It’s always fun to talk about the guys that stand out in Spring Training. This year that would be players like Nolan Gorman (who looks a whole lot better at second base) Brendan Donovan (who is showing more pop than ever), Jake Woodford (who earned a spot in the rotation after his excellent performances), and Taylor Motter (who unexpectedly will break camp with the St. Louis Cardinals), but those guys have gotten all the headlines this spring.
I’m also not going to be discussing Jordan Walker because he’s been the subject of discussion for about a month now and all the beat writers have written better stuff on Walker than I could ever provide. So, I’ll leave the Walker coverage to them.
What I want to discuss are some prospects who won’t be on the Opening Day roster but have really made waves with their performances. I’ll be discussing some of the more highly touted prospects like Tink Hence and Masyn Winn but I also want to highlight some of the lesser known names who have had excellent spring training performances as well.
One of my favorite parts of the spring is watching all the minor league guys get action and quite a few of them have stood out to me.
Matthew Liberatore isn’t exactly a lesser known name but he is someone who draws mixed reviews from Cardinals fans. This spring may have changed that. Liberatore’s velocity is up and his fastball has much more life (both ride and run) which makes his fastball a viable MLB pitch.
The thing for Liberaore is that he needs to maintain these gains. Spring Training is one thing, but keeping a hard lively fastball into the 7th inning of a start, especially late in the season is much more difficult.
But if he can do that, it’s entirely possible that he will look like a completely different pitcher. Last season, Liberatore’s fastball got hammered to the tune of a .450 wOBA. Ouch. His sinker fared better (.337 wOBA) but luck may have played a big role in that (.375 xwOBA). Neither pitch was even an average offering last season, and it’s tough to pitch well in the majors with a bad fastball. That was his major weakness.
Liberatore signature big breaking curveball and harder 86 mph slider are both above average pitches at least and his ability to spin two good breaking balls is what gives Liberatore his promise.
The reason I’m so excited about him this spring is that he seems to have shored up his weakness. I’ve already discussed the increased velocity and life, but how does that measure out and is there a way we can measure just how much better his fastball has been in the spring as opposed to last year?
It turns out that we can! That’s where stuff+ comes in. Eno Sarris’ model gave Liberatore’s four-seamer a stuff+ grade of just 65.8. His sinker came in a bit higher at 74, but that’s still underwhelming. Even with his 2 good breaking balls, Liberatore still had an overall stuff+ of 84 last year.
So, how about now?
I don’t have enough data to provide stuff+ at an individual pitch level, but I can say that Liberatore’s stuff+ grade as a whole has risen to 94.8. That’s a gain of nearly 11 points!
Can Liberatore sustain this progress? We’ll have to find out. But in 10 spring training innings, Liberatore has 9 strikeouts and a 1.80 ERA. That’s a small sample size for sure, but the underlying pitch quality metrics are what have me excited.
If Liberatore can prove that his fastball is indeed better, then I would expect him to have a much better season than he did last year and get back on track to claiming a long term spot in the rotation.
Jordan Walker has gotten most of the attention this spring, and rightly so. He’s earned an Opening Day roster spot and is the top prospect in the system after all. Statistically, though, Masyn Winn has had the better camp.
The shortstop is slashing a robust .314/.368/.510/.878, which is great in and of itself, but that’s not why I’m writing about Winn. I’m writing about Winn because his power has stood out to me.
His appeal as a prospect is largely due to his crazy athleticism and ability to do pretty much anything on the baseball field. Need a 100 mph throw to beat a runner? Winn’s got that covered. Need a stolen base? He can do that too. How about a slick play at short? No worries. He even has an above average hit tool and takes walks too.
The one drawback with Winn has been his power, or relative lack thereof. If you read any scouting report on him, it’s likely to be his only below average tool.
Yet this Spring Training it feels like he’s been hitting everything hard. He’s had at least a few games with multiple 100+ mph batted balls and even hit a triple yesterday at 106.8 mph off the ball.
I don’t have his latest ranking, but the 20-year-old ranked 3rd on the team in Spring Training exit velocity as of March 8th.
#STLCards exit velocity leaders in statcast tracked spring training games (min. 5 BBEs)— Kareem (@KareemSSN) March 8, 2023
• C Willson Contreras: 98.8 MPH
• OF Tyler O’Neill: 95.3 MPH
• SS Masyn Winn: 94.8 MPH
• OF Dylan Carlson: 94.2 MPH
• 2B Nolan Gorman: 93.6 MPH pic.twitter.com/jeXrXH8LcQ
Winn still has plenty of time to come into some power and maybe this spring saw the first domino fall. Regardless, it’s been an impressive camp for Winn, and not in the way I was expecting.
If he adds consistent power to his game, then the sky is really the limit for him.
Tink Hence may not stand out on the stat sheet as he only made 4 appearances and threw 3 1⁄3 innings but his stuff is nasty and that’s why he’s here. In his first outing, Tink Hence introduced himself to Cardinals fans by sitting 96.7 mph and touching 97.8. He then showed off a nasty slider that even the Pitching Ninja Rob Friedman loved.
