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The 2020 VEB Top Prospects List Final Tally

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Summing up the system, in 2500 words or less.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Not too long ago, I (finally) finished up the Cardinals’ prospect list for 2020. Most of the scouting reports were more or less exhaustive, but let’s take a step back and look at the overall picture for a moment or two, shall we?

The list is as follows:

  1. Dylan Carlson, OF
  2. Nolan Gorman, 3B
  3. Matthew Liberatore, LHP
  4. Andrew Knizner, C
  5. Ivan Herrera, C
  6. Zack Thompson, LHP
  7. Jhon Torres, OF
  8. Genesis Cabrera, LHP
  9. Angel Rondon, RHP
  10. Elehuris Montero, 3B
  11. Johan Oviedo, RHP
  12. Justin Williams, OF
  13. Malcom Nunez, 3B
  14. Rangel Ravelo, 1B/OF
  15. Junior Fernandez, RHP
  16. Griffin Roberts, RHP
  17. Lars Nootbaar, OF
  18. Jake Woodford, RHP
  19. John Nogowski, 1B
  20. Juan Yepez, 1B/3B/OF
  21. Trejyn Fletcher, OF
  22. Ramon Urias, 2B
  23. Mateo Gil, SS
  24. Jack Ralston, RHP
  25. Edmundo Sosa, SS
  26. Luken Baker, 1B
  27. Kodi Whitley, RHP
  28. Tony Locey, RHP
  29. Pedro Pages, C
  30. Andre Pallante, RHP

The just-missed list guys were:

  • Patrick Romeri, OF
  • Patrick Dayton, LHP
  • Kramer Robertson, SS
  • Seth Elledge, RHP
  • Austin Warner, LHP
  • Delvin Perez, SS
  • Bryan Dobzanski, RHP
  • Francisco Justo, RHP
  • Brendan Donovan, 3B/2B
  • Terry Fuller, OF/1B

We’ll start off with the most general observation I can make about this whole thing: this is a weird list. Or at least, the top part is. And while what constitutes the absolute ‘top’ of a list is always going to depend at least somewhat on the particular eccentricities of the list maker, I don’t think I’m going way off the reservation with these names or anything. This top ten, as currently outlined, features zero middle infielders, only one right-handed pitcher, two catchers, and three lefties. The mere fact the top ten contains only four pitchers already makes this feel like a decidedly un-Cardinals sort of list; the fact three of those four are left-handed is just an extra bit of strangeness.

Overall, the top 30 this year is composed of:

  • Nine right-handed pitchers;
  • Three left-handed pitchers;
  • Three catchers;
  • Five outfielders;
  • Three middle infielders;
  • Seven corner infielders.

Now, the demographics of the overall pitching pool look much more Redbirdy; right-handed pitching still makes up the dominant group of players, number-wise. It’s just that most of the highest quality pitching in the system is left-handed.

To be fair, I could have skewed the numbers a little in a different direction had I wanted to; a few of the guys I listed as corner infielders will probably see some outfield time at some point, like Juan Yepez and Rangel Ravelo. There may be others, as well. But I tried to go with what position(s) I see as the most likely or best fit for each player, so guys that feel more like first basemen to me are counted as such, rather than outfielders. (Basically, 1B/OF is a corner infielder, while OF/1B is an outfielder.)

What’s really worrisome, at least to me, is the dearth of middle infield-type prospects. Now, it’s only fair to note that the Cardinals are very much set up the middle at the major league level; Paul DeJong is one of the better young shortstops in the game right now, is already on a long-term extension (signed through potential 2025, his age-31/32 season), and is just 26 years old. Kolten Wong is under contract for the upcoming season and one more, and Tommy Edman looks very capable — and ready — of taking over the keystone if and when Wong moves on. (I did not write my annual Trade Kolten Wong column this year, but suffice to say it was in the queue at one point and centered around the idea of cashing in Kolten’s career-best season while there are still two cheapish years on his contract to get some really good down the road value added to the system and handing second base to Tommy Edman, who I think would be way less of a downgrade than many might suspect, if a downgrade at all.) So the good news is the Cardinals do not have an immediate need for middle infield help. The less good news is they don’t have much coming, and given they just DFA’d Ramon Urias for an extremely minor bullpen lottery ticket we may infer they probably see even a little less than I, who likes Urias, might see.

