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Cards prospects to watch who could make 2023 MLB impact

Jordan Walker is the obvious one, but there are others.

NL Fall Stars v AL Fall Stars Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

For the most part, the Cardinals have the roster figured out. They have their starting five with the next man up being Dakota Hudson. Willson Contreras is the starting catcher, being backed up by Andrew Knizner. They have two MVP candidates on the corners, a 3-4 WAR shortstop, and some sort of timeshare at 2B between Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. Gorman will also be playing DH, fighting for playing time with both Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez. The latter two will suck up any starts not started by the young and potential-filled trio in the outfield.

There is some question about who will be filling out the margins of the bullpen. Assuming Drew VerHagen is healthy and Genesis Cabrera isn’t terrible, six out of the eight are locked in, with the remaining two being mostly a question of if the Cardinals want young starters like Andre Pallante and Zack Thompson starting games in AAA or in the bullpen. That’s to say nothing of the Rule 5 pick who may or may not make the team. If MLB seasons always went to plan, there’d be just about no room for anyone else.

But if you’ve been a baseball fan for longer than a second, you are well aware that things never go as planned. And in situations where things don’t go as planned, currently blocked minor leaguers have a chance to make their presence known. With the spring training injury to Drew VerHagen, Andre Pallante was able to make the team and later on, when Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, and Steven Matz all got hurt at various points, Pallante was able to effectively pitch in the rotation and suddenly he’s an option for 2024.

There are a select few minor leaguers who have a legitimate chance to use the opportunities they are given when something goes wrong. I thought I’d list the minor leaguers I feel will emerge if given the opportunity. A couple will get an opportunity, a couple may not, or maybe all of them will. There’s no predicting what will happen in a baseball season in January. Here are those players.

Jordan Walker

Duh. Walker is the team’s #1 prospect and one of the best prospects in baseball. There is talk he may make the team out of spring training. I seriously doubt he will and it has nothing to do with manipulating service time. Jordan Walker has never played in AAA. He has played a grand total of 31 games in the outfield in his professional career. While he was undeniably good in AA, a 128 wRC+ is not exactly “skip AAA” good.

Then there’s the simple fact that all three of Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson all deserve as many starts to reach their potential as possible. And one of them will get injured at some point anyway, opening the door for Walker, assuming he’s not struggling to adjust to AAA pitching when that chance arrives.

But he will come to the MLB at some point and the Cardinals will make a clear path to get him plate appearances. He will absolutely be given a chance to face MLB pitching at some point in this upcoming season.

Matthew Liberatore

It is admittedly a difficult road for starts at the moment, since he’s not the next man up, Dakota Hudson is. But the Cardinals will need more than six starters, and Liberatore will be some of those starts. If Hudson starts out in the bullpen and Liberatore has a fantastic first month or two, he may even become the sixth option. He will get at least one start, and let’s hope they go better than his 2022 starts. Remember he’s still just 23-years-old, younger than Thompson (who will not be on this list since he’s no longer a prospect), Pallante, and the next man on this list.

Connor Thomas

I’m sure you all know that Connor Thomas pitched well in the AFL. What you may not know is that the AFL is an extreme offensive environment. It’s not quite Coors Field, but it’s a difficult league to be a pitcher. The average hitting line in the AFL was a .256/.361/.410 line. The league average ERA is 5.49 with a 1.56 WHIP. I share all that because, while Connor Thomas’ stats already look impressive, they look even more so when you know the hitting environment.

Thomas threw 25.2 IP in six starts, striking out 34 batters and walking just 4. He had a 1.75 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP. He did not allow a home run. There is nothing to criticize with his performance. And while his 2022 performance overall was a bit disappointing, there’s a clear narrative for both his struggles and why he did so well in the AFL: he learned how to throw a cutter.

He said he barely threw the cutter during the regular season (probably because it was a brand-new pitch he wasn’t comfortable with) and started leaning on it during the AFL. Well whatever happened, he figured it out. It’s hard to deny a 32.4% K rate and 4.8 BB%. Connor Thomas is the name to watch out for this year as the new Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, the unheralded prospect who suddenly becomes a vital part of the team. Things unfortunately have to go wrong at some point for this prediction to become true though.

