Well, it’s January now and these are the dog days of winter. Especially for a team that seems to be mostly done with player acquisitions. So since the St. Louis Cardinals are unlikely to bring in any new players, now is the time to take a look at players who may reinforce the roster from below.
This is the first article of a new series in which I look at prospects by position group who we may see in the majors in 2023. My criteria for choosing players is completely subjective but I’m generally leaving out young players who had a lot of exposure to the majors or players who we remember as fans. So, for instance, in this piece I left out James Naile but I wrote up Kodi Whitley. That’s partly because of recency bias as Naile pitched later in the season bit I also suspect that people remember Naile and have forgotten about (or written off) Whitley.
So, like I said, it’s completely subjective. Always feel to hit the comments and ask about anyone I may have left out.
With that preface out of the way, let’s dive in. I hope you enjoy.
I’ve mentioned Pacheco a few times recently and that’s because I really believe we’ll see him in the majors this year and I think he has the arm talent to stick and even start earning higher leverage assignments.
That’s because he has amazing stuff. It’s only a two pitch mix but I give Pacheco’s fastball a true 70 grade and his slider a 60 as they both generate a tremendous amount of whiffs. On the season, Pacheco struck out over a third of the batters he faced (33.6%) because his fastball generated a 26.8% whiff rate and his slider generated a whopping 55.7% whiff rate.
Freddy Pacheco let up a homer to open the bottom of the 5th, but he gets an easy groundout to 1st then a strikeout on this slider for the 2nd out. pic.twitter.com/89IVWt1QNN— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) August 21, 2022
The two pitches tunnel well as Pachco’s downer slider plays up as its paired with a four-seam fastball with a good rising effect. Really his only issue is with command and that’s always been an issue for him. His stuff is good enough to overcome inconsistent strike throwing ability, though.
And I say inconsistent because that’s exactly what it is. Oftentimes he has his stuff and he locates it well enough to just saw through hitters. Other times he can’t find the zone or hit his spots. The former happens way more often than the latter as he didn’t walk a single batter in 31 of his 50 appearances while 15 of his 28 walks came in just 6 of his outings.
So that’s the thing with Pacheco. He will look dominant at times but also struggle due to self-inflicted wounds a few times. This means that a few blowups are likely (and those can be frustrating), but on the whole he’s an impressive reliever with strikeout stuff.
I should also note that his strikeout rate dropped from 13.6% in Double-A to 9.1% in Triple-A. Keeping his walk rate in single digits would be a huge boost for someone who opposing batters have a tough time hitting.
He’s my top ranked relief prospect in the system and after posting a 2.41 ERA, 2.97 FIP, and 32.6% strikeout rate in Memphis, he certainly seems to be on the doorstep of the major leagues. Since he’s also on the 40-man roster I expect to see him in St. Louis this year.
His stuff is good enough to give him that “wow factor” and if he can reign in his command, I wouldn’t be shocked if he earned a consistent role by the end of the season.
For more on Pacheco, including the metrics on his pitches, you can read this excellent piece from KareemSSN at STL Sports Net.
Jake Walsh made his MLB debut in 2022 as he made 3 appearances with the Cardinals. His first was impressive as he fanned 4 batters in 2 innings but his last outing ended with him surrendering 4 earned runs while only collecting 2 outs before being optioned back to Memphis.
He’s already 27 years old and has dealt with a bunch of injuries as he’s only thrown 41 2⁄3 innings going back to the start of the 2019 season so you would be forgiven if you didn’t remember his name when thinking about bullpen options. However, his arm is for real.
Like Pacheco, he’s really a two-pitch pitcher, although he does throw a changeup along with his fastball/curveball combo, but it’s the latter two pitches that are really effective. His fastball is a mid-90s offering that gets plenty of whiffs and pairs well with his low-80s curveball that has sharp, heavy downward action. Both are plus offerings.
