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Organizational depth: Pitchers and Catchers

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The future St. Louis Cardinals are mentioned in this post. We just don’t know which ones they’ll be.

2019 Arizona Fall League
Ivan Herrera, top Cards catching prospect
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If you could define the modern day Cardinals by one thing, it’s probably their insane ability to develop average players. They have usually had good depth, even if it may not at first appear to be good depth. Both players who are legitimate prospects and seemingly random players picked up off the streets appear to suddenly perform at an average rate when called upon. This depth has allowed the Cardinals to consistently remain at a winning level, even if it’s not always made the playoffs.

So I was interested in delving more specifically into the Cardinals system, position-by-position. VEB has been posting its top prospects list over the offseason and while some are going to be a factor in the future, the past tells us players who aren’t necessarily on the prospect lists might too. I’m less talking about players who went unmentioned who might be a factor in 2020 and more about players who could announce themselves as a prospect in 2020 or in 2021. Or maybe they never make a prospect list. Just to highlight players not on the radar who aren’t expected to do anything who could do something because if you squint and they improve this one spot, maybe.

I also like the idea of imagining different outcomes, like here’s an outcome where Player A becomes a factor, and here’s an outcome where Player B becomes a factor. For instance, Kolten Wong is set to be a free agent after 2021, and I like imagining possible prospects who could maybe be a plan to replace him. A lot can happen in two years.

Pitcher

Among all the positions, clearly starting pitcher has probably the most diverse set of outcomes to imagine. Most positions I will talk about, I can probably spend one sentence on the current starter and when you can guess the Cards will need a replacement for that player. At pitcher, you need at least six starters at the ready, as this Miles Mikolas news has shown.

With this Mikolas news, the Cardinals moved from 6 pretty good rotation options to 5, which means they kind of need a sixth, especially if Mikolas’ injury is more long-term. Along with Kwang-Hyun Kim, who has to be considered the favorite for replacing Mikolas, there’s Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, and Alex Reyes. Players who probably need to log in some good AAA innings who could jumpfrog those players are Genesis Cabera, Ricardo Sanchez, Jake Woodford, and Angel Rondon (not on the 40 man).

I didn’t mention Ryan Helsley there, and that’s because I largely expect him to be in the bullpen, especially at the MLB level, though I would love if he would stick at starter. Two current starters who I can imagine getting added to the bullpen late in the year are Johan Oviedo and Evan Kruczynski, two pitchers with overall unimpressive stats, but with impressive K rates that may play in the bullpen. The aforementioned Cabrera and Sanchez, two lefties, could also be a factor in the bullpen.

Speaking of the bullpen, along with Gant and Helsley, you can add Ponce and Reyes as guys who may very well be in the bullpen on Opening Day. Kim will also be headed to the bullpen if not in the rotation. I can’t see any other possible starters starting the season in the MLB bullpen.

The Cardinals actually have quite a few minor league bullpen prospects in AAA right now who could make the team right away. There’s the obvious Junior Fernandez (11th ranked by FG), who we’ve already seen. But there’s also Seth Elledge (23rd), Kodi Whitley (15th), and Roel Ramirez (21st) and none of them are on the 40 man. Bryan Dobzanski had very good K/BB numbers at the hitter friendly Texas League (and an awful 3.2 IP in AAA) and is only 24 and Jesus Cruz struck out 30% in the PCL despite the other underwhelming numbers (which afflict just about everyone there).

Jacob Patterson, who in a move from pitcher friendly FSL to hitter friendly TL, struck out more and walked less in AA than he had in High A. But he also allowed 2.01 HR/9. Big if, but if he can get his HRs under control, he’s a legit prospect at just 24. Edgar Escobar struck out 30.8% of batters in High A at just 22. He’ll get his first big test at Springfield this year. Then there are the guys who are old for their level, have always been old for their level, but have more or less performed, and sometimes those guys keep performing. Patrick Dayton, Michael Baird, and Zach Prendergast will all turn 25 during the season and none have played any significant innings at AA, but they’ve been promoted pretty much as fast as they could have since they were drafted older than usual. And that’s where I’m going to end the bullpen talk, because MLB relief pitchers usually were still starting once you get down to the lower levels.

Back to the rotation, we have undrafted free agent Tommy Parsons starting 2019 in A ball and ending it in AAA, who walked 3.8% of batters in 83 IP at AA. He’s only 24 too, so maybe there’s something there. 27th round pick Perry DellaValle went from the GCL after being drafted and skipped all the way to High A (because he was already 23), and his 3.23 FIP suggests that was a good decision.

As far as players probably targeted for High A, the Cards are kind of stacked. Alvaro Seijas was added to the 40 man to avoid the Rule 5, so he’ll probably see a quick promotion if he can cut down on his walks. Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson are both top 5 Cards prospects and while the latter could rise all the way to the majors by the end of the year (think Michael Wacha), the former is probably spending all year at Palm Beach. Griffin Roberts, who was supposed to be a fast riser, is getting a second chance there as well.

The 2019 draft is bound to involve some winners, because Tony Locey (3rd round) struck out 41.2% of batters in multi-inning role out of bullpen, Andre Pallante (4th) made 9 very good starts at State College, Jack Ralston (7th) pitched obscenely good in 25 innings at State College, and Logan Gragg (8th) had a good 8 starts at Peoria. There’s also 2018 4th rounder Steven Gingery, still trying to recover from TJ surgery, but he’s well-regarded if he ever gets healthy.

