It’s always great to find out who the St. Louis Cardinals will send to the Arizona Fall League as the choices are usually well regarded prospects but it’s perhaps more insightful to understand why the Cardinals chose to send the players they did.
In case you missed the announcement, the Cardinals will be sending 8 players and 1 coach to the Arizona Fall League. You can see the names below:
This is a really fun group full of pitchers that can miss bats and some interesting position players. Some of these decisions are mostly straightfoward but not all of them so in this article I want to give an overview of the players, highlight why they were chosen, and, in some cases, highlight why they were chosen over other players specifically.
Let’s get started with the position players.
Victor Scott II
There are probably few players who have risen more this year than Victor Scott II. 95 stolen bases, good bat-to-ball skills, potentially elite defense, and above average offensive production at 2 levels will do that for a player.
After playing exactly 66 games in both High-A and Double-A this year, the AFL offers Scott a chance to continue his development and make the jump to Triple-A next year, putting him on the doorstep of the majors.
He’s one of the most exciting players in the system with a pretty safe floor as a defensively oriented fourth outfielder who is dangerous on the basepaths. If his bat develops into even a league average bat at the highest level, he can be a really valuable player.
It only makes sense to let Scott continue his ascent in the AFL. He’s probably one of the 5 best hitting prospects in the system not already in the majors and this gives him a chance to keep building on his upward trajectory.
The Cardinals could have sent Leonardo Bernal, but he has yet to play above Single-A and they already sent another catcher, or they could have sent Thomas Saggese (who I would have loved to see go to the AFL) but Scott is a strong choice and probably needs more offensive development than Saggese.
The choice to send Scott is a good one and of the 3 Cardinals hitting prospects going, Scott is the one that I’m most excited about.
This is the weird one. Generally teams send promising prospects to the Arizona Fall League for some extra development yet Jeremy Rivas had just a 66 wRC+ in High-A this year. And it’s not like he just couldn’t hit this year. Last year, he was a 78 wRC+ hitter in Single-A and the year before that he was a below average rookie ball hitter (87 wRC+). He’s never been much of a hitter and has hardly shown any power throughout his career with just 5 career HRs.
Yet the Cardinals have chosen to send him to the AFL. Why?
I’ll preface my explanation by saying that every year it seems like the Cardinals make one weird choice. And by weird, I mean the team chooses somebody who, on the surface, doesn’t look like a great prospect, but who the organization is probably higher on than you would think.
Last year it was Kyle Leahy, who was coming off a year with a 5.23 ERA and 5.40 FIP in Sprignfield and an 8.20 ERA in the Springfield the year before. He was (and still is) more interesting than his numbers suggest as he has good stuff, highlighted by a fastball that sits 96 mph with an insane 7.2 feet of extension.
Think of Jeremy Rivas as this year’s Kyle Leahy.
So what makes him interesting. Well, it’s two things. His age and his glove. I’ll start with the age first. He’s still just 20 years old (and won’t turn 21 until March) and played the full season in High-A this year. He was over 2 years younger than the average High-A hitter so he’s still quite young for his level. That matters when looking at a prospect.
And then there’s his defense. Baseball America has Rivas listed as the best defensive infielder in the entire system. So between his age, the Cardinals willingness to keep pushing him despite below average offensive production, and his glove, Rivas is likely someone the Cardinals are higher on relative to public prospect rankings.
I wouldn’t expect Rivas to perform too well as he’ll likely be one of the younger and least advanced prospects in the AFL but I’ll be really curious to see how he does. It’s the decisions like this that can really help us understand how the organization feels about a player.
Jimmy Crooks’ stock cooled a bit this season as he didn’t get nearly the hype that he got after a hot start to his professional career last year. That doesn’t mean he’s not an exciting prospect.
Crooks spent his whole season in Peoria and struggled immensely in his first two months earning an OPS of .641 in April and .678 in May. He then quietly OPSed .878 in June, .729 in July, and 1.038 in August to finish the year with a 122 wRC+ while playing most of the year at age 21.
He bounced back in a big way as the season went on and he got more used to High-A pitching. Interestingly, he seemed to adjust by getting more aggressive, walking less, and doing more damage on contact.
Jimmy Crooks Production by Month
Perhaps there’s no correlation. It is just one season of data parsed into sample sizes of less than 100 plate appearances, after all. Still, it’s interesting to me that Crooks, who has posted strong walk rates throughout his first two professional seasons, was better when he was walking less this year.
Perhaps it’s a sign that his approach still needs some work to help him be a patient hitter while still picking out the right pitches to crush. Regardless, Crooks is a great pick for the Arizona Fall League and could use the experience as a springboard into the upper levels of the minors.
The Cardinals could have chosen Bernal over Crooks but I would imagine that Bernal’s youth and low level of competition make him a better option for next year than this year. Crooks is a talented prospect himself and is closer to the majors than Bernal, making him a better option for this season.
The AFL is perfect for Roby. Not only will he fit in with all the other talented prospects, but it gives him a great way to get more innings under belt after missing two and a half months with a shoulder injury.
Roby made just 4 starts in the Cardinals system, throwing 12 innings, so not only does the Arizona Fall League give him the chance to get more innings, it gives the Cardinals the chance to see more of him.
