Last week, I wrote about Cardinals players with pivotal seasons, seasons that would define either their future or the Cardinals plan for their future. In each case though, the players were more or less established big league players. They will probably continue getting chances to play at the major league level beyond this year. The players on this list have a bit more at stake.
Teams will give prospects a lot of rope, or as much rope as they possibly can, because it’s in their best interest to see if they can deliver on their potential. If you give up on every prospect at the sign of struggle, very few players would make it that far. With that said, there are certain players who don’t have a lot of rope left.
Now, when I say these are pivotal seasons, I do not mean minor leaguers fighting for their career, nor fighting to make the MLB roster. Players in danger of staying employed do not qualify for this list. In theory, they’ve already passed the pivotal season and failed. The Cardinals kept them employed because they need to fill out rosters. Players like Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn aren’t really pivotal in the way I’m trying to portray - their status as a future MLBer is fairly secure.
Other players who do not qualify? Players technically on the brink of the MLB, but with no real shot to do anything but get the organizational soldier call-up treatment. 26-year-old Luken Baker, with a 78 wRC+, had his pivotal season last year. I doubt anything he does this year will affect his future as a Cardinal.
Pedro Pages, C
In Pages’ case, I consider his 2023 to be the moment where he either becomes an actual catching prospect, or minor league depth. He will be 24, and likely to play in AAA. I may be using the term “prospect” a bit loosely as his ceiling is backup catcher, but well catcher works differently than other positions. The point being is that he was a slightly below average offensive catcher in AA and a horrible offensive catcher in AAA last year. He has a good defensive reputation. If he can approach league average offense at 24 in AAA, I’d feel pretty good at his chance at becoming a backup catcher. If not for the Cards, then for another team.
LJ Jones, 1B/LF
Jones is trying his best to not be the one guy from the 2020 draft to not result in anything. After his career seemed dead on arrival with an 84 wRC+ at Low A in his debut season, he bounced back in High A last year with a 114 wRC+. He didn’t really do anything that would make him a prospect - he didn’t stand out with his walks or power, and his strikeouts were maybe a touch above average.
He’ll be 24 in AA, and since he started slow, I think it’s fair to say this is genuinely his last chance to make an impression. A 24-year-old with a below average season or even an average hitting season who only was a good hitter in one of his three minor league seasons is just not going to have a Cardinal future, especially on a roster stacked with hitter-only prospects (he played his most games at DH).
Francisco Hernandez, 2B/SS
Hernandez has had the benefit of his age his entire career. He’s been a professional baseball player for 6 seasons - although one of those was 2020, so technically it doesn’t count. I believe he will qualify for minor league free agency after this season. He doesn’t stand a good chance of being added to a 40 man to be honest. Feels like a minor league extension candidate.
But Hernandez has moved slowly. He needed two seasons in the DSL, and after an okay season in the GCL, he was thrust all the way to High A for the 2021 season. He was very bad with a 53 wRC+. He was also 20 and hadn’t played above rookie league ball. Last year, he rebounded to a 90 wRC+. His strikeouts dropped from 40.8% to 27.5% and his walks increased from 9% to 12.6%. He also added power. It was an improvement in every way. He is likely to start 2023 in AA at the age of 23.
Osvaldo Tovalin - 1B/3B
Really interesting thing about Tovalin is that he rose a level, and maintained his K rate, his BB rate, and his power. But a weird thing happened. His BABIP took a nosedive. He had a .364 BABIP for a 132 wRC+ in Low A in 2021, but last year, his BABIP was .231. I don’t know the story there and I know BABIP in the minor leagues isn’t really unlucky in the same way it is for the major leagues. But that is a curious thing.
He’ll be 23 in 2023 and I kind of think his placement will determine whether the Cards think he has a shot or not. Even though he had a 74 wRC+, if they promote him anyway, that feels like a vote of confidence in him as a prospect. A 23-year-old repeating High A though? He’s roster filler. He still has a chance even if he starts the year in High A. He will just have to hit the cover off the ball and continue hitting in AA.
Mack Chambers, SS
Chambers had a very poor start to his professional career, with a 60 wRC+ over 136 PAs the year he was drafted. The Cards promoted him to High A anyway, and he had a 98 wRC+ in 2022. He’ll be 23 in AA for this upcoming season and if he plays well enough, he’ll be 24 in AAA the next year. But I’m not super hopeful on his future if he has to repeat AA.
Mike Antico, OF
Antico has mostly done all he can do so far. Your options are fairly limited if you’re drafted at 23-years-old. He performed well in Low A immediately after getting drafted and then played well in 71 games last year before getting promoted to AA. He hit a wall at this point, and he doesn’t have a lot of room left, being 25 in AA. The only reason he’s on here is because he got drafted in 2021. I would not normally still hold out hope for a 25-year-old whose last season was below average in AA.
Matt Koperniak, OF
Koperniak is at a higher place than Antico, having just had an above average hitting line in AA last season, but effectively the same goes for him. He was signed as an undrafted free agent and played his first game at 23 in professional ball. He will be 25 and probably starting the year in AAA and this is pretty much make or break as far as an MLB future goes.
Tre Fletcher, OF
Fletcher is going to have to show a sign of life this upcoming season, because from this point forward, age is no longer his friend. He’ll be 22 and in Low A. He’s going to have to figure out a way to make contact (he struck out all 16 times he batted in Low A last year). I don’t have high hopes, but this is it if he’s going to figure something out.
Austin Love, SP
Love is not young for his level (24 in AA), and while his advanced stats were good (4.04 FIP, 3.79 xFIP), the fact is that he had a 5.37 ERA in a pitcher’s park. He will still be employed past 2023 if he pitches poorly and may even have a future in the bullpen, but I am not hopeful for his starting pitching career if he doesn’t pitch well in 2023.
Wilfreido Pereira, SP
You can pretty much say exactly what I said above Love about Pereira, the only difference is that Pereira didn’t pitch that badly in High A in 2021 and for some reason repeated the level and never got promoted. But same age, same high ERA despite better advanced stats.
Connor Lunn, SP
Same age, little bit of a different story here though. Unlike the previous two, Lunn pitched very well in High A. He also did it at 22-years-old in 2021. He played last year in AA and pitched very badly. His strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate rose, but the real thing that affected his stats was his GB% went way down. We’ll see if he can figure out AA next year.
Ian Bedell, SP
Bedell has a tough task. He got drafted in the 2020 draft, but got injured two games into the 2021 season and missed most of last year as well due to Tommy John. We are now three years from his draft day and he’s barely pitched. Luckily, he was young when he was drafted so he’ll still be just 23-years-old next year. He could really make a name for himself as a prospect if he shows no ill effects from the injury, though he will probably be on an innings limit.
I am not going to list any relievers for the simple reason that it would apply to nearly every pitcher. Reliever is a weird “position” in baseball. While a 30-year-old 1B with an iffy minor league history doesn’t stand much chance of ever being promoted even if he’s crushing, a 30-year-old reliever who dominates... could get promoted. So I could plausibly list every old for his level reliever. Which is most relievers, since if you are young for your level, you’re probably starting.
This is an incomplete list of course. And I will stress that every minor leaguer has a pivotal season. But these are the minor leaguers where I could see the result affecting their MLB future to an unusual degree.