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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List: #20-16

The top 20 beckons, and we must follow.

MiLB: APR 14 Memphis Redbirds at Round Rock Express Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

#20: Juan Yepez, 1B/3B/OF

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

DOB: 19th February 1998

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

Relevant Stats: 147 wRC+ (Peo), 136 wRC+ (PB), 85 wRC+ (Spr)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Acquired as the return for the Cardinals trading Matt Adams to the Atlanta Braves, Juan Yepez is an easy player to forget, it seems. Or at least overlook. And really, that makes sense. He was purely a first baseman at the time he was acquired, and while he has shown flashes of brilliance with the bat here and there, Yepez has never really put together the kind of sustained excellence that forces a player’s name into the conversation. He was a slightly below-average hitter for the Cardinals in 2017 after being acquired. He destroyed Low A to begin the 2018 season, posting a 198 wRC+ over 106 plate appearances, but then moved up to High A and completely fell on his face. He opened the 2019 season in extended spring training, working through a swing change and attempting to learn the outfield. There has been very little true momentum for Yepez, and when you’re not an up the middle player, it puts a lot of pressure on the bat to produce.

The good news is that 2019 brought signs of real, meaningful improvements for Yepez, which is why he nabs a solid slot on this countdown. First off, Yepez has made a diligent attempt to improve his body, get in better shape, and move beyond the bounds of being solely a first baseman. He’s played some third base, some corner outfield. He’s not great in any of those spots, but there is still real value in versatility, even if the player in question isn’t going to win a gold glove over 150 games.

Second, Yepez made strides with the bat this past season, increasing his walk rate and power production in his return to Low A, then maintained most of those improvements as he moved up to the Florida State League, which disguised some of the power numbers but not all. He did struggle a bit when promoted to Double A Springfield at the end of the season, but part of that was a .263 BABIP and part of it was being 21 years old in Double A for the first time.

Yepez has become more of a pull-side hitter, trying to put the ball in the air and do damage, rather than the all-fields guy he looked like a couple years ago. So far that change hasn’t seemed to really create much in the way of strikeout problems, but with Yepez likely returning to Springfield this coming season it will definitely be something to watch for. He will be 22, in a relatively hitter-friendly league, and hopefully with an opportunity to showcase the results of all those behind-the-scene improvements. He’ll probably always be best suited for first base, but if the bat is what it looked to be in 2019, this is a guy a team will gladly find 450-500 at bats for at a handful of positions.

If he’s good, it will look like: The bat-first lower end of the spectrum utility player is kind of a Cardinal classic profile at this point, and there’s really no better comp for Yepez to be shooting toward than Allen Craig. How realistic that level of hitter may be should come into sharper focus in 2020.

#19: John Nogowski, 1B

6’2”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Left

DOB: 5th January 1993 (Happy Birthday, John!)

Level(s) in 2019: Memphis (AAA)

Relevant Stats: 463 PA, .295/.413/.476, 122 wRC+, 14.9% BB, 11.7% K

So, what’s so great about this guy?

For the second year in a row, I had to contend with where to place John Nogowski, a player who really doesn’t match the traditional idea of a ‘prospect’, but who retains rookie eligibility and could, I believe, immediately step in as a league-average player at the major league level if required to do so.

So here’s the story: John Nogowski is 27 years old as of today. That’s not quite Crash Davis territory yet, but he’s definitely edging into the ‘career minor leaguer’ realm of lines on a bio. He has spent time in an independent league after being released by the Oakland A’s, prior to landing with the Cardinals. Nogowski has not taken a typical road to the cusp of the major leagues.

The thing is, though, is that I think John Nogowski might be good. Like, potentially really good. He has one of the most remarkable approaches at the plate of any player I’ve ever seen in the minors. He plays a plus defensive first base. And while his power production has always been, and probably always will be, fairly modest, he is more than capable of losing 15-20 balls over the fence given a full season of PAs.

