As the minor league season enters its home stretch, it’s worth taking a look around at some of the more interesting storylines that have been part of the Cardinals’ system this year. A while back I covered an emerging group of hitters; I’ll be returning to that group soon, as they have not become any less intriguing in the intervening time period. There are brand new draftees to cover; sneak preview of that column: Gordon Graceffo is too good for Low A ball hitters.
There is a debate to be had about the top prospect in the system, as the incumbent top guy has had an up and down season and is suffering from a pretty serious case of homeritis, while both his buddy, the current number two, and last year’s top pick have come on strong, staking a claim to the top spot. There are starter versus reliever conversations, and defensive position conversations, and the Jeff Albert systemwide system conversation. Plenty to talk about, in other words, as we head into September and the steadily shortening days of autumn.
Today, though, it seems as good a time as any to check in on last year’s crop of draftees. There was no late-season conversation to have regarding these guys in the autumn of 2020, given there was no late-season due to there being no early- or mid-season, either. It was a tough year to talk about pretty much anything baseball-related, much less the minutiae of the minors. So now that we have a reasonable chunk of a season to work with (well, in nearly all the cases, with a couple notable exceptions), let’s look at the 2020 draft class, all six of them, and see what kinds of prospects the Cardinals may have pulled from what felt like a neverending nightmare of a year.
Jordan Walker, 3B
The Cards’ first pick in 2020 was not only the story of the Redbird minor league system early on this season, he was one of the biggest stories in the whole of the minors as well. Walker opened the season at Low A Palm Beach, still shy of his nineteenth birthday, and established pretty much immediately that he was too good for the level, and not by a little, either. He came to the plate 122 times for Palm Beach, and posted a shocking 204 wRC+. His plate discipline was remarkable, as he put up a walk to strikeout ratio of nearly 1:1, and what is perhaps most exciting is how hard he hit the ball, pretty consistently. We’re talking Giancarlo Stanton-type exit velocities, at least as far as it’s possible to tell from reports, given minor league batted-ball data is not actually publicly available. The only real negative for Walker was a nagging back injury that landed him on the injured list for a time in late May and early June.
Walker was promoted to Peoria at the end of June, and it has, admittedly, been much tougher sledding for him in High A ball. He’s still putting up an above-average batting line, hitting .295/.344/.443, good for a 115 wRC+, but it has definitely been much more of a challenge. Whereas in Low A he walked nearly as often as he struck out, in Peoria Walker has posted just a 5.8% walk rate, against a 25.9% strikeout rate. The culprit has largely been breaking balls, as in, the pitchers in High A are basically throwing him tons of breaking balls. He already has established himself as the sort of hitter opposing teams both gameplan for and pitch extremely carefully, and Walker is still learning how to handle that kind of treatment. The power is down, but his BABIP is still sky high (.400, vs .419 in Palm Beach), and he is still hitting the ball on the screws quite often. In other words, Jordan Walker is keeping his head well above water, but hasn’t quite yet made the full adjustment to being pitched like the guy the other team refuses to throw a fastball to half the time. It is also worth noting that he just posted an 1.150 OPS for the week prior to this one, with a .450 batting average and four doubles. In other words, they’re still throwing him junk to keep him from hitting the ball over the wall, but Walker is starting to really figure High A pitching out all the same.
Looking back at last year’s draft, there’s an interesting question to ask, which is whether or not the Cardinals actually lucked out with the way the spring went. Walker came into the spring of 2020 a top 50ish prospect, but his stock was rising. By the time things shut down, he was seen as a likely first-rounder. I personally believe that, had he played a full spring schedule, the Cardinals would never have had a chance to draft Walker, as he would have ended up drafted above their slot, perhaps well above. I’m not saying that a worldwide pandemic which killed millions and created economic disaster was all worth it so my baseball team could draft a really good prospect. I’m not. This is not a pro-Covid column.
Seriously. I am totally not saying that. But, you know. I’m just saying, is all.
As things stand now, I would expect Walker to return to High A to open the 2022 season, unless he really takes off the final month of this year. His plate discipline is excellent when a pitcher is struggling to throw strikes, but it needs work when we’re talking about deliberate nibbling, rather than actual wildness. Having him start out at the same level he ended this season would follow the pattern the Cardinals have followed with their other extremely young top prospects of the past few years (Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman, specifically), as well. Walker is in the conversation for the top spot in the system, by dint of his incredible power potential and baseball IQ.
