We all know about the 2020 draft. Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, Tink Hence, Alec Burleson, and now Ian Bedell is pitching like a future major leaguer. We can’t predict the future but that appears to be a comically good draft class. To give you a basic idea of just how ridiculous that draft is, if the Cardinals got Jordan Walker and nobody else, it would be called a successful draft.
But when I wrote the minor league update, I noticed something: the 2021 draft looks pretty good too. Mind you, it’s simply not competing with the 2020 draft at the moment. That’s quite the high bar. The main difference between the two drafts is mostly that the players with elite potential are much farther away. So you have to do a bit more assuming.
But before I tell you who the players are, I’ll give you more context. Because if your frame of reference is 2020, you are just not going to be impressed when I list the names. So that’s not a fair way to start. So let’s look at more recent past drafts the Cardinals have had to see what is a “successful” draft.
2019 does not appear to be a great draft, although the Cardinals will get value out of it. 2021 will look impressive compared to it, I think. The 1st rounder, Zack Thompson, is a probable reliever. It’d be great if he could become an MLB starter, although I’m not sure his potential is all that high. Still an MLB starter is nothing to scoff at. But for now, he’s in my probable reliever bucket. They also got 4th rounder Andre Pallante, who is in nearly the same boat, although I am higher on him being a starter than I am with Thompson. Let’s split the difference and say #4 starter and reliever between the two?
Aside from those two, they got 5th rounder Connor Thomas, who maybe profiles as a long reliever type unless he can start getting better results. Pedro Pages might be a future backup catcher. That’s about it. You might be a fan of Chandler Redmond or Connor Lunn maybe, but I’m just not seeing another MLBer out of that group. So let’s say back of the rotation starter, good reliever, long reliever, backup catcher? I’m pretty sure this still counts as a successful draft for what it’s worth.
How about 2018? Well this is a weird draft. Because you see the bar is also pretty insanely high here. It’s not a very deep draft, but when they hit, they sure hit. The 2018 draft was where the Cardinals got Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, and Nolan Gorman. They may also get value out of Kyle Leahy, a reliever. And Luken Baker was also this year, though if they get value there, it’ll probably be via trade. The 2017 draft has virtually no value in it. Unless Jake Walsh or Kodi Whitley figures it out soon. So there is some reference point that isn’t 2020.
In the first round, the Cardinals drafted Michael McGreevy who is not the most exciting first round pick, but who looks like a lot better pick just one month into this season than in the offseason. At 22-years-old, he is holding his own in AAA already, less than two years after being drafted. That is a quick rise. Got to love the quick risers who are also 20 when drafted. Given his age and fast ascent, I think he’s a future MLB starter. Again, limited potential, but he will earn his place there. And who knows? Kyle Hendricks managed a five-year period of being a 3-4 WAR starter so... a control artist has more potential than you’d think.
In that same AAA rotation, though currently injured, is Gordon Graceffo, a 5th rounder. He is, by most measures, a top 100 prospect. After dominating High A, he has had probably a bit more trouble adjusting to his last two promotions than hoped. And hopefully his injury is minor. But there’s little reason to write him off after 5 underwhelming starts. He’s only 23, and he just got to AAA. I still like his odds of being a starting pitcher the big league level.
They have a trio of interesting starting pitching prospects in High A right now that you really can’t assume will be starters at the big league level. But it wouldn’t exactly be the most shocking thing if one of them became a starter or at the very least, a future member of the bullpen. Austin Love has big swing and miss in his game even if he can’t figure out how to stop giving up runs. That seems like bullpen material at the least.
Trent Baker is a hard one to judge because he’s already 24, but so far he’s pitched like you want him to pitch. Plus he was drafted at 23. It’s not like he’s 24 in High A because he’s struggled. Lastly, Zane Mills if only for his age. He was basically average in High A last year at 21. He’s gotten off to a poor start, though has increased his (low) strikeout percentage.
So far, I’m not sharing any high potential guys, not really. I mean Graceffo has good potential depending on who you talk to, but he’s not exactly Tink Hence. The 2021 draft has two high potential guys: Joshua Baez and Alec Willis. Baez is in Low A and has significant strikeout issues. And Willis will probably debut in Low A fairly soon, but has significant injury issues. The success of the 2021 draft won’t depend on these two, but whether or not it’s a great draft may.
I’m not quite done. Mike Antico was in this draft as well and given his defense and stolen base prowess, will probably be a backup outfielder. It’d actually be very cool to have a backup outfielder who can steal a lot of bases. Andre Granillo looks like a future MLB reliever to me. He has a 40% strikeout rate in AA and is 23-years-old. If he can stop giving up a home run every other flyball, I imagine he’ll end the year in AAA.
And while they technically weren’t drafted, I feel like you have to include the undrafted guys, signed soon after the 2021 draft ended. They are part of the draft cycle, especially with less rounds than before. There are two names that stick out: Ryan Loutos and Noah Mendlinger. Loutos is currently striking out over 30% of hitters in AAA and depending on the health and effectiveness of the MLB bullpen, we may see him before the year is through.
The other is Noah Mendlinger, who is just all kinds of a Cardinal draft pick. The only thing that makes him not look like a classic Cards pick is, oddly enough, that he’s not old for his level. He’s very much in the Matt Carpenter/Brendan Donovan mold of having extreme patience. After a 109 wRC+, mostly on the basis of having both a 14% BB rate and 14% K rate, Mendlinger has repeated High A and is doing extremely well. His K rate stayed essentially the same, but he’s walking 17.5% of the time and added power. His .076 ISO is now a .150 ISO.
Now will Mendlinger be an MLBer? Well he seems a bit too punchless personally, although you can take an elite BB skill with a (so far) elite ability to avoid strikeouts very far. Now granted... the Cardinals don’t seem to believe in him. There’s the repeating of the level thing. And also he’s not really a starter. He had 284 PAs last season and has played in just 16 games this year. He has less PAs than Thomas Francisco (56 wRC+ last year, 81 wRC+ at 24), Osvaldo Tovalin (74 wRC+ last year, 102 wRC+ at 23), and Francisco Hernandez (90 wRC+ last year, 51 wRC+ so far this year at 23).
He’s 1) playing better 2) already had better numbers than them and 3) is younger. Am I missing something? I’m not saying he’s going to be an MLBer, I just don’t understand why he’s barely playing. It’s not like he’s behind a bunch of great prospects either. Near as I can tell, he’s never made a trip to the injured list. I’ve gone off track here, though if anyone wants to shed light here, I’d love to hear it.
So to recap, the 2021 draft features Michael McGreevy (on track to be an MLB SP), Gordon Graceffo (ditto), Andre Granillo and Ryan Loutos (on track to be MLB relievers), and Mike Antico (at least a defense/stolen base threat on the bench). Seems like this draft is helping significantly with the pitching depth. Between Love, Baker, and Mills, I bet you’re getting at least one and maybe even two relievers. So for now - and I emphasize for now - it looks like a draft with two MLB SPs, three relievers, and a fun backup outfielder.
And none of that includes Baez or Willis, who could make this a truly ridiculous draft. Not on par with the 2020 draft, mind you, but a very, very good draft. That’s a home run hitter and potential starter to throw into that mix. The 2021 draft will probably never get its due because of what came before it, but you have to love how instantly it helped with pitching depth the Cardinals sorely needed.