This is the second article in my series focused on upper-level prospects who may be able to help the St. Louis Cardinals in 2023. I already introduced this series in my first article, so I will skip all that nonsense this time and dive right into it.
Before I look at any names, I want to mention that all of the players on this list are starters in the minors but they may not be starters in the majors if/when they reach the highest level. It’s not uncommon to see starters come up and work out of the bullpen and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened with a number of the players that I am about to cover.
Let’s dive in first with the most complex player on this list.
I expect that we’ll see Matthew Liberatore back in the majors this year. His first MLB stint probably didn’t go the way he wanted it to, and really, 2022 probably didn’t go the way he wanted it to. That doesn’t make him a bad prospect. In fact, when I look at Matthew Liberatore, I see a major league pitcher. He’s not a top of the rotation talent but I do think he could have a nice career as a 4th starter, or, if that doesn’t work, as the top lefty in a bullpen.
When I see Liberatore, I see a pitcher with a great feel for spinning breaking balls (which is a great trait) and a pitcher with potentially above average command. When you read that, I hope you think he shouldn’t be a fastball-dominant pitcher. And that’s my whole point. He shouldn’t be. Yet he was in 2022, at least in the majors.
Matthew Liberatore, Soul Stealing 76mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/00aw2azBrO— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 5, 2022
So, I don’t think Liberatore is a bad pitcher, I think he’s a pitcher who doesn’t maximize his greatest strengths. His fastball is simply too hittable. It comes from a standard arm slot with standard speed and standard movement. Basically, if you asked a hitter to think about a standard, typical fastball, they would be thinking about Liberatore’s. It’s a pitch that simply won’t thrive unless it regularly sits in the upper-90s or is hidden by breaking stuff.
It doesn’t have upper-90s velocity yet (and I don’t know if it ever will), so that why the solution to his issues should be to throw more breaking balls. He has that big slow curve that is just gorgeous at times and he has a slider with plenty of sweep to it. And the interesting thing about his slider, besides the fact that it’s actually a good pitch, is that he used it a lot in the minors, and, I don’t have the numbers but from the games I saw, it looks like he may have even used it more than his curveball. But then he stopped throwing it in the majors (10.9% usage).
What a beautiful slider by Matthew Liberatore for a strikeout. pic.twitter.com/NImSRQP3TY— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) August 31, 2022
That needs to change if he wants to maximize his abilities. His breaking balls are the strongest part of his game so he needs to use them. And use them a lot. I want more breaking ball/offspeed usage than fastball usage and I don’t think it should be particularly close. That’s how he can sneak fastballs by hitters.
Or he can move to the bullpen and gain a few ticks on his fastball. That would also give him an effective heater as it seems to be pretty velocity dependent. I still like him as a starter long term but I think he a solid future in the bullpen if that doesn’t work out and the Cardinals may try him there this year if they can’t find reliable left-handed production.
While we’re on the subject of lefties who can help in the bullpen but also may have a future in the rotation, let’s talk about Connor Thomas. And let’s basically ignore his results last year because he got hammered by opposite handed batters during the season (.885 OPS allowed) but then added a cutter and dominated in the Arizona Fall League.
What Connor Thomas doesn’t do is walk people. He also doesn’t throw 90 consistently, so you’ll see a similar thread here between him and Liberatore as pitchers who shouldn’t be primary fastball guys. Instead, Thomas is a pitch mix/movement guy who throws a really good looking sweeping slider, a changeup that can be average or better, and a cutter that proved it’s effectiveness in the AFL.
Connor Thomas gets the better of Haseley with this slider. Woof. pic.twitter.com/oAqCyhaFHM— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) August 24, 2022
Connor Thomas goes change then slider then fastball to get the strikeout on three pitches. pic.twitter.com/WHaKJc97yt— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) September 21, 2022
I really like his sinker/slider tunnel and with a changeup, cutter, and four-seamer all a part of his arsenal, there’s enough there for him to throw different looks at hitters. I think he will begin the year in Triple-A and that will be the real test for him. If his cutter gives him better results against opposite handed batters then I do think he has a future as a pitchability back-end starter who racks up ground balls. If not, then he can still be an effective lefty-dominant reliever who can really use that sinker/slider combo to his advantage, especially if he gains a few ticks.
I think Thomas may have to make his debut in the bullpen. There are so many starting options this year that are likely ahead of him unless he absolutely terrorizes Triple-A hitters to open the season. That could be a really good intro for him, though, and give him the opportunity to adjust to major league hitters in a lower leverage role.
One of the thing I think hurt Liberatore last season in the majors was that he would nibble and miss the zone and then leave too much over the heart of the plate. When you don’t have dominating stuff that’s a problem. So, giving Thomas shorter stints could help him make that adjustment and help his stuff play up a little bit more as he gets used to pitching to MLB hitters.
