The draft has come and gone, and the Cardinals’ class this year is one of the more surprising groups I think I’ve ever seen. For a club with a long-standing (and mostly deserved), reputation for having a conservative approach to the amateur draft, the Redbirds may have been the most aggressive team of all this year. Well, within the top two or three most aggressive clubs, anyway; ‘aggressive’ is really a pretty subjective adjective here, and depending upon how you wanted to look at things certain teams’ approaches might jump out. Regardless of the criteria, though, I feel like the Cardinals have to be in that conversation as taking one of the most aggressive approaches, one of the most high risk/high reward focused draft classes of any team this year.
I think everyone who had something strong to say about the draft has said it by now, so I’m going to go ahead and go through the Cards’ class, pick by pick, and give my own thoughts on the players, as well as some interpretation of the circumstances and thought processes that went into the picks. I have to admit, as much as I don’t like a five round draft, it certainly makes it easy to give a more in-depth overview of a draft class than is usually the case. Silver linings, I suppose.
Here is my final draft board of players I was looking at as a hypothetical scouting director; as you can see, my own approach was significantly different from what the Cardinals actually did, and in fact I was much more conservative, to be honest. Now, I will say that my approach didn’t require any picks that felt specifically like money-savers, whereas the Cards definitely took two guys in spots where I think they are relatively certain to save the club some bonus space to allocate elsewhere. My approach would likely have featured multiple useful big leaguers being drafted, I think; the Cardinals, meanwhile, could easily end up with nearly nothing from their crop, but also could end up with two or three all-star level players, which is tougher to envision from my board. For an organisation that churns out 1.5-2.5 win players like the Keebler elves churn out fudge stripe cookies, I can understand why shooting for the moon when presented with extra picks might be an attractive strategy.
Rd. 1, #21 Overall: Jordan Walker, 3B, Decatur HS (GA)
A decent amount of digital ink has been spilled already over the person of Jordan Walker, so I’m not going to go and do a ground-up scouting report on the kid. For one thing, I’ve done that already, and it’s not as if anything has really changed in recent history for any of these players. However, there is one thing I should clarify, and one or two things I think are different about Walker’s outlook now that he is in this specific organisation. (Or will be, hopefully; no signing shenanigans please, everyone.)
The thing I feel I should clarify is that in my scouting report, I initially wrote it in such a way that I implied Walker was slow, that he lacked foot speed. That is not true. In fact, if you look at his 60 times (he has been clocked below 6.6 seconds), he has plus speed, although he’s not super fast off the line and really makes up the time once he gets up to full speed, as is often the case with very tall players. What I did was I made the mistake of conflating a lack of range (of the infield variety), with a lack of speed. It’s the sort of thing that tends to get lost in a single number grade or even a short write up if you aren’t careful, and I fell into that trap. I implied a lack of mobility on Walker’s part, but what I really meant was he is not the rangiest or quickest defender when we’re talking about his infield play. I’ve since edited the wording of my scouting report to better reflect that, but I felt I should clarify here as well.
The thing is, whereas Walker has good reactions but not a lot of range on the infield, in the outfield he’s actually a very mobile player. Again, he takes a little longer to get up to full speed, but like a lot of players with very long legs, he can chew up big chunks of ground once he gets moving.
Which leads me to my point about Walker as a Cardinal specifically: I think the organisation he was drafted by makes it much more likely he ends up moving to the outfield, at least part time. Think of the way the Cubs have used Kris Bryant, playing third base and both outfield corners as needed, and Jordan Walker could follow a very similar defensive path. I think in a lot of organisations he would be locked in at third until he proved he couldn’t handle it, but in the Cards’ specific case, where they have a pair of third base prospects well ahead of Walker in Nolan Gorman and Elehuris Montero (not to mention a guy like Mateo Gil, who was a big upside pick two years ago), it becomes more likely. And, in reality, what I’m doing here is just taking the field, with the thought that whatever the Cardinals do over the next several years they will be planning to compete, and a big hole at third base is tough to square with that. For instance, if Nolan Gorman succeeds, he should take over. But also, if the Cleveland Indians ultimately decided to move Francisco Lindor, would the Cardinals be in on that deal? Obviously it’s not likely that exact thing happens, but if it did, the Cards would very much be at least in the mix, I think. And at that point, Lindor probably takes over short, with Paul DeJong sliding to third to make up one half of the greatest left side infield defense in baseball.
