Now a full-fledged, power-wielding member of the United Cardinal Bloggers faction, it’s time for StanGraphs to participate in its very first feature for the group. As the UCB crew does each September, we’ll be running down the top seven prospects in the Cardinal system according to our own fail-proof ranking system. I suppose it’s a good idea to describe our ranking system to you in a more in-depth manner, though doing so might only serve to make you immediately leave this page and head to Neosho, Missouri in search of those nachos Spencer likes to talk about making.
I just realized that when I say “ranking system,” what I really mean is that Spencer and I had a lengthy discussion about the order in which we should place the best prospects in the St. Louis system at this point in time. We’re going largely off numbers, expert opinions, recent trends, personal preference, and how we decided to weigh a player’s ceiling versus his floor. Swagger may have also been a factor; I’m not sure. You’ll find the results of this conversation below, along with some additional discussion as to how we arrived at the conclusions we did.
1. Oscar Taveras, OF
Oscar Taveras just turned 20 this past summer, but you would never know it from how he likes to destroy baseballs. We’ve been drooling over Taveras all season long, and with good reason: the outfielder hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers in 531 PA for Double-A Springfield. He has a visceral swing with plenty of bat speed, he projects to hit for average and power to all fields, and he’s been ascending the minor league ranks at a rapid pace. In addition to his ability to flat-out hit, Taveras has done just fine with the other aspects of his game as well. He has decent speed and can steal a base (10/11 on stolen base attempts in 2012), projects as a solid right fielder, and also possesses a nice throwing arm. Taveras has garnered the respect and love of nearly every prospect maven out there; why should we be any different?
2. Shelby Miller, SP
While 2012 has certainly been a strange season for the man who was universally named the top player in this system back before pitchers and catchers had even reported, things are wrapping up on a high note. Early on, Miller struggled with his fastball velocity and his ability not to give up hits to virtually every batter he didn’t strike out. The organization worked with Miller to help him get his fastball back to its previous heights while improving his confidence in regards to his other offerings. The results have been staggering, as Miller’s last few Triple-A starts were excellent and he’s already logged 7 2/3 impressive innings with the parent club during the stretch run. Still just 21 for another few weeks, it’s easy to see how Miller’s 95 mile-per-hour fastball and nasty curve could make him an ace before long.
3. Carlos Martinez, SP
One of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball before the start of the season, Martinez’s star is still shining bright. The small-framed righty throws dragon flames (he was in the upper-90s on every fastball we saw when “scouting” him with beer in person), and if he can overcome mid-season elbow troubles for good he could stick as one of the best starters in the league should he achieve his ceiling. Martinez has already gotten a taste of the Double-A level, and while his strikeout rate went down, no one could manage to make solid contact against him. Lil’ Carlos put in 71 1/3 innings for Springfield; over those innings he put up 58 strikeouts, 22 walks, and allowed just 62 hits. Only time will tell if he can make it in the rotation or if he becomes a lights-out bullpen asset, but we’re betting high on his chances to succeed either way.
4, Matt Adams, IB
Like every Cardinals blog, we were in heavy need of Depend products when Matt Adams got the call earlier this season. Adams, an incomprehensibly gigantic first baseman, is not going to dazzle anyone with the glove, and he doesn’t really understand how to draw a walk. What he does understand, and understand extremely well, is how to crush almost any baseball you throw in his vicinity. We’ve heard his hitting coaches along the way have worked tirelessly to ensure he gets the head of the bat on all types of pitches rather than his own actual head in attempt to eat the delivery seams and all. Adams is the kind of hitter who could flesh out a clean-up spot admirably, and we’re not all that discouraged about his uninspiring first stint at the Major League level given the amount of plate appearances involved. Adams missed the end of the season to undergo surgery that won’t inhibit his future and still finished his Triple-A campaign with a .986 OPS and 18 long balls.
5. Michael Wacha, SP
We know better than to get too worked up about what Wacha has done as a professional so far, but let’s go ahead and look at those numbers anyway, just for fun. The tall 2012 first-round draft pick (who is waaay more fun to discuss than James Ramsey, the “other” 2012 Cardinal first-rounder) has pitched 21 innings in the minor leagues so far. In those innings, Wacha has struck out 40 while walking only four and allowing just eight hits. And yes, that really did say 40. Forty! Wacha is seen more as a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater who could reach St. Louis quickly than a guy who scouts feel comfortable labeling as a future star. He boasts multiple solid pitch types, and we’re secretly hoping he can translate his early returns into a higher ceiling than anyone wants to say he can hit. During our list-making process, we laughed quite a bit about the idea that scouts simply analyzed Wacha’s stuff by saying that it “sucked.” While it’s doubtful anyone went that far, no one seems optimistic that Wacha should even be this high on such a list. We’re gambling otherwise.