The issue for Nogowski is simply opportunity. He is blocked by Paul Goldschmidt. He was previously behind Luke Voit and Matt Carpenter. Ravelo is still on the roster, as is Jose Martinez, if we’re talking bench bat opportunities. There’s just not much of a path for John Nogowski to get on the Cardinals’ roster and find some at-bats. It was shocking to me that some terrible team like the Tigers or Orioles didn’t grab Nogowski in the Rule V draft this offseason. Or trade for him. Or something. There has to be some team willing to take a chance on a player with this kind of skillset, if only in the hopes of getting a two-win season from him and then flipping him for prospects. John Nogowski is a very limited player, yes, limited to first base, limited in terms of power ceiling, limited on the bases. But he is also a player who can do remarkable things when it comes to what he does well. There has to be a place for a player like that somewhere, wouldn’t you think?

If he’s good, it will look like: I admit, it’s a little tough to find good comps for a guy like Nogowski in the modern game. He has Joey Votto-level plate discipline, but has never produced offensive numbers in that kind of stratosphere. I always think of James Loney, but then remember that the James Loney in my memory is way better than the James Loney who actually played baseball past the first couple years of his career. Defensive excellence and incredible hitting discipline invariably leads me finally back to someone like Mark Grace, and that’s just not what first basemen look like these days.

#18: Lars Nootbaar, OF

6’3”, 210 lbs; Bats/Throws: Left/Right

DOB: 8th September 1997

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

Relevant Stats: 122 PA, 128 wRC+, 1.23 BB/K, .198 ISO (Peo), 155 PA, 104 wRC+, 0.65 BB/K, .063 ISO (PB), 110 PA, 102 wRC+, 0.73 BB/K, .043 ISO (Spr)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Following the plate discipline monster that is John Nogowski, it’s only fitting that we have another player whose best attribute is the plan he takes with him into the batter’s box, but with similar questions about his offensive ceiling and defensive home: Lars Nootbaar.

Nootbaar was an eighth-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 2018, coming out of baseball powerhouse USC. He played both first base and the outfield in college, but so far in the minors the focus has seemed to be on him working exclusively in the outfield, due to the very obvious limitations and logjams of being a first baseman only. He’s an average runner, and looks pretty comfortable playing left or right field. I don’t think there’s anything notable about his defense one way or the other, which is probably fine. I also haven’t seen him play the field nearly enough to be confident in that opinion, so big grains of salt and all that.

Where Nootbaar is really intriguing is with a bat in his hands. He has a fantastic approach at the plate, patient and disciplined, and he has more than enough physical size that one would expect there should be plenty of power potential down the line somewhere. The problem for Nootbaar is that he hits the ball on the ground far, far too often to take advantage of his natural strength, and that will likely be one of the real pivot points in terms of how his career turns out. A Lars Nootbaar hitting fly balls and grounders at a near-1:1 clip and socking five homers in 120 plate appearances, as he did this season at Peoria, is a very exciting hitter. A Lars Nootbaar hitting 50-55% ground balls and collecting just two dingers over 250+ trips to the plate as he did in Palm Beach and Springfield, on the other hand, really is not.

Nootbaar will always have a leg up due to his batting eye, but he still has a lot of work to do if he wants to make it to the big leagues as an impact hitter, rather than stalling out in Double A as a guy who just can’t seem to get the ball out of the infield.

If he’s good, it will look like: An approach over power hitter, playing a corner outfield position at a level of competence, if not excellence? Sounds a lot like Nick Markakis to me. Of course, Markakis really was an excellent defender early in his career, before nagging injuries slowed him down. It remains to be seen what kind of glove Nootbaar may grow into focusing as he is now on the outfield alone.

#17: Jake Woodford, RHP

6’4”, 220 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 28th October 1996

Level(s) in 2019: Memphis (AAA)

Relevant Stats: 26 G, 151.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, 5.54 FIP, 20.4% K, 11.7% BB (Mem)

So, what’s so great about this guy?

In this space last year, I wrote about how Jake Woodford had begun to transition from a sinker-heavy grounder-getting approach into more of a four-seam fastball power pitcher approach late in the 2018 season, and as a result I had very little feel for where to rank him. Well, a year has passed with Woodford employing that new approach, and I...kind of still don’t really know where to rank him.

