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Non-Roster Names to Watch: Pitching

The Cardinals have released their spring schedule, along with a list of non-roster invitees. Let’s examine the list, to see which pitchers could have a shot to break camp with the club.

The Cardinals announced their Spring Training schedule this week.

Pitchers and catchers will report this coming Wednesday, with the full squad following on Monday. The first spring game will be on Feb. 28 against the Nationals. The spring season features multiple evening games, which will hopefully make their way onto Fox Sports Midwest or whatever they’re calling that these days. Here’s the spring schedule from Roger Dean stadium:

All of that leads up to an April 1st Opening Day road game against Cincinnati at 3:10.

With those scheduling details finalized, the Cardinals also published their list of Non-Roster Invitees.

Today, I want to take a glance at the pitching side of this list to see if it includes any surprise contenders to break camp and also to bring attention to names who might find their way into a roster spot later in the season. I want to consider this list from three different perspectives: the elite prospects who are nearing the majors, MLB-ready plug-and-pitch arms, and under-the-radar contributors who could force their way into the playing time if circumstances break their way.

High-Impact Prospects: Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore

Zack Thompson – Thompson gets the slightest of nods over Liberatore on my “likely to reach the majors” scale simply because of the Cardinals’ history with refined college pitchers. Luke Weaver got a taste of the majors in 2016 after being drafted in ’14 and spending all of ’15 at A+. Marco Gonzales was drafted in ’13 and appeared in 34.2 MLB innings the next season. Michael Wacha was the most extreme example. He was drafted in ’12 before throwing 85 AAA innings and starting 9 games for the Cardinals the next season. Dakota Hudson was drafted in ’16 and reached the majors in a relief role in ’18. Unless I’m missing someone, the Cardinals have rushed all of their first-round college arms since Wacha to the majors within two years of their draft.

Could Thompson be next? It seems likely. Thompson only has 15.1 professional innings so far, but in those 15 innings, he has dominated, K’ing 23 batters in his first 15 pro innings. His FIP in A+ was a minuscule 2.03 in the year he was drafted. He spent last season at the Alternate Training Site, facing MLB-caliber hitters like Austin Dean, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, and Edmundo Sosa and receiving rave reviews. Despite the lost season, it seems likely that the Cardinals will aggressively promote him to AA or AAA to break camp. Meanwhile, Austin Gomber’s trade opens the door for a high-impact swing lefty to sneak onto the MLB roster. Considering the club’s history, we should pretty much expect Thompson to debut with the Cardinals sometime later this season if there’s an injury on the left side of the bullpen. If he balls out this spring that timetable could be accelerated. It would be a huge surprise if he broke camp with the Cardinals, but I would not rule it out.

Matthew Liberatore – The Cardinals have not been as aggressive with prep arms as with college pitchers but they also don’t have as many examples. Jack Flaherty fits as a potential comp since both pitchers flashed elite movement early in their pro careers with solid command/control rates. Flaherty was drafted in ’14. He threw 95 innings in a full season at A ball as a 19-year-old in ’15. He followed that with 134 innings in A+ in ’16. Flaherty displayed excellent control, the ability to generate strikeouts, and low HR numbers. In ’17, the club loosened the reigns and he advanced from AA, through AAA, and into a brief stint in the MLB rotation, where he scuffled at age 21. The next year he was ready to slide into a rotation spot in the case of injury, and well, the rest is history.

Liberatore has followed a similar path. He also spent his age-19 season in A-ball, producing Flaherty-like stats. His age-20 season was stolen by COVID, but he did spend the summer playing up against mature hitters at the ATS. In a normal year, Liberatore likely would have spent ’20 in A+ with a potential promotion to AA if things went well. Where will he start now? My guess is that the club starts him at AA with an eagerness to move him to AAA quickly.

Could he advance faster than Thompson? He could but I don’t expect it. Liberatore has more elite upside than Thompson. To me, this is similar to a Hudson vs. Flaherty debate. Flaherty never left the rotation in the minors or the majors. I prefer that path for Liberatore. Hudson got his feet wet in the pen and circled back as a starter when a spot opened for him. I’m fine with Thompson taking that route if there is a need. Ideally, both players will be competing for a rotation spot at some point in 2022.

MLB-ready plug-and-pitch arms: Jesus Cruz and Johan Quezada

Jesus Cruz – In ’19, Cruz provided 57.2 AAA relief innings, with a 12.33 K/9 and a high BB rate. That experience earned him a brief stint with the COVID-ravaged Cardinals in 2020, where he gave up 2 runs in his 1 inning of work. His overall AAA numbers aren’t all that inspiring, but few players looked good pitching in the PCL in 2019. Still, if the Cardinals go looking for someone to could give them replacement-level relief innings in a pinch, it’s Cruz. And with the K numbers he has carried through the minors, he could have a future in an MLB bullpen, if he can keep his BB and HR totals under control.

Johan Quezada – I intended to limit my article to the NRI’s, but, instead of recycling old opinions about Roel Ramirez, I thought I would introduce VEB readers to newcomer Johan Quezada. Quezada was acquired from the Phillies this past week for cash considerations. He is on the 40-man roster. Like Cruz, Quezada found himself pitching in the majors to cover a COVID outbreak. He threw 3 innings with the Marlins in 2020 after only advancing to A+ in 2019 with the Twins. Quezada walks a lot of guys. He also doesn’t strike out as many as you would like considering his high-octane fastball. Still, he has a huge frame, one a big pitch, and some MLB exposure. That makes him a bullpen candidate. The Cardinals love hard-throwing arms. They also don’t seem to care about walks. Quezada fits that mold, which means he has a chance to be in the bullpen this season.

Under-the-Radar Names to Watch: Austin Warner, Evan Kruczynski

Austin Warner – Tony Locey was going to fit here for me. Since he was traded to the Rockies in the Arenado deal, Austin Warner slides into this spot. Warner is a 26-year-old lefty who had an impressive AA season in ’19. In 82.1 innings, Warner had a K/9 rate approaching 10, a BB/9 under 3, and limited HRs, producing an ERA/FIP/xFIP all under 4. That didn’t translate upon his promotion to AAA, but, again, I just throw out ’19 PCL stats. That profile of solid K’s, limited BBs, and acceptable HR numbers can play well at Busch. If you’re looking for a player not named Zack Thompson who could slide into the gap left by Austin Gomber, Warner is probably the guy. ZiPS agrees, giving him .9 fWAR if he were to throw 125 innings in the majors. That’s a minor league translation worth noticing.

Evan Kruczynski – Kruczynski has several things going for him in his pursuit of reaching the majors. The first is an awesome name. It’s worth promoting him just to hear Mike Shannon try to pronounce Cruise-zen-ski after a few ice-cold Budweisers. The second is he’s a lefty with AAA experience. That’s enough to make this kind of list, isn’t it? Kruczynski is 25. He’s primarily been a starter. He had solid success through AA in ’18. In ’19 the PCL struck. His solid array of pitches, decent control, and relatively strong ability to limit HRs could play up a little in a relief role. He has a legitimate shot to make it in the majors.