6. Kolten Wong, 2B
The tiny 21-year-old second baseman whose name you see in bold font above was the first Cardinal selection in the 2011 amateur draft, and we’ve been excited for a while now about his potential ability to solidify a position the organization has long struggled with filling. While Wong still handles the keystone with enough grace to warrant projecting him as an above-average defender down the line, we’ve become a bit worried his bat is lagging behind. Wong has flashed gap power and seems to be able to consistently hit for average and make solid contact, but a second half slump dragged his overall Double-A numbers down to a so-so .287/.348/.405 triple slash line. We were sort of wanting that to be the floor of his Major League production, not a roadblock already hit in the path to getting to his destination. In a perfect world, or at least a kind one, we still feel Wong could wind up being the kind of second baseman who fills out the top of a lineup card with .290/.360/.440 production while getting things done with the leather and stealing a few bases. If we were more certain that this threshold would be reached, you’d see the Hawaiian prospect higher on this list even if there are plenty of carnival rides he isn’t allowed to go on.
7. Trevor Rosenthal, SP/RP
Trevor Rosenthal made a name for himself with a big spring training, and he has run with his new-found status as a legitimate prospect ever since. Considered a fringy rotation guy entering the year, Rosenthal performed quite well across 20 starts for Springfield and Memphis. He showed a solid strikeout rate and a preternatural gift for avoiding base hits, but his walk rate was a little higher than most would feel comfortable with. Given a chance in the St. Louis bullpen when the unit desperately needed to be infused with new talent, Rosenthal has been a revelation. The 22-year-old has posted a 3.15 ERA, struck out 23, and walked six in 20 innings of work while flashing otherworldly velocity (he hit triple digits in his first outing) and appearing to be phased by nothing. Rosenthal has the stuff and the potential to make it as a valuable rotation member, but the organization may use its position to continue using him in the bullpen for awhile. While Rosenthal’s future role may be murky, it’s hard not to like the pitch selection and upside he offers no matter how he’s used.
We were able to make headway on the list quickly, as we uniformly agreed on the top three names you see on the list above. Taveras was able to leapfrog Miller despite the latter’s recent success as a September call-up because his ceiling is that of an All-Star position player and he raked all season long. Miller scuffled quite a bit early on, and while he appears to be firmly on course at present time, we like Taveras’ slugging ways enough to place him at the head of the class. Carlos Martinez was the unanimous (should I really be saying unanimous when it’s the opinion of just two people I’m talking about?) third choice, as he has the repertoire to be a front-line starter and the results to back it up through multiple levels. He may wind up in the bullpen yet considering his arm troubles and delivery, but why make that assumption right away?
Matt Adams got slotted fourth because he’s still a potential middle-of-the-order threat who hasn’t ever been slowed down (except when referring to his foot speed, which is that of a heinously-maimed sloth) in a large enough sample size to depress his value. Adams is probably blocked for now with Carlos Beltran around for another season, as the aging right fielder’s presence will keep Allen Craig at first base for the time being, but he could be a homering force to be reckoned with.
After the fourth pick, it becomes a bit more complicated. Kolten Wong was originally all set to go at the five spot, but we decided we felt like punishing him for his lackluster offensive performance at the Double-A level (and in the Texas League at that). It’s also possible that Wong’s StanGraphs demotion was a result of heightism, as we’re pretty sure he’s only 5’1″ (he’s listed at 5’9″) and we don’t find such a height acceptable for a baseball player.
Wong’s struggles at the plate were also complicated by our love for what Trevor Rosenthal has shown at the Major League level and the quick rise of 2012 draftee Michael Wacha. Rosenthal was also the recipient of StanGraphs punishment, as we still don’t know how he would fare as a starter at the highest level or if we will even get a chance to find out. A potentially crowded rotation and T-Rose’s success in relief could mean he winds up coming in near the end of games instead of at their beginning. Wacha wound up the beneficiary of all these downgrades, as he capitalized and shot up the list to the fifth spot despite the fact that no big name in scouting or prospect evaluation feels he has the stuff to be more than a four (or maybe three) starter.
We look forward to seeing how the other UCB sites ranked their top prospects, and we highly encourage all of you to check out their posts on the subject as well. When we check back on the progress of these guys a year from now, let’s hope they’re all outperforming our expectations and making us feel incredibly stupid. After all, that’s a big part of the fun when it comes to prognostication! No matter how you slice it, if you choose to bother slicing it at all, it’s hard to deny the progress that has been made in St. Louis when it comes to drafting and developing young talent. This is a vastly improved farm system when compared to the one we were looking at a few years ago, and things are undeniably headed in the right direction.