Last week the Cardinals called up lefty center fielder Scott Hurst – a name I was barely familiar with – from the Alternate Training Site. That sparked an immediate curiosity and a question that we’ll answer below.
First, how did this happen? Hurst is living out his life-long dream because Lane Thomas’s might have just come to a spectacular and sudden end. In 2019, Thomas was a reserve outfielder and lumped in with Tyler O’Neill and Justin Williams as someone that Mo and Shildt wanted to “get a look at”.
That desire has shaped the way the Cardinals have formed their starting and depth outfield for the past few seasons. The club shipped out Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, Randy Arozarena, and Dexter Fowler over the last few years to create space for those players. Throw Adolis Garcia and Oscar Mercado into that group too, if you’re really wanting to keep score at home.
The club has also not seriously pursued a starting-caliber outfielder on the free-agent or trade markets since the Ozuna trade and they’ve limited their reserve outfield acquisitions to AAAA-caliber players – like Austin Dean.
Heading into 2021, the club believed that with Harrison Bader and his elite glove locked into center and Dylan Carlson and his potentially elite bat starting somewhere, the club should be able to get one other starter and a backup out of the O’Neill, Thomas, and Williams triumvirate, with Dean available in support.
It hasn’t worked out so far. Injuries to Bader and O’Neill plus Thomas’ collapse have challenged the Cardinals’ depth and forced them to consider options they would not normally want to consider.
The long string of intriguing MLB-ready outfielders that the Cardinals have had since the Jon Jay days ends at Justin Williams. The highest-rated Cardinals outfield prospects are in A-ball or below – guys like Jhon Torres and Tre Fletcher. The club was forced to fill out the outfield portion of their Alternate Training Site roster with AA-caliber prospects with a mixed bag of underwhelming tools, such as Hurst, Conner Capel, and Lars Nootbar. None of them were listed in Fangraphs recently released Cardinals’ top 35 prospects.
Capel is a lefty centerfielder with a brief stop in AAA in 2019. He profiles as a “future value” 40 player – AAAA caliber – with a little power and a solid defensive tool. Nootbar has the best name in the sport. He also has John Nogowski-like plate discipline and a body that implies power, even if it isn’t realized. He only has 33 games in AA.
Then there is Hurst, who seemed like the least likely player from that group to actually reach the majors. Yet, here he is!
If you want the low-down on Hurst, Skyricesq has provided all the relevant information right here. Our own Red Baron also has a few write-ups about him. The other day, Kyle Reiss – a great follow for prospect analysis on Twitter and at Birds on the Black – likened him to Tommy Edman’s physical twin. In the few plate appearances he’s had so far, I can see the resemblance. Hurst showed a solid contact bat in the low minors. He might be able to get into a ball now and then, but mostly, he’s a speed and defense BABIP hitter.
Which is exactly why the Cardinals called him up. After Thomas started kicking balls all over the outfield and not doing anything at the plate, why not go with a kid who won’t do anything at the plate but will make the plays defensively?
The fascinating part of Hurst’s story is how little experience he has professionally. With third-round talent, Hurst singled his way through the low minors very quickly before hitting a snag at A+. Across two seasons, Hurst played in just 77 games at the A+ level. In 2019, he produced a .233/.292/.314 slash line with an 83 wRC+. That’s bad but somehow earned him a promotion. Things got worse at AA. He hit .191/.278/.277 for a 60 wRC+ in just 45 games.
His next professional appearance in real competition? This week. In the major leagues.
This got me wondering: in my time following the Cardinals, have they ever given major league plate appearances to a player that was as inexperienced and ill-prepared as Hurst?
That sent me to Fangraphs for a little search. Here were my parameters: I was hunting for a Cardinals outfielder since 1998 (about the year I started paying close attention to Cardinals rosters) that reached the majors and had at least 1 MLB PA with less than 200 PAs at AA or above.
Before you read any further, take that as a fun little quiz. In that time frame, can you name any players that fit those categories?
---- Break so you can think about it instead of looking for the answers below. Cheaters. ----
Ok. Do you have your names ready?
Before I saw the list, I started hunting through my own mental catalog of random reserve outfielders. Colin Porter came to mind. Adron Chambers. Who could forget Adron? I thought he might make it as a major leaguer. Joey Butler. Jermaine Curtis. Rico Washington. I could go on.
