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System Sundays 29th August 2021: Updating Some Hitters of Note

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Diving back into the offensive numbers of some near-MLB system talent.

2021 Sirius XM Futures Game Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Howdy, folks. Gather ‘round, now, don’t be shy. Let your ol’ pal Aaron tell you ‘bout some hitters this mornin’. Pert near on September now, and them leaves’a be fallin’ afore you even know it.

Alright, old-timey country talk aside, we need to talk about some hitters. A while back, I pulled out a crop of hitters making noise in the minors this year, who were beginning to coalesce into something that looked vaguely like a wave of talent, ready to at least fill in the margins of a roster, if not a certainty to provide a foundation on which to build. We’re going to stick mostly with those hitters today, dig back in on their numbers, with a couple of other intriguing guys sneaking in as well.

Here is the list of players I covered before, minus Aaron Antonini, who has really struggled the second half of the season and looks as if the load of catching has, well, caught up with him a bit. Each player is listed with their current level:

  • Nolan Gorman, Triple A
  • Lars Nootbaar, Majors
  • Juan Yepez, Triple A
  • Conner Capel, Triple A
  • Kramer Robertson, Triple A
  • Brendan Donovan, Triple A
  • Alec Burleson, Triple A
  • Nick Plummer, Triple A

Now, first off, there’s something very interesting to note about this group; namely, every single one of them (sans Nootbaar), is now at the Triple A level. To be fair, that has a lot to do with the way I chose these players; I specifically focused on a group of largely bat-first players who were all playing in the upper minors and who could be near-term contributors, as in the next year or so. The fact those guys are all now at AAA is not exactly shocking. It is, however, very exciting, and points toward some very interesting auditions and decisions which will need to take place in the very near future.

The easiest player on this list to discuss right now is Lars Nootbaar, who has officially graduated from potential near-term concern to probable near-term solution, leapfrogging the Justin Williamses and Scott Hursts in the system to seemingly present the Cards’ best fourth outfield option going forward. Nootbaar is currently putting up a plus batting line in the majors (wRC+ of 119), despite running a slightly below-average batting average on balls in play (.289 BABIP). He’s doing so by putting up very good strikeout and walk numbers, and doing damage when he hits the ball in the air, much as he did in the minors. He also looks to be a solid-average or better fielder in a corner outfield spot, though the samples are so tiny that we should not draw any real conclusions at all, and is an above-average runner. Nootbaar probably doesn’t have the offensive ceiling of Dylan Carlson long term, but he looks like a very good fourth outfielder, and if the club wanted to sell high on Tyler O’Neill this winter or something (not saying they would, just saying if they wanted to), Nootbaar looks like he might just be able to hold down a starting spot.

Beyond Lars, though, the player I actually think we need to talk about most right now is not, in fact, Nolan Gorman, the Cards’ top prospect who, at just 21 years old, is now an above-average Triple A hitter and could be kicking the major league door down by midseason of 2022. No, the guy I think is the most intriguing hitter in the system right now is Juan Yepez. Yepez, you will recall, was the player acquired from Atlanta in the Matt Adams trade back in 2017. He’s always been a player with big raw power that only occasionally showed up in games, but who mostly put up average or better batting lines due to solid plate discipline numbers.

Well, this year, the power has started to show up in games. And by show up, I mean Juan Yepez is putting up stunning power numbers this season, all the while posting near-elite strikeout to walk numbers, leading to some truly remarkable overall batting totals. When I wrote about Yepez at the end of July, he was putting up a 123 wRC+ in Triple A, with a healthy dose of power (.313 ISO in July), helping to prop up a line weighed down by a low BABIP. He was striking out just over twice as often as he walked, a very solid number for a guy who can do real damage when he connects.

As of this morning, those numbers all look positively banal by comparison. Yepez’s wRC+ at Triple is now 151. He is walking 12% of the time, versus just an 18.5% strikeout rate. Better yet, his isolated slugging percentage for his entire time at Triple A is now above .300 (.318, to be exact), and he has clubbed 24 home runs in just about 350 plate appearances in 2021. In other words, Juan Yepez is now doing to Triple A what he did to Double A to begin the season, and nothing about his profile looks fluky. A 1.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio is downright elite for a guy with this kind of pop, and he’s leaned into pull-side fly ball power more as the season has gone on. I’ve compared Yepez to Allen Craig in the past, but the hitter he’s turning into actually looks less like Craig to me, and more like Edwin Encarnacion.

That wasn’t even the longest ball he hit last night, though:

Like I said, the power shows up now.

Let’s look at the rest of the players on the list now, with their current level wRC+:

  • Gorman: 108
  • Capel: 114
  • Robertson: 102
  • Donovan: 111 (just 30 PAs in AAA)
  • Burleson: 79
  • Plummer: 191 (!) (but also, just 22 AAA PAs)

Going through this list, it looks like Kramer Robertson, despite his extremely intriguing ability to draw a walk, just isn’t ever going to make it to the big league level, at least not with the Cardinals. The emergence this year of Edmundo Sosa as a legitimate big league shortstop and Tommy Edman’s quietly strong season at second base (but seriously, only as a second baseman), do not really leave room for Robertson to sneak in, even as a backup somewhere. He simply does not hit the baseball hard enough on a consistent basis to look like a major league hitter. Considering the draft class he came from, though (2017), he has made it further than I think a lot of us would have believed.

Conner Capel is having a very strong year as well, and is capable of holding down center field, which could make him an intriguing fit as a fourth outfielder somewhere. Considering Lars Nootbaar’s presence, though, he may very well have to do it somewhere else, rather than somewhere here. His plate discipline numbers are strong (12% BB, 19.6% K), he’s hitting for a little power (.188 ISO), and he’s done those things over a relatively large number of plate appearances (317). Capel feels like a good trade candidate sometime in 2022, if not before. He’s Rule V eligible again this offseason, and his performance this year was strong enough he should be taken by some team, I would think. Thus, he will either inherit the Lane Thomas/Justin Williams spot on the 40 man roster after the season, or likely be part of a trade package before December rolls around.

Alec Burleson is having a strange go of it in Triple A so far. His plate discipline has actually improved as he’s moved up the minor league levels this season, to the point he is now walking and striking out an even 10.8% of the time in Memphis. The problem? He isn’t really hitting the ball with much authority in Triple A, with just a .269 BABIP and a shocking .078 ISO in 87 trips to the plate. The thing is, it’s not a completely negative batting line; it just looks like a guy whose survival tactic at the highest level he’s ever reached is to avoid strikeouts at all costs, foul off as many pitches as possible, try to work a walk, and learn/adjust to Triple A pitching as he goes. I’ll take it, and Burleson could still very well be major league ready sometime in 2022; just a question of whether he can meld his High A batting approach of aggressive swings and lots of power with his ultra-controlled but essentially damageless approach in Triple A. Still, it is his first real season in the minors, he is only 22, and has played at three levels in 2021. You cannot say the season has been anything other than a resounding success for the East Carolina product.

Brendan Donovan, future potential super sub, was promoted to Memphis fairly recently after beating up Double A pitching to the tune of a 135 wRC+, heavy on the walks and BABIP, low on the power. So far in Triple A he has hit for a ton of power (.308 ISO), struck out a bunch (30% K), and is running a .250 BABIP. None of those things are the kind of hitter Brendan Donovan is or will be; weird things happen when you’re talking about a week and a half’s worth of playing time.

Speaking of, Nick Plummer has started off his Triple A career like a house on fire. He is walking and striking out in exactly equal measures (18.2% K and BB rates), and is smashing basically everything he sees for a line drive single (.455 BABIP, 27.3% LD rate, .133 ISO). Much of that actually is the kind of hitter Plummer is and has been, minus the above-average strikeout rate. A lack of contact has always been the limiting factor for Plummer; even when he was beating up on Double A pitching this year his K rate was a much-too-high 28.7%. It will be fun to see where Plummer ends up this season in terms of Triple A numbers, but let’s not get too excited (or discouraged, should things turn for the worse), about a very limited sampling of PAs at the end of a long season. Plummer has put himself back into real prospect discussions with this season’s performance, but much like Conner Capel, I just don’t see a really good path for him to the big leagues. He’s Rule V eligible as well, meaning he’ll have to be added to the 40 man this offseason, and the problem here is I have a hard time seeing any other teams betting high on Plummer just yet, given the short track record of real success he has now had versus the option of just waiting for the Cardinals to not find a roster spot for him sometime in the near future.

