When most people discuss the St. Louis Cardinals upper level pitching prospects, names like Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante, Angel Rondon, and Johan Oviedo tend to come up most often. Each of these players could play a role in St. Louis in the upcoming season and each of these players can be considered promising arms. Oviedo and Rondon have already made their debuts in St. Louis, Liberatore is a top 100 prospect, Zack Thompson is a former first round pick, and Andre Pallante ended 2021, his second minor league season, in a Triple-A before impressing in the Arizona Fall League.
There is another pitcher who is typically considered below this group when it comes to being a potential contributor with the big league club this year, but that should not be the case as Connor Thomas had as good a year on the mound as anyone in the system last season.
Statistically, Thomas compares favorably to both Liberatore and Pallante, two of the more highly regarded pitchers in the Cardinals system. In 2019, Liberatore threw 78 1⁄3 innings at the Single-A level and tallied a strong 3.10 ERA. That same year, Thomas was drafted and began his professional career at the short season level before finishing with 27 1⁄3 innings at the same level as Liberatore. Liberatore was praised this year for being able to adapt to Triple-A competition after skipping High-A and Double-A, and that praise is certainly deserved. He finished the year with a 4.04 ERA (4.26 FIP) and a 2.67 ERA in his final 10 outings.
Connor Thomas followed nearly the same track as Liberatore. He also skipped High-A entirely and only made four starts in Double-A before reaching the same level as Liberatore. His results were much better. The 5’11” left-hander had a 3.10 ERA (3.93 FIP) at the Triple-A level and had the third lowest ERA among all starters (min. 60 IP) in the Cardinals system last season, trailing only Wilfredo Pereira and Dionys Rodriguez, a pair of pitchers yet to reach Double-A. Thomas’ best month was also his final one as he posted a 1.48 ERA in his final five appearances.
Liberatore is obviously a better prospect. He is a former first round pick, current top-100 prospect, and nearly a year and a half younger than Thomas. Still, it is impressive that Thomas was actually able to outperform him in the minors last year while on a similar track. Thomas has the added benefit of playing college ball, so he had a smaller jump to the pro level, but his results are still impressive.
It is not easy to jump from Single-A to Triple-A so quickly. Zack Thompson showed that to us last season, and he actually pitched in High-A in 2019. Thomas deserves a lot of credit for being able to move so quickly and to handle the increased competition at each level.
Thomas also compares favorably to Pallante statistically. Pallante was part of the same draft class as Thomas, but he did not get any exposure to full-season ball in his debut season (2019). Thus, even though both pitchers started at Double-A, Pallante stayed there while Thomas left quickly. In Double-A, Pallante had a solid 3.82 ERA (4.34 FIP), but he only threw five Triple-A innings.
His stint in the AFL should help his development, but Thomas moved quicker through the system and had better results at a higher level.
I am not saying that Thomas is the better prospect, but I am saying that he should be in the same conversation for Major League innings this season. Based strictly on performance, he has earned his place among the group of potential reinforcements next season.
Pallante was taken in the round before Thomas and he was sent to the AFL, but Thomas’ success last season still should place him higher on the depth chart than Pallante. I would also place Thomas over Oviedo since Oviedo clearly needs more time at Triple-A to figure things out. If a rotation spot opens up then Liberatore should probably be ahead of Thomas, but Thomas is a sneaky pick for a promotion next season.
Thomas is not yet on the 40-man, so that certainly doesn’t work in his favor as players like Rondon, Oviedo, Junior Fernandez, and others would not need to be added to the 40-man to get the call. Still, Thomas will need to be added after the season if the Cardinals plan on protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft. If he begins the year well, then this shouldn’t be much of a decision, which would also mean that it wouldn’t hurt to add him early and send him to St. Louis if needed.
Something that does work in Thomas’ favor is the Cardinals apparent emphasis on sinkers and groundballs. The Cardinals have talked about wanting pitchers who can take advantage of the team’s elite defense, and that is certainly Thomas’ style of pitching. Also, since he is not yet on the 40-man roster yet, he is able to report to minor league Spring Training and begin his minor league seasons on time. This may give Thomas a leg up on 40-man roster pitchers as he will have the first chance to impress.
The left-hander is not a power pitcher by any means, as emphasized by his listed size (according to Fangraphs) of 5’11”, 173 pounds and the fact that his fastball sits in the low-90s. He does generate a ton of groundballs (61% groundball rate), though, and he throws a lot of strikes (6.9% walk rate). For reference, Dakota Hudson’s groundball rates hovered around 57% in the minor leagues.
This is the exact profile that the Cardinals were looking for last season following the series of pitching injuries. Then the team signed sinkerballer Steven Matz to a four-year contract. Pitchers who pitch to contact seem to have a place in St. Louis, so Connor Thomas would fit right in. Also, in comparison Matz, ZIPS sees them as basically the same pitcher, projecting Thomas for a 4.25 FIP and Matz for a 4.26 FIP. I don’t know if that’s more of an indictment on Matz or a complement for Thomas, but that is a solid projection for someone who is often considered in the second tier for a potential call-up this year.
Thomas is the classic Cardinals pitcher archetype as mid-round pick with a productive college career, great pitchability and so-so stuff. He has flown through the minors and I would not be surprised to see him get the call to the majors over pitchers like Oviedo, Rondon, and even Liberatore if the Cardinals need a reliever.
Further down the ranks is another Connor from the same draft class who also performed well in 2021 - Connor Lunn. Lunn was taken in the 11th round of the 2019 Draft, six rounds after the Cardinals selected Thomas. He is also a pitchability over pure stuff kind of pitcher, and he too fits the classic overachiever mold that the Cardinals have a history of success with.
He may not ever be regarded among the top pitching prospects in the system, but since he was one of the few starting pitchers to have success in the Cardinals system last season, he is worth mentioning.
Like Thomas, Lunn has great control as he walked only 4.1% of the batters he faced last season. He paired this with a decent 24.6% strikeout rate. This helped him compile a solid 3.71 FIP (3.96 ERA) at the High-A level after skipping over the Low-A level entirely.
Lunn had the second lowest WHIP (1.139) among all starters to throw 60 or more innings in the Cardinals system last year, due in large part to having the lowest walk rate among starters. After struggling with control last season, the Cardinals pitching staff could use someone who pounds the zone consistently and doesn’t hurt himself. For the same reasons that the front office might value Thomas, they might also value Lunn.
Lunn is a little lower in the minor league hierarchy, but I would expect him to pitch in the Double-A rotation this year. After such a solid season in Peoria’s rotation in 2021, I doubt the Cardinals will move him into the bullpen for 2022. He will also be Rule 5 eligible at the end of the year, so this will be a big season for him. If he continues to impress, then he may be able to claim a 40-man roster spot. Also, as I previously mentioned, the Cardinals have a large group of Triple-A pitchers who may see time in St. Louis this year. When any of them get promoted, a spot in Triple-A will be vacated. If Lunn pitches well, he could be able to move up to Triple-A before the end of the year, and that would be a huge step for him.
Both Thomas and Lunn have the ability to throw strikes and pitch to contact. This doesn’t make them potential high-end starters, but these are skills that the Cardinals seem to value. This should work in their favor, and with their successes last year, they are both names to watch this season.