It’s easy to get these names confused with reserve infielders. Like Brian Barden. No, not Brian Barton – who would be a candidate to fit the qualifications above. Brian Barden. Or everyone’s favorite Lepidoptera, Hector Luna, who was a shortstop but actually saw quite a bit of time in the outfield. Ah, Tony LaRussa!
The Cardinals have used a ton of reserve outfielders (and infielders!) for short roster stints to cover outfield spots over the last twenty-five years. Most of them were experienced minor league players who had bounced around for years before finally getting a cup of coffee. The Cardinals, particularly in the LaRussa era, kept a wealth of such players on hand for situations just like the one the team is currently in. That policy has changed in the 2000s as the upper minors became more a finishing school for prospects than a supply closet for major league reserves.
That brings us to where the Cardinals are today. Dean fits the “supply closet” model. Below him, the organization only had inexperienced low-level prospects.
Since 1998, there is only one player other than Scott Hurst, who fits the qualifications I listed above. Who is it?
I bet some of you got that one! Mags Sierra reached the majors in May of 2017 with exactly 0 plate appearances above A+. Sierra was an intriguing prospect in the Cards system with speed and a hit tool. There was always hope that he could discover doubles power if his frame filled out, but that was probably a lost cause. Sierra was destined to be a BABIP-reliant speedster with a good glove in center.
Beyond Sierra, there are only a handful of other players that were even close enough to the qualifications to warrant mention. Here is the list by combined AA/AAA plate appearances:
Magneuris Sierra – 0 PAs in AA or above when he was promoted.
Scott Hurst – 161 PA in AA. 0 in AAA. 161 total
Dylan Carlson – 483 PA in AA, 79 in AAA; 562 total.
Erik Komatsu – 522 PAs in AA, and 123 in AAA; 645 total.
Luis Saturria – 1068 PAs in AA, 0 PAs in AAA. 1068 total.
Dylan Carlson doesn’t belong here. It’s not unusual for elite-caliber prospects to reach the majors with limited time in the upper minors. If we include Carlson, then we would have to include Pujols and Yadi as well. Best to limit this conversation to the under-appreciated reserve/emergency outfielders and not those uber prospects who already get all the headlines.
Eric Komatsu is my favorite name here. He was a Rule 5 selection by the Cardinals in 2012. Like so many on this list, he had some speed, a little pop, and a solid defensive profile. If you want a Scott Hurst comp, Komatsu might be the best choice. I thought he might have a chance to stick. Instead, Komatsu got just 21 plate appearances before hitting the waiver wire. The Twins picked up for another cup of coffee. Then he was returned to the Nationals. He didn’t see the major leagues again.
Luis Saturria is a way-back name a few of you might remember. He was an intriguing prospect in the late 90s. He had some power and speed. I honestly can’t remember his defensive reports. He had a decent season at AA at age 22 and the club returned him there in ’00. That year he produced a .274/.340/.494 slash line with 20 HRs and 18 steals. You can see why the club was intrigued with him and gave him a September callup. That was the high point of his career.
What’s fascinating about this list is that Hurst stands out as a wholly unique situation. Mags was well-regarded at the time of his callup. He was a top 5 Cardinals prospect at times, on lists that included Jack Flaherty, Stephen Piscotty, and Luke Weaver. Yes, he debuted earlier than expected because of a serious roster need – like Hurst – but the club had the prospect pedigree to point to as the reason to turn to him over more experienced options.
Komatsu was a Rule 5 draftee. He only received MLB time because he had to be on the roster or the club would lose him. Saturria was a September call-up. Expanded rosters expanded the space for him.
The fact that the club had to go to Hurst, with very limited minor league experience and discouraging minor league performance, to fill a gap on their MLB roster is a fair indictment of the club’s developmental system and its current gaps. This really should not have happened.
Don’t tell Hurst that. He doesn’t care what should have happened. If he’s smart, he’ll only care about what did happen. He got the call. He’s on the roster. He gets to live his dream.
Regardless of how I feel about the system’s outfield depth (or lack thereof) and the club’s handling of the outfield situation at the major league level, I will cheer like mad for Hurst to do well.
Scott Hurst. Major Leaguer. St. Louis Cardinal. Forever.
Congrats, kid. Make the most of it. We won’t forget you.