Afternoon, everyone. I’m going to keep this as brief as I can as we take a look at a few of the most interesting performances in the Cards’ minor league system here as we move into the Memorial Day holiday. The draft is just about six weeks away, so we’re still a ways off from a fresh infusion of talent to watch. It’s been a very strange minor league season so far, with pitchers badly struggling to find their control following either a weird and uneven 2020 or a missed season entirely and a resulting long layoff. Players are seemingly all over the board in terms of how well they’ve weathered the storm, with some looking more or less as if they didn’t miss a step, and others (Zack Thompson, I’m looking at you), having real trouble finding any kind of consistent rhythm so far this season.
— Headlining the extremely-encouraging-but-also-completely-bizarre performance category is Levi Prater, who has already appeared in one System Sundays post this year, and now returns for a second go-round. Prater doesn’t even have the excuse of a particularly long layoff to blame for his inconsistency so far this year, as he was drafted just last June and headed straight off to the Cardinals’ training camp site once he joined the organisation. Prater hasn’t been out of competitive action for nineteen months; he’s just pitching like he has been.
To be fair, though, it isn’t that Prater is struggling, necessarily. It’s just that, well, he’s sort of struggling. To find the strike zone, I mean. He’s definitely struggling to find the zone and throw strikes. On the other hand, it’s the hitters facing Prater who are struggling, mightily, to do anything against the 21 year old lefty. Contact basically isn’t an option in plate appearances with Prater on the mound; he is currently running a cool 39.1% strikeout rate 20.1 innings (that’s five starts), so far this season. The downside: he’s also walking 23% of the hitters he faces, so despite striking out almost 40% of the batters he’s seen this year his K-BB% is only 16.1%. Basically, hitters might as well just stand there in the batter’s box and take pitches; the only real hope they have is Prater throws four balls before he throws three strikes. The control issues are scary; the strikeout rate is phenomenal. It’s a shame Prater is only pitching in A ball right now; the Cardinals are likely going to have some lefty relief innings to be filled later this summer...
— It’s always nice when your top prospects do top prospecty sorts of things, rather than looking like org filler for long stretches of time. Nolan Gorman did not start the season off particularly strong; on the thirteenth of May he was hitting just .143 and slugging .250, albeit with a .351 on-base percentage driven by a 24% walk rate. The last couple weeks, though, he has been on a tear, hitting .345 since the middle of the month. Now, the downside is he hasn’t been walking over that period of time, but when you’re hitting close to .350 it’s probably okay if you just swing away.
Gorman’s season line currently sits at .277/.362/.422, good for a 123 wRC+. The contact issues he’s had at each new level certainly popped up those first couple weeks, but since then Gorman has made more contact, and while the power hasn’t shown up in a huge way just yet, he is, interestingly, hitting a ton of line drives this year — 26.4% line drive rate — and is actually hitting the ball to the opposite field more often than he’s pulling it. For a hitter who has a tendency to get overly pull-heavy at times, this is a very intriguing development. I know the overarching trend of the past several years when it comes to hitting is to ignore the old-school advice and just do what works, i.e. try to make fly ball contact to the pull side, but in this case it’s actually really exciting to see a top prospect seemingly trying to become a more complete, more balanced hitter, just so long as he doesn’t lose that power stroke trying to be Tony Gwynn.
— Speaking of good news, Juan Yepez is having kind of an incredible start to the 2021 season. To date, he has played in eighteen games, and come to the plate 73 times. He is hitting .250/.375/.567, which translates to a 161 wRC+. He is making plenty of contact (17.8% K rate), is drawing lots of walks (12.3% BB rate), and hitting for lots of power (five homers and a .317 isolated slugging percentage). The only thing he’s not doing is getting lucky on batted balls, as his .238 BABIP doesn’t really square with what his other stats would seem to say about how hard he’s hitting everything this year. In contrast to Nolan Gorman, Yepez very much is making contact in the air to the pull side, and so far he’s doing tremendous damage. He’s also still just 23 years old, and will be all year, which is sort of amazing considering how long it seems like he’s been in the organisation. I’m hoping the Cardinals move him up to Triple A soon, although he doesn’t necessarily have a position to play there or at the major league level. Still, the bat looks like a true carrying tool, and the major league club may just have to find somewhere for him to at least get a shot relatively soon.
— And finally, there’s been a decent amount of conversation around here already regarding the rebirth of Nick Plummer, actual prospect, but in case you missed it, the story is this: Plummer took his time off during the pandemic (he was not included in the alternate site training camp, which was definitely a reflection of his organisational standing this time last year), to rebuild his swing, and suddenly now he is hitting the ball with more authority than he has at any point since the wrist injury he suffered in his first professional season. He is taking a slightly more aggressive approach at the plate this season but is still very patient, with a walk rate of nearly 13%, but he has cut his strikeout rate from the 30%+ range where it had been in each of his pro seasons down to 23.1%. No, that’s not an elite contact rate, but for a player with his patience at the plate it’s also not terrible. It’s especially not terrible for a hitter who actually possesses some power, which the 2021 version of Plummer appears to have. His ISO is .212, and he’s collected seven extra-base hits already on the season, in just 78 plate appearances.
I’m not quite ready to buy back into Plummer as an elite hitting prospect just yet; he will turn 25 at the end of July, and is just now playing at Double A. On the other hand, this is the highest level he’s ever reached, and is handling the adjustment with aplomb so far. A real left-handed hitting outfield prospect in the system would be a welcome development for the Cardinals; they have several lefty flycatchers available, but nearly all of them are more organisational filler or fringey major league types than real future contributors. Plummer did, once upon a time, possess that kind of upside with the bat. Maybe that talent is still in there, and his new swing will finally give him the chance to bring it out.