Good morning, all. Draft day is here at last, after a much, much more interminable wait this year than in the past. Between last year’s disrupted, half-assed draft and this year’s half-assed minor leagues and endless waiting for the MLB draft, it has not been a fun couple years for following the younger side of baseball. At least this year it will be something close to a real draft, with 20 rounds of selections (although, to be fair, it currently looks as if the Cardinals in 2020 may have pulled off a seemingly impossible coup with their five-round masterpiece), rather than me having to use the word ‘truncated’ over and over when writing about it.
So anyhow, the draft will kick off this evening, with the Cardinals having but a single pick on this first day. That is depressing. This organisation really needs more picks, more assets, with which to work if they’re going to get things headed back in the right direction anytime soon. However, since to date the front office has not taken my suggestion to trade for some team’s competitive balance pick in the mid-30s, which I made sure to send to them in a letter made of words cut out from various magazines and everything, one pick in the first 50 selections is all we’re talking about for El Birdos this year.
The Cardinals do have one extra pick, in the competitive balance B round, giving them picks 18, 54, 70, 90, 120, 150, 180, and so on. Just in case anyone was wondering exactly what spots the team would be selecting.
Speaking of the eighteenth pick, that is actually the highest selection the Cardinals have had in the draft since 2008, when they selected Brett Wallace thirteenth overall following the disastrous ‘07 season which saw Kip Wells and Adam Kennedy (the old one, not the young one), represent the only substantial influx of talent the organisation attempted coming off their World Series title. I want you to really think about that for a second: the Cardinals have not picked in the first half of the first round since 2008, but have managed to stay in contention without fail, even building two waves of serious major league talent over that time, and are currently working on a third big one. When those of us who advocate for teardown/reset/rebuild/whatever do so, it’s largely because of that fact. The organisation has done an incredible job of staying in contention without ever taking any steps to try and amass extra assets, but at some point the well just runs dry. Still, what the Cardinals have done in the Mozeliak era (about which my colleague John LaRue is currently writing quite well, and in a similar vein, I have a larger piece I’m starting to work on and will get down to more seriously once the draft is passed), is remarkable, even with one truly disastrous draft year thrown in thanks to the actions of Chris Correa.
The State of the System
Before we get into the draft itself, what the field offers, and what I believe the Cardinals may do, we should take a moment to briefly assess the Cards’ farm system. I know both teams and analysts always say not to draft for need, and every team will tell you they take the best player available, but that is the very definition of a truism: yes, it’s a true statement, and it is utterly meaningless. The idea of ‘best’ in the draft is absurd; it would be like if a hedge fund manager was being interviewed, and he said his strategy was to just pick the best stocks. I mean, yes, you’re trying to pick the best stocks, but the point is you don’t know what the best stock is. You can analyse the underlying numbers of the company and whatnot and try to pick the stocks you think will perform the best, but they could also just fail for reasons no one saw coming. It’s the same with players. You’re not picking the ‘best’ player; you’re picking the player you like the most. And the fact we try to turn the reality into that fiction is very strange to me.
Anyhow, what I’m saying is this: while a team will always take what they perceive to be the best player available with most of their picks, that notion is so subjective as to be meaningless. Teams have preferences in types of players, strengths and weaknesses of their development system, and, yes, organisational needs they take into account. Now, that doesn’t mean that because the Cardinals are heavy on hitters right now they would pass on Matt McLain if he fell to them (as he did in a recent mock draft at ESPN), but it does mean that what the farm system looks like at a given moment will, inevitably, act as a tiebreaker if the team is surveying the options they are presented with at a given slot.
The Redbird system is, at this moment in time, more or less the inverse of what we have traditionally thought of as the Cardinal system over the past decade. The Cardinals are currently rich in hitters and absolutely destitute when it comes to the pitching side of things. Where once the system churned out pitching prospects like Krispy Kreme churns out doughnuts but struggled to create high-level position prospects, this current iteration of the system has the makings of a very intriguing offensive core really beginning to coalesce, but essentially no more optimism on the mound than the big league club offers.