Welcome to the Show, Jake Walsh!— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) May 12, 2022
First three batters, 2 strikeouts pic.twitter.com/DtwB64ttXq
He too has some command concerns, but his real issue has been health. The right-hander used to be a starter in the minors and was actually quite impressive in that role in 2018. But then he only threw 1.2 innings in 2019 before the 2020 season was cancelled.
He wasn’t fully healthy in 2021 or 2022 either which explains his move to the ‘pen as it’s helped him accelerate his career despite his limited mound time. Had Walsh stayed healthy he may have already established himself at the major league level but I wouldn’t be shocked if this was the year that things came together for him.
He has the arm talent to be a major leaguer and I think his suspect command will improve if he can simply stay healthy and get more innings on his arm. Even if it doesn’t, he’s the kind of pitcher who can survive an above average walk rate because he can rack up strikeouts.
I’m excited to see more of Walsh this year and I’m really hoping this season is one where he can stay healthy.
We may remember Kodi Whitley as the reliever who posted a 5.88 FIP in a brief MLB stint and a 6.20 FIP in a longer Memphis stint this year but he’s more than that,
In fact, before the last season it seemed that 2022 would be the year that Whitley established himself at the major league level as he earned a 2.49 ERA and 2.97 FIP in 25.1 innings of work in St. Louis in 2021.
Things simply didn’t go according to plan for Whitley last year but that shouldn’t take him out of the picture this year.
He showed good stuff until last year so I don’t think his stuff has suddenly gotten worse at age 27. He has a fastball, changeup, slider mix but is heavily fastball/changeup and both of those pitchers are MLB caliber in my opinion. Even his slider has a high whiff rate in a small sample size.
So what happened last year? I have two guesses. The first is straightforward - injury. He missed a month last year from an “undisclosed” injury and I wouldn’t be shocked if that was an arm injury. I also wouldn’t be shocked if that was an arm injury that affected him even before he went on the IL.
My second guess deals with his release. Kodi Whitley is a weird pitcher. And I mean that in the best way possible. I like weird because the middle ground is where pitchers go to die. Giving a hitter a different look is generally a good thing.
So my question is - why is Kodi Whitley becoming less weird?
It makes no sense to me. Here’s what I mean:
That’s from 2020. Notice how insanely over the top he is? That’s about as over the top as a release point can get.
Now here’s 2021.
That’s mostly the same but it is a little less vertical. I don’t know if you can see it in the gif but I have a table below that will prove it.
Now, finally, here’s 2022.
Kodi Whitley with the perfect little changeup to strikeout the lefty pic.twitter.com/VQQnzKczJt— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) August 10, 2022
That looks much more normal. And I don’t like it. Whitley is weird because he has that little hop thing in his back leg and the extreme over the top release. And it worked for him, so, again I ask - why is Kodi Whitley becoming less weird?
Here’s a tabular view of his decreasing weirdness:
Kodi Whitley Release Characteristics
|Year||Vertical Release Point (ft)||Horizontal Release Point (ft)||Extension (ft)|
|Year||Vertical Release Point (ft)||Horizontal Release Point (ft)||Extension (ft)|
(All numbers recorded for Whitley’s fastball but his other pitches mirror this trend too)
When you look at it this way, it’s clear. Whitley has changed his arm angle to be less over the top and come from the side a bit more. That has given his fastball less ride and more run and made it more average as it no longer gives hitters a super weird look and it only sits at 93 mph. In two years, it’s gone from an almost perfect (“perfect” is subjective here) 12:00 spin direction (12:15), which gave it a tremendous rising effect, to a more normal 12:45 direction. A normal velocity, normal direction, and normal release point is a recipe for bad results and that’s what he got in 2022.
I want to see him get back to being weird and throwing his fastball (and all his pitches) from an abnormally high release point. It worked for him and I’m honestly not sure why he and the Cardinals were trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.
I wonder if the Cardinals wanted to get him some extra extension and that forced him to drop his release point as a result. That’s just speculation but it is notable that his extension increased as his vertical release point decreased. Whitley was a short strider but that helped him come from so over the top. Maybe that decreases his perceived velocity but that didn’t seem to hurt him. I do wonder if Dusty Blake will keep Whitley on the same path or restore him to his old self.