Roby threw 58.1 innings this season, all at Double-A, so he does need to get more innings on his arm this year if the Cardinals want to be able to push him close to 100 innings next year, which is probably a necessity if the Cardinals want him pitching in the major league rotation in 2025.
Roby is the pitcher I’m most excited to see and might actually be my favorite pitching prospect in the entire system. His upside is immense and I can’t wait to see more of him.
I can say a lot of the same things about Hjerpe that I just said about Roby. Hjerpe missed over 3 months this year with an elbow issue and that limited him to just 41 innings.
He missed a lot of bats in those innings (29.8 K%) but struggled with control (14.6 BB%) and the long ball (1.76 HR/9). Add it all up and you have a 5.68 FIP, though Hjerpe’s ERA (3.51) and xFIP (4.16) were far friendlier.
So this AFL stint is exciting for two reasons. The first is that it allows Hjerpe to get some much needed innings and the second is that it allows us to see more of Hjerpe.
He’s a pitcher that I was really excited about this year but because of the early struggles and the injury (and I have no idea if those two things are connected), it seems like Hjerpe has lost a lot of steam in the realm of public opinion.
But that doesn’t really matter. This was only Hjerpe’s first professional season and he clearly has swing-and-miss stuff. He showed much better command and control in college than he did in Peoria but there’s still plenty of runway for him to figure things out. The AFL is perfect for prospects like him.
Nunez has been a prospect from the moment he popped up on MLB teams’ radars with a fastball that touches 101. He signed for around $500,000 and started his career in Single-A at the age of 19 and was downright terrible (10.90 ERA)
He bumped down to rookie ball the next year and put up more respectable numbers (4.05 ERA, 4.84 FIP) but still got shellacked in 5 Single-A outings.
Despite his struggles, though, Nunez has always been a somewhat well regarded prospect because a 100 mph fastball makes it hard to give up on him. But then the flamethrowing righty broke out this year. Kind of.
Nunez finally conquered the mountain of Single-A, pitching his way to a 3.62 ERA and 3.37 FIP en route to reaching Peoria for the first time. His numbers dipped a bit at the higher level as his FIP rose to 4.69 and his strikeout rate dropped from 29.2% to just 19.0%.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Nunez finally found some semblance of control with his walk rates sitting at 10.1% in Single-A and 11.7% in High-A. Those aren’t particularly impressive numbers, but it’s important to consider the fact that Nunez had a 19.4% walk rate in his first Single-A stint and a 12.6% walk rate in rookie ball.
These numbers may be high but they’re better for him and they aren’t too bad for someone known more for his explosive stuff than his “pitchability”
It’s hard to consider this year anything other than a big success for a tooled up pitcher who hadn’t had much success prior to this season.
If you don’t know much about Nunez, he’s actually a power sinker guy and not a big four-seam thrower, which explains why his strikeout rate isn’t as high as you might expect for someone with his kind of stuff. He also throws a high spin sweeper and a firm 88 mph changeup and both pitches miss a lot of bats, though he does struggle to keep them in the zone.
It’s an exiting arsenal but one that needs more refinement and the AFL offers Nunez the chance to get more exposure to more advanced hitters, which is exactly what he needs at this phase of his development.
Like Nunez, Granillo is a relief prospect with good stuff and some control issues. The former 14th round pick breezed through the minors until this season when he finally ran into some resistance at the upper levels.
The big right-hander still missed bats (31.2 K% in AA, 26.2 K% in AAA) but had some major control issues in his 12.1 Triple-A innings. He looks like someone who could play a role in next year’s bullpen so it makes sense to give him extra innings against pretty good minor league competition and see if he can work through his control issues.
Paniagua is similar to the first two arms that I discussed in that he missed some time due to injury this season and ended with just 48 innings pitched. Giving him more innings is a great way to add some needed length to his season and let him get exposure to more advanced minor league competition.
This also seems to be a sign that the Cardinals aren’t down on Paniagua, though this could still be something of a prove-it stint for Paniagua as he will be 24 years old next year and in his 7th year in the organization (6th if you remove 2020) while (likely) reaching Double-A for the first time.
On one hand, it seems that the Cardinals could have given this opportunity to a more promising prospect. On the other hand, Paniagua does have some promise and has basically been spinning his wheels this year as he repeated High-A with similar results to last year while missing a lot of time with injury. Giving him this opportunity gives him the chance to show some progress this season and regain some of the momentum that he gathered last year.
There are some other pitchers the Cardinals probably considered here, but it’s important to consider workload management too. Tink Hence threw nearly 100 innings this year after throwing just 52.1 last year, Michael McGreevy came close to 150 innings pitched, and Max Rajcic and Sem Robberse threw over 120 innings. The Cardinals likely didn’t want to add innings to their arms so they pivoted to other pitchers who could use more innings and are still well regarded prospects.
The Cardinals have a fun group of prospects going to the Arizona Fall League this year. Players like Hjerpe, Roby, Crooks, and Scott are all the highly touted names but it’s the guys like Paniagua and Rivas who will get the chance to add to their prospect stock with good performances in the league.
This is one of the most fun parts of the season for prospect enthusiasts and I’m really looking forward to following these players throughout the fall.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday.