The St. Louis Cardinals kicked off their offseason yesterday with a pair of acquisitions - Riley O’Brien and Jared Young.
These are only minor acquisitions meant to fill out the upper level depth of the system but each player deserves a deeper look as both are interesting in their own right with O’Brien in particular having me intrigued.
So, with that said, I’m taking a break from my series looking at potential offseason targets to instead break down a pair of players the Cardinals actually did target.
I’ll start with Riley O’Brien because he’s the player that has me more excited.
I’m probably more excited about this pickup than I should be. I mean, O’Brien has been in Triple-A for the past 3 seasons and has a grand total of 2 MLB appearances under his belt at age 28. In all likelihood, O’Brien will throw fewer than 10-20 innings with the Cardinals at most. Probably less than that even.
Yet when I look at the strikeout rate, I can’t help but be intrigued. It’s deeper than that for me, though. I’m more interested in how O’Brien gets those strikeouts.
His stuff is just plain nasty.
The right-hander relies on a 3 pitch consisting of a sinker, a cutter/slider, and a curveball, with the cutter/slider really serving as the bridge pitch between his sinker — his primary pitch — and his curveball — his go-to breaking ball.
You can see that courtesy of O’Brien’s Triple-A pitch data profile from Prospects Live.
His cutter/slider is in blue and it creates a necessary bridge for his other two pitches, both of which get extreme horizontal break but in opposite directions.
I’ll come back to the slider (I’m calling it a slider) later but for now, just know that’s why it’s important.
The pitch I want to talk about first is O’Brien’s sinker. The pitch sits 95 mph with over 15 inches of arm side run (15.3 inches) and does a fantastic job of keeping the ball on the ground with a whopping 66.7% ground ball rate this year.
It’s not a huge bat misser (16.6% whiff rate) but it manages contact well (86.4 mph average EV) and, again, keeps the ball on the ground, which is a big reason why O’Brien has never allowed a ton of home runs.
So, while it’s not an overpowering pitch by any means, it’s an effective offering and a good foundation for the rest of his arsenal.
The real standout pitch is O’Brien’s curveball, and, it’s hard to comprehend just how nasty it was in Triple-A. For starters, the pitch had an insane 57.7% whiff rate but it also averaged 16.3 inches of sweep which would rank in the top 10 of all major league curveballs.
That’s impressive by itself but O’Brien’s curveball is actually thrown harder than any of the MLB curveballs that rank ahead of his in sweep. The righty averages 81.1 mph with the pitch, which is hard for a curveball but it’s expecially hard for a pitch with so much movement. That really sharpens the movement of the pitch and means that it’s not as loopy as some of it’s slower counterparts.
Here’s an example of how nasty it is:
Filthy pitch by Riley O’Brien. pic.twitter.com/YfZKzI6LEq— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) August 5, 2023
And here’s 3 more:
Riley O’Brien closes it out. pic.twitter.com/S0hqh2QCcg— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) September 13, 2023
What I particularly love about that second video is O’Riley’s ability to backfoot that curveball against lefties. Based on the movement profile I wouldn’t have expected that pitch to be as effective against lefties as it seems to be. That’s probably a big reason why O’Brien was equally effective against lefties and righties this year.
This pitch is really good. Plain and simple. Not just at the Triple-A level but it profiles as a really good MLB curveball too.
And then there’s the slider. This is really where things get interesting because I see no mention of O’Brien’s slider prior to last offseason. In fact, Fangraphs ranked him as the Mariners 25th best prospect in 2022 and their scouting report didn’t mention a slider, only a sinker and a curveball.
Now, do you remember what I said about the pitch earlier? It’s a bridge. This is why it matters. O’Brien’s sinker and his curveball are both good pitches with a lot of horizontal movement but they don’t tunnel as well on their own considering how far they break away from each other. The graph above shows just how opposite they are.
This is why the slider matters. Not only is it a good pitch on it’s own but it helps bring O’Brien’s entire arsenal together.
And do you want to guess where he picked it up? If your answer was Driveline then you would be correct.
