This week Baseball America announced their top 100 prospects and the Cardinals landed their top three talents on the list – all in the top 50.
The #STLCards have 3 top 100 prospects according to BA, all in the top 50.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) January 19, 2022
Jordan Walker - #24
Nolan Gorman - #34
Mathew Liberatore - #50
Both Gorman and Walker were given 70-grade power. https://t.co/H0MTPVvJTi
Jordan Walker came in at #24. Gorman was ten spots higher at #34. Matthew Liberatore landed in the exact center at #50.
The Cardinals have had at least three prospects on the list for the last few seasons, which is about average for MLB teams. However, this is the first time in quite a while that they have had three in the top 50, indicating the quality that sits at the top of their system.
Along with the rankings, there were a few other interesting tidbits released about each of these prospects that are worth some attention:
Baseball America just revealed average exit velocity and fastball velocity for their top 100 prospects. Hitters Jordan Walker and Nolan Gorman averaged 91.26 mph and 89.39 mph off the bat respectively and pitcher Matthew Liberatore averaged 93.51 mph on his fastball.— Kareem (@KareemSSN) January 19, 2022
Let’s take a look at each of these prospects, their seasons, and how this information matters for their future.
#24 – Jordan Walker
Walker was the Cardinals’ first round draft pick, #21, in the COVID-shortened 2020 amateur draft. He’s very tall for a third baseman, coming in at 6’5” and 220 lbs. with room to add to his frame. If you’re interested in how that kind of height compares to other third basemen in baseball history, VEB has you covered. Back when he was drafted, I did a little comps piece that focused on tall third basemen with similar skillsets. One of the things I said in that article was Walker “is going to have to either stick at 3b – and there’s every reason to believe he can and will – or he’s really going to have to hit.”
Well, so far so good. We had to wait a bit for Walker’s debut but all he’s done since is hit. And hit. And hit. Walker had a .516 wOBA in A ball. That’s not a typo. That translates to a 205 wRC+. He followed that up with a more human .367 wOBA with a 124 wRC+ and .292/.344/.487 slash line at A+.
19-year-olds just don’t put up that kind of performance at those levels. This was no BABIP-fueled hot stretch either. Scouts rave about Walker’s bat talent. He earned a 70-grade power rating from Baseball America. That matches the 60 Game Power, 70 Raw Power futures grade at Fangraphs.
What we have not had until now was exit velocity data. Along with their rankings, BA also released minor league Statcast data for their top 100. Walker’s average exit velocity came in at 91.3 mph. For context, if he carried that average EV to the majors he would already rank 28th in baseball just behind guys like Bo Bichette, Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson, and Joey Gallo. Walker’s only going to get stronger!
Add up all those accolades, the stats, and the scouting and #24 might be the lowest ranking Walker sees in his minor league career. Baseball America already has him listed as a strong candidate for the #1 prospect in baseball next year.
#34 – Nolan Gorman
Through the summer months, it seemed like there was a contingent of Cardinals fans who were down on Gorman’s season. I’m guessing that was based on unrealistic expectations. Gorman started the season at AA where he had a .379 wOBA and 129 wRC+ as a 21-year-old. That’s a great performance and earned him a bump to AAA around mid-season. There, Gorman produced a .340 wOBA and 106 wRC+. He did that while playing a new position – second base – and playing it extremely well.
Look, folks. Any time you reach AAA at the age of 21 you are doing well. Anytime you do that while hitting above league average, you are doing very well. Anytime you do that while excelling at a new, tougher defensive position, you are doing amazing.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I kind of do: Nolan Gorman is a very talented prospect who has worked to place himself on the cusp of the majors with elite power and an increasing level of maturity to his game. He’s tracking to become a good to very good starting infielder at either second base or third, with athleticism that would translate to the outfield if circumstances forced him to play there. He is, in my opinion, the second-best hitting prospect the Cardinals have developed since Oscar Taveras. Carlson’s maturity when he arrived in the majors places him ever so slightly ahead of Gorman on my list. Gorman, though, probably has Carlson by a notch in upside and production potential based mostly on his defensive flexibility. (Walker should pass them both if he continues his current path.)
Like Walker, Gorman’s power rates out as a 70 on the 80 scale. Despite facing extremely tough competition relative to age, Gorman still produced a well-above-average exit velocity of 89.4. That’s higher than Nolan Arenado or the aforementioned Dylan Carlson. If he carried that to the majors, it would place him among the league leaders in EV at 2b.
Gorman will see time in StL this season. Either injury or performance will clear a path for him. With his level of talent, once he sees the field it’s going to be very difficult to get him off the field again.
#50 – Matthew Liberatore
Like Gorman, there seems to be a segment of Cardinals fans who are convinced Matthew Liberatore had a bad season. Maybe those fans are just really into Randy Arozarena. Or maybe they just aren’t very good at translating a stat line by age and experience level. Or maybe their expectations are a bit out of whack.
Liberatore has been and remains at or near the top 50 in baseball. I think somewhere along the line fans began to interpret his top 50 status as a young pitcher as a “future ace”. That’s just not the case. Players that have “ace” caliber profiles in the minors don’t sit in the 50 range in the rankings lists. You’ll find those arms no lower than the top 25 and once they reach AAA the top 5-10.
What kind of pitcher is consistently ranked as a top 50 prospect? Exactly what Liberatore grades out as: a starter prospect with a solid #3 base and #2 upside. At age 21, after skipping A+ and AA and losing a minor league season, all Liberatore did was spend the entire season at AAA, start the Futures Game, pitch for the USA in Olympic Qualifying, and firmly cement his “hoped-for” status as now “nearly-realized”.
Liberatore will have an extremely good chance of making the Cardinals rotation at some point early in 2021, where he’ll be expected to perform as a mid-rotation starter with #2 caliber upside to dream on. With the news about Liberatore’s average fastball velocity, those kinds of expectations seem well justified. It wasn’t that long ago that Liberatore’s fastball was sitting in the low 90s with very little “tunneling” ability on batters. I heard reports mid- and late-season that velocity was ticking up and he was maintaining it later into his starts.
The result is the 93.5 avg. FB velocity reported above. My guess – and I don’t have split data to back this up, just anecdotes from people who watch this kind of thing – is that his average rose as the season progressed. If you sampled his fastball velocity for the back half of 2021, his average would be a hair higher. Regardless of that, a 93.5 would be enough to rank Liberatore in the top 25 in avg. fastball velocity among starters in the majors, ahead of other control lefties like Patrick Corbin or Sean Manaea and just a hair behind Max Fried.
Now, you might say to yourself “well, those guys aren’t that great! They’re just…” Mid rotation starters? Yeah. Right. Now you’re getting it! Take a good look at Max Fried. That’s what Liberatore is tracking toward.
Baseball America released their top Cardinals prospects earlier this winter. They had Michael McGreevey – the Cards’ top pick in 2021 – ranked fourth behind the three prospects listed above. Ivan Herrera came in at fifth. It’s no surprise, then, that Herrera missed their top 100. Other publications could flip those two and you could see the Cardinals’ talented catching prospect sneak into the back end of a few top 100 prospect rankings lists. It’s hard to call him a snub, though. Herrera had a quality season at AA Springfield for his age, showing more power as the year progressed, a very good developing glove, and an intriguing ability to draw walks. It just wasn’t the complete package yet. This coming season he needs to start to put everything together, showing that he’s ready to take the starting catcher mantle from Yadier Molina in 2023. He probably doesn’t belong on top 100 lists now, but look for him to emerge as a solid choice next season as he sits on the cusp of the majors.