What the Cardinals really have right now is an oddball system — though I believe a very good one, a potentially very productive one — filled with tons of corner guys, both infield and outfield, lots of whom fall very much into the bat-first or even bat-only category. To be certain, these kinds of players have been a rich vein for the Cards over the past 10-15 years; Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig are the names which come to mind immediately as huge success stories (until Craig’s fatal foot injury, of course), but they aren’t the only players with that profile to contribute for a time. The Cardinals have made some serious hay over the years finding enough at-bats for guys who can hit; the concern is when too much of the system falls into that category.

In fact, for a club which boasts so many high-quality defenders at the major league level, the farm system is actually kind of low on good glove guys. Dylan Carlson is an outstanding corner outfielder, John Nogowski is fantastic at first base, and Edmundo Sosa remains a plus defender up the middle, but overall those bat-first profile guys tend to overwhelm a handful of solid defenders. Even the catching duo at the top of the system showcases that duality to a point; Ivan Herrera is talented but raw, with a chance to be good down the road, but the guy who will be getting the chances in the shorter term, Andrew Knizner, is here because of his bat, and the glove really hasn’t developed as hoped. Maybe I’m being too harsh here; guys like Trejyn Fletcher and Mateo Gil certainly have the talent to develop into quality defenders, it’s just that they’re still so far away.

Possibly the best news of all is that the Cards appear to have moved beyond the 2017 draft hole, though I think we can still see a shadow of that lost class in this slightly strange group of players. There is no longer a significant gap to be at any level of the system, I don’t think, but it is still easy enough to consider what sort of players the Cards might have gotten out of the first two rounds in 2017 (and what the extra flexibility in the budget might have changed in later rounds), and insert a couple of high-quality, more well-rounded players into the mix, at which point maybe this doesn’t look like quite such an odd group. It’s worth noting that the only ‘17 draftees represented here all fall into the just-missed category; Terry Fuller, Patrick Dayton, and Kramer Robertson all belong to that benighted class. Guys like Chase Pinder and Scott Hurst, both of whom were intriguing players at the time, have failed to develop, either struggling to stay healthy (Hurst), or just plain struggling (Pinder). Still, even with a draft class that should be graduating its talent to the big leagues right about now missing from the mix completely, we don’t see a huge shortfall of talent here.

Oh, I forgot: I feel I should throw in a note regarding Lane Thomas. Someone asked about him in one of the list posts, probably the final one, and why he wasn’t included. I know he’s on some lists, but I try to stick to the official MLB rookie guidelines, and by that standard Thomas has graduated. He’s under the at-bat limit, but over in terms of service days. For the record, I’m a touch lower on Thomas than many people here seem to be, but he likely would have checked in somewhere in the 5-7 range on the list had he been eligible. Maybe seven, right after Zack Thompson? Maybe ahead of Thompson at six. Something like that. Hope that clears things up for anyone who was wondering why Thomas did not appear on the list this year.

Finally, and I alluded to this a bit when I wrote up Randy Arozarena’s (goodnight, sweet prince), scouting report, the wave of talent the Cards could, maybe should, have coming over the next couple seasons is a really intriguing proposition. There is one notable player who will almost certainly arrive this season, and that’s Dylan Carlson. Andrew Knizner should be up with the big club at least off and on this year, but I feel like he’s sort of in limbo right now as to his future role. Maybe Jake Woodford, though I am as always the low man on Woodford, and hopefully wrong about him. After Carlson, though, there isn’t a ton of what feels like impact talent coming in 2020. However, looking forward, things start to get very interesting. Keep in mind everything I’m about to outline here assumes players develop; the downside timeline for every player ever is always well, we just never see them, but there’s literally nothing useful to say about that. So, you know.

