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Early Minor League Season Progress Reports for Key Prospects

Let’s dive into some already well-known names while evaluating who could continue making an impact this season

We are now through two full weeks of minor-league baseball. Many of the young Redbird prospects are beginning to get a feel for their respective levels, and it’s only a matter of time before we begin to see some shuffling amongst the affiliates. I wanted to piggyback off of our last podcast and evaluate some key names along with where I think they stand in their ascension to the show.

Luken Baker

It’s hard to call Luken Baker a true prospect anymore given his age, but his proximity to the majors and elite raw power are both enough to keep him on top 30 team prospect lists for one more year.

After struggling over a full season at Memphis last year, Baker was asked to repeat the level out of Spring camp, and through 53 plate appearances, he’s begun to knock on the door for a potential major league callup this season. Luken’s posted a 188 wRC+, and while he’s slugging .667 in a limited sample size, he’s having issues generating the type of elevation you’d hope from a guy capable of mashing 30 taters a season (14.7° average LA). Even so, his 107.8 MPH 95% max EV is tied for the best on the team (min. 10 BBE), and raw power will play even when your batted ball profile isn’t ideal.

Luken’s plate discipline metrics jump off the page the most, with a 20.7 BB% and a 22.4 K%. This is compared to his usual 0.5 K/BB ratio trend over his past 700 or so plate appearances. His breaking ball and overall spin recognition are a night and day difference from the year before, as he’s now only running chasing 14% of the time while maintaining his whiff% at 8.9%. Stabilization points for BB% sits at around 120 PAs, but it’s still really nice to see Luken show an early ability to pick out what he can hit while spitting on the rest.

Luken Baker’s newfound confidence at the plate could be enough to warrant him a big league callup if he continues to rake. It may be a tough fit on the 40-man right now simply because of the lack of need for a 1B/DH-only profile (call me when he’s vacuuming grounders at short), but I think he’s someone who could end up receiving a handful of plate appearances later this year. He’ll be a nice contributor off of the bench if he continues to match barrel accuracy with his off-the-charts juice.

Ivan Herrera

Once considered to be the heir-apparent to Yadier Molina, Ivan Herrera has seen his once-star-level prospect status dwindle into a hopeful backup catcher’s role. The signing of Willson Contreras moves the catching timeline back a half-decade, a clear signal that baseball operations were all but confident in the Panamanian’s ability to provide adequate offense while shepherding a pitching staff.

Ivan torched the low minors and was promoted quickly to the high minors before the COVID shutdown. Since then, he’s provided league-average production coupled with average receiving skills. He’s every bit the all-around catcher that can stand to improve on all aspects of his game. I do think he’s overrated as a hitter, especially with what I think is a less-than-stellar approach. Herrera pounded over half of his batted balls last year into the dirt last year (50.8% GB% in 278 PAs), good for a -3.8° average LA. Still, he shares the team max EV lead with the aforementioned Luken Baker, attesting to his ever-increasing power and potential production at a premium defensive position.

While he may still harbor starter potential, St. Louis will have the luxury of having such a talented backup option while demoting Andrew Knizner to Memphis. One could argue that Ivan should’ve made the major league squad out of Spring, and while he may have been deserving, I can’t exactly blame ops for wanting to get a closer evaluation of his offensive profile by getting him everyday reps. It’s only a matter of time before he’s back in St. Louis as Contreras’s apprentice.

Leonardo Bernal

Moving down the organization a bit, we have another standout Panamanian catching prospect very much in the mold of Herrera, albeit Bernal is a far more advanced hitter at 19 years old. Catchers usually take much longer to develop than other positions, so seeing Leonardo on track to be a major leaguer by age 21 or 22 is impressive.

Bernal received a promotion to Palm Beach after impressing both at extended Spring Training and the rookie complex league. Entering 2023, he’s picking up right where he left off, torching opposing arms to the tune of a 172 wRC+ through 25 plate appearances. He’s also stronger than Herrera was at the same age while also having his power play (110.4 max EV at PB last year); he hits most of his batted balls above fifteen degrees, something Herrera has consistently struggled with in the high minors while inefficiently using his raw power.

The catching timeline benefits Bernal due to his far proximity from the major leagues, opening the doors for him to be the starter once Contreras’s contract expires. Bernal’s fit on the major league roster is likely the last thing Mozeliak and his crew are thinking about, but they’re nonetheless exhilarated about another top-100 catching prospect in development. He could be seen in major publications by the end of the season if he replicates this success at Peoria later this year, a promotion that I believe is imminent and could come before Summer rolls around.

Jordan Walker

I’m going to cheat a bit here, partly because Walker is still technically a prospect given that he hasn’t reached the 130 PA or the service time threshold(s) needed to relinquish rookie status for the following season. Unless he begins to struggle mightily (a sub 66 wRC+ is approximately one standard deviation below the league mean), I don’t think he ever wears a Memphis uniform if it’s not for a brief rehab stint in the future.

Say what you will about his 12-game hitting streak to begin the season, but Jordan has been FINE to start 2023, with some media hoopla surrounding him. Jordan has consistently struggled as a professional with elevation, hitting most balls on the ground instead of leveraging his generational power talent to crush 110 MPH ropes to the wall or launch 460-foot nuclear missiles. The start of the season has been no different (running a 5.6° but improving average LA through 43 BBE). The rest of his contact profile leaves little to be desired, something we’ve always known about him as a professional. He’s chasing an eye-watering 41.6% of the time, amongst the league's worst while being one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball. Walker should continue holding down right field due to his 70-grade arm strength; I think his reads and jumps will come with time as the major league game slows down for him.

Make no mistake: I believe Jordan will be one of the best hitters in the game someday, but I hold more reservations than most regarding both his approach and discipline. Continued playing time will give the 20-year-old ample time to tune his bat-to-ball skills while recognizing spin and laying off more breaking balls.

Final Thoughts

While I usually don’t like dealing with small sample sizes, some of these guys’ raw metrics help back up some of their early standout production. Although the big league squad is struggling to begin the season, I still think the lineup will be amongst the best in baseball over 162 games, so the stars would have to align in order for someone to get a true shot outside of Jordan Walker. He is struggling early on but has as good of a shot as anyone in MILB to perennially sit atop MLB’s home run and exit velo leaderboards. Bernal and Herrera are further examples of the Cardinals’ elite catching development, while Baker makes for an interesting platoon option off of the bench against LHP. I’m excited about all of their long-term potential, whether they be as Redbirds or in another organization.