Somewhere along the line, waiting for the resolution to this Cardinals season started to feel like entering a contest to win a free Little Caesar’s pizza. There’s not even a great chance you’ll win the pizza (aka reach the playoffs), and even if you do, it’s... a Little Caesar’s pizza/one game playoff against some monster from the NL West. You’d rather win the pizza than not- hey, I’m not totally knocking Little Caesar’s- but it’s not like you’re getting twenty steaks or something. You’re not even getting crazy bread. With that in mind as the Cardinals float along in purgatory, I want to talk about the odd 2021 that the Cardinals have had in the minor leagues.
Collectively, the Cardinals’ minor league season has been a dichotomy. On one hand, there have been countless positive stories. I’ll get to those soon. On the other hand, teamwide performances have been dreadful. AAA Memphis is seven games under .500, as of Thursday. AA Springfield has the worst record- by 9 games (!)- in the Double-A Central. High-A Peoria has the worst record by 7.5 games in the High-A Central. Low-A Palm Beach has a lower winning percentage than either of them, and ended a 17-game losing streak last month. What happens below that level doesn’t matter as much.
That’s a grim picture. It’s worse if you dig deeper. If we collect each organization’s numbers for every team in A+, AA, and AAA, here’s where the Cardinals rank. We’ll start with hitters:
Cardinal Minor League Hitters, Organizational Rank
Note: to calculate wOBA, I used the 2021 MLB constants available on FanGraphs. It’s not 100% accurate but seems like it should be close enough. Nor are park factors involved.
Only five teams hit for less power (per ISO). Only five teams walk less. And as a result, only five teams are less productive (by wOBA). For a team that prides itself on fundamentals, surely they’re good at stealing bases, right? Nope. They have the worst stolen base success rate by far in baseball.
How about pitching? Maybe they can’t hit but their pitching looks strong.
Cardinals Minor League Pitchers, Organizational Rank
Ouch. They’re even worse than the hitters. They have the worst K-BB in organized ball, and this isn’t a case of “We’ll chase contact but keep the ball in the yard.” Their HR% is sixth worst. Add it all up and their runs allowed per 9 innings is dead last. I didn’t calculate FIP but you don’t need to. When you’re 26th in K%, 28th in BB%, and 25th in HR%- the major components of FIP- you are almost certainly the worst team in baseball.
Given their poor performance both on the mound and at the plate, it should come as no surprise that they have the worst winning percentage in organized ball at high-A and above. The Nats are roundly considered the worst farm system in the game... and their teams high-A and above have a .416 winning percentage, compared to the Cardinals’ .403. Put more succinctly, the Cardinals have been the dog dookiest minor league system in baseball in 2021.
While winning on the farm isn’t the only objective, it tends to yield better results long-term. That’s what Baseball America found a few years ago, and the performance of the 2021 Cardinals farm system is terrifying through that lens.
This isn’t totally fair, though. Development is important at the minor league level. Having five superstars surrounded by garbage in a farm system will yield bad results and still be a better system overall than one riddled with quad-A talent from top to bottom despite worse on-field results. It’s also an extraordinarily strange season in which many players are seeing their first full season of professional baseball after having been drafted in 2019 and 2020. Because of the pandemic, teams were limited for an entire year on the kind of coaching they could supply to their minor leaguers.
On top of everything else, MLB restructured the minor league system and the Cardinals released many players who were considered old for their level (big h/t to reader and commenter TeddyRugby for that info). As a result, the Cardinals have the second youngest hitters on average for their level and fourth youngest pitchers. Their timelines are accelerated in a way that’s leading to failure as a result of a bunch of stuff the organization couldn’t control.
Still, it’s good to develop individuals despite the lack of teamwide success. There have been plenty of success stories this season. Let’s highlight them.
Yepez started to break out in 2019 and then had to wait until 2021 to continue. He didn’t miss a beat, demolishing AA with a 154 wRC+. That earned him a promotion to AAA where he has a 156 wRC+. His isolated slugging is over .300 at both levels, and his walk and strikeout rates are far better than they’ve ever been. He has also slimmed down enough to find playing time at all four corners, making him a viable bench candidate for 2022 and even September 2021.
You may recall that Plummer was a first round pick out of high school way back in 2015. His first five years were rocky, to say the least. He ended 2019 in high-A with an 88 wRC+ and seemingly was only going to get one more chance. He’s made more than enough out of it this year. He crushed AA pitching with a 143 wRC+ and earned a promotion to AAA. There’s no telling where it goes from here but he has, improbably, put himself back on the radar.
Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn
The Cardinals’ duo of 2020 draft picks successfully solved low-A early in the season and earned call-ups to high-A. Both just turned 19 this spring, making their 2021 exploits all the more impressive. Walker in particular was a menace at low-A with a 205 (!) wRC+ followed by a respectable 109 in high-A, asserting himself as a top-100 prospect. Winn has stumbled a little since his call-up, but it can’t be emphasized enough- he’s 19 years old.
Burleson is another 2020 pick, and the trio were covered well a few weeks back by our A.E. Schafer. His first year success rocketed him up three levels- first graduating A+, then AA before a promotion to AAA. All he did was hit and hit and hit before slowing down in AAA, and put himself on the radar much like Lars Nootbaar did in 2019.
After stumbling in his first exposure to A-ball in 2019, Nunez waited for a year and finally rebounded early this year. He’s still just 20 years old and put up a 121 wRC+ in high-A this spring and early summer, earning a promotion to AA. His first exposure there hasn’t gone well (64 wRC+) but he’s back on track.
These are all success stories, players whose development help flesh out a productive farm system. This is to say nothing of Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, and Ivan Herrera- the top end of the farm system- or some of the longer-term young gambles in recent classes like Josh Baez, Tink Hence, Edwin Nunez, and Tre Fletcher.
The Cardinals will need their 2022 minor league performance to be more successful on the field, but the 2021 season doesn’t paint an accurate picture either. The cupboard isn’t as barren as the teamwide performances would have you believe.