This is the big one, folks. We’re going to continue our look at upper level prospects who could be MLB contributors this year for the St. Louis Cardinals by examining the glut of MLB-ready or near-MLB-ready outfielders that permeate the system.
We’re going to cover some big names, here, so let’s just dive right in with the biggest one.
What is there to say about Jordan Walker that hasn’t already been said. He might be the Cardinals best prospect since Oscar Taveras as he has some of the best power in the minor leagues and the hit tool to tap into it consistently. But he’s also extremely athletic for his size (6’5”, 220 pounds) and actually had more stolen bases in 2022 than he did home runs. He’s not a 1B/DH kind of slugger; he’s someone who can actually provide value on defense. And that’s huge for a player with the potential to be one of the best hitters in the majors.
We have Walker’s exit velocities from his Double-A season in 2022 from Jacob and Kareem (@CardinalsReek and @KareemSSN on Twitter), who are certainly worth following if you aren’t already. Let’s just say...he hits the ball hard.
Jordan Walker's exit-velocity numbers in 2022 were remarkably similar to Juan Soto— Jacob (@CardinalsReek) December 12, 2022
Jordan Walker (AA):
AvgEV - 91.0 MPH
90thEV - 108.0 MPH
MaxEV - 114.6 MPH
Juan Soto (MLB):
AvgEV - 91.0 MPH
90thEV - 107.2 MPH
MaxEV - 113.2 MPH pic.twitter.com/HUxHSImSNy
This doesn’t mean that Jordan Walker is Juan Soto. Jordan Walker is Jordan Walker and that’s great. What it does mean it that there is tremendous power potential for someone with that kind of power at age 20. And, as I said before, his hit tool is good enough for him to barrel the ball consistently and make a lot of contact.
He only struck out in 21.6% of his plate appearances which really sets him apart from someone like Moises Gomez, who we will look at later. What I would like to see Walker do is elevate the ball a little more as a 31.4% fly ball rate really limits his power output and is likely the reason his home run total fell just short of 20. But even despite that, he was 28% better than the average Double-A hitter despite being over 4 years younger than the average Double-A hitter.
His bat is so advanced that there is plenty of talk about him skipping Triple-A entirely, and that talk is even coming from the Cardinals front office. Walker will get a chance in Spring Training and honestly, there’s no wrong decision when it comes to where Walker will start 2023.
Either he makes the major league club and gets to show off his bat or he goes to Triple-A and works on his outfield defense since he is still new to the position. Here’s the thing, though. I would prefer Walker to get as many outfield reps as possible. If he makes the Opening Day roster as a DH, then I would rather him be in Triple-A to work towards being an everyday outfielder as soon as possible. He’s not going to get better out there without getting game reps.
With that being said, I feel pretty confident that 2023 is the year he will debut. It’s tough to predict the timing, though, as the Cardinals may be content keeping him down to get some Triple-A reps as long as Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar are performing. That’s not the whole story, though. There’s one little wrinkle this year that didn’t exist in the past and that’s the possibility of earning an extra draft pick if Jordan Walker has a high finish in Rookie of the Year award voting. This is a measure that was adopted in the new collective bargaining agreement as an effort to prevent service time manipulation of top prospects.
It’s also interesting to note that the Cardinals forfeited a draft pick when they signed Willson Contreras. A Jordan Walker Rookie of the Year campaign would neutralize that loss, but I’m not convinced the new measure will change much for the Cardinals. They will want to develop him as best they can and if they feel that more time in Tripe-A is necessary for him to improve his defense, then they will send him to Triple-A.
While we’re talking about players with elite power, let’s discuss Moises Gomez next because that’s his calling card. Unlike Jordan Walker, his hit tool is below average and will likely be the limiting factor on his bat but what Gomez does really well is elevate the ball when he hits it. And that’s what allows him to rack up the extra bases.
He has a really heavy line drive/fly ball approach, so even though he struck out in almost 35% of his plate appearances in 2022, he still led the minors in homers with 39. He also hit for a high average (.294 BA in 2022) because he simply crushed the ball when he made contact.