Matthew Liberatore is either the top prospect in the system or number two, depending on who you ask, and he is quite an excellent one. He’s had an up and down season at Triple A Memphis, not to mention appearing in the Olympic qualifiers with Team USA, but he’s just 21 and is putting up a very solid K-BB%. He is experimenting with his repertoire, both adding to it and working to different parts of the zone, so there are some developmental lumps to be taken, but he is still, to my mind, an extremely exciting prospect. After him, though, the system starts to look very scary in terms of pitching. Zack Thompson has been absolutely terrible this year. Tink Hence won’t take the mound officially until short-season ball (are we still calling it that?), starts up. Angel Rondon made his major league debut, which was fun (and I was in the stands to see it, which was really fun), but he really hasn’t actually looked all that good in Memphis. Ian Bedell got hurt, Levi Prater is going almost full Ankiel with his control, Andre Pallante is tough to square up but doesn’t miss enough bats, and Edwin Nunez is nineteen and didn’t really pitch at all in 2020.
On the other hand, the hitters in the system have, by and large, had excellent seasons. Delvin Perez has put himself back into real prospect discussions, while Nick Plummer is still trying to get back into those same discussions. He’s trying really hard, though, with a 140ish wRC+ on the season in Double A. Nolan Gorman was great at Double A, got bumped up to Memphis, and is still trying to find his footing there. He seems to start very slowly at ever new level, then adjusts, gets comfortable, and eventually starts to build momentum. Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn look like the kind of duo the Cardinals have not managed to have coming up together in a very, very long time. Alec Burleson laid waste to High A ball, was promoted to Springfield, and is holding his own against Double A pitching, still probably the most challenging jump in the minors. Juan Yepez and Malcom Nunez are both having very solid seasons, Lars Nootbaar has already had a column dedicated to him and has made his way to the majors, and Brendan Donovan needs a column of his own very soon, I think.
It hasn’t been all candy and roses for the hitters, to be fair; Jhon Torres is having a frustrating season of no walks and no power, two things he excelled in prior to this year. Patrick Romeri is struggling with contact, and the power hasn’t been there to make up for it yet this season. Tre Fletcher looks like a bust until further notice, Luken Baker has traded contact for power without gaining nearly enough power to justify the trade, and even amongst the very best hitters in the system, there are definite questions about where many of them will play.
The specter of the Cards’ lost 2017 draft looms large in the system still. While there are a couple players in the system from that draft who may contribute in some small way over the next few years, it appears likely that Kodi Whitley will end up the best player from that benighted group. Collegians drafted that year, of whom there were many, are now in the age 25 range, but the high schoolers who could have hypothetically been selected would now be around 22. And, whether we think of it this way or not, the backbone of a really top-notch farm system tends to be players who are right around 22 years old. Those are the Double and Triple A guys who are producing good numbers, fill out the top ten of the system, and should bring the major league club an infusion of talent within the next year or two. The Cardinals are clearly missing about three of those guys to my eye.
If there is a tiebreaker vote to be cast on a pick, I feel like that vote will fall toward the pitching side. Which is actually very lucky, because this draft offers pitching, and more pitching, and some more pitching beyond that, and then, if you look over there, you can see some pitching. If ever there was a good draft class coming for a club that could really use a high-level infusion of pitching talent, the 2021 group is a pretty good bet.
That is, of course, if they choose to take advantage of what the draft is offering, rather than trying to zag when other are zigging. They played the zag card hard two years ago, going hard on pitching in a draft that skewed heavily toward hitters. Last year they went for high upside hitters and constructed a jigsaw puzzle masterpiece in terms of bonuses and slots used, leaning mostly toward the positional side but also nabbing a couple really exciting arms. This year, I think they go with the flow and take what the draft gives them, seeing as how the needs of the system match up so well with what is likely to be the best option available most of the time when they go on the clock.
The Shape of the Draft
As I said, this draft is heavy on pitching, particularly where the Cardinals will be picking, even beyond the first round. The top of the draft is interestingly unsettled this close to go day, particularly considering how settled we all thought it would be four months ago. Coming into the spring there were a couple truly elite players at the very top, both of them Vanderbilt right-handers, and then a college hitter or two, then another big group of college pitchers and a few high school infielders, all kind of mixed in together from pick five to about 20. As the spring went on, though, the pitchers at the very top stayed close to the top, but were not so overwhelming as to separate themselves. The college hitters were mostly good, but only one, Henry Davis, who had been more of a 20-25 guy in January, had the kind of season that propelled him to the top of the draft. And the high school shortstops, instead of looking like high school shortstops, all played exceedingly well and moved up.
Now, the first round has a top group of five prep shortstops, Henry Davis, and the Vandy guys, then a couple college hitters who could sneak in, and then a big group of high school hitters with big ceilings but some minor flaws and college pitchers, of whom one could like any single individual the best based on a minor difference in specific preferences. It feels like there’s a big fall off after the top seven guys, then another after about the top fifteen or so. Which, of course, is excellent news if you’re picking at eighteen, he said with only the slightest tinge of bitterness.
Beyond the first round, the ratio holds in favour of pitching, leading me to believe that at any given draft slot there is a better than average chance that the ‘best’ player will be an arm, rather than a position player. That is obviously, as I said earlier, so subjective as to be nearly meaningless, but I wouldn’t say entirely meaningless. It simply means that, on balance, the pitching depth is stronger, and so chances are good that you will end up going pitcher more often than not. This is particularly true where the Cardinals are selecting at the top, and probably beyond as well. Whatever the more scarce resource is at the outset of the draft tends to become more scarce in relative terms as time goes on, as that more scarce resource is more vulnerable to runs, where the supply dips below a certain tipping point and multiple actors swoop in to buy out the rest of the limited supply before it is exhausted entirely. FOMO isn’t just an acronym.
The Board at Eighteen
So, let’s get down to brass tacks and leave the generalities behind, shall we? What will the board look like when the Cardinals go on the clock at pick eighteen?
Here are the fifteenth through twenty-first ranked prospects at MLB.com:
15. Benny Montgomery, OF (HS)
16. Jordan Wicks, LHP (Col.)
17. Anthony Solometo, LHP (HS)
18. Andrew Painter, RHP (HS)
19. Joe Mack, C (HS)
20. Will Taylor, OF (HS)
21. Bubba Chandler, RHP/SS (HS)
And here is that same group over at FanGraphs:
15. Benny Montgomery
16. Bubba Chandler
17. Jordan Wicks
18. Sam Bachman, RHP (Col.)
19. Gavin Williams, RHP (Col.)
20. Ryan Cusick, RHP (Col.)
21. Andrew Painter
The various other draft boards have a few differences, obviously, but there is also some definite overlap. The group of players who fall around the Cardinals’ specific first round slot pretty clearly contains guys like Wicks, Bachman (he’s fourteenth on the Pipeline list, so just missed appearing on both lists), Chandler, Painter, and Montgomery. Those aren’t the only names involved, you understand, but that’s the level of player we’re talking about, and those guys will likely be available near eighteen, but also would not be seen as significant reaches if they were to be taken there.
As I said earlier, the Cardinals will, I think, probably lean toward pitching in this draft, and college early if they can. Bubba Chandler has been linked to them multiple times of late, and he might just have too high a ceiling not to take, but I think the Cards would prefer a college arm if things are relatively equal, because getting a guy who can move through the system more quickly would, very clearly, have near-term benefits to the major league club, so long as you’re reasonably confident you aren’t passing on a much, much better pitcher to take the shorter-term development track.
All that being said, the names that stand out most to me here are Bachman, the sinker specialist whose draft stock would probably be even a little higher if he threw a different type of fastball, Chandler, and Gavin Williams, a fast riser this spring with huge arm strength and elite curveball spin who looked like the best pitcher in the nation for Eastern Carolina in the College World Series regionals. The Cardinals like ECU players, and while Williams has more reliever risk for me than some of the other guys in this range, he could have a substantial ceiling.
The other big option here I think the Cardinals will or could go for is to simply take whatever prospect falls to them who they have higher on their board. That sounds simple, of course, but it could also mean getting a player at a position you don’t particularly need or want, somewhat complicating things for you. This is how you end up with Nolan Gorman, though, not to mention Delvin Perez at the time (though we saw over the next few years that there were legit reasons he fell, rather than moral panic only), and Zack Thompson. Thompson on stuff was a top ten overall pick in 2019, but had some injury issues in his past and occasional lapses in command to contend with. Gorman had questions about his future position and the swing and miss in his game, but also had top of the scale power and elite makeup.
If we’re talking best player who probably shouldn’t be available, Harry Ford is the name that jumps out most to me. None of the four high school shortstops at the top will fall far enough, nor will any of the top three college arms. Ford, though, ranked thirteenth at both MLB and FanGraphs, could easily find himself still waiting to be called at eighteen, both because sometimes things just happen, but also because high school catchers are risky, and while he could definitely move off the position and play even center field of a couple infield spots, at that point his value takes a bit of a hit, or at least changes slightly, and maybe teams are unsure of what to do with him. For my part, Ford is one of my favourite hitters in this draft, and while I can’t quite decide whether to send him out as a catcher and try to build a superstar or move him and hope that relieves some pressure on his bat and strain on his body, allowing him to become a star of a different sort, I would absolutely be delighted to take him at eighteen.
The other names I think could legitimately fall are Matt McLain, Sal Frelick, and Colton Cowser. Now, not all three will fall, certainly, but it’s possible one could. They are ranked 12-11-10 at MLB.com, and 11-9-7 at FanGraphs. College hitters actually tend to rise as the draft gets closer and teams look for certainty, but still, take any given group of three players and one of them could easily slip a half-dozen slots if there’s a run on another demographic, or just the wrong teams come up in certain spots. Cowser is the most locked-in in the top ten; he would be a dream scenario for the Cards to take over center in a year or two, but that just ain’t happening. McLain is the most likely to slip, I think, given his slow start this spring and a late-season injury to his foot. If he were to make it to eighteen, I think the Cardinals would jump at the chance to add a fairly sure thing at shortstop to the system. Yes, Delvin Perez is making a case for himself and Masyn Winn is looking like a future elite prospect, but McLain is a much safer bet. Perez has only now started to hit, and Winn is nineteen in Low A ball. Lots can go wrong there.
I think the organisation would also be very high on Ford, though I have no specific insider knowledge on that front. If they were to take him, I feel like he would be moved off catcher, maybe even announced at another position. The Cards have catchers they like, and I think they would see his plus speed and overall explosive athleticism as a chance to add another potential star-level hitter to the core they’re trying to build.
I do think they love Chandler, based on things I’ve heard and a couple things I have very specifically not been told, if you understand my meaning, and so long as there isn’t a hitter who slips I think he would be a strong possibility. I see guys like Painter and Will Bednar as slightly less likely, and think they would go a different direction first. I do know they like Chase Petty, more than I do, and so he could be a possibility as well.
So I could see Bachman being a priority, because the Cards would love to add a guy to the system who might start in Double A and could fly through the ranks, and also they still like sinkers, regardless of the current paradigm in pitching. Wicks I think they would pass on in favour of something else, and Cusick’s results don’t really fit where his fastball metrics suggest he should be. Williams would definitely be a name to watch, while I feel like the Cardinals are hesitant to go with a Tommy John guy at the top of the draft, making me think Gunnar Hoglund is not as strong a possibility as a lot of mock drafts might suggest.
The priority list for the Cardinals goes something like this, I think:
- Falling opportunity too good to pass up — McLain, Cowser, Ford
- College arm with stuff and results — Bachman, Williams
- Highest ceiling player available — Chandler, Montgomery, Petty, maybe Josh Baez if they wanted to cut a deal and save a little bonus pool cash for picks 54 and 70
Now, I order the priorities that way, but the players contained therein are not all equal. I think Chandler could trump all the others if his price is doable, according to things I, again, have not been told. Then again, what I haven’t heard could be wrong, also.
My own personal pref list looks pretty similar to what I just laid out for the Cardinals there. Sam Bachman is my guy at eighteen if he’s there, because I think he makes too much sense to pass on. I really like Harry Ford if he makes it, and either Cowser or McLain would override pretty much everything should one of them fall unexpectedly.
For what it’s worth, I’m acting as the GM/Scouting Director for the SB Nation mock draft that is going on right now, and at eighteen my version of the Cardinals did, in fact, select Sam Bachman, who was still on the board somewhat unexpectedly for me. The Marlins nabbed Ford two spots ahead of me (which could be a very likely outcome in the real world, as well, it appears), and both Cowser and McLain went off the board earlier. Bubba Chandler is still on the board as of pick 22, in case you’re wondering.
Options for the Early Rounds
I want to lay out a few scenarios that I could see playing out for the Cardinals, and directions in which I could see going, were I the guy in the big chair. Now, I obviously wouldn’t expect the Cards’ brain trust to like the same specific players I do, but what I want to get at is sort of shape of how you might construct a draft over the first six rounds, which in the Cards’ case covers seven picks.
