Well, the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t off to best of starts, and, after writing my last piece about the Willson Contreras decision, I honestly have nothing else to say about the major league level so you all get your second straight day of minor league coverage here at VEB. Gabe did a great job with his recap yesterday and covered a lot of the prospects that you readers voted on here at Viva El Birdos over the offseason.
if you haven’t read that yet, you can give it a read here.
Gabe covered more names than I did but I want to take a slightly different approach and look at some of the early storylines that have jumped out to me through the first month of minor league action.
The Race for the Home Run Crown
As I’m sure you’re all aware, Moises Gomez won the minor league home run crown last year after clubbing 39 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in the Cardinals organization. The early storyline this year is that the Cardinals may repeat having the minor league home run champion this year.
The organization has a pair of sluggers who have already crushed double digit home runs and rank in the top 5 of minor league baseball already. Luken Baker and his 12 bombs are currently tied for first place, just one home run behind the leader Jo Adell, and Chandler Redmond is tied for fourth place with 10 long balls.
It’s no fluke either. Both players hit 21 homers last year and are used to hitting no doubters.
Take Redmond’s 8th home run this season as an example:
Make it 8⃣!— Springfield Cardinals (@Sgf_Cardinals) April 30, 2023
Chandler Redmond sends a 3-run, 485-foot monster out to RF for his league-leading 8th home run of the season.
This is @C_Redmond13's third HR of the series against Wichita, his second 3-run blast in 24 hours. pic.twitter.com/Fcyo3u2nJX
The interesting thing too is that both Baker and Redmond are somewhat similar to last year’s home run champion - Moises Gomez - in that all 3 players have immense power but are limited to a corner defensively.
However, neither Baker nor Redmond have the strikeout issues that Gomez does. Redmond typically sits in the 29-30% strikeout rate range, which is admittedly high, but not nearly to the level of Gomez whose strikeout rate sat in the 34-35% range last year when he was slugging the ball.
Baker’s strikeout rate is even better, typically sitting in the low to mid 20s, and both players are fully capable of drawing a double digit walk rate. All in all, both players have a strong power and patience combination without too many contact concerns (although the concerns for Redmond are a bit more elevated) which gives them a strong profile at the plate even if they don’t profile too well defensively.
The Race for the Stolen Base Crown
This one quite literally is a race. And it’s certainly possible that the Cardinals organization will not only have a player lead the minors in home runs but also have a player lead the minors in stolen bases. The former could be Luken Baker or Chandler Redmond (or someone else entirely) but the latter could very well be Victor Scott.
And Victor Scott may be my favorite player to watch in the entire system. He’s such an exciting and dynamic player in all facets of the game.
He’s a potentially elite centerfielder, has the second most triples in the minor leagues (4), has a 131 wRC+, and leads the league in stolen bases with 21. And he’s done all that in just 25 games.
And not only that, Scott has been caught stealing just one time. That’s a crazy success rate and that’s one of the most impressive things about Scott. He may have blazing speed but he’s also smart on the basepaths.
just another day in the office for Victor Scott II— Peoria Chiefs (@peoriachiefs) April 29, 2023
(that’s his 17th stolen base of the year, btw) pic.twitter.com/21S4G9GWcg
Scott has true 80 grade speed and that elevates the rest of his game beyond his prowess on the basepaths.
For instance, it helps him do things like this:
Victor Scott II bunts one for a single. Love that speed pic.twitter.com/ga6yLJcvGy— Kyle Reis, 58% Neanderthal (@kyler416) April 30, 2023
Last year’s 5th rounder is also a defensive standout, which shouldn’t surprise you given his speed. He can cover a ton of ground, but he can also do things like this too:
Peoria's Victor Scott II went over the wall to rob a grand slam! pic.twitter.com/gdAiBuqTj6— Cardinals Player Development (@CardsPlayerDev) April 15, 2023
Victor Scott is one of the most exciting and fun to watch players in all of minor league baseball and it seems like he does something cool every night. He may be the best base stealer in the minors, but he’s so much more than that too.