Looking towards 2021, I would assume only Adam Wainwright is leaving, but of course you have performance concerns about Dakota Hudson and Carlos Martinez, and health issues about Mikolas. So I think of the six players planned for the 2020 rotation, I would only assume 4 of are good for next year, which means we hope two other rotation options develop in the next year, which seems... pretty plausible with this group. Just the pure amount of close to the majors guys, you’d have to be pretty pessimistic to assume all of them are headed to the bullpen or won’t work out. You can probably add Oviedo and Thompson to possible 2021 options (if his 2020 season goes really well, Seijas too). Now some of the current 2020 options will get permanently moved to the bullpen, a couple will get injured, and both Gomber and Ponce run out of options, which usually indicates the Cards move them to the bullpen or move on from them, unless they establish themselves as a worthy candidate to start (which seems like a longshot right now)

And 2022 is too far in the future, but the Cards 2019 draft plus basically the entire Palm Beach starting rotation indicates that they’re well set up for that too. They have a Martinez option they can reject if things go really well and of course there’s always free agency and the Cards will have over $30 million to work with. Looking at the shakiness of most of the 2020 SP prospects, you really feel the loss of draft picks from the 2017 draft, but if they can survive this year, it seems they have successfully replenished the system in short order.

Catcher

Catcher is thankfully going to be a much shorter section, which is why it’s paired with pitcher, probably the longest section I’ll have. Catcher is quite simple for 2020 at least. You have Yadier Molina under contract for one more year and Matt Wieters under contract for one more year. If an injury happens to either, Andrew Knizner gets called up and replaces them. If for some reason things get really weird, Jose Godoy looks better than your average roster filler with above average hitting lines at both AA and AAA in 2019. And Oscar Hernandez, who will probably be backing up Knizner, has experience in MLB dugouts with over a year of service time weirdly enough.

Paired with Godoy at Springfield is Julio Rodriguez, who seems... too interesting to be as disregarded as he is? He’s 23-years-old and came out of Palm Beach alive. And the Cards were relatively aggressive with him. After a 177 wRC+ in the DSL, they sent him to Johnson City instead of the GCL, where hit for a 113 wRC+. And then they skipped State College to send him to Peoria, where he had a 93 wRC+. He was young enough that he could have repeated Peoria, but they sent him to Palm Beach, where he hit for a 115 wRC+ with only a .321 BABIP. Again, scouting the stat lines, he feels like he should be a real prospect to me. I’ll be watching his stats at least.

At Palm Beach in 2020, you have one of the Cards best prospects, 19-year-old Ivan Herrera, who already got a sampling in High A last year, which wasn’t terribly impressive, but he was above average there. And knowing how quickly the Cards try to get some hitters out of Palm Beach, he may end the year at Springfield. Joining him is 23-year-old Alexis Wilson, who is a good example of why we should maybe be excited about Rodriguez? He’s moved through the system slowly despite basically hitting an average or better line at each level. Last year was no exception with a 105 wRC+ at Peoria. Maybe overreading into the aggressiveness of promotions (or lack thereof), but I just don’t get the sense the Cards believe in Wilson at all.

Also in Palm Beach is Dennis Ortega, who split time with Rodriguez and has moved in a wildly different direction than him. Instead of improving upon his average line at Peoria, his numbers tanked to the tune of a 53 wRC+. It kind of seems like he’ll be basically sitting on his hands until someone gets injured, either at High A or a level above, because he’s - to me at least - clearly the third option at Palm Beach, and Option #1 (Herrera) is going to play as much as possible.

We have another 2019 draftee in Peoria - results are very promising on the 2019 draft so far - in 6th rounder Pedro Pages. Pages played about as well as you can play at State College, hitting for a 149 wRC+ with a 13% BB rate and “only” a .355 BABIP. Matt Duce is backing him up and he could not be less interesting. Even though he had an impressive 2019 line, he was repeating State College and was already 23. A 24-year-old in Peoria has already run out of time.

And lastly, there are three guys who played in short season ball last year who for now look interesting. 2019 18th rounder Aaron Antonini has one of the cooler lines in the system, with an 19.1 BB% and 8.5 K%, which lead him to having a 145 wRC+ with a .183 BABIP in 94 PAs. He also had a .288 ISO. Carlos Soto, who has been in the system since 2016, is still only 20 and crafted a quietly impressive campaign at State College, with a 123 wRC+ with a .309 BABIP. And then there’s recently acquired Eduardo Rodriguez from the Rays who had a 147 wRC+ in the DSL in 2018 and a mostly lost 2019, but is going to be only 19 throughout the year.

While the 2020 plan is clear, the 2021 plan is less so. Knizner’s big hang-up is his defense, a fact which will not really help us fans at all in determining his progress. But he has to be a better than the 99 wRC+ hitter he was in AAA last year at the least, because an offense first prospect can’t have a below average line two years in a row, even at catcher. Even if he succeeds, he could suffer the fate of Carson Kelly, as we wait for the next big prospect to come replace Yadi. Again it’s hard to really judge catching prospects because we don’t know their defense. All we know is their offense, which is usually enough for prospects, but just isn’t for catching.

I count seven catchers worth paying attention to, and theoretically Jose Godoy is interesting for a potential backup role if Knizner gets traded. (Right now at least, it seems very plausible to believe he could be as good or better than the vast majority of backups Yadi has had. It’s a very low bar we’re dealing with here so this isn’t really a huge endorsement). And it depends on the placement of Antonini and Soto, but it’s going to be just about one interesting catcher for every level. And yes, not all of them will remain worth paying attention (Ortega was interesting going into 2019; less so now), but that feels like a dream set up for a minor league system to me.