Scenario One — The Path of Least Resistance
This scenario essentially just goes with the strength of the draft, i.e. college pitching, and will not break the bank, but also probably won’t save a whole lot at any given point. In this case I’m just taking good players who are near the slots I’m selecting, leaning toward pitching because that’s what the draft is offering, I think.
18. Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, Mississippi
54. Andrew Abbott, LHP, Virginia
70. Ryan Bliss, 2B/SS, Auburn
90. Bryce Miller, RHP, Texas A&M
120. Justice Thompson, OF, North Carolina
150. JT Schwartz, 1B, UCLA
180. Dylan Dodd, LHP, SEMO
Now, in this case I’m projecting Bachman is gone at eighteen and maybe I don’t think Chandler is signable, and decide Hoglund is the best value, even with the chance he may not come back. Andrew Abbott has some relief downside risk, but he also has a plus four-seamer and one of the best power curves in the whole draft. Ryan Bliss is a just a really good player, and will probably appear at 70 in a couple of these, because I love him in that spot. Miller is a college starter without a long track record of starting but really good stuff, while Thompson is a premium athlete I’m hoping to help unlock further offensive potential and Schwartz gives me a bat I really believe in. Dodd rounds out this group as a modest bonus guy, but one from the area with a couple of really solid pitches.
This is not a bad group, but it’s not my favourite. It feels a little too safe, and I think I can do better on ceiling.
Scenario Two — Shoot the Moon
In this case, I’m going for the highest-ceiling players I possibly can, and then trying to figure out bonus savings after I’ve got them in hand.
18. Bubba Chandler, RHP, HS (GA)
54. Chase Burns, RHP, HS (TN)
70. Lonnie White, Jr., OF, HS (PA)
90. Kevin Kopps, RHP, Arkansas
120. Thomas Farr, RHP, South Carolina
150. Dylan Dodd, LHP, SEMO
180. Mitch Bratt, LHP, Canada Jr.
I have one of the tougher signs in the draft here at eighteen, followed by maybe my favourite guy at 54 in the whole draft, if he makes it there (I’d say it’s 50/50 he does), and a potential future star in the outfield at 70. My pick at 90 is meant to save a ton of money, but also get a guy I’m really intrigued by before most other teams start actually thinking about him, I think. Farr is an analytics darling who only moved into starting work this spring and is already 22, potentially saving me a little more, as will Dodd at 150. Bratt is a Canadian lefty with plenty of leverage, so I’m taking another shot there, and will probably go very cheap from 8-10 to make that possible.
Scenario Three — Swing for the Moon
This is, essentially, the same strategy as above, only with Harry Ford falling and me choosing to focus on bats. This continues the building project the actual Cardinals have been working on since 2015, trying to create a Cubs-like core of hitters to build around.
18. Harry Ford, UTIL, HS (GA)
54. Tyler Black, 2B, Wright State
70. Isaiah Thomas, OF, Vanderbilt
90. Carter Jensen, C, HS (MO)
120. Coleman Willis, RHP, HS (GA)
150. Michael Braswell, SS/3B, HS (GA)
180. Kevin Abel, RHP, Oregon State
This might actually be overkill on the hitters, but it would bring in an extremely intriguing crop of guys. Isaiah Thomas has legitimately improved by a large amount this spring at Vandy, and is a pretty exciting prospect at this point. Carter Jensen has a very good swing from the left side, is young for the class, and has tons of power potential with a solid chance to stick at catcher. Coleman Willis and Braswell are both high-ceilinged high school kids, with Willis maybe a tough sign, so I would need to know his price ahead of time. Kevin Abel knows how to pitch and should save me some bonus space, and I might have to take him in the fifth instead of the sixth to make this group work.
Scenario Four — A Little More Balance
This group is more balanced than either of the last two, but does have a couple of upside shots that could pay off in a big way.