More Mid-Round Success
This section is a fun one. If I were to ask you who the best performing 2022 draftees have been this season, who would you say? Maybe Cooper Hjerpe or Brycen Mautz, the top 2 picks? Maybe Pete Hansen, the third rounder? All of those would be good guesses considering they’ve all had some hype and were all college players, but all of those answers would be wrong.
The top performing 2022 draftees have come from the middle round.
Let’s start with 4th rounder Jimmy Crooks. You all know that he had an excellent debut in Single-A Palm Beach last year and that helped him get plenty of love in VEB’s community prospect ranking. This year, he’s in Peoria and though he’s not hitting the ball at the same level, he is walking at a 21.8% clip, which gives him a .395 OBP and 112 wRC+.
He has some improvements to make, but that’s a pretty good start.
And then there’s the 5th round pick - Victor Scott - who we already covered, and, as you probably know by now, I’m a huge fan.
After that, we have the top performing pitcher so far - 6th rounder Max Rajcic. He’s only in A-ball right now but he has a 2.10 ERA and 3.39 FIP built on crazy good control. In fact, the right-hander has walked just 2 batters in 25.2 innings, giving him a whopping 2% walk rate.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
He’s not likely to profile as a strikeout arm in the future but he also has a healthy 26.5% strikeout rate already so he is capable of missing some bats, at least at the Single-A level.
Now we’ll continue on to 7th rounder Alex Iadisernia, who has a 124 wRC+ in Palm Beach based on a very high .261 ISO. 10 of the outfielder’s 16 hits have gone for extra bases, with 3 leaving the park, and, to make things even better, he has a strong 11.1% walk rate to go with that power.
Even 8th rounder Cade Winquest has been solid, fanning nearly 30% (29.7%) of the batters he’s faced this year en route to a 2.89 ERA and 3.18 FIP out of the Palm Beach bullpen (though he did start in his most recent appearance). Looking past the numbers, Winquest also has a good looking arsenal with a high spin fastball that regularly average around 2600 rpms of spin, a slider that gets plenty of whiffs and spins around 2400 rpms, and a changeup which is a third pitch for him, but is also a pitch with which he does a great job of killing the spin.
He’s a bit older at 23 years old but he’s definitely a name to watch.
There have been some other successes from the class, but it’s really this group of mid-round picks that have stood out. That’s a trademark for the Cardinals who seem to be really good in extracting value from the middle rounds of the draft. All one needs to do is look at Lars Nootbaar (8th round), Brendan Donovan (7th round), and Tommy Edman (6th round) for proof of that.
In a few years, we may be able to add some more names to the list of mid-round success stories.
Rebound Efforts from Top Pitching Prospects
Not every top pitching prospect has been great this year. Cooper Hjerpe’s debut season has not gone as planned so far (though he seems to be getting back on track) and Gordon Graceffo has struggled in Triple-A, but Matthew Liberatore and Michael McGreevy have rebounded after struggling at the upper levels in 2022.
Liberatore’s struggles last year need no introduction, but he’s really turned things around, pitching his way to a 2.77 ERA and 3.10 FIP in Triple-A Memphis this year. What’s even more encouraging is that he’s missing more bats than ever and his strikeout rate is up to over 30% (32.1%). In fact, at the end of May, Liberatore was leading all minor league pitchers in strikeouts. Currently, he’s in second place with 51, behind only Andrew Abbott of the Reds.
The lefty’s improved strikeout rate is due in part to him improving his fastball velocity and fastball shape as he’s throwing the pitch harder and with more ride and maintaining his velocity deeper into outings. That’s a huge step for him as he’s always had the ability to spin two good breaking balls but his fastball has always been the weak link.
That’s changed this year which has made his entire arsenal more effective and once again put him on the doorstep of the major leagues.
Michael McGreevy is the other top pitching prospect I want to discuss as he dominated Double-A and put himself in Triple-A after just 3 starts at Springfield. That comes a year after he posted a 4.64 ERA and 4.85 FIP in 99 Double-A innings.
In his first 3 starts this year, McGreevy fanned 22.5% of the batters he faced and walked only 1.4%. That strikeout rate may not jump off the page but it’s a notable improvement from the 18.4% strikeout rate the right-hander had in Double-A in 2022.
