I’m starting a new series of articles here at Viva El Birdos: “what you need to know about …” The premise is to give you readers a primer on some of the young players who are coming up through the system and ready to compete for playing time in the majors. The purpose is not to provide a full prospect profile; we have minor league experts here at VEB and friends of the site who can do that at a higher level than me. Instead, we’ll look at the player’s skills, stats, and projections through the lens of the Major League roster and its needs.
We’re starting with the player who did so much to raise their stock with their minor league performance that they earned their way onto the Wild Card roster. Of course, I’m talking about Juan Yepez.
First, some context on how Yepez reached the cusp of the majors. Our own A.E. Schafer has written about Yepez many times but I want to highlight his write-up on Yepez in the Cardinals Prospect Rankings back in January of 2020. This report is a great starting point to understand Yepez’s development and growth as a prospect before his breakout. Read it because A.E. nailed it!
At the end, Schafer concluded, “If he’s good, it will look like: The bat-first lower end of the spectrum utility player is kind of a Cardinal classic profile at this point, and there’s really no better comp for Yepez to be shooting toward than Allen Craig. How realistic that level of hitter may be should come into sharper focus in 2020.”
What made his bat so intriguing that Schafer would comp him to Allen Craig?
After floundering around rookie leagues and A ball for several seasons, he finally broke out over 25 games in Peoria in 2018. His 198 wRC+ earned him a promotion to Palm Beach where he stalled again. The next year, 2019, the club cycled him back to Peoria. He excelled, producing a 147 wRC+ and a .284/.366/.500 slash line in 115 PAs. That earned him a second shot at Palm Beach and this time he stuck. At age 21, Yepez hit .275/.351/.431. That might not look exciting but PB is murder on power hitters; that line was good for a .365 wOBA and a 136 wRC+ and earned him a late-season trial at AA that we’re going to ignore.
Of course, 2020 never happened for Yepez. From what I can tell – and someone please correct me if I’m wrong – Yepez was not invited to the Alternate Training Site with the Cardinals.
That meant he entered the Rule 5 draft in November of 2020 with a full year out of baseball and a bat-first profile that he had only flashed at A ball. Here you can see my first write-up on Yepez. I suggested that the Cardinals pass on protecting him in the Rule 5 draft, believing that no team would want to suffer through his limited defense in a bench role on long-shot odds that his bat would develop. The Cardinals agreed. Yepez slipped through and entered 2021 set to return to AA in what was probably a make-or-break season at age 23.
Remember Schafer’s Allen Craig comp? At age 23 Craig spent a full season in AA and had a .304/.373/.494 line with a 129 wRC+. He limited K’s, walked more than he had at any other point in his career, and cracked 22 homers.
Yepez only had 19 games at the level but it was more than enough for him to outshine Craig. He hit .270/.387/.571 with a 153 wRC+. His K rate was just 16.9%. He walked 11.7% of the time. All of those little things that Yepez had flashed so inconsistently in the minors came together in a monster way.
Was it just a small sample size? Nope! The Cards’ were extremely aggressive with their promotions post-COVID. They bumped Yepez up to Memphis and he just never stopped hitting. His AAA line looks the same as Springfield: .289/.382/.589. That’s a 154 wRC+ over 357 plate appearances with the same walk rate and a slightly elevated K rate: 19.3%.
Not only did Yepez outperform Craig at the same levels, he did it in a way that’s more projectable. Craig was a very productive minor league player, but his offense was built entirely on a higher-than-normal BABIP – batting average on balls in play. This is a trait that the Cards were actively targeting at the time. (See also Jon Jay, David Freese, and Matt Carpenter.)
Yepez’s huge offensive numbers came with a below-expected BABIP in Springfield and dead-on neutral in Memphis. That’s great news as it means that not only was his MiLB performance real but it’s highly projectable.
Schafer doesn’t have prospect reviews up this early following the season but “friend of the site” Kyle Reis has gotten his work in early over at Birds on the Black. In his “Dirty Flirty”, Reis has Yepez ranked #6 in the Cardinals system and has a wonderful article filled with gifs, positives, and areas for improvement. If you’re looking for a full, up-to-date prospect report, give Kyle the click and read that he deserves!
Scouting minor league prospects isn’t my thing. Projection systems, though, are my jam. With his neutral BABIP and stable performance across two levels at the same age, Yepez’s stats are relatively easy to project to the major leagues.
