Recently I had the pleasure of making a guest appearance on the Meet Me as Musial Podcast hosted by Daniel Shoptaw, perhaps better known as C70 on Twitter. It was a really fun conversation, but one of the questions he asked really got me thinking to the point where I decided to write down a longer version of my answer to Daniel.
The question centered around which prospects I think will push their way into more renown both on the national stage and among St. Louis Cardinals fans.
You may recall, too, that I recently gave an answer to that question on the latest episode of the VEB podcast. And since Minor League baseball is beginning again, now seems like the perfect time to give a writeup of some of the prospects I’m looking forward to watching this year.
And before I go any further, I want to mention that Triple-A baseball has already started up and the rest of the levels will begin on Thursday. And, even better, you can watch them this year at no extra charge if you already have an MLB TV package! Previously you had to pay for a subscription to MiLB TV to watch minor league games, but now it’s even easier to get your eyes on Cardinals prospects if you are so inclined. I know I am.
So, with that being said, let me highlight some Cardinals prospects I have on breakout watch this year. I’ll start with a pair of 2023 draftees that I like for different reasons.
I’m a big Cooper Hjerpe fan. If you didn’t already know that, consider yourself informed. He may only throw 90-92 right now but velocity isn’t everything. His heater has a combination of traits that make it unique and also make it much better than the heater of the pitcher with similar velocity taken in the first round of the previous draft - Michael McGreevy. This isn’t meant to slander McGreevy, but rather, it’s meant to show that Cooper Hjerpe (in my assessment) has a higher ceiling than that of McGreevy.
What I love about Hjerpe’s fastball is that it gets ride and a lot of run. That’s a rare combination as most riding fastballs are pretty straight and most running fastballs tend to sink. It’s perhaps even more rare because Hjerpe throws from a weird, low arm slot that makes it hard for him to get behind the ball and get backspin, but that still doesn’t stop Hjerpe.
He has the traits that he needs for his fastball to play up despite its current velocity and that’s what has me most excited.
The left-hander also throws a slider that had a whiff rate above 50% in college and gets plenty of sweep. It’s a little bit of a slower offering, regularly sitting below 80 mph but it’s brutal against lefties and still played well against righties. One of the things I’ll be looking for this year is how well it plays against righties in the minors.
He also throws a changeup that is probably his best pitch and gets plenty of tumble and fade. It’s an absolute weapon and is thrown more against righties than against lefties but it’s a pitch that should be able to get outs regardless of the handedness of the hitter.
Hjerpe is more than just a pitcher with 3 good pitches that could all be above average or better at the major league level. He’s also deceptive with his funky arm slot and he’s a strike thrower. Oh, and there may be some velocity in the tank as he reportedly touched 97 in college.
It’s all projection at this point with Hjerpe as he has yet to enter a professional game but I think Hjerpe is someone who can move quickly, will likely be a top 100 prospect next year, and may even challenge Tink Hence for the title of best pitching prospect in the system.
I’m going to skip over the Brycen Mautz, the Cardinals second round pick last year who is another lefty with a low arm slot (not quite as low as Hjerpe but still low). That’s not because I don’t like him as a prospect but rather because I think he has more to work on in the lower levels than Pete Hansen.
And it’s also because I like Pete Hansen a lot. He already throws, and commands, 5 pitches - a four-seamer, sinker, slider, curveball, and changeup, And while that command is really the selling point for Hansen, it goes so much deeper than that.
What I really love about Hansen is that he knows how to pitch. The left-hander is really good at tunneling, sequencing, and pitching backwards and that helps his whole arsenal play up. He’s also able to throw a sweepy slider effectively against right-handed hitters which is a real asset as that’s generally a pitch that can see heavy platoon splits.
He loves to back foot his slider against righties and when that has them all tangled up, he can spot a fastball on the outer edge. That’s his tunneling and command in action.
I don’t like Hansen’s curveball as much as his slider but it’s actually made a lot of progress from 2021 to 2022 as it looked loopier with a bit more of a hump in it prior to last year. And even though it’s not as good of a pitch, he can still throw it for a strike whenever he wants and it’s not uncommon to see him drop in a first pitch curveball to get ahead of a hitter.