Finally, Nolan Gorman, the main attraction, is making plenty of contact in Triple A, with a sub-20% strikeout rate, but is also not drawing walks or hitting for a huge amount of power just yet. The power isn’t bad, by any means (.196 ISO), but there is more in the tank for Gorman and his naturally lofted swing. What is extremely encouraging is that Gorman has shown an ability this year to avoid strikeouts better than he ever has before, while facing top-flight competition at the age of just 21. And not an old 21, either; Gorman’s birthday is in May, so he’s only about three months past 21. Gorman is actually somewhat less interesting to talk about than some of these other players here, I think, simply because he is an elite prospect, is developing mostly the way you would hope an elite prospect would, and will have a spot made for him somewhere on the field when his bat proves ready for the big leagues. Now, as to just how good Nolan Gorman could be down the road? That is still an open question, and it would seem that the sky is truly the limit.

There are a couple other players I would like to highlight here who were not part of that earlier post. First off, we have Matt Koperniak, an undrafted free agent from 2020 who has, like Alec Burleson and Brendan Donovan, played at three levels this season. Koperniak began the year in Low A Palm Beach and proved too much for the old Florida State League (seriously, there is no way I’m ever going to remember the new divisions in milb, so I’m not even going to try), with a 155 wRC+ that looked remarkably similar to a Brendan Donovan batting line. Roughly equal walk and strikeout rates in the mid-teens, middling power, and an ability to rack up hits in bunches through high average batted balls. He was moved up to High A for just four games, absolutely dominated by dint of a .545 BABIP(!), and was then promoted again to Double A. He has looked bad at Springfield, borderline overmatched, with a 27 wRC+ through sixteen games (65 PAs), but he’s not striking out excessively, so the Cardinals seem content to let him struggle through some growing pains, hoping he can return to the Double A level to begin the 2022 season. Koperniak is a lefty-swinging outfielder with fringy speed and power, so the bat control is going to be his ticket up the ladder. Still, for a UDFA, it’s been a very intriguing season to watch.

Nick Raposo was another undrafted player added after the draft in 2020, and he has the extra intrigue of being a catcher. Just 23, Raposo has spent season at Double A (which was a very aggressive assignment, but I think it had a lot to do with arranging the catching depth in the minors), after beginning the year in the Cards’ extended spring training program, and has held his own with a 98 wRC+ in 117 plate appearances. He’s another guy with very good plate discipline (12% BB, 19.7% K), and modest power, but the fact he’s a catcher makes any potential offensive upside he has much more exciting than it might otherwise be.

So here we have a large and varied group of hitters, largely concentrated at the Triple A level, all of whom have some semblance of a major league skill set showing through. Gorman is the obvious outlier, as the one true top prospect here who could anchor a lineup for a decade to come for the Redbirds. The rest of this group does not look like an elite core of hitters so much as it does the old Memphis Mafia, the Daniel Descalso/Allen Craig/Jon Jay group of prospects, who came up to the Cardinals in the 2009-’11 window and helped fill in the roster around a few star players (Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and later Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran), to really help make that 2010-2015 run go. I think Nootbaar and Yepez both have substantial upside offensively, but for the most part, these are guys who profile as lower-order hitters or backup players depending on the breaks, but great teams usually have a group of these kinds of guys hanging around, allowing payroll to be spent on bigger ticket items.

We should see several of these names reach the big league level in 2022, unless the front office wants to try and consolidate some of this spread-out hitting talent into a more substantial piece around which they can build. That would make a lot of sense, actually, but I really wonder how much stomach the Cards’ decision-makers will have for another big name trade after seeing the Goldschmidt and Arenado deals fail to get the club where they were hoping to go. More likely, I think we see at least a couple of these guys take over jobs, hopefully allowing the front office to spend some of the payroll space they will have heading into 2022 to shore up the pitching staff, which has largely been the cause of so much misery this year. If this group does, in fact, live up to the success of the Memphis Mafia of ten years ago, one would have to view it as an enormous success story for the Cards’ developmental pipeline.

Let’s just not trade Yepez quite yet, okay? I really want to see where this goes.