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System Sundays 6th June 2021: Let’s Talk About Some Bats

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Looking around the minors for bright spots, because the majors are rough right now.

Miami Marlins v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Good morning, fellow travelers of baseball’s backroads. Nobody wants to talk about the big league club at the moment, do they? I can’t imagine anyone would. So let’s dig in to some minor league developments of note, shall we?

  • I’ve written before already this spring about the season Nolan Gorman is having at Double A Springfield, but it bears continual watching, both because Gorman is such an important piece in the Cardinals’ medium- and long-term puzzle, but also because what he’s doing is pretty fascinating. It’s not that the Cards’ 2018 first-rounder is having a bad year; he’s actually having a very solid season. It’s just that what he’s doing is so weird, considering the offensive profile one might expect from Gorman. Right now, Gorman is putting up a .286/.370/.410 line, which is good for a 121 wRC+. He’s running an 11.8% walk rate, which is very good, and a 22.7% strikeout rate, which is...also quite good, particularly when you’re talking about a player with the natural power Gorman possesses. What continues to be strange this season is the fact Gorman isn’t really showing any of that power, with just three homers in 120 plate appearances and a .124 isolated slugging percentage. He’s showing better plate discipline and contact ability than at any point since his initial taste of rookie ball, but rather than pulling everything in the air on contact, he’s spraying line drives to all fields. His pull percentage is inching up as the season goes along, but it appears Gorman is set on improving his plate coverage and actual hitting ability this year, rather than simply airing out his swing for the fences as he has in the past. The power is still in there, and it’s exciting to think of what kind of hitter Gorman could become if these new improvements are real and lasting.
  • A few people around here have already taken note of the season Chandler Redmond is having so far, but it merits a proper notation in these pages as well. A late-round draft pick in the 2019 draft (32nd round, to be exact), Redmond played all over the infield at Gardner-Webb university, winning the Big South Conference Player of the Year award his senior season there. He was 22 already at the time of the draft; thus, the lost 2020 season did him even more harm than for a lot of other prospects. Still, Redmond showed tremendous power after being drafted, slugging twelve home runs in 212 plate appearances and posting a .265 ISO, and he has continued more or less in that vein so far this spring, putting together a .273/.391/.506 batting line with five dingers in 92 trips to the plate here in 2021. He’s been extremely patient, with a 14.1% walk rate, but the strikeouts are high, at close to 30%. In other words, he’s an old-school three true outcomes guy, cut from the Adam Dunn mold. He doesn’t really have a position, having seen time at third, first, and even second base in his college and early pro career, but the bat really plays. He is obviously fighting his late start, as he turned 24 in January, and the lack of a position further complicates his path to the big leagues. Still, the Cardinals have done well over the years with Allen Craig types, and Redmond very much fits that profile.
  • Speaking of Allen Craig types, Juan Yepez was recently promoted to Memphis after pounding Double A pitching hard enough the pitchers filed a lawsuit against him. (This may or may not be true.) So far he’s played in four games, has batted nine times, and is struggling. Still, as thin as the Cardinals have turned out to be in the outfield beyond their starters, and the off and on struggles of the offense, a guy who just got done decimating Double A to the tune of a 164 wRC+ is most definitely worth keeping an eye on this summer.
  • Heading back to the later rounds of the 2019 draft (the 22nd round, specifically), we have a very intriguing name to watch this season: Zade Richardson, a catching prospect whose bat is making some real noise in Peoria currently. I liked Richardson when the Cards took him out of Wabash Valley Junior College, as he was just nineteen at the time and already showed tremendous patience at the plate and solid power potential, particularly for a catcher. Losing the 2020 season obviously hurt everyone, but Richardson is still just 21 now, and is putting up a 152 wRC+ in the Midwest League. (Which I am having a very difficult time remembering is High A now, with the Florida State League flipping to Low A.) The strikeouts are pretty high, but he’s walking nearly 19% of the time and running a .233 ISO.
  • Let’s stick with our theme of later-round picks from the 2019 draft, shall we? You know who else is having a really exciting start to the season? Todd Lott, the Cards’ ninth round pick in 2019 and cousin of former NFL lunatic and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. At the time he was drafted, Lott represented a bet on a big, athletic dude who certainly looked the part, but hadn’t really translated all those physical tools into big time production in college consistently. He headed off to Johnson City after the draft and was...fine. Not much patience at the plate, not much power. This year, though, he’s hitting more like you would expect from a 6’4”, 235 pound bruiser, putting up a .254 ISO through 79 plate appearances en route to an overall .270/.418/.524 line, good for a 157 wRC+. It’s worth noting that the pitching has been all over the map this spring, as has the readiness level of certain hitters, so it’s worth taking all numbers and performances with multiple grains of salt. Guys are striking out a lot, but pitchers are also struggling to find the plate. Still, the numbers we have are the numbers we have, and the Cardinals have several guys who are showing off serious offensive upside this spring.
  • Finally, we head back to the 2018 draft for our last spotlighted hitter this week, with seventh rounder Brendan Donovan having himself a very nice season so far in Peoria. Donovan’s calling card in college was an outstanding plate approach, and he has brought that approach to bear in pro ball, for the most part, putting together strong batting lines in both 2019 and 2021 based on an ability to make contact and get on base. He’s a little old for High A ball, one of the real tough casualties of the 2020 season, as he’s already 24 years old, but his batting line of .295/.385/.421 definitely plays, especially for a player who has appeared primarily at second base here in 2021. Donovan was more of a third baseman in college, and his best path to the big leagues is probably to play as many positions as possible. He’s currently running a 15:10 strikeout to walk ratio in 109 plate appearances, so we can see that vaunted plate approach in action pretty easily. I’m hoping he gets promoted to Springfield soon; he needs to move quickly if he wants to overcome the loss of 2020.

As I said, we have to be a little careful with looking at numbers this year, especially here when it’s still fairly early in the season, simply because so many players seem to have reacted so differently to the 2020 layoff. Still, there’s a really intriguing group of hitters sitting right around High A ball at the moment, the result of what looks like a very smart bit of drafting in 2019, when Randy Flores and crew focused in on some interesting but relatively unheralded bats in the middle and late rounds of the draft. Those positionless bat-first players were a hallmark of the success the Cards had under the Jeff Luhnow drafting regime, with guys like Allen Craig (a former shortstop at California), Matt Carpenter (third base, TCU), and Matt Adams (a former catcher turned first baseman from Slippery Rock), all contributing to the Redbirds’ success in the 2010-2015 window of contention. If one or two of this current group can make it to the majors and have a similar level of success, it would go a long way toward shoring up the middle of a roster that is currently a little thin but has mostly been a real strong point for the organisation over the past decade or so.

It’s also worth noting that, in one of the least surprising announcements you’ll ever hear, the Cardinals named Alec Burleson their minor league player of the month for May. Burleson began the season in High A, beat up Midwest League pitching, then moved up to Double A and is currently beating up Texas League pitching. He’s already appeared in these pages a couple times, so I didn’t include him specifically this time, but the award is certainly worth noting.

Final note to self: Lars Nootbaar needs a deep dive soon. Maybe next Sunday I’ll just write him up instead of another multi-player quick hits post.