The St. Louis Cardinals minor league system struggled in 2021. The Memphis Redbirds had the best record in the system at 61-67. No other full season affiliate had a winning percentage above .375. While this may be concerning in a normal situation, it does not mean the system is bad. In fact, there was a group of prospects who distinguished themselves at the upper levels of the minors this season. The problem was that the system was young, and that the lost 2020 minor league season cost players a year of game experience.
For instance, Peoria had the second youngest group of hitters in the league. Springfield and Memphis both had the youngest group of hitters in their respective leagues. On the pitching side, Palm Beach had the youngest group of arms in the league. Peoria’s pitching staff was tied for second youngest in the league and Memphis’ was the youngest in the league. This is not a great recipe for success in terms of wins and losses.
For the sake of comparison, the Rays, who won nearly every minor league championship this year, had a much older system than the Cardinals. The Cardinals had younger hitters, on average, at every single level of the minors, including the DSL. The same is true of the pitching staffs, except the Springfield pitching staff was older than the Double-A staff of the Rays. Sometimes, these average age differences were up to a year and a half. Such a large difference helps explain why the Cardinals struggled in the minors this year.
The Rays almost certainly have a better farm system than the Cardinals, but it is not wrong to say that the Cardinals would have performed better in the minor leagues with more experienced players. Thus, the Cardinals struggles in the minor leagues this year should not be cause for concern. Upper level pitching depth was a slight problem, which is why the Cardinals signed Tyler Pike and Kevin McGovern during the season and assigned them to Springfield. This is a problem that should be alleviated in a year or two when draft picks from recent years move up.
There were plenty of success stories from this season, which demonstrates the strength of the system. In fact, the Cardinals once again have a group of talented outfield prospects with no room on the major league roster. Because of this, the team should not be afraid to trade one of them for younger prospects. The Cardinals could use a stronger group of shortstops and pitching depth is always needed. The minor league system is not as bad as it may appear (based on record), but it could still benefit from a trade of an upper level outfielder, considering that the outfield is a position of depth.
Lars Nootbaar’s breakout earned him the fourth outfielder role. Nick Plummer finally reached Triple-A after toiling in the minors since 2015 due to his breakout year. Alec Burleson arrived in Memphis in his first professional season. Former undrafted outfielder Matt Koperniak reached Double-A in his first professional season. He is a tier below the first three names, but he is still worth mentioning.
Because of this extensive upper level minor league depth, the Cardinals will once again need to figure out how to maximize the talents of these players. The problem for them is that Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, and Dylan Carlson all appear to be long term fixtures of the major league lineup.
To resolve this logjam, the Cardinals may make a trade to shore up a weaker part of the system. This is what the team did with Randy Arozarena, and it would not be surprising to see it happen again. Pitching and middle infielders are obvious spots to improve.
Of the names listed above, Nick Plummer seems to be the most obvious trade candidate. Plummer has always had an exceptionally high walk rate, but this season he added power and average to the mix, while slashing his strikeout rate. He made all of the necessary changes to become a strong hitter. The reason that he is the most obvious trade candidate is because he is 25 years old. Burleson has yet to turn 23, and Nootbaar is currently raking in the Arizona Fall League. The AFL has been very hitter friendly, but Nootbaar’s success is still impressive. It also seems unlikely that the Cardinals would use one of their eight spots in the AFL to audition a player to other teams. Rather, the fact that Nootbaar is in the AFL shows that the Cardinals think highly of him.
It is possible that someone blows the Cardinals away in an offer for Nootbaar, but he seems the least likely to be traded right now. His success as a fourth outfielder this year makes him a strong candidate for around 300 or more plate appearances next season. This makes him perhaps the least likely trade candidate.
Burlseon had an impressive year, but his production slowed at Triple-A. A full season in Triple-A could make him a DH candidate or significantly raise his trade value. Also, since he was drafted in 2020 and is still just 22, the team is not likely to trade him yet.
Plummer’s age, combined with his high BABIP in 2021, makes him the most logical trade candidate. He will lose a lot of value if the Cardinals hold onto him all season and he becomes a 26-year-old prospect with no major league experience. Now seems like a prime time to fortify the pitching or shortstop ranks in the system by offloading Plummer.
This is essentially what happened when the team traded Arozarena. He was not seen as having a clear path to playing time heading into his age 25 season, and so the Cardinals traded him and strengthened their starting pitching ranks.
Before Arozarena, the Cardinals traded Oscar Mercado prior to the 2018 trade deadline for similar reasons. In both trades the Cardinals received younger prospects.
Plummer is a year older than Arozarena was when he was traded to Rays. Though the team does not have to trade any of their outfielders this winter, a Nick Plummer trade in particular should be something that the front office considers. A trade may even be a probable outcome considering how this front office has handled similar situations.