The same goes for his changeup. Not as good as his slider (I don’t love the movement profile) but he can locate it effectively on the edge of the zone.
The real knock on Hansen is that his velocity is about 87-91 and it’s not uncommon to see it sitting in the upper 80s a la Connor Thomas. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Hansen add velocity, though, considering both his size (6’2”, 205 pounds) and the Cardinals history of adding velocity to arms after they enter the system.
I expect Hansen’s polish to carve up the lower minors and really put his name on the map this year but his success at the upper levels and potentially the majors may come down to how much his stuff ticks up in the professional ranks. Either way, I’m a fan of the lefty with a big arsenal and a ton of polish.
Now that I’ve talked about a few of the draftees from last year, I want to discuss a few of the Cardinals recent international signings who could be getting a lot of hype this year. The first is Leonardo Bernal. The reason is obvious and three-fold.
- He had a 117 wRC+ in Single-A
- He’s 19 years old
- He’s a catcher
It doesn’t take much more than that to be a sleeper prospect, if he even qualifies for such a title. Anytime you see an 18-year have that kind of success in Single-A, you should take notice. Especially, when that 18-year-old is a catcher.
What’s also encouraging is the fact that there were no red flags in his profile. His walk rate (7.0%) wasn’t high but it wasn’t too low either, his strikeout rate was below 20% (18.7%), and he had some real power (.199 ISO).
He also had some solid high-end exit velocities as you can see below courtesy of friend-of-the-site Kyle Reis.
LEONARDO BERNAL ABSOLUTELY CRUSHES THIS. BERNAL IS leGit, YO!!— Kyle Reis, 58% Neanderthal (@kyler416) August 26, 2022
110.4 OFF OF THE BAT. 423 ft shot. LA of 24 degrees. pic.twitter.com/CdvJZUiBNm
I didn’t get much of a chance to see Bernal play in Single-A since there is rarely a broadcast of Palm Beach games, so I’m really just scouting the stat line here. But what the stat line tells me is that the Cardinals have a talented teenage catcher with some pop and tools across the board.
I expect him to start in High-A and spend most of the season there but another strong year could vault Bernal into top 100 consideration
Jonathan Mejia is about 14 months younger than Bernal and has yet to come stateside but he has the potential to make a big first impressive whether he starts in rookie ball or passes it over completely like Bernal did last year.
What stands out to me about Mejia (besides his whopping 145 wRC+ as a 17-year-old) is his power.
Power is often the last thing to develop for a prospect, and especially a prospect who stands at just 5’11”. Don’t tell that to Mejia, though, as exactly half of his 44 hits went for extra bases, with 5 clearing the fence.
That power certainly comes from solid exit velocities as, according to Kyle Reis’s excellent scouting report, Mejia has already hit a ball 107 mph, but it also comes from his ability to hit the ball in the air as he had just a 33% ground ball rate last year. The ability to elevate is not always a given for a DSL prospect, or even a more advanced prospect.
I still think he’ll be a doubles over homers hitter as he matures but he should have plenty of pop to put the ball over the fence.
Mejia checks a lot of boxes for me as a prospect, which is why I’m willing to write about him here even though I’ve never seen him with my own eyes.
Big signing bonus? Check. ($2 million)
Big production? Check.
Early power? Check.
Key position? Check. (He’s a shortstop)
Mejia may be a level (or two) behind Bernal but I think he is another player who could be pushing for top 100 prospect consideration by the end of the year. That’s assuming a lot as the stateside jump can be challenging and has derailed many seemingly talented DSL prospects, but with how much Mejia has going for him, I think he can continue his positive momentum in 2023.
I’ve now written about a pair of college guys who should be quick movers and a pair of international guys who have already put themselves on the prospect map at a young age, but now I want to discuss a few names who are even more under the radar. Consider them deep sleepers if you will.
The first name is Alec Willis.
Willis was drafted out of high school in the 7th round of the 2021 draft and, despite being in the Cardinals system for two seasons, has only thrown 12.1 innings.
