that and if he doesn’t, he’ll either be traded or languish in AAA next year as well.
2020 ZiPS: 388 PAs, .253/.296/.388, 80 OPS+, 0.3 WAR
Munoz is not only likely not very good, but barring an upset, he’s likely to have his last option exercised this year as well. You can get away with being a bench player with no options, but it’s a thin line and Munoz is no Greg Garcia. I’m not really sure how he’ll prove himself this year - here’s an example of a guy who I hope doesn’t get many opportunities or something has gone wrong.
2020 ZiPS: 407 PAs, .258/.324/.402, 93 OPS+, 0.7 WAR
Ravelo is the Tyler Webb of hitters. Despite 2019 being his first MLB shot, he had already used two of his minor league options prior to arriving on the Cardinals and now has zero. He’s a long shot to last the whole season in the majors and will need to hit better than projected to do so.
2020 ZiPS: 506 PAs, .242/.282/.361, 70 OPS+, 0.7 WAR
I kind of think Sosa doesn’t have much of a chance here. His bat is not great. His defense is his calling card. The problem is that he’s coming onto a team where he’s backing up Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong - who are very likely better defenders than he is (not to mention Tommy Edman). It’s hard to envision a future on the Cards unless his bat takes an unexpected leap forward - not impossible considering he’s still just 24.
2020 ZiPS: 502 PAs, .262/.315/.434, 97 OPS+, 0.6 WAR
Austin Dean is a good example of this principle. Last year was his make or break year with the Marlins. He failed. The Marlins moved on. But new team, new opportunity. But he’s not going to get more than one shot with the Cardinals. He’s already 26. He’ll likely get a new shot with a new team in 2021 if things don’t work out - he has two minor league options left.
2020 ZiPS: 447 PAs, .245/.302/.468, 101 OPS+, 0.9 WAR
Most of these guys are understandably of the fringe MLB player variety. O’Neill is not. Not really anyway. He’s the only one on this list who will get a shot to actually be a starter. But with that opportunity comes a need for him to perform. I don’t know that the Cardinals would necessarily trade or DFA O’Neill if he does poorly - he has another year getting paid league minimum and doesn’t turn 25 until June - but I guarantee it’s his last time he’ll go into a season as the planned starter.
I’m going to need to explain this one obviously, because he’s 21-years-old and just got placed on the 40 man roster. This may perhaps less be a Cardinals “make or break” year and more of a “make or I’m going to start ignoring this guy as a legitimate prospect.” I’m not specifically looking for domination. I’m looking for significant improvement with his plate approach. Last year in Palm Beach, he had a 4.7 BB% and a 20.8 K%. This year in AA, he had a 5.9 BB% and a 31.1 K%. He apparently saw something like 4-5 pitches total in some AFL games. Yes, he was injured and that probably contributed but that’s not an excuse that works for 2020. Also if he falters again, he’s probably starting 2021 in AA again, which means he’s also probably using his last option year in 2022 so I actually think his 2020 is very important because he’s already been placed on the 40 man. Anyway I am aware this is my most controversial pick and unlike most players on this list, he could actually play his way off the 2021 list because of his age.
Perhaps a less controversial pick than the pick before, but all the same, he’ll still be in the Cardinals organization in 2021 if he has a bad year, much like Montero. Unlike Montero, all we have to go off for Roberts is very bad pitching, so he’s going to need to at least be average in order to stay a prospect. He’s already turning 24 in June.
Whitley started last season at Palm Beach and ended it at Memphis. He didn’t advance along the minor league ladder at an especially slow place, which just goes to show how difficult it is for a player like him to make the majors. He was drafted at 22 in the 27th round. He’ll be 25 in February. He has set himself up nicely thanks to a great 2019, but he has to follow through.
I’m going to have an honorable mention list of players, but to spoil the reasoning behind some of them, the idea is that they’ll get an opportunity only if the equivalent of a miracle happens, and that their performance probably won’t change anything. Austin Warner is close to that, but he’s a pitcher and he’s also left-handed and it really won’t take a miracle if he performs. He spent AAA in the rotation and wasn’t all that great, but he’s far from alone there. A move to the bullpen could increase his numbers enough to warrant a shot in the MLB.
Carlos Martinez - He’s definitely got a similar vibe to the rest of this list in that he needs to prove himself as an MLB starter again, but it’s way too easy for me to imagine the Cardinals bringing him back for 2021 regardless of how 2020 goes, because it’s just one more year until the club options. That’s basically the only reason he isn’t.
Alex Reyes - Reyes still has two options and is still 25, and while it may seem implausible for him to suddenly becoming something if he has another injury-filled year, it costs the Cardinals little to try again in 2021, so I imagine they would.
Ramon Urias - He’s on the 40 man roster so he should probably be on the list, I’m just not convinced he’s ever going to get a chance. Sosa at least got promoted during September callups.
Kramer Robertson - If Urias doesn’t have a chance, Robertson needs a damn miracle. He pretty much flubbed his chances with an 80 wRC+ in AAA last year.
Luken Baker - He’s a 1B only prospect whose success depends entirely on his bat. He evades this list purely because he’s 23, but he’s now going to a hitter’s park so he instantly becomes a non prospect with a below average line I think.
And that’s all folks. I avoided the over 30 crowd, because they don’t specifically need to play great to stay on the roster, just need play good enough to not get released, which is a different thing and a lower standard. And there are certainly more minor leaguers who theoretically qualify, I just tried to focus on prospects (specifically the 40 or so players according to A.E. Schafer). If you’re outside of that group, you’re either old for your league or young enough to have time.
Speaking of that, it was basically impossible to make this list if you were under 25 and a pitcher. Roberts being the obvious exception, but he’s a special case. The MLB roster carries so much pitchers, and pitchers get injured so many times, that any age appropriate pitcher is liable to figure it out and make their way towards the big club so long as the Cardinals still employ them. Think Junior Fernandez’s meteoric rise to the Cardinals.
And lastly, for a few players, a long injury could theoretically delay the process. For instance, let’s say Tyler Webb got injured in April and couldn’t return. I’m guessing the Cardinals are trying him again in 2021. But someone like Kramer Robertson cannot afford to get injured. So injuries matter sometimes and sometimes just put the player’s future on hold.