Masyn Winn, SS/RHP(?)
Masyn Winn was not only the Cardinals’ second pick in the 2020 draft after Jordan Walker, he’s a close second to Walker for the title of most exciting developing story of 2021. The numbers haven’t been quite so overwhelming for Winn as for Walker, but the young shortstop (and still potential two-way talent, though that appears to be on the back burner for now), has also made his way to High A ball, after he started slowly out of the gate this spring, then really caught fire in the month of July. He was promoted from Palm Beach to Peoria at the end of July, and, like Walker, has found High A ball to be much more of a challenge so far.
Winn’s final numbers in Palm Beach looked like this: a .262/.370/.388 batting line, good for a 112 wRC+, with an elevated but not crazy .331 BABIP. He walked 14% of the time and kept his strikeouts under control, allowing him to get on base at an excellent clip. He also added sixteen stolen bases in eighteen chances, all the while showing off the best infield arm in the minor leagues. The power was relatively modest, but began to come around the longer he saw Low A pitching. (Also worth keeping in mind is that Winn is just 5’11” and 180 lbs, so despite him possessing above-average bat speed, he may never be a thumper.) Given his previously divided attention, Winn came in to pro ball a less experienced hitter than might be expected, but the plate approach and his acumen for adjustment were both big surprises, and extremely exciting.
Since arriving in Peoria, Winn’s strikeout rate has risen only a single percentage point, and his current ISO of .125 is more or less identical to the .127 he put up at Palm Beach. The BABIP is lower, but the real issue for Winn has been a complete evaporation of his walk rate, from a robust 14% to just 3% so far in Peoria. Pitchers are certainly throwing him more strikes, but to my eye it looks as if Winn is simply trying to do too much too fast at his new level. Consider: at Palm Beach, Winn stole 16/18 bases in 284 PAs worth of playing time. At Peoria, he has stolen seven bases and been caught twice, while collecting just 66 plate appearances. In other words, he is running like crazy nearly every time he reaches base. That level of aggression would be impressive if this were 1985, but in the modern game almost no one runs that often. It feels emblematic of a player trying very hard to make that first impression, and probably expanding his strike zone and getting himself out more often as a result.
The other slightly disappointing note regarding Winn is that he has not, to date, taken the mound this season. When he was drafted, he was one of the most intriguing two-way talents in the country, capable of reaching 98 with his fastball and in possession of a fairly remarkable snapdragon curve that belied his level of experience. The Cardinals, at the time, indicated an interest in developing Winn as both a position player and pitcher, but in 2021 it appears the pitching part of that plan has fallen by the wayside.
Of course, this is why it’s so tough to develop a two-way player; the playing time management and sacrifices it requires for a player to both hit and pitch are fairly daunting, and when a player excels at one — as Winn has on the position side this season — the easiest thing to do is to prioritise success, and allow the player to simply ignore the difficulties that could come with two-way development. Winn has hit well and looks like a future defensive superstar, with the best throwing arm of any infielder in the minor leagues (or the majors, for that matter), and while the Cardinals may try to have him throw relief innings somewhere down the line, he has essentially accelerated his timetable, and made himself too valuable, for the club to really drill down on his pitching ability. The risk of injury, the extra development time, and the extra work which could negatively impact Winn’s development as a shortstop are all roadblocks to him ever getting back to pitching at this point. Not saying it won’t happen, but I think it becomes more unlikely the better Winn looks as a future shortstop prospect.
Winn has already dramatically toned down the hand hitch in his swing, and appears to have no trouble at all handling premium velocity. He’s pressing right now still in High A, but the talent is undeniable, as is his elite feel for the game. He’s no worse than the seventh best prospect in the system, I think. Probably a little higher than that.
Tink Hence, RHP
I have much less to say about Tink Hence right now, simply because he has played so much less than the first two players here. Hence was held back this spring and worked at the Cards’ complex, but only started playing in games once the complex leagues officially started up. That short track record is really the only downside; since he began getting into games, Hence has shown what looks like unbelievable strikeout ability, to a level even his at-the-time premium stuff would not have suggested prior to the draft.