His lack of weirdness is why I don’t think Whitley showed us his true self in 2022.
To make a bad 2022 even worse for him, he was even outrighted off the roster at the end of the year and cleared waivers which probably bumps him back in the list of injury replacements for the upcoming season as he would need to be added back to the 40-man roster.
Still, if he can get healthy and embrace his weirdness again, I would expect to see him bounce back in a major way in 2023 and earn himself another chance in the majors where he once showed his promise.
Loutos is the last name I will discuss and he’s the only name on this list that has yet to make his MLB debut. 2022 Loutos was essentially 2021 Pacheco as he began the year in High-A but was then promoted to Double-A before finishing in Triple-A and really putting his name on the map.
I love everything about Ryan Loutos.
He signed as an undrafted free agent after a four-year career at Washington University in St. Louis and he actually took a pay cut to play professional baseball. He turned down a job at Morningstar Inc. where his starting salary would have been a minimum of $70K to sign a $20K bonus and a minor league contract.
That by itself is a cool story but Loutos also used his computer science knowledge to help his college team built a data-storing website and has actually been helping the Cardinals front office and analytics department create player reports and interfaces.
He’s clearly a smart and talented guy but his other talents may need to go on the backburner as he is now just one level below the majors.
He has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 98 and he pairs it with a slider that gets plenty of whiffs. He also throws a curveball and a changeup which gives him a large arsenal, although his fastball/slider combo will be what carry him to the majors.
Another strikeout for Ryan Loutos. Fastball, Slider, Slider here. Pretty delightful stuff pic.twitter.com/wmcJTAqsMf— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) July 14, 2022
I like the stuff and I think he has a better chance at average command than Pacheco and Walsh which makes him another solid option who we could see in the majors this year.
I will say that I don’t expect it to happen early in the year. That’s for a couple of reasons. He struggled a bit in Memphis with a 6.33 ERA and 4.73 FIP although his 3.91 xFIP was more promising and he did have a really solid AFL stint with a 2.57 ERA and a 13-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. I still think he needs some more time to master Memphis before he reaches the majors.
Another reason for patience is his walk rate which jumped from 5.5% in High-A to 11.0% in Double-A and 9.2% in Triple-A. I would think that he started nibbling around the edges a bit as he rocketed through the system instead of trusting his stuff and pounding the zone like he did in the lower minors. But, after all, that is understandable since he went from D3 baseball to Triple-A baseball in a little over a year.
Finally he doesn’t throw his fastball and his breaking balls from the same release point as his breaking ball release point is a little more vertical. It’s a subtle difference but it’s there. If he can clean that up, it would give him more deception and perhaps give him less of a learning curve against major league hitters who may be able to identify that out of the hand.
Loutos is less likely to play a role in the bullpen this year than Pacheco, Walsh, and Whitley but I could see it happening later in the year if he can add a little more refinement and have some early season success in Memphis.
As I said in my intro, this list isn’t exhaustive. James Naile may play a role from the right side and the left side is wide open but could include Packy Naughton and a number of minor league starters whom I will cover on Sunday. These are a few of the names I am most excited about in the system and could have bright futures ahead of them.
You should have noticed a trend throughout this piece. These guys can get whiffs but they can also struggle to throw strikes. That’s more acceptable for relievers working in short stints and there are reasons to believe that their strike throwing abilities may improve. Even if they don’t, each of these arms has shown good enough stuff to be successful in the minors and we now just need to see how well they can translate their plus stuff to the majors.
Thanks for reading, VEB! Feel free to leave some names I didn’t mention and discuss which relief prospects you think can make an impact this year.
(Also, I want to give a big shoutout to Kyle Reis for watching these prospects all season long and giving us all video of them. If you aren’t following him on Twitter, you should be. You should also look up his scouting reports on each of these prospects if you’re looking for more information about them. He does a great job. Also, thanks to Kareem for his great piece on Freddy Pacheco. He puts out great work too.)