We can't wait to see Riley O'brien's nasty sliders in game this year pic.twitter.com/tk8g913MBs— Driveline Baseball (@DrivelineBB) February 22, 2023
First off, those pitches are nasty. But I also want you to note the timestamp on this tweet - February 21, 2023. That confirms to me that O’Brien added this pitch prior to the start of this season.
And the result?
He went from a 7.12 ERA to a 2.29 ERA, his strikeout rate jumped from 23.4% to 37.7%, and his walk rate dropped from 15.8% to 13.6%.
Like I said earlier, the pitch brings his entire arsenal together.
It also performed well.
O’Brien’s slider generated whiffs at a 35.7% rate and allowed an average exit velocity of just 80.7 mph while seeing 18.6% usage in it’s first year as part of the arsenal. I would call that a success.
Adding a slider isn’t the only tweak that was made to O’Brien’s arsenal either. The righty almost entirely dropped his changeup in favor of the slider while Seattle also jacked up the usage of his curveball after acquiring him from the Reds in 2022.
O’Brien threw it 35.7% of the time this year and that strikes me as a good decision considering how effective it is.
So, my main point with O’Brien is that it’s fair to question a breakout at age 28 following a number of rough seasons. I get it. But I believe in the stuff and there are tangible, observable changes that O’Brien made to turn his career around. This feels like the case of a reliever learning how to maximize his arm talent at a little bit later than the average pitcher and slipping between the cracks because of it.
With that said, I don’t want to make everything sound rosy. There are some things to question about O’Brien. His age and the fact that the Cardinals were able to acquire him solely for cash matter. So do his control issues.
O’Brien did lower his walk rate to 13.6% but I would guess the 2.2% drop is almost solely due to hitters chasing more pitches as a result of his arsenal being more complementary. That’s nice but he could really give himself a boost by throwing more pitches in the zone.
At the very least, his strike throwing issue does seem to be limited to his breaking balls, as he managed to put 56.6% of his sinkers in the zone. That’s a solid figure but it’s not nearly as impressive when it comes to O’Brien’s secondaries.
That figure dips to 34.3% for O’Brien’s slider and 31.5% for his curveball, which is obviously a problem. His slider control may come around a bit as he throws the pitch more since he’s only been throwing it for about a year now so the curveball control is the more concerning issue.
When we look at where he places it, he does seem to target a specific zone and stay around there. That’s a good sign. The zone that he likes to target is down and to the glove side and when he misses, he often misses too far down or too far to the glove side.
Those are good misses. Or, at least, they’re better than missing over the plate. He can be a bit wild with the pitch overall so it’s not like all his misses are “good” but that’s at least somewhat encouraging.
I’m more worried about O’Brien walking hitters than I am about his curveball getting crushed, though so I would love to see him make an effort to really pound the zone with it, at least relative to his current approach.
There’s not a whole lot else to say about that. I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to propose some kind of mechanical tweak but I will be watching intently to see if O Brien can throw more strikes because someone who misses a ton of bats, gets a ton of ground balls, and has a manageable walk rate checks pretty much every box from a pitching perspective.
O’Brien is just missing that third part right now.
So, the control issues matter but they also created an opportunity for the Cardinals to get someone with enticing arm talent for basically nothing. If he doesn’t pan out, he doesn’t pan out. No big deal. But he’s a really promising arm who looks like he figured something out in 2023 after tweaking his arsenal.
I’m thrilled that he gets to go for an encore in the Cardinals system and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him pitch more innings than we would normally expect from someone traded for cash.
Like O’Brien, Young isn’t likely to have a big role on the 2024 Cardinals, if he even has one at all. That doesn’t mean we should just ignore him, though, because there are things about his game that make him interesting.
For starters, the 28-year-old broke out in a big way in 2023, tallying a 147 wRC+ in Triple-A and earning 47 major league plate appearances. The breakout appears to have been caused mostly by a power surge as Young’s 23 home runs this past season represent a single season high, as does his .268 ISO in Triple-A.
The power is pretty legit, too. In Triple-A this past season, Young posted an average exit velocity of 91 mph (MLB average is 88,4 mph), a 95th percentile exit velocity of 108.4 mph (MLB average is 105.5 mph), and a max exit velocity of 111.1 mph.