18. Josh Baez, OF, HS (MA)
54. Spencer Schwellenbach, SS/RHP, Nebraska
70. Cameron Cauley, SS, HS (TX)
90. Ricky Tiedemann, LHP, Golden West JC
120. Ian Moller, C, HS (IA)
150. Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
180. Matthew Ager, RHP, HS (CA)
Baez has a huge ceiling but also should save me a little bit against slot, because he’s ranked more in the 22-25 range. Schwellenbach is really interesting, in that he could legitimately be what Masyn Winn might have been, had he continued to pitch this spring. Schwellenbach is a solid shortstop with decent offensive skills, who can then work in relief up to 99 mph with a pretty good breaking ball. He might fit better at third, but he’s really interesting either way. Cameron Cauley is one of my favourite high school bats in this draft, and I think if he gets to college he’ll be an easy first rounder three years from now. I liked Tiedemann last year, and when he didn’t make it into the five-round draft he decommitted from San Diego State to go to a Juco and get back into the draft. I’m still a big fan. Moller is like Harry Ford lite, though more of a sure thing to stick at catcher because he wouldn’t be so enticing at other positions, and Matthew Ager is a tall pop-up right-hander who didn’t have enough time this spring to really get all the way on the map, but who will be a big deal in college if he makes it there, I think.
Scenario Five — My Personal Board (Well, close; I’m still waffling)
This is, as close as I can guess, what I would do in this draft based on the best info I have right now. Things will obviously not work out this way, because players get picked earlier than you expect or others slip, but the guys listed here are at least close to these draft slots in terms of rankings.
18. Sam Bachman, RHP, Miami-Ohio
54. Chase Burns, RHP, HS (TN)
70. Tyler McDonough, OF, North Carolina State
90. Irv Carter, RHP, HS (FL)
120. Grant Holman, RHP, California
150. Braden Olthoff, RHP, Tulane
180. Cooper Bowman, 2B, Louisville
As I’ve said, I really wish the Cardinals had a pick in the 30s, because a guy like Aaron Zavala would fit perfectly in my idea draft scenario, but I don’t think he gets to 54 pretty safely.
The idea has been brought up multiple times about the club reaching for a player to save money in the first round, with the point being to spend it later on some higher-ceiling players who might fall. I’m not sure I love that strategy at eighteen, for a couple reasons. One, the strategy works well at the top of the draft because you can reach three or four picks and save a huge chunk of change. For instance, if I were running the Pirates, I would pick Henry Davis first. He’s ranked fifth, projected to fourth or fifth, and I would take him first, pay him midway between third and fourth pick money, and that would save me $1.5 million in bonus space, while also giving me a guy I personally like just as well as Marcelo Mayer or Jordan Lawlar.
If I’m at eighteen, though, with a slot bonus of $3.4 million, in order to save $1.5 million off that I would have to go all the way down to...slot 38, where the Rangers have a pick with a bonus of just over $1.9 million. You’re no longer talking about players in a similar neighbourhood at that point. If, on the other hand, I wanted to reach just a handful of spots and take a guy projected to go in the mid- to late-20s, I could reach for Peyton Stovall or Michael McGreevy, pay them like the 23rd or 24th overall pick, and save half a million dollars. Now, that half a million is still very meaningful, but it’s not enough to necessarily buy two or three guys away from college commitments. It’s also not a guarantee that I will have access to the kinds of players I really want to go overslot for when I’m not picking again until 54. There will, of course, be a couple guys at that point I could throw that money at, but the possibility space there is more limited, to the point where I’m just not certain the strategy works that well at eighteen.
However, if one wished to enact that strategy, Joshua Baez would be a good candidate, as would Stovall. Gavin Williams would fit this rubric as well, and I could see the Cardinals even reaching as far as Ethan Wilson, ranked 34/35, because although he’s no premium defender and his stock is a little limited because of that, he’s a very strong bet to hit his way to the big leagues, I believe, and would probably start out at High A right off the bat.
As I said way back at the beginning of this, what I’m really hoping for is for the Cardinals to come away with some pitching, and hopefully some arms that could serve as cornerstone type pieces down the road. This draft is remarkably deep from about 30-100, which is a big part of why I wish the Redbirds could finagle a trade for one of those competitive balance A slots, but also why I’m pretty excited to see what they do anyway. The 2020 draft looks like it could end up a franchise-changer, despite the limited number of picks the club had, because they may have hit on two potential stars at the top, then added several really intriguing players after that. Another big success this year could make an enormous difference in the state of the system, and, more importantly, the future of the franchise.