So far we only have Fangraph’s STEAMER system and it loves Yepez. With Depth Charts not yet available, they have his plate appearances very low – just 36 – but the rate stats won’t change as his playing time projections increase. The system has Yepez with a .265/.328/.481 slash line with a .344 wOBA and a 119 wRC+. That comes with a low-to-my-eyes 7.6% walk rate (his earlier minor league numbers are affecting that) and a 19.9% strikeout rate that might be a tad optimistic. They’re giving him a .216 ISO and a just-below-neutral .289 BABIP.
If I was running his projections by hand, I would have given him a slightly higher OBP and maybe cut into his power a little because of Busch. The end result, though, would be the same – a wRC+ in the 115-120 range.
If we bump up his STEAMER plate appearances to match a “platoon-level” starter role – 450 PAs – he would end up with around 25 HR’s and a 1.25 fWAR, with a -11.3 DEF and neutral baserunning.
Don’t freak out about that WAR total. Us National Leaguers will need to recalibrate our understanding of WAR for the DH, assuming it is in place beginning in 2022. STEAMER doesn’t have a positional projection for Yepez yet, but his projected DEF of -11.3 fits with the positional adjustments for designated hitters. The closest comparable qualified DH from 2021 is Nelson Cruz, who hit .265/.334/.497 with a 122 wRC+. That was good for just a 2.0 fWAR in 584 plate appearances. Yepez’s WAR/PA rate projects a little behind that pace over the same number of PAs.
So, no, Juan Yepez, despite very intriguing offensive projections, isn’t likely to have a huge impact on the roster in terms of Wins Above Replacement. Defensively he’s limited and the positions he might be able to play are already occupied by soon-to-be Gold Glove winners. The DH, meanwhile, has a high floor and a low ceiling in terms of fWAR production because qualified DHs are almost universally bat-first players who don’t contribute anything to a huge chunk of a baseball game: defense.
It seems likely that the Cardinals will use the DH position to cycle days off for core players. Someone like Yepez provides the perfect complement to that approach. He could play DH most of the time, while also rotating into the field occasionally to give players like Goldschmidt, Carlson, or O’Neill a day off.
Because of his defensive limitations, I have speculated that the Cardinals might find a lefty utility infielder who can challenge Yepez, provide some needed thump against right-handed arms, and better cover the team defensively. “Someone like Brad Miller” is how I’ve phrased that a few places.
Yepez’s minor league splits are causing me to reconsider that path. In 2021 Yepez hit slightly better against righty pitchers (.989 OPS) than he did lefties (.909). That split was more pronounced in 2019 where Yepez struggled against lefties (.515 OPS) in a tiny sample size of 50 PAs.
If we just plug Brad Miller into my “someone like Brad Miller” suggestion, it’s hard to see the benefit. Miller hit .244/.354/.488 against righties with a 123 wRC+ last year. That’s exactly what Yepez is projected to hit. Miller can play a few more positions but we know he can’t play them well defensively. The Cardinals are not going to find a player who hits that well against righties and provides quality defense to be a part-time DH. Such a player will expect to be an infield starter and be paid as such.
That leads me back to Yepez, with his lack of platoon splits, as a solid starting option for the DH spot, knowing that the club has some protection offensively and defensively from the bench players that we can currently project. Like Lars Nootbaar as a left-handed fourth outfielder who can play all three outfield positions. Edmundo Sosa is an elite-fielding middle infielder who is best-served in a bench role. Paul DeJong could be a bench player and competitor at DH if the Cards go find themselves a starting shortstop and keep him around.
Plus, the wave of MLB-ready players in the high minors is deeper than you might think. Nolan Gorman, if he’s not starting at 2b to begin the season, will need regular MLB plate appearances by mid-season. Brendan Donovan, Nick Plummer, and maybe even Alec Burleson might be in play for bench at-bats at some point during the season. All of those players are lefty hitters.
With all that depth, why would the Cardinals clutter up the roster by signing a veteran designated hitter and utility infielder? They shouldn’t!
Yepez’s bat looks very promising. The DH provides a space to hide his lack of a glove. The club’s on-the-verge lefty depth provides enough cover in case Yepez can’t convert his minor league performance to the majors. This seems like the perfect way for the Cards to give their young hitters the chance to progress and impress without much risk.
What do you need to know about Juan Yepez? He’s an exciting offense-first prospect with some positional flexibility but little defensive ability who has earned the chance to win the starting DH position on the Cardinals, assuming it comes to the NL in 2022.