Gordon Graceffo

Is this optimistic? Graceffo was more average than dominant in AA and hasn’t pitched an inning at AAA yet. But considering he pitched just eight games at High A, he adjusted to AA remarkably well. He will not emerge as a legitimate option for the starting rotation until at least the 2nd half though.

And besides, he’s not on the list because I expect him to be in the rotation. Back in the day, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and to use an example still on the team, Adam Wainwright all made their mark first in the MLB bullpen. While Graceffo isn’t on an innings limit, I think the timing of when he might be promoted works against him. He’s behind enough guys that he’s definitely not getting a chance before he gets at least half a season of AAA performance. And if that opportunity arrives in July, well the Cards seem more likely to try and trade for an elite starting pitcher (like Tyler Glasnow) than promote from within.

It’s certainly possible he gets MLB starts, that would not surprise me, but he’s on this list for future bullpen work. Or at least let me put it this way: if starting pitching was the only way he’d get promoted, I’d probably not put him on this list. With the bullpen as a viable option to still get him MLB work, I think he’s relatively likely to pitch an MLB inning in 2023.

Freddy Pacheco

The bullpen is a wonderful place as a minor leaguer trying to make the majors. Unlike other positions, that rely on great play and luck, bullpen pretty much only needs great play. Pacheco has a very easy route to the MLB: be dominant. Okay that’s not easy at all. But if he’s dominant in AAA, he will be on the MLB team. If Moises Gomez hits 30 HRs in AAA, he may never be promoted. Bullpen works differently than everything else in baseball.

And to make matters really easy, Pacheco is on the 40 man roster. You don’t even have imagine a lot of luck. Just imagine good stats.

Ryan Loutos

It hasn’t really worked out so far, but back in 2019, a relief pitcher named Kodi Whitley started his season in High A and by the end of his season, found himself pitching 16 games in AAA. He ended up pitching in the 2020 season despite not starting the season on the 40 man roster.

It’s not quite the same. Obviously, special circumstances dictated Whitley’s promotion to the big leagues. But other pitchers got DFA’d. Whitley remained on the 40 man after the 2020 season. They gave Ryan Loutos the same treatment, beginning his 2022 season in High A and finishing it in AAA. He did see a drop-off in his stats, with a 6.33 ERA in AAA (though his xFIP was identical to AA for what it’s worth). But I expect Loutos will get the call-up at some point in 2023. You don’t fast-track a minor leaguer like they did with Whitley and Loutos if you don’t think he’s a future major leaguer.

Loutos, by the way, is a year younger than Whitley was in 2020. So that’s another point in his favor. He’ll be 24 in the 2023 season.

Controversial omissions

I’m not counting Wilkin Rodriguez for the purposes of this post even though he could technically be called a prospect with eight days of service time. He just is encountering an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of this group, so it’s not quite the same.

I do not expect Masyn Winn to get promoted at all in 2023. For starters, he has taken longer to adjust to new levels than Jordan Walker has. Winn was very bad in his first 37 games in High A and was merely average in AA last season. While he could certainly play his way onto the roster, I think for the purposes of planning, you can’t pencil Winn in for a single plate appearance in 2023.

I don’t even think injuries will help him get promoted. As I said above, you have Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan jockeying for 2B and an injury to either gives the full-time job to the healthy one. He pretty much needs an injury to Tommy Edman and even in that case, it might go to Paul DeJong if he can be a 90 wRC+ guy - not that high of a bar! Winn will only get promoted if a full-time starter’s worth of plate appearances is clear for him and that’s somewhat hard to imagine. If a bench role needs to be filled, it’ll be either Jose Fermin or Kramer Robertson.

I also don’t really expect Ivan Herrera to make a huge impact. He should probably be on this list, because unlike Winn, an injury to Contreras would lead to Herrera getting promoted. But it doesn’t seem like the Cardinals trust him yet to start games. Maybe that changes by the end of the year. I hope it does.

I am also not a believer in Moises Gomez at all, but even if I was, the no-field, all-hit player is very well covered already by the Cardinals and it’s hard to see him breaking through that since Jordan Walker is ahead of him on the depth chart despite not being on the 40 man. Even Oscar Mercado and Mike Antico seem to have a better shot by virtue of being able to play CF.

If I missed a name, let me know.