Depending on what numbers you want to look at with Woodford, you could come away with a very different view of him as a prospect. To his credit, he threw a lot of innings, took the ball every time his turn came around, and didn’t wilt in what was an absolutely insane Pacific Coast League hitting environment in 2019. His 4.15 ERA actually suggests a pitcher who was very good. On the other hand, if we look at his strikeout to walk ratio, we see a pitcher who really doesn’t measure up very well. He’s no longer a ground ball machine, and really only recorded that low ERA this year due to some home run luck (his xFIP was a ghastly 6.22), and a very low batting average on balls in play of .249. Now, to be fair, some of that is, I think, a skill rather than luck. Woodford seems to have a knack for generating pop-ups, and we’ve seen in the past there are pitchers who make that a substantial part of their recipe for success. But even so, Jake Woodford is now a power pitcher without real strikeout punch, and I feel like that makes him incredibly vulnerable to the forces of regression.

As far as the repertoire, Woodford now works with a four-seam fastball at 91-94, topping out around 95 mph. The pitch is good when it’s up, bad when it’s down, and he does throw strikes consistently, even if his placement isn’t always perfect. He complements the heater with an overhand curveball that’s just okay, and a pretty good cutter. The slider he employed earlier in his career is gone now, and he’s never really developed much feel for a changeup. I’ve seen him throw one, but it’s never appeared to be something he has much confidence in.

I will say this: to listen to Woodford speak, he hits a lot of really exciting notes. His change to a four-seam fastball was driven by Trackman data compiled by the Cardinals. He’s studious and dedicated. He’s a smart kid, and driven. That’s all really great. Unless smart and driven starts missing more bats, though, I’m afraid he would have been better off as the old Jake Woodford instead of this newer model.

If he’s good, it will look like: The fastball/curve/cutter combo is pretty typical, particularly for a guy who has struggled to come up with a change, and the body and approach of Woodford put me in mind of Matt Morris. I don’t think he gets to that level, but the successful version of Jake Woodford looks at least somewhat like that.

via 2080 Baseball:

#16: Griffin Roberts, RHP

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

DOB: 13th June 1996

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

Relevant Stats: Very Bad in High A, Very Good in the AFL

So, what’s so great about this guy?

This was a tough ranking. Trying to figure out where to put Griffin Roberts following his disastrous 2019 campaign, one which saw him begin the year suspended for marijuana use and then never get on track once his season got underway, was a real grind. In the end, I chose to focus on the positives from Roberts’s very good turn in the Arizona Fall League, and hope only that the long, trying struggle of 2019 will make him better going forward. Thus, I did not drop him nearly so far as I could have in these rankings, because I am still very optimistic about his ability to miss bats with a variety of movement-heavy pitches.

In the AFL following the end of the regular minor league season, Roberts threw 14.2 innings, striking out eighteen batters against just two walks. That’s the kind of pitcher he could be, and why he’s still in a pretty good spot in my rankings. The immaturity of getting popped for pot a second time (first positive tests do not result in a suspension), the horrific performance during the regular season at Palm Beach, and the inconsistent velocity for much of the year — even during the fall league there were outings when his fastball barely broke 90 — are the reasons why I fear I may be overly optimistic.

At his best, Roberts has the repertoire to pitch toward the front of a big league rotation. He throws both a two- and four-seam fastball, ranging anywhere from 90 to 96 depending on which version he’s employing. In college he mostly worked with the sinker to righties and the harder, faster four-seamer to left-handed hitters, and I assume that pattern still holds now, though I didn’t see him enough this year to be certain. His best pitch is a big, sweeping slider that garners 65 and 70 grades on his best days, and could get him to the big leagues as a reliever pretty much just on the strength of that one pitch. He also features a pretty good changeup that moves a lot but is telegraphed a bit too often, requiring some more work. Everything he throws has exceptional movement coming out of a low 34 arm slot, at least when he’s fully healthy and on his game.

Roberts looked like a quick mover coming out of college, but his truncated and problematic 2019 season has blurred that picture quite a bit. All the same, he still has dynamic stuff and potential, if he can get himself back into the proper groove of things and maybe add some more size and strength. (He’s on the slight side.) We’ll see what 2020 brings, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Roberts ten spots higher or lower when list time comes around next year.

If he’s good, it will look like: With his natural movement and extraordinary breaking ball, Roberts at his best looks a lot like Aaron Nola. A lofty comp, to be sure, and Roberts certainly isn’t at that level of polish and precision just yet. But in terms of stuff and potential? That’s the guy.