My point is this: even with the Cards’ obvious outfield depth, outfield openings are seemingly always easier to find that on the infield. With Walker’s physical tools — plus speed once underway, a huge throwing arm, and infield footwork that is never going to be effortless — the path of least resistance to develop Walker would seem to me to be either moving him entirely to the outfield (right, most likely), or looking to use him in that Bryant fashion I already mentioned earlier. The one thing I don’t think is very likely for Walker as a Cardinal is a move to first base. Considering how the Cardinals have appeared to make defense a real priority over the last couple years, I think an average Jordan Walker at third base or a potential plus in Jordan Walker the outfielder is a choice that probably works itself out in favour of the outfield.
Now, as for the approach the Cards took to this pick, versus what I expected them to do or would likely have done myself, this is a much more aggressive pick out of the gate than I was expecting. In my mock draft I landed on two big stuff college pitchers at 21, with the thought I would grab a quick-moving pitching prospect whose ceiling I believed in, then take a shot or even two at a tougher sign with my group of picks from 54-70. What Randy Flores did instead was to shoot for the moon right off the bat, and to take more difficult signability guys than I was really thinking was realistic. Again, remarkably aggressive, and probably a really good way to try and leverage having the most picks of any team in baseball (tied with San Francisco, specifically).
Rd. 2, #54 Overall: Masyn Winn, RHP/SS, Kingwood HS (TX)
I have to admit, this was maybe the most surprising pick to me out of a very surprising draft for the Cardinals. Part of it was I simply didn’t think they would go with another big bonus guy at 54 after taking a high school player with a solid college commitment in the first round, but another part of it was simply that I didn’t think Masyn Winn was signable. Legitimate two-way prospects (which Winn most definitely is), tend to go to college more often than a lot of other players, simply because traditionally college teams have been far more likely to let a guy both hit and pitch than a professional club, who usually feel that development track is a dead end, or at least so difficult it might as well be. I thought Winn would absolutely be one of those guys, head off to college, probably end up moving to one side of the other because that’s simply what usually happens with those players, and then get redrafted in three years. Add to that all the extra restrictions on bonuses this year, and I just didn’t think teams would both to draft him high enough to sign him.
As I said, though, the Cardinals were almost unbelievably aggressive with this draft, and Winn was probably their biggest swing of all. He is also now probably the most interesting player in the system, because they officially announced him as both a pitcher and position player on draft night, and until I see otherwise I will believe they mean to put him on the track to do both.
We should probably get one thing out of the way: Winn was sent home from a wood bat event last summer, and there was some talk of makeup concerns. It’s never been 100% confirmed, but from what I gather off the record it was a weed thing. Which, you know, is not a big deal for a teenager, but does open up some questions about whether the kid has the maturity to say, Okay, I have to put that stuff away in order to focus on my career. That’s a lot to ask of a high school kid, and the real test will be to watch him now. Stay away from it until he gets on the 40 man roster and you’ve got no problems. Get caught again and then you really do have to ask the question about maturity.
Anyway, as for Masyn Winn the player, I am of a divided mind. First off, the mechanics of using Winn as both a shortstop or other left side of the defensive spectrum player and pitcher at the same time seem very complicated. I’m actually going to split that discussion out into a separate post, because it’s an interesting problem. But I’m also divided on which side I prefer to Winn, where I think he has a higher ceiling, and how much risk I see. The thing is, I really love the possibilities with Masyn Winn, but for every positive I think there’s a negative as well.
He has unbelievable stuff on the mound, with a fastball that can reach 98 mph and a wicked power curveball. (Decent feel for a changeup, as well.) The problem is, I think the mechanics are really risky and high-stress, and as a sub-six foot righthander he faces an uphill battle to get evaluators on his side. There’s also a legitimate component to a guy his size not having great plane on his pitches and all, but I think that’s less an issue here because Winn is a four-seam guy who works at the belt and above.
If forced to choose, I would actually probably lean toward Winn as a position player, despite that repertoire. He’s a crazy athlete, a plus runner (right about 6.5 in the 60), has an Andrelton Simmons-level throwing arm at shortstop, and has electric hand speed at the plate. He does have a Josh Hamilton-esque hand hitch that makes some worry about him having swing and miss issues down the road, but again, I’m on board for the upside here. The problem is, Winn is raw as a hitter and occasionally as a fielder as well, and it’s hard to see how a player could actually start at shortstop (or any throwing-heavy position, really), while also pitching. And while I like Winn as both a position player and a pitcher, what I really like is Masyn Winn the two-way player. And that makes things complicated.