His early success (1.45 ERA) pushed McGreevy to Triple-A for the first time where he has maintained respectable numbers through his first 2 starts. A 3.55 ERA and 4.20 FIP may not be outstanding but that’s a good start for McGreevy, especially as he tries to figure out how to miss bats at the highest level of the minors.
One thing that McGreevy does do at an elite level is get groundballs. So far this season, the right-hander ranks 6th in groundball rate at 64.8% as McGreevy relies on a lot of sinking action located down in the zone.
That’s great to see but what I’ll really be watching for is his ability to get strikeouts the rest of the year, because striking out fewer than 20% of hitters in Triple-A doesn’t bode well for a pitcher’s ability to miss bats in the majors. And we’ve all seen what can happen to pitchers who can’t miss bats at the highest level.
Still, McGreevy is off to a really encouraging start after hitting a bit of a roadblock in a tough pitching environment in Springfield last year. Hoepfully, this success can last.
A Strong MiLB FA/Rule 5 Class
I want to end with a quick little section about the minor league free agents and rule 5 picks brought into the Cardinals organization in the offseason because I love tracking these guys and seeing if the Cardinals have managed to unearth any gems.
Last year that gem was Moises Gomez but this year there are a lot of candidates.
On the hitting side, there’s Juniel Querecuto, Arquimedes Gamboa, Jose Alvarez, and Oscar Mercado.
Querecuto got off to a really hot start with Memphis and has cooled off a bit since but he’s still slashing a robust .255/.346/.447/.793 which only translates to a 101 wRC+. but it’s still impressive to see Querecuto pairing a double digit walk rate (10.3%) with a .191 ISO.
The switch hitter has been much better from the right side (1.019) than from the left (.727), but a .727 OPS as a left-handed hitter is still somewhat respectable, especially when paired with excellent production from the other side.
Gamboa is another switch hitting infielder off to a strong start at the plate. The 25-year-old has a 126 wRC+, with patience (11.2% walk rate) and surprising pop as his .182 ISO currently represents a career high.
He is actually the opposite of Qurecuto in that he’s much better as a left-handed hitter, which is ideal for a switch hitter as he will face right-handed pitching more often.
Alvarez, like Querecuto and Gamboa, draws plenty of walks (11.7%), but unlike them, he has little power to speak of. Instead, Alvarez makes a ton of contact and relies on a high average, high-OBP approach to provide value.
So far it’s working as Alvarez is slashing .328/.403/.373/.776 with Springfield, which is good for a 115 wRC+. He’s also unique in the fact that he can play catcher and outfield.
And, finally, for the hitting side at least, there’s Oscar Mercado. It’s been great to see him in the Cardinals organization again but it’s been even better to see him having success again. The outfielder has a 112 wRC+ and is simply spraying doubles all over the gaps in Triple-A.
These are 4 really fun and productive players that the Cardinals were able to snag in minor league free agency, and not only have they provided valuable upper level depth, but they’ve also provided production and proven themselves to be capable players.
On the pitching side, there are a few interesting names too and I’ll run through them really quick. Friend-of-the-pod Logan Sawyer has had a bit of a weird start to the season in Springfield as he has an ugly 8.00 ERA but he also has a 2.14 FIP and 31.1% strikeout rate while often working as the closer. He isn’t throwing his splitter nearly enough but he’s still been missing bats and I expect that ERA to come down a lot.
Ryan Shreve is also a member of the Springfield bullpen and he’s locked things down with a 1.98 ERA and 3.70 FIP, though his strikeout rate is nothing to write home about at 19.7%. Still, he has a history of Ks so I wouldn’t be shocked to see that rise over the course of the season.
And finally Kenny Hernandez has been a solid addition to the Springfield rotation with his 4.30 ERA and 3.57 FIP. He’s been both missing bats at a decent clip (24.5% strikeout rate) and getting groundballs at a near-60% rate (58.5%). That’ll play.
Minor league free agents are often just filler but these are guys who are worth your attention.
It’s been a fun minor league season so far with a lot of interesting storylines. It’s even been more fun to watch the minors than the majors at times this season, though, with the Cardinals on a 2-game winning streak, that may be changing.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Tuesday.