Simply disregarding skillset, Thomas is a pitcher who has really become a viable major league option as a soft-tossing, undersized lefty and I love that. If/when he makes his debut, it will be must-see TV for me.
Gordon Graceffo’s name is one that has gotten a lot of attention when considering the 2024 rotation but 2023 could be where Graceffo makes his debut.
I love the stuff that he has and I absolutely think it plays at the major league level, but that’s not even my favorite part about him. He has really good control but I love that he knows how to pitch. You can see it in this GIF below:
Gordon Graceffo Opens the 6th with a three pitch strikeout.— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) September 16, 2022
Two heaters that sandwich a curve. The curve gets the brutal swing pic.twitter.com/gOEUsGQ9jw
You can see the stuff here but that’s brilliant tunneling. That’s also a pretty curveball and it’s not even my favorite breaking ball that he throws. I prefer his hard, upper 80s and sometimes 90 mph gyro slider. The curveball may be the big breaker but his slider dives hard and late and that’s what makes it effective. His curveball is clearly a strong offering too and I like that he throws it hard (low 80s velocity) as that makes it sharper and less obvious out of his hand.
So, he, like Liberatore, has two good breaking balls but they’re different because he throws them harder and they are more vertically oriented than horizontally oriented. He also pairs them with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 100. And that’s not to mention his changeup which has great break and may even be his best pitch.
So that’s four average (or maybe even above average) or better pitches for Graceffo with good control. His results took a step back in Double-A last year, but Double-A is a big jump from High-A and I expect to see Graceffo give a much better account of himself in 2023. He should be in Triple-A pretty quickly if he doesn’t start there and I think he has the talent to be knocking on the major league door pretty soon after that.
The 22-year-old has absolutely torn through the minor league system and is clearly a top 5 prospect in the organization in my opinion. He began his career in Single-A as a 5th round pick and went on to post a 1.73 ERA and 2.72 FIP in 26 innings in 2021.
He then threw 139.1 innings last season and while his Double-A results (3.94 ERA and 5.07 FIP) didn’t quite match his High-A results (0.99 ERA and 1.71 FIP), it’s important to keep in mind that his final numbers were inflated by a bad month of August but he still finished with a sub-3 ERA on the season. I wouldn’t be shocked if late season fatigue played a role in his struggles, so I’m really not concerned about his higher numbers in Double-A.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that Gordon Graceffo is going to be a Spring Training standout a la Andre Pallante last season. When he shows up to camp, his velocity and his secondaries are going to pop and I expect there to be calls for him to make the Opening Day roster. He is one of the three most exciting pitchers in the organization and he should be ready for a debut in 2023.
He will still need to be added to the 40-man roster and that likely puts him behind Liberatore and Thomas but his results combined with need at the major league level will dictate when he comes up.
Michael McGreevy may have been selected before Gordon Graceffo in 2021 but he’s not nearly as exciting of a pitcher as Graceffo. That’s okay, though, because not every pitcher needs to be exciting. McGreevy profiles as the back-end strike thrower who mixes four pitches and gets some ground balls but won’t get a ton of whiffs.
He throws a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup with his slider being his best pitch. He fastball is a low-90s sinker that is probably a below average pitch and therein lies some of my concern with him as it can be difficult for a pitcher to have major league success with a below average to fringe average fastball. He has two ways around that. The first is to add velocity, which is certainly possible considering his 6’4”, 215 pound frame while the second is simply to mix his pitches and be more reliant on his secondary offerings.
When he mixes well, he can look like this:
Three pitch gif of a Michael McGreevy Strikeout. Heater, slider, then change for the K pic.twitter.com/Ynnuv2JC4V— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) July 1, 2022
He has also moved quickly through the organization and after almost 100 Double-A innings last year, he may be ready to open the year in the Memphis rotation. That would put him on the doorstep of the major leagues but he needs to work on being less hittable before he’ll be ready to hold down a spot in the rotation in St. Louis.
In Springfield, opposing hitters batted .281 against him and he struck out fewer than 20% of the batters he faced. He does control the ball well but he will need to improve on those numbers at the upper levels of the minors before he’s ready for major league hitters.
He is someone who I think could really benefit from debuting as a reliever if he does make his debut this year but I think he is the least likely one on this list to find his way to the major leagues in 2023. I think he would be much better off with a full year in the high minors instead.
I didn’t cover Zack Thompson in this piece since he was a reliever last year and could end up as the top lefty in the ‘pen this year. I do think he has the arsenal to potentially start down the road but, as we’ve seen in the past, it’s hard to escape the bullpen once you enter it.
The guys I covered are really the top 4 upper level starting pitching prospects but feel free to leave any other names that I left off in the comments section below.
Thanks for reading, VEB! Happy Sunday!