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The Cardinals’ Strong Start to the Winter

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Adding both minor league depth and upside is a great start to the winter.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few weeks, the St. Louis Cardinals have replenished a minor league system lacking upper level pitching depth. The team moved quickly to add three pitchers and re-sign two that that were brought into the organization recently. Domingo Robles was acquired in late September of 2020 and Tyler Pike was signed to a minor league contract in May. Clearly the organization saw enough from the pair to give them another season.

The three new pitchers are LJay Newsome, James Naile, and Kyle Ryan. Ryan has been bouncing between Triple-A and the majors since 2014, Naile has over 200 innings of Triple-A experience and Newsome, who is much younger than the other two, has less Triple-A experience, but he has thrown 30 major league innings in the last two seasons.

Ryan and Naile both generate a lot of ground balls while Newsome’s best trait is his excellent control. These three pitchers present a clear strategy from the Cardinals. The team is acquiring pitchers who generate ground balls and limit walks. It is a continuation of the team’s strategy in the second half of the 2021 season, and it could also foreshadow the Cardinals interest in someone like Marcus Stroman.

This pitching depth being built by the Cardinals will hopefully prevent some of the problems that the team faced last year. When injuries occur in 2022, the team will now have some experienced pitchers who will get a major boost from the team’s defense. Pitchers who limit walks and get ground balls should at least be able to provide adequate cover when someone gets hurt.

Both Robles (5.8% BB%, 2.36 BB/9) and Pike (5.4% BB%, 2.10 BB/9) kept low walk rates this year, so it makes sense that the Cardinals kept them around. If the front office had let them sign elsewhere in free agency, then it would have simply looked for pitchers with similar attributes. Besides that, there is reason to believe that both pitchers can improve next year. Starting with Pike, the left-hander’s 3.23 FIP was much better than his 4.85 ERA. One thing that he suffered from was a high BABIP (.366). With Robles, His 6.09 ERA wasn’t great, but his 5.21 FIP was at least better. The problem for him was a high home run rate (1.77 HR/9). In 2021 he allowed a home run on 15.9% of his fly balls. In 2019, at the same level (Double-A), the right-hander allowed a home run on just 9.2% of his fly balls (1.14 HR/9). Both of these pitchers spent the season in Double-A, and they will provide solid pitching depth next year.

On the pitching side, the Cardinals have focused on bringing in experienced groundballers with low walk rates, but on the hitting side, the Cardinals have focused on upside. The team has signed a pair of former well regarded minor league free agents.

To begin with, Moises Gomez was brought in from the Tampa Bay Rays. The 23-year-old outfielder broke out in Single-A in 2018, with 19 home runs, a .503 slugging percentage, and a 131 wRC+. As a result, Baseball America ranked him as the tenth best prospect in the Rays system to begin 2019. In 2019, his power declined and his strike out rate went up, but so did his walk rate. It was not nearly as successful of a season in High-A, but he still finished with a 106 wRC+. In Double-A this year, the outfielder lost his power and struck out in 38.2% of his plate appearances. He finished with a 58 wRC+.

Even though Gomez struggled in 2021, he has been among the Rays top 30 prospect in each of the last three seasons. Prior to this season, he was ranked 22nd by Baseball America. The right-handed hitter was also ranked as the best power hitter in the Rays system in each of the last two seasons. If the Cardinals can get him to make more contact, then he will be a very good hitter. For a minor league free agent, he is still young and has plenty of ceiling left.

Anderson Tejeda was also brought in from the Texas Rangers. He is someone who was greatly affected by the lost 2020 minor league season. In 2019, the shortstop reached High-A and tallied a 104 wRC+. In 2020, he played 23 games in the majors. Despite such a huge jump, the switch hitter was able to post a 93 wRC+ and be worth 0.2 fWAR. His 39% strikeout rate and 2.6% walk rate were not pretty, but he did hit three home runs in 77 plate appearances. It was clearly too soon for Tejeda to be playing in the bigs, but he at least held his own. In 2021, however, Tejeda struggled in Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors.

Before 2021, Tejeda had never finished a minor league season as a below average hitter. He is still just 23 years old and was ranked by Baseball America as the Rangers tenth best prospect heading into the season. He was ranked as high as fifth in 2019. He was also ranked as having the best infield arm and best infield defense in the Rangers system in each of the last three seasons. This kind of a signing is good for a Cardinals system that lacks high upside shortstops. The signing provides competition for Delvin Perez, who has yet to prove that he can hit, and Tejeda could surpass the former first round pick if he can rebound in 2022.

The Cardinals have done an excellent job of adding depth and upside to the minor league system by signing minor league free agents. Not only does this help provide injury cover, but it also provides competition, and gives the Cardinals some high ceiling players who could rebound in 2022. More signings could be on the way soon, since the 40-man roster stands at 36, though those signings may be for the major league pitching staff. Many teams add depth with minor league signings, but the Cardinals have been able to bring in formerly well regarded prospects that should give the system a boost in 2022.