It’s only 7.2 innings total, but in those innings Hence has struck out fourteen batters, a full 40% of the hitters he’s faced, while walking just three. Now, his ERA is high at 5.87, but that’s largely a function of both a sky-high BABIP (.438), and a low strand rate of 56.6%. I won’t say it’s all bad luck; what Hence’s numbers look like to me — and this is backed up by some things I’ve heard here and there — is the statistical profile of a pitcher whose stuff simply overwhelms hitters when he locates, but who a) doesn’t always do that, and b) tends to miss over the plate when he does miss. Hence is even younger than Walker and Winn, having just turned nineteen a couple weeks ago, so he has all the time in the world to work on his command going forward. I assume the Cardinals will keep him in complex ball the rest of the summer, considering how late in the season it already is, and have him work on the side as much as he appears in games. This appears to be the new paradigm, at least within the Redbird organisation, for handling extremely young pitchers. The training wheels should at least somewhat come off in 2022, and we should get to see then how well Hence does against legitimate competition. He’s another top ten prospect in the system, bringing us to three so far in three 2020 picks.
Alec Burleson, OF
The most important thing I can tell you about Alec Burleson’s season right now is this: in 2021, Alec Burleson has played at three minor league levels. And that does not include any rehab appearances or anything like that. He has legitimately played at three stops, a rare feat for any player in the minors. Why does that matter? Because it means Burleson has essentially forced not one, but two promotions in a single year.
Burleson began the year in Peoria, and absolutely destroyed High A pitching to the tune of a 153 wRC+. He moved up to Double A Springfield after just 49 PAs and more than held his own, putting up a 116 wRC+ as a 22 year old. After nearly 300 plate appearances of that, the Cardinals moved him up to Memphis fairly recently, and in ten games at the Triple A level he has posted a 106 wRC+. Now, that number may not seem especially impressive, but remember, this is a guy who was in college less than eighteen months ago, and is now projecting for a roughly league-average batting line in the majors. He’s not quite big league ready yet, but he’s definitely getting there.
What’s interesting is that Burleson’s plate approach has changed as he’s moved up the ladder this season. In college, Burleson was an extreme contact hitter, who walked twice as often as he struck out, but didn’t show a whole lot of power despite having a very strong build. (His nickname is ‘Burly’, and not just because his last name lends itself so easily to that.) In High A, though, he abandoned contact for a patient, big-swinging, power-heavy approach. When he moved up to Double A, he cut down on his strikeouts, going from 30% to just over 20%, but lost some of the power and didn’t walk as often. Now, at Triple A, he’s cut his strikeout rate even further (15.4%), is walking at a solid clip (10.3%), and is hitting for essentially zero power (.088 ISO). It’s like as he has moved up and faced better pitchers, Burleson has dialed in an approach to keep himself afloat as he adjusts, no longer waiting for mistake pitches he can tee off on, when those mistakes may not come. The downside, of course, is that lack of power, but I think he can add the pop back in as he settles in and becomes more comfortable.
The pitchers are obviously better at the higher levels, and they’re also treating Burleson with more caution as he has moved up. Still, he’s surviving, and figuring things out. It’s exciting to consider what kind of hitter he might be if he can maintain something close to his current level of plate discipline long term, while allowing his natural strength to come back to the fore as his career progresses. Prior to this year’s draft, Burleson had moved into a top ten spot on the Cards’ prospect list, but now it’s a little tougher to say that. He’s still close, but without actually researching and writing the list (which I’m not doing until the offseason), I cannot say if he would crack the top ten or fall just outside it.
Levi Prater, LHP
Levi Prater is one of the more confounding prospects in the Cards’ system right now, but he has upside that I don’t think many saw coming at the time of the draft, though his chances of actually reaching that ceiling are pretty low, I think.
In college, Prater was known as a guy with solid but not great stuff, who put up very strong strikeout numbers through location and deception, while also being prone to occasional bouts of wildness and some issues with nibbling. In pro ball, Prater has essentially turned all the knobs up to eleven, and has become a very different looking pitching prospect. He’s throwing harder than before, especially when working in relief, and pushes into the mid-90s consistently. His slider, always his best weapon, has become a true wipeout offering, capable of overmatching both left- and right-handed hitters. In other words, what we have here is an Andrew Miller starter kit, only in a six-foot frame rather than a lanky, 6’7” one. The changeup is still a distant third pitch, but it’s also not bad, and gives Prater enough weapons he should be able to either start or throw multi-inning relief work long-term.