The big question for him is how much contact he can make at the highest level because it’s tough to be successful with a 40% strikeout rate or even an upper 30% rate. His power is enough to probably still make him a productive hitter but he doesn’t offer much besides a big bat so he will need to hit well enough to overcome what’s probably a negative defensive profile. The good thing is that he can DH because I have a hard time believing he would find corner outfield time with Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Alec Burleson, and maybe even Juan Yepez ahead of him.
Gomez has double plus power but probably a 40-grade hit tool at best. He’s also not much of a runner and probably a below average fielder which means he’s really dependent on his power to make him a productive player. And that okay for someone like Gomez. It probably doesn’t make him good enough to be a starter for the Cardinals with how much competition is in the outfield but he could absolutely be a productive major league hitter so nothing is outside the realm of possibility at this point. He does have a strong arm too so even if he isn’t a great defender he does offer something defensively and that gives him another plus tool.
Gomez emerged as a really exciting player last year but he is a bit blocked at the major league level. I do expect him to debut this year, though, because he has a 40-man roster spot in his back pocket that Jordan Walker doesn’t have. An early outfield injury could thus slide Alec Burleson into a starting role and Moises Gomez into bench role without having to worry about finding a 40-man spot for Jordan Walker. If he gets the chance, he could make a fine DH too so even though he is a bit blocked, his bat gives him the chance to muscle his way into playing time.
To me, Alec Burleson is the most interesting player on this list. Jordan Walker is an elite prospect and those prospects have starting roles reserved for them. So, with that said, it will be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle Alec Burleson. I have no concerns whatsoever abut his bat despite his poor MLB production and that’s for two reasons.
The first is that his batted ball metrics were strong (91.7 mph average exit velocity) and he has a great history of production in the minors. And a 50 game sample size means practically nothing. The second reason is because of what he said when we interviewed him here at VEB. He mentioned how he has felt sluggish at the end of each of the past two seasons because professional seasons are so much longer and more taxing than college seasons. Seeing as how he came up at the end of last season, I expect an offseason to recover, get stronger, and prepare for the upcoming season will serve him well.
He has enough of a hit tool and enough power to be an offense-oriented starting corner outfield. That’s why I think the Cardinals may give him a chance to start this year. And by that, I mean that I think he’ll be the first injury replacement in the starting lineup. Which also means I think Jordan Walker will be kept down in Triple-A for a little bit. I could be completely wrong about this but I do think the Cardinals want to give Alec Burleson a chance to prove himself.
As a left-handed bat, he could also see the majority of at-bats in a DH platoon so I expect him to get plenty of opportunity in 2023 and I think his bat is good enough to run with that opportunity.
Defensively, he’s probably better than Moises Gomez but he certainly isn’t an asset in the outfield the same way that Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson can be. His bat will need to carry him but that doesn’t concern me with Burleson because I think he can be an above average major league hitter.
The problem for him is the same problem that Jordan Walker and Moises Gomez have - where is the playing time? There are only so many at-bats to go around and the Cardinals already have a solid outfield and plenty of DH options.
If there aren’t injuries, it’s tough to see any of this trio getting playing time. But baseball is unpredictable. Players get hurt. Player underperform. Players get traded. I do think that Burleson will get the first crack at the starting lineup and then Jordan Walker will come up later in the season. Moises Gomez and his 40-man roster spot add an extra wrinkle, though, and while I don’t think he will get a serious chance to earn a starting role considering how much outfield and DH depth is on this team, his bat is powerful enough to maybe force the issue if he can get consistent at-bats.
Oli Marmol and John Mozeliak will have some tough decisions this year as they decide how to distribute playing time to their established starting outfielders and their top prospects. That’s a good problem for the Cardinals to have, though, because there’s no such thing as too much depth.
Regardless of what happens, the Cardinals have a good starting outfield and 3 really good outfield prospects. That gives them a position of depth to trade from and anb area wioth little injury concern due to the quality depth that exists. I’m excited to see how this triop can do and I think it’s safe to say that the 2024 starting outfield could look a lot different that the outfield we saw down the stretch last year.
Thanks for reading, VEB! Have a great Sunday!