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Minor leaguers in Cards system are closer than they appear

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A good 2020 season that never happened doesn’t mean they’re still stuck where they were at the end of 2019.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I recently completed a fantasy baseball auction - don’t worry this post is not about fantasy - and in that auction, Keegan Akin was drafted. Akin is a very interesting person to draft, because projections hate him, but he had 25.2 strong innings last season that suggests he might be decent at fantasy. And the reason I point this out is because projections have never been less reliable than right now.

Let’s look at Akin. In effect, his projection is bad because he has bad stats in AAA, mediocre stats throughout the minors before that, and only 25 good innings in the MLB which still came with a high-ish ERA. But 2019 was the year baseball decided to break AAA. Very few pitchers came out unscathed. Akin’s stats only look bad if you ignore what was happening around AAA. Make no mistake: they’re not good, but they’re perfectly in line with just about every pitcher, which was consistent with his performance prior to 2019.

Akin’s probably not good, but that’s not my point. My point is that for certain players for certain reasons, I think projection systems are virtually useless for 2021. Think about all the players who got promoted to the MLB last year who only got a shot because the MLB was the only game in town and might as well give this young kid a chance. Think about all the players whose development was in line for playing in AAA for most of 2020 who instead never played in AAA. In theory, those guys who should have played most of 2020 in AAA should be ready for the majors in 2021, but we have nothing to use here. Projection systems are certainly not going to say a guy who last played in AA is ready right now.

So I thought I’d highlight Cardinals players who could be much closer to the big leagues than it appears. Even though I led this post off talking about the uselessness of projections for minor leaguers who should have been in line for an MLB chance, this has nothing to do with projections. This is just imagining an alternate universe where there was no COVID and players could progress as planned.

Justin Williams

Okay so this one is about projections. Williams might have the unluckiest timing I’ve ever seen. Because of injuries and COVID-19, Williams has come to the plate for the Memphis Redbirds just 195 times since the trading deadline of 2018. He has received just a shade over 250 PAs total as a Cardinal in two years and two months. Because of 2020, instead of seeing what Williams could do in AAA last year, we have six plate appearances in the majors in three games.

So we kind of just have to imagine how his AAA season would have went. There’s a wide range of outcomes possible here. If he crushed AAA like he did in 2019, we might think we have an MLB starter on our hands. If he reverted back to the 95 wRC+ he had as a Ray - which he did when he was 22 mind you - then we wouldn’t even see him as an MLBer and he might have been DFA’d already. We have very little idea of what Justin Williams is because he hasn’t even been able to come to the plate the last two and half years.

Ali Sanchez

This one is also about projections. Ali Sanchez has a 51 wRC+ projection by ZiPS, but here’s his history. He had a 93, 93, and then 99 wRC+ in A ball, A+ ball, and AA leading upon a midseason promotion to AAA in 2019. He appeared in just 21 games and got 65 PAs and was very bad - 40 wRC+. He was 22. This is a guy who should probably not have appeared in the MLB in 2020, but he did and was quite bad in just 10 PAs.

What does his projection look like if he continued the trend of 90+ wRC+ in AAA in 2020? Not good, but certainly better than a 51 wRC+, which is quite literally unplayable no matter how good your defense is. He repeated A ball back in 2018, and followed a 62 wRC+ season with a 93 wRC+ season. Who’s to say that couldn’t have happened in AAA last year?

Julio Rodriguez

To be fair to ZiPS that 51 wRC+ is based on more than a 40 wRC+ in just 65 PAs. Because Rodriguez last played in AA for just 14 games and had a 57 wRC+ and Rodriguez has a better hitting projection than Sanchez. Nonetheless, Rodriguez did something exciting in 2019. He was very good at Palm Beach, the famous killer of hitters in the Cards farm system. After a 93 wRC+ at Peoria, he had a 115 wRC+ in Palm Beach, which prompted a promotion to Springfield where he had that 57 wRC+. 2020 was supposed to be him bouncing back and maybe finishing the year in Memphis. Instead he looks a lot farther away from the big leagues.

Luken Baker

Baker was primed for a breakout in Springfield. Like Rodriguez, he had a 115 wRC+ at Palm Beach and actually had more power there than in Peoria. He had sneaky power considering the environment. There’s no such thing as sneaky power in Springfield. Baker would have (or could have) crushed Springfield to the point of a Memphis appearance by the end of the year. Instead, he’ll start the year in Springfield at 24. (Maybe, I don’t actually know how minor league assignments will work in this new world order)

Brendan Donovan

Nobody got more screwed by 2020 than older prospects. The Cardinals, in the past ten or so years, have thrived on older prospects. Donovan could follow that tradition. Donovan was drafted as a 3B, but transitioned to 2B in 2019. He spent the whole year at Peoria, probably because he was learning a new position. He certainly did enough to get promoted, but never really did. Well, he got promoted to Memphis for one game, where he doubled and walked in his only two plate appearances, but that barely counts.

Donovan is now 24 and has two plate appearances above A ball. If I had to guess, if the Cardinals believe in him at all, they will send him to Springfield, which would be aggressive if not for the fact that we missed an entire year. Donovan had a very good walk rate (13.1%), below average K rate (19%) and decent pop in a pitcher’s park (.139 ISO), so he seems like a guy who can handle himself at AA.