As for what I did at this spot compared to the Cardinals, this is where I took my one really big swing on a tough sign and took Drew Bowser, who ended up undrafted and will head off to Stanford in the fall. (Well, presumably, anyway. Things are weird this year.) I knew Bowser would be a hard guy to get into the fold, and apparently his Stanford commitment was every bit as strong as I heard or even stronger, because teams just decided it wasn’t worth trying to sign him despite his talent.
Comp. Balance Rd. B, #63 Overall: Markevian ‘Tink’ Hence, RHP, Watson Chapel HS (AR)
So if Masyn Winn was the most surprising name I heard the Cardinals call on draft night, Tink Hence had to have been the second most surprising name. Why? Well, two reasons. One, I didn’t think after two aggressive upside plays on guys who will likely be tough signs the Cards would dare go back to that well a third time under any circumstances. And two, because I had no idea Markevian Hence was going by Tink, and was completely confused as to who the hell that was when it was announced.
Once I figured out that yes, the Hence I was thinking of and the Hence whose name was just called were the same person, I immediately got incredibly excited. See, Markevian Hence just barely missed out on making my initial list of favourite pitchers in this draft, way back in February. That list ended up being J.T. Ginn, Carson Montgomery, and Ian Bedell, who we’ll get to in a minute. Bedell was the pitcher I went with rather than Hence in the end, because I already had one high-upside high school arm in Montgomery and one really tough sign in the sophomore-eligible Ginn (who ended up having Tommy John surgery early this spring but was still drafted, so we’ll see how that goes), and I decided rather than go with another high school kid I would go with one of the polish/feel guys I liked most in this draft class, just to have a little diversity in the group I chose to highlight. Unfortunately, Hence ended up being a guy I never actually got around to covering, because, well, honestly, I forgot he wasn’t in that first group, rather than the first guy out of the group. Guys slip through the cracks all the time, and that happened even more often than usual this spring, with everything being so crazy.
My scouting report on Hence — the shortened version — goes like this: great arm speed, easy plus velocity, and a natural ability to spin the baseball already. He works anywhere from 90-95 with his fastball, adding and subtracting nicely, and the pitch features hard running action. The breaking ball is a big power slurve in the upper 70s, and while slurve is usually a pejorative when talking about a breaking ball, I’m not down on the pitch as it is. I’d probably call it a slider because of the lateral movement, but it’s got a big enough break I could see someone throwing it in the curveball bucket as well. Either way, it’s got plus potential, giving him two future 60+ pitches he can cruise with. He’s got a changeup, as well, and it’s pretty good for a high school kid, but it’s still a high school changeup. The movement is good, but you can clearly see he slows his arm and telegraphs the pitch, which is the most common flaw for a young pitcher still learning the feel for the change. Long term I think it’s average at least, simply because his arm is so quick, but I could also see him transitioning to a forkball or splitter to give himself an even better swing and miss offering.
Hence isn’t big at 6’1” and 175 pounds, but I like the delivery and the stuff is undeniably exciting. I love this kid, I love this pick, and I couldn’t be more upset I didn’t get around to covering him before he became a Cardinal.
I went more conservative in my mock at 63, though I did take a pitcher. I went for Jared Schuster, and it turns out I was very light on him, as he went to Atlanta at the end of the first round. I was really surprised to see Schuster go that high, but safer college bets rising up the ranks is kind of what we expected to see in this draft, and Schuster was one of the real winners out of the gate this spring.
Whoops, actually, I take that back. Just looked at that post, and I went with Anthony Servideo, a shortstop out of Ole Miss. Thought I had Schuster at 63 and Servideo at 70; turns out I reversed those two. Servideo ended up going in the third round to the Orioles, just after my pick below. I’m disappointed the Cards didn’t get him.
Compensation Round, #70 Overall: Alec Burleson, 1B/OF/LHP, East Carolina
After three picks, the real-world Cardinals had taken three really surprising high-upside picks, all three of whom will probably require above-slot bonuses to sign, I think. My imaginary scouting department, meanwhile, only took one big swing at an overslot talent, going with solid college performers with picks 21 and 63.
