While the St. Louis Cardinals have generally not fared well in the minor leagues this season, there have been some prospect breakouts. Alec Burleson has risen from High-A to Triple-A after being selected 70th overall in the 2020 MLB Draft. Juan Yepez has broken out at the plate and crushed both Double-A and Triple-A pitching. Former first round pick Nick Plummer has bounced back from a disappointing minor league career to post a 148 wRC+ in Double-A. Finally, Luken Baker has found his power stroke in Double-A with 21 home runs in 321 plate appearances.
All of these players have broken out at the plate this season. Obviously, they need more than a half season of real success to force their way into the Cardinals plans or seriously raise their prospect status. Due to their strong performance in the upper levels of the minors, though, each of these players is worthy of consideration for the Cardinals and their 23rd ranked offense (by wRC+).
The problem for each of these prospects is that they are blocked by a key player at the major league level. There is little room in outfield due to the success of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson, so Alec Burleson, Nick Plummer, and Juan Yepez will find it difficult to break through there. Additionally, each member of the starting outfield is young and controllable, making it even harder for a prospect to break through. Nolan Arenado is under contract through the 2027 season, assuming he opts into his contract, and Paul Goldschmidt is signed through 2024. This makes it nearly impossible for Yepez to earn a job at either infield corner, or for Baker to find a role at first base.
The only real area where the Cardinals could potentially have spots to be claimed is the middle infield. This is good for players like Nolan Gorman, who can play second base, and Delvin Perez, but it does not help any of the previously mentioned prospects who have broken out this season.
This is a good problem for the Cardinals to have. If these prospects can continue to play as well as they have been, then the team will have a surplus of talent at the corner positions. This gives the team a number of options. The first is to wait for an injury next season to give any of these players a chance in the starting lineup. This is oftentimes how prospects are given their first shot in the majors, and it may have to be like that for these prospects considering the talent in front of them. Another option becomes available if the NL adopts the Designated Hitter for the 2022 season. This would open a spot for another bat, and the Cardinals could let these players compete for that role. This would be ideal because it would create another starting spot.
Finally, the Cardinals could simply keep them as depth in Triple-A for the season in case any opportunities open up in the lineup or as a bench bat. This is not a terrible option as neither Baker nor Plummer have Triple-A experience, while Burleson was just promoted and Yepez has spent just 51 games there. However, if they continue hitting, they cannot stay in Triple-A forever, and there is simply not space on the Cardinals roster for another starting job, barring a major injury or the arrival of the universal DH.
This leaves a final option, which is to include them in a trade package. This may not be the most ideal option, but it is something that the Cardinals have done before. They were willing to trade from positions of depth to acquire stars like Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado, and the team could look to use these prospects to acquire a productive middle infielder. If this were to happen, it would likely mean trading for a shortstop while leaving second base open for Nolan Gorman to claim. Another option could be to trade for a number two starter behind Jack Flaherty.
This could be something that the Cardinals look into in the offseason. It might be wise to hold onto these prospects for at least another season to see if they can continue to hit their way into the Cardinals’ plans or see if they are needed as an injury replacement. Nevertheless, if the Cardinals want to make a sizeable acquisition to improve the lineup or the the pitching rotation in the offseason, they have the foundation of a package to use as trade ammo. The team may not be willing to trade these prospects so early, but if the front office is looking to make a substantial improvement to the team after a disappointing season, then it has plenty of productive, but blocked, prospects to include in a trade.