So, yeah, this one is a bit of a leap of faith. However, if you like small sample sizes then Willis is the guy for you because in those 12.1 innings, he has a strikeout rate around 34%, a walk rate around 4% and an ERA of 1.46.
I can’t speak much to what Willis does on the mound as I haven’t seen him pitch but I do know that he is primarily a fastball/curveball guy with a lesser-used changeup (as is often the case for high school draftees). His fastball reportedly sits in the lower 90s but can touch 95 and his curveball has a lot of depth, but, again, it’s hard to really read into that considering the lack of mound time for Willis.
The risk is that Willis had elbow surgery in high school and then dealt with another arm issue last year but that’s not too concerning to me yet. Another year off the mound would change my view.
The reason Willis made my list is because his lack of mound time and good early results make him a clear breakout candidate if he can take the mound for a full season in 2023. I would expect to see Willis used in a similar manner to Tink Hence last year in an effort to manage his innings and build up his arm, but even 50-70 innings would give him the chance to make a strong enough impression to start leaping up prospect rankings.
This next name is a bit out of left field, maybe even for people familiar with Cardinals prospects, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Gustavo Rodriguez on my list as he’s a personal favorite of mine.
And the reason is clear. He throws heat and it’s probably the lowest effort heat you will ever see. Take a look below to see what I mean (another thanks to Kyle Reis for the gif):
Three really beautiful heaters by Gustavo Rodriguez for the punch out. pic.twitter.com/aUYZtGq9Q8— Kyle Reis, 58% Neanderthal (@kyler416) January 22, 2023
How hard do you think he’s throwing in that video? The answer would be anywhere from 95-98 mph. That’s a lot of velocity with such a low effort and repeatable delivery. And that’s also a lot of velocity for someone with that frame.
If Rodriguez looks “slight” to you, that’s because he is. According to Fangraphs, Rodriguez weighs just 160 pounds despite standing at 6’3”, which makes it easy to dream on him adding even more velocity as he fills out his frame.
I really want to keep harping on The righty’s fastball because is really the main draw for me. That pitch was so good for him last year that he was able to throw it almost exclusively at times and still dominate hitters. Take his August 14th appearance as an example. In that outing, Rodriguez threw 44 pitches and 40 of them were fastballs. You might think that hitters would catch on eventually, but that simply didn’t happen as Rodriguez lasted 4 scoreless innings and struck out 4.
For as incredible as that is, you can see where the weakness lies - Rodriguez needs more consistent secondary stuff. That goes for his curveball and his changeup, though his curveball is a far better offering at the moment.
Still, Rodriguez showed a ton of growth in 2022, lowering his ERA from 7.36 to 2.65 while repeating the Single-A level and I think he has the arm talent to really make a breakthrough. He’s a relief prospect through and through considering the work that his secondary pitches need but he’s had an offseason to get better so perhaps he will find more consistency with his non-fastballs.
Another thing I’ll say in his favor is that he absolutely dominated the Venezuelan Winter League this past winter, pitching to a 1.88 ERA and earning a remark from a reporter that he’s already outgrown the league at just 22 years old. That came just one year after he was kept off the field in all but one game (in which he surrendered 3 runs without getting an out).
There may not be a pitcher in the system who made as much progress last year as Gustavo Rodriguez and he largely flew under the radar. His explosive arm talent and smooth, easy mechanics may help him get more notice this year as he (presumably) moves into Peoria’s bullpen.
There are quite a few more prospects that I would have loved to write up in this piece but it’s already long enough as is. Jimmy Crooks III and Joshua Baez are certainly 2 more hitters worth watching and Logan Sawyer and Guillermo Zuniga are 2 pitchers I have high hopes for.
Crooks is a catcher with a strong bat and lots of early success, Baez can absolutely obliterate balls (though he does have some swing and miss issues), Sawyer has a high velocity fastball and pairs it with a splitter, and Zuniga can touch 102 and throws a nasty slider as well.
With minor league baseball beginning in full on Thursday, I’ll have to balance my time watching the Cardinals vs watching the system and if you’re planning to do so as well, I hope this article gave you a few names to watch,
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday and feel free to hit the comments with any of your breakthrough prospect picks. I would love to hear them.