Here’s where that hyper-aggressive approach with the first three picks really starts to dictate a much more conservative stretch. Alec Burleson and, especially, Levi Prater are the players you take to help pay for Walker/Winn/Hence, both being ranked well below where they were picked according to both the MLB Pipeline guys and FanGraphs. Burleson, for instance, was #108 on FanGraphs’s board, and 136 over at MLB.com. You take a guy 40-60 picks ahead of where the public industry has him ranked, chances are you should be able to cut a pretty good deal.
Which is not, I should point out, an indictment of Alec Burleson the player. In fact, I really like Alec Burleson. He’s a very limited player, yes, but the things he does well, he does very well. Just because you’re looking to save a little bonus space with a pick doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get a guy you think can perform, and Burleson is a classic bat-first college performer. He has a fantastic ability to make contact, posting well above average contact rates all through college, and while he’s not the most patient hitter, he does control the zone well and showed signs this spring of beginning to take more walks when pitchers simply pitched around him.
Burleson’s game isn’t really centered around power, but he did slug 23 doubles and nine home runs in 276 plate appearances his sophomore season. The doubles were down this spring, but the homers were coming more often on a rate basis, and as I said, there were far more walks, largely due to the fact he didn’t get a whole lot to hit. College seasons are pretty small samples anyway, without trying to read too much into 75 PAs in cold weather. That doubles figure from his sophomore season is what really excites me, though; that’s what Matt Carpenter did in college, and what Dustin Pedroia did, and Chase Utley. Doubles are great. I’ll take doubles all day long.
The limited part of Burleson’s profile is all the stuff he does without a bat in his hands. He was announced as an outfielder on draft night, but I don’t really see that as a good option. He’s built a lot like Brandon Moss, and that’s about the level of speed you should expect as well. In other words, I think Burleson is a much better fit at first base than in the outfield, and while I think he looks like a pretty good first baseman, that spot is kind of occupied for the foreseeable future.
It is intriguing to me that Burleson was also a really solid pitcher in college, a finesse lefty who worked in the upper 80s with a pretty good slider/changeup combo to complement the fastball. He wasn’t announced as a two-way guy, but the option is at least there to explore, I think. I don’t know how often a guy has to pitch to stave off rust, but a big-league relief role in addition to hitting and playing first base seems doable to me.
There are two players who come to mind for me as good comps for Burleson, both first basemen with great contact skills but middling power numbers. Sean Casey had a hell of a long career, becoming one of the more beloved and respected teammates in the game over his time. Casey’s value year to year was almost entirely determined by how many home runs he hit; basically everything else in his profile was stable, and how many fly balls turns into dingers was the slider that determined how good a season he had. The other player I think of with Burleson is James Loney, another player who hung around in the big leagues for over a decade despite never living up to the expectations many had for him. Loney actually had a really strange career path; his first two partial seasons with the Dodgers he was certifiably awesome, making tons of contact and slugging 19 homers in just under 500 plate appearances. Then, beginning in 2008, his power just completely evaporated. I don’t know if there was an injury or something; I only paid attention to Loney when the Dodgers played the Cardinals, mostly, but some switch just flipped from ON to OFF for Loney, and he never again slugged above a .145 ISO rate, after being above .200 in those first two seasons.
As I said, Alec Burleson is a limited player, but he’s also a limited player whose one real standout skill is putting the barrel of the bat on the ball, and that’s always going to give a guy a chance.
Rd. 3, #93 Overall: Levi Prater, LHP, Oklahoma
As I said, picks 70 and 93 were dictated by picks 21, 54, and 63, and Levi Prater is exhibit A here. Picked at 93, he was #198 on MLB’s board and did not appear at all on FanGraphs’s draft board, which I frankly think is a little bit ridiculous. Still, my point is this: Levi Prater was not seen as a top 100 talent, yet here we are with him at pick 93.
Again, though, as with Burleson, just because you’re making a pick with bonus savings in mind, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get a guy you might think can help somewhere down the line, and Prater fits that bill. He’s a smallish lefty with mediocre stuff, yet he has always struck out far more batters than his arsenal would suggest he should, and while he’s very likely a reliever down the road, he’s got some deception and angle in his delivery that make him tough on lefties especially, but perfectly capable of busting right-handers in off the plate as well.