Now, that will have to translate to the majors and that’s only one component of hitting but his ability to hit the ball hard at least makes him interesting
The other thing that jumps out about Young’s 2023 season is an improved walk rate but it’s hard to know how much of that is caused by improved plate discipline and how much of that is caused by the smaller strike zone enforced by the automated balls and strikes system in Triple-A.
To get a little more granular, the former Cub swung at less than a quarter of the pitches he saw outside the zone (23.6%), which is a really impressive rate when compared to the 28.5% MLB average. He also made contact with 84.7% of the pitches he swung at inside the zone, which is again better than the MLB average (82.0%).
How that will translate, I have no idea. It’s hard to know that for a prospect, much less a 27-year-old minor leaguer who just had a breakout season. Also keep in mind that I’m listing the MLB averages and not the Triple-A averages. That’s because I don’t have the Triple-A averages. Those numbers are listed for context but they don’t mean that Young will be an above average hitter in the majors.
Regardless, Young destroyed Triple-A as a 27-year-old this year.
There is a reason he was available for nothing, though, and it’s not because the Cubs couldn’t afford to pay him after bringing in Craig Counsell. It’s because players still in the minors at his age, even players coming off big seasons, tend not to turn into key MLB contributors.
Now, the counterpoint to that is that Young can’t really worry about his age, just his performance. And he took care of that during the season. Maybe he’s simply a late bloomer. Late bloomers do break out sometimes and become more than what they were projected to be, even if that isn’t particularly likely.
That’s why I like bringing Young into the organization. He may end up being nothing but adding interesting players to the organization for free is a great way to build depth and add potential upside without taking on any risk.
And even if Young can’t sustain his breakout, he does check a lot of the boxes you want to see in a depth player. He plays multiple positions, has the potential to contribute with the bat, and hits left-handed.
If a player is going to be on the fringes of a roster, being able to move around defensively and have a platoon advantage against the majority of pitchers helps him find the field and helps the team fill gaps.
Young certainly falls into that category of player as he’s a lefty with pop and versatility who played first base, third base, left field, and right field last season and has also played some second base in the past.
The 28-year-old played more first base than anything else this year but, interestingly, Young had a 79th percentile sprint speed in his brief MLB stint so he’s certainly not slow. Having never seen him play defense before, that makes me think he does have the athleticism to competently play positions other than first base.
Before I stop talking about Young, there are 2 other things that I want to mention. The first is what may have been his most impressive exploit this season - homering off Aaron Nola.
First major league homer for Jared Young! pic.twitter.com/dV9NuLPi7V— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 29, 2023
So, really, the question is - Is John Mozeliak more interested in Jared Young or Aaron Nola?
A story in 4 parts:— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) November 6, 2023
1. Jared Young homers on Aaron Nola
2. Cardinals acquire Jared Young
3. Aaron Nola doesn’t want to give up homers
4. Aaron Nola sign with Cardinals
I see Mo’s real intentions https://t.co/e9tB6A6xNK
The second thing I want to mention is that Young is Canadian and represented Canada in the World Baseball Classic. That means he got the chance to homer off Lance Lynn.
Jared Young gets Team Canada on the board with a solo homer— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 14, 2023
: WBC on FS1 pic.twitter.com/tKyyhqKisM
It also means the Cardinals are one player short of an all-Canadian outfield (that is, if they keep Tyler O’Neill).
Adding interesting players to the system at no cost is always a good thing. We can look at age and prospect status and trade return to diminish the status of these two players and that’s fine. It’s fair, even. But these are interesting players nonetheless and O’Brien, in particular, is really interesting.
Beyond getting interesting players, the Cardinals main goal with these moves was simply to add upper level depth to the system. That’s valuable and you never know when it might be needed. Pitching depth, specifically, is always needed and the Cardinals striking early instead of waiting for minor league free agency is a good approach as they were able to snag someone I expect to see in the bullpen at some point next year.
Neither of these players cost anything but cash and they both help the organization in different ways. They may be small moves but it’s a good start to the offseason.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Tuesday.