Lars Nootbar/Justin Toerner

I have a similar case for both players so it felt dumb to talk about them separately. Both were drafted in the 2018 draft. Nootbar struggled at State College, while Toerner thrived. While Nootbar spent the entire season there, the Cardinals promoted Toerner very late in the year to Peoria, and after going 10-20 with 5 walks, they promoted him again to Palm Beach for his last 10 games, where he had a 134 wRC+.

Nootbar started the 2019 season in Peoria and then was aggressively promoted at the slightest hint of a good performance. After just 29 games in Peoria, he was promoted to Palm Beach, and after 39 games there, he was promoted to Springfield. His ISO went from .198 to .063 to .043 as he got promoted, but he managed above average lines because he never struck out at Palm Beach and he walked a lot and had a high BABIP at Springfield. Toerner meanwhile had a 142 wRC+ at Palm Beach and it took the Cardinals 54 games to promote him and then he had a 103 wRC+ in 49 games in Springfield.

Point being, both guys advanced faster than you’d probably expect and both ended the years being mostly overmatched but somehow still managing an above average wRC+ in spite of that. By the trajectory they were on, both seemed destined to be considered options for the MLB squad at some point in 2021. And maybe they still are. For what it’s worth, the Cards don’t really seem to believe in Toerner, but he keeps hitting his way to promotion. It just took a very long time for him to get out of Palm Beach. Nootbar, on the other hand, the Cardinals really seem to believe in because he certainly didn’t play that well at Palm Beach.

Angel Rondon

I’m a big believer in Rondon. Rondon, at the age of 21, pitched pretty good at Springfield. He was certainly destined for Memphis to begin 2020. If he pitched well at Memphis at the age of 22, he’d be the first man up going into 2021. I’m not comparing him to Jack Flaherty, but it could be reminiscent of the year Flaherty began the year in AAA, when we were all just waiting for him to get promoted already. And while nobody will exactly be demanding his presence in the MLB, he may very well force his way onto the roster at some point since that was not an implausible scenario to imagine with a good AAA season in 2020.

Matthew Liberatore/Zach Thompson

These are admittedly not that similar players, except for being left-handed. Liberatore, while being a top prospect, never really had the expectation to be a fast riser. Thompson meanwhile was as good of a prospect as he was partially for the expectation that he would be in the big leagues very soon.

However, both could be contenders to pitch for the 2021 Cardinals at some point, which looks pretty absurd if you look at their history. Liberatore has a total of 78.1 innings at A ball and has never pitched above that level. Thompson has just 13 innings in the bullpen at Palm Beach. But Liberatore, apparently, made huge strides in the alternate spring training camp. While his 2021 impact would probably be the bullpen, he may very well skip Palm Beach and start the year at Springfield. If things went well, he’d probably have started the year in Springfield in the alternate history after all.

Thompson was supposed to rise in the system so fast that he was being compared to Michael Wacha. Wacha made an MLB appearance a little over a year after he was drafted. Thompson never got a chance to do that because last year was when it would have been a little over a year after being drafted. In any case, given his reputation, the Cardinals will be fairly aggressive with him and I’m curious to see where he starts the year.

Domingo Robles

You may be wondering: who the hell is this? Well, that question is the only reason I looked at his page. The Cardinals traded for him last September for international bonus slot money. Just scouting the stat line here, seems like a weird guy for the Pirates to trade. He’s turning 23 in April and already has a full season of AA. Which means he pitched at AA at 21-years-old. And he was decent there. He didn’t strike anyone out but he didn’t walk anyone either. And again, he was 21 in AA.

I suspect the Cardinals either believed they could unlock a hidden strikeout ability or they think they can convert him into a good reliever. Either way, he wasn’t far away from AAA back in 2019 and nothing has really changed since.

Jacob Patterson

For what it’s worth, Patterson has a halfway decent projection from ZiPS right now, especially for a guy who’s never seen AAA. He was impressive enough in his debut season at Johnson City to skip all the way to Palm Beach for his second pro season. He pitched well enough for a promotion to Springfield to start 2019 where he struggled a bit more. But mostly just at giving up homers. He struck out 29.8% of batters while walking just 6.9%. When batters did make contact, they hit him. He had a 5.55 ERA, 4.80 FIP, and 3.26 xFIP.

Back then, he was 23. Now he’s 25. He missed a year of adjustment. With the way relievers work, he could have progressed fast enough last year to make an MLB appearance. At the same time, with the way relievers work, him being 25 isn’t as much of a problem as it could otherwise be.

Jacob Bosiokovic

Bosiokovic, who if he ever makes the majors is gonna need a nickname because I am not typing that every time, was drafted in the AAA Rule 5 draft after the 2019 season. He is notable, because he converted from being an OF/1B type to a pitcher. What caused him to be drafted was that he had a very decent 23.2 K% and 3.70 FIP in A ball for his first try at professional pitching. He’s already 27, but like I said with Patterson, age matters much less with relief pitchers. In an ideal scenario, he would have started last year in Palm Beach and gotten promoted quickly because Palm Beach.

I could have named just about every Cardinals minor leaguer, but these names just stuck out to me as guys whose 2020 could have positively shaped their future and instead we’re just stuck hoping that lost year doesn’t hurt them. In some cases, alternate spring training may have functioned as a way to improve, but not every player mentioned here went there so it is a genuine lost year for those guys. But I’ll certainly be tracking where they all go and how well they’re doing and how quickly or slowly they’re promoted.