The problem is that those occasional bouts of wildness I mentioned in college have become full-blown control problems. Prater his first two years at Oklahoma walked between 4.5 and 5 per nine; in his draft year he cut that to 3.8, but of course that was also the pandemic-shortened season. In 2021, Prater is walking a batter per inning. At one point this year he was striking out 40% of the hitters he saw and walking nearly 20%; the strikeouts have fallen off as he’s tried to iron out his delivery and release point (he’s still whiffing a third of hitters on the season, though), but the walks have crept up, rather than coming down.
Prater right now looks like he could end up a dominant relief force, or he could wash out entirely if he can’t get the walks under control. A full physical and MRI package would seem to be in order, to make sure his control issues are not physical in nature.
Ian Bedell, RHP
Bedell, an overslot signee whose talent probably should have put him in the second round, rather than the fourth, was really the capper on a masterfully executed draft for me. The Cards got Jordan Walker for slightly underslot, invested a big overage on Winn, gave Hence just a touch over his slot number, and then managed to get two very intriguing college talents in Burleson and Prater, both of whom signed for less than slot money. Bedell cost the club 800K against a slot number that was slightly under half a million, but the club managed to make the numbers work, and got him into the fold. It was a brilliant bit of financial finagling, and Randy Flores’s scouting department deserves an incredible amount of credit.
The only problem is that Bedell ended up with an elbow injury early this season, and underwent Tommy John surgery in May. Thus, there’s really not much to say about his performance this year, unfortunately. Pitchers are risky. Moving on.
L.J. Jones, OF/1B
L.J. Jones is a player with offensive upside, but he was also the price the Cardinals paid for their overslot adventures earlier in the draft. He came with a 100K price tag, a large savings versus the ~$350,000 slot value for the 152nd pick, and those savings went a long way toward allowing the Cards to get the Bedell signing done.
Jones has had a tough season in 2021, spending the whole campaign in Low A ball and struggling to the tune of a 70 wRC+ in Palm Beach. He’s still young, having turned 22 at the end of June, so that youth relative to class thing the Cardinals favour in the draft plays to Jones’s advantage here. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot else positive I can say about his 2021 season, as he has not shown much of an ability to get on base via walk (5.6% BB rate), has not hit for any real power (.116 ISO), and while his strikeout rate is not bad at just under 21%, he’s also running a fairly low BABIP with a sky-high infield fly rate. In other words, L.J. Jones just hasn’t really made much good contact this year, nor has he shown the patience to succeed when he isn’t putting the ball in play.
Jones probably has another year to try and prove he belongs in pro ball, but his draft status doesn’t exactly protect him, and he’s probably just organisational depth at this point until the club needs his spot for some other player down the road. Still, he was a good lottery ticket for a bargain price that allowed the Cardinals to get other things done in the draft.
So what do we think of the Cards’ 2020 draft class at this point? Well, it seems slightly absurd to say this about a draft which was only five rounds long, but this could end up a hall of fame-level draft for the organisation, if things continue on in the direction they appear to be going so far. At least three, and possibly four, of the club’s top ten prospects came from this draft, with Burleson the guy on the bubble. He’s in the top twelve, but ten might be pushing it.
What’s interesting is that the Cardinals seemed to grab three guys at the very top whose stocks were rising in the spring of 2020, and would likely have risen well beyond the spots at which they were drafted had the season not been shut down. What’s that old saying about luck being preparation plus opportunity? I don’t always like those sorts of sayings, because too often they’re used to discount the very real, and very powerful, effects that luck/fortune/happenstance/whatever play in events, but in some cases those sayings are perfect. The Cardinals were presented with an opportunity on draft day of 2020, and they had both the scouting reports in hand they liked and a plan to fit a very complicated bonus picture together without the wiggle room allowed by a couple dozen rounds. It’s one of the most impressive jobs of putting together a draft I think I’ve ever seen, and if things go well the way they have so far for this group of players, this could be a franchise-defining class for the next decade.