Prater will work around 90-92 with his fastball, and there’s a little bit of armside run to it. His slider is his bread and butter pitch, and he goes to it heavily, particularly when he needs a swing and miss. He throws a decent little changeup as well, giving him enough pitches to combat both righties and lefties effectively.
Part of what makes Prater so tough is he sets up on the extreme first base side of the pitching rubber, and then steps toward the first base line and throws across his body. It’s not quite Randy Tomlin’s bizarro delivery, but it’s enough that Prater feels like he’s throwing from behind a left-hander’s back, while righties he’s basically throwing directly toward when he works toward the inside corner. Both seem to dislike facing him.
Rd. 4, #122 Overall: Ian Bedell, RHP, Missouri
Right off the bat, let me say I love Ian Bedell the pitcher; he made my list of favourite pitchers early on, after all. But more than just liking the player, the fact the Cardinals got what I thought was a second-round talent late in the fourth round — and are apparently going to be able to sign him — is kind of amazing. Anne Rogers over at the Cards’ homepage has some signing details for Burleson and L.J. Jones, the club’s fifth round pick; between the two, it looks like the Cards managed to save about 450K against their slot numbers. Add in Prater to that mix, and the club appears to have actually managed to make all three of those high school players at the top and Bedell two rounds later than I thought he would be available work.
Bedell is one of the most polished pitchers in college baseball, and he has good enough stuff he can lean on talent when smarts aren’t getting him by. Four, possibly five pitches, plus command, and a mind for pitching are all very good ingredients to have, and when you add them up in one player I think Bedell has the chance to be a mid-rotation starter for a long time. I’m not sure the stuff is quite to the level where you might project him as more than #3/4 starter, but he could absolutely have Kyle Lohse’s career. I don’t know what the number is to sign Bedell, but the slot at 122 is $469,000. I would bet it takes close to 300K above that to get him, but I also think it’s worth it. Also worth noting he was one of the youngest college pitchers in the draft this year.
And yes, he grew up a Cardinal fan.
Rd. 5, #152 Overall: L.J. Jones, OF, Long Beach State
I’ll be honest, I had no notes whatsoever on Leonard Jones when his name was called in the fifth round. And since that time, I haven’t really come up with a ton, either. He was not heavily scouted out of high school, and missed almost his entire sophomore season after being hit in the hand with a pitch. (We call that ‘getting DeJong’d’.)
Here’s what I can tell you about Jones: he is a seriously cut dude, thickly built, and he swings a wood bat like a lot of guys swing metal. Big time bat speed, looks like huge power potential, but hasn’t really produced yet. To be fair, that lack of production could be chalked up largely to the fact he only accumulated 63 plate appearances between 2019 and ‘20, but the fact he’s barely been seen since his freshman season makes him a tremendously risky player to pick. On the other hand, the talent and physicality are definitely there, and the fact he hasn’t played probably had a lot to do with why he was willing to take a $100,000 signing bonus, saving the club a bunch of bonus space to help out with Bedell and the guys up top. He saved the team money, but he was also a very calculated gamble, with the scouting department betting on his natural athletic ability translating into production down the road, even without much of a track record. Burleson and Prater were money saving picks, but the team was betting on guys who have performed. In the case of Jones, the club is betting on a guy who has never really gotten the chance to perform. It’s a different approach, obviously, but still a very smart one, I think.
The swing needs some refining with Jones, and I’m not sure how athletic he is in the outfield, having very little knowledge of his overall game. But there’s bat speed and a lot of natural strength, and betting on power potential is certainly a worthwhile endeavour, I believe.
Overall, I think Randy Flores and his group once again did a fairly remarkable job with this draft. In looking at my mock board against what the Cardinals did, you can see that I approached this class in a much different way, leaning into the strengths of the draft a little more fully and focusing on players I thought would produce value, rather than looking for upside and taking risks, which is what the club did. Regardless, though, the way to grade a draft is not how closely you agree with the individual picks (although every so often you so vehemently disagree with a choice you can’t help but bring it up), but how intelligently the overall plan seemed to have been executed. Every pick the Cardinals made has beautifully thought out logic behind it, and moving on Bedell when he fell and the club had some wiggle room in the budget was, I think, a brilliant move. It was going to be very hard to extract a great amount of value from this year’s draft, but if any club managed it I think it was probably the Cardinals. Once again, despite picking in the latter third of the first round, I think they managed to accumulate as much talent as pretty much any club did in 2020.