Nolan Gorman should reach Double A this year, even if he doesn’t start there. I’d put his ETA around midseason of 2021, with him ready to really take over and hit the ground running in 2022. Ivan Herrera should spend some time in Springfield this year as well, and while catchers are a little tricky to project in terms of time horizons, I think 2022 feels about right for him to show up as well. Zack Thompson will, I believe, open this season in Palm Beach, and probably see some Double A action if he stays healthy and pitches well. September 2021 callup? Sounds about right. He’s been on the Michael Wacha plan so far, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him zoom through in a similar fashion. Liberatore should stay in Florida to start the year at Palm Beach as well, but probably move more slowly than Thompson. If he stays in the FSL all season, we’re probably looking at late 2022 or early ‘23 for an ETA. If he pushes to Double A this year by performing well, bump that up to mid-2022ish.

Johan Oviedo is probably a 2021 arrival if things go well; Angel Rondon maybe late 2021 or early ‘22. Juan Yepez took a big step forward in 2019, and should open 2020 in Springfield. There are a couple of bullpen arms which will hopefully establish themselves this year, but what I’m really eyeballing is that group of pitchers the Cards drafted this past June. Ralston, Locey, Pallante, maybe Logan Gragg or Connor Lunn. Some of those guys will be developed as starters, but a couple of them I think jump on the bullpen track and ascend quickly.

My point is this: what the Cardinals have right now is not a 2013-level wave of talent coming, but if a few things go well it could be trending in that direction. Of course, that 2013 class did not work out quite the way we hoped it would; I have a big piece coming in the next couple weeks regarding that particular group and all that went both right and wrong. But the group of Gorman/Liberatore/Thompson/Herrera, with maybe a Rondon or even Jhon Torres jumping into that picture, has the kind of upside that could carry a club to a championship contention stretch a la 2012-’15, if things go right. Of course, as I said, none of that is set in stone or written in ink or whatever metaphor you like, but I always find it interesting to track the long-term outlook of a club’s farm system, and how the potential graduations and arrivals might fit into a time horizon.

In the end, I think the Cardinals right now are in a very good place with their farm system, though admittedly there is substantial risk in what they have. Carlson is, I believe, a safe bet to be a very productive big leaguer, with star upside. Maybe he gets to that upside, maybe he settles in as solid rather than a star. Obviously you cross your fingers for the upside outcome; the Cardinals have developed a borderline star in DeJong, but for the most part in recent years have seen their prospects all settle in at less than that, leading to that constant churn of 1.5-2.5 win players we celebrate-slash-bemoan. They really need one of these guys at some point to come along and explode into a five win player. (Yes, Jack Flaherty, I see you. I mean another one.) But after Carlson, this is a risky top ten. Gorman has huge swing and miss concerns. Liberatore is a long way away, and things can go wrong for pitchers in a hurry. Zack Thompson has health concerns. Montero didn’t hit in 2019, got hurt, and doesn’t have defensive upside to carry anything other than a plus bat. Knizner and Herrera are both catchers, and catchers are weird. Jhon Torres has some of the same concerns as Gorman. There’s a lot that could go wrong with this group, and while I feel like it is, as is often the case, a remarkably deep system, if the top five to seven players don’t hit, you end up with a whole lot of depth pieces but nothing you can build around. That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

With that risk, though, comes tremendous upside. And while I don’t feel like the national outlets have really recognised it fully yet, this is a group with more upside than I believe we’ve seen in quite a while. And that is a very exciting thing to see. The Cards are going to continue to be good in the short term, but they look like they’re trying to build a beast a year or two from now. Let’s just hope we see that come to fruition, rather than another run of frustration and almost-just-about-not-quite-there, like we saw from 2016 to ‘18, when it was all Randal Grichuk two-win seasons and Alex Reyes injuries.

The 2020 season will be a huge one for this group. A year from now the Cardinals could have a top five farm system. Or they could rank 22nd. It really could go either way.