Tink Hence, Filthy Breaking Balls. pic.twitter.com/tPIiggXsl6— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 6, 2023
Combine mid-to-upper 90s velocity with that kind of a breaking ball and you have an elite pitching prospect with top of the rotation upside. (Hence also has a really nice changeup that he didn’t throw much this spring, but gives him 3 good offerings.)
He may be the most exciting prospect in the system (depending on how you feel about Cooper Hjerpe) and he showed what all the hype was about this spring.
I will mention that Hence struggled with control and walked 5 hitters in his 3 1⁄3 innings of work but that’s okay. He has yet to pitch above Single-A after all.
Curious what Tink Hence’s stuff+ grade was this spring? 113.6. Keep in mind the sample size of 90 pitches, but that’s impressive regardless. And his fastball was actually his best pitch, grading out at 121.9. That’s a fastball that can miss bats, and the Cardinals don’t have many (if any) of those in the rotation.
Get excited for Tink Hence if you aren’t already because his stuff is legit.
Speaking of pitchers with legit stuff, let’s talk about Kyle Leahy. He’s not a guy I was expecting to be impressed by, and for good reason. All Leahy did last year was throw 141 innings of 5.23 ERA ball in Springfield. And that was actually an improvement on his 2021 season in which he had an 8.20 ERA at the same level. Yikes.
Yet the Cardinals believe in him and even sent him to the Arizona Fall League after the 2022 season, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Then I watched him pitch. Leahy opened my eyes in his first outing, pumping 96 mph heat with 7 feet of extension, which would have placed him in the 95th percentile. That’s a hard fastball that gets on hitters quickly.
But he also showed a good breaking ball too and that helped him rack up 9 strikeouts in 6 spring innings.
So, what I’m saying is, don’t write Leahy off because of sub-par stats. He’s been a starter throughout his minor league career but he will likely be moving into the bullpen this year and that could give him a big boost as he won’t need to work through a lineup multiple times.
Is this a name I added after yesterday’s game? Yes it is. But I had to because Brycen Mautz was filthy.
He’s never pitched in a professional game before as the Cardinals held him out of game action last year after they selected him in the second round, so what did he do in his first game? He struck out the side. And he made it look easy too.
He threw 13 pitches, got 3 whiffs, and absolutely dominated with a really good looking slider.
He also has that lower 3⁄4 arm slot that can really help get him some run on his sinker and some sweep on his slider, as you’ll notice in the tweet above.
Mautz’s sinker sat 93, his slider sat 81.5, and he even threw one changeup (and got a whiff) at 87.1 mph. There’s really nothing else to say about Mautz. He was filthy in the 9th inning of a Spring Training game. Take that for what’s it worth, but that was a really impressive professional debut from Brycen Mautz.
As of the time of writing, Taylor Motter has played the most spring games with 21. Juniel Querecuto has played just one less. He’s put all that time to good use, though, batting .313 with a pair of doubles.
Querecuto has never been a player with much power (although he is coming off a winter league season in which he clubbed 7 home runs) but what he does do is make a lot of contact, switch hit, and play good defense everywhere.
The 30-year-old infielder signed a minor league pact with the Cardinals this past offseason and has just 4 games of Major League experience to his name so it’s not likely that he will make an appearance with the Cardinals this year.
Still, if Spring Training is anything to go on, the Venezuelan should be able to provide valuable infield depth in Triple-A as someone who can play all over the infield and put the ball in play.
Kramer Robertson is yet another utility infielder who has impressed this spring and he may actually have a chance at playing for the Cardinals this year. He is slashing .259/.394/.481/.875 and has all the tools that you would expect from a utility infielder on the verge of the majors.
Robertson plays a solid shortstop but can play elsewhere too, he takes walks, doesn’t strike out a ton, and has solid gap power. The negative is that he doesn’t really excel in one area of the game, and he’s perhaps not more than average at any part of the game either, but he does a lot of things well and that could lead to him seeing some time with the big league club this year.
Robertson honestly seemed like he may have been a candidate for the backup infield role in St. Louis this year, especially once Paul DeJong went down with injury, but the Cardinals never said much about him and Taylor Motter ended up beating him out for the last spot on the roster.
Still, behind Paul DeJong, there is playing time to be had, and Robertson may see some of that later in the season, especially after what he showed in camp, with 3 doubles, a home run, and more walks (6) than strikeouts (4).
He also tied for the second most games played so he did get a long look in the spring, even if it wasn’t a serious one.
As an aside, Robertson has always seemed to me to have the skillset to be a big league backup infielder but he’s never gotten the chance. At age 28, he may be running out of time, so I would love to see him get the chance to show he can contribute at the major league level.
With 17 Cardinals playing in the World Baseball Classic, plenty of young guys found themselves on the field in Spring Training games. While none of the players highlighted above made the opening day roster, quite a few of them made strong impressions.
I would expect to see Matthew Liberatore and Masyn Winn in the majors this year and maybe even Kramer Robertson and Kyle Leahy too.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday.