No one really needs to tell you how the St. Louis Cardinals ended 2011. With a sizzling end to the season, the Cardinals overcame their Spring Training loss of Adam Wainwright to take the World Series. As one might expect of a Tony La Russa-led team, the World Series champs didn’t have a lot of rookies on their team, but the bullpen did get quite a bit of help from the likes of Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez, who narrowly remain prospects. The more famous rookie, however, was probably Allen Craig, who came up with several clutch playoff hits, and he’ll likely receive more playing time last year after a rookie season of proving he could hit.
Moving on to the minor leagues, the Cardinals continue to quietly develop one of the better farm systems in baseball. At the top are 3 possible front-of-the-rotation starters in Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Tyrell Jenkins, and Trevor Rosenthal might be a fourth. Jordan Swagerty isn’t quite as good, but his improvements this past season are encouraging. And though they are not starters, Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez, and Maikel Cleto (who could still be) are flame-throwing relievers that could make a nice, cheap back-end of the bullpen fairly soon.
The wealth of talent doesn’t end on the mound, either. Oscar Taveras became a top outfield prospect with a strong showing in Low-A, but he’ll obviously need to hit in a larger sample against better competition. The other top position player prospects are less likely for stardom, but they, nevertheless, have the potential to be solid regulars. Matt Carpenter is old for a prospect, but while that might shorten his career, it doesn’t mean he can’t start at third for someone. Matt Adams is large, but his bat is certainly in charge. Zach Cox can hit, but there are concerns about his ultimate ceiling. And Kolten Wong had a nice debut after being drafted, but whether he is a star or a solid regular is still up for debate.
The Cardinals currently have what most farm systems envy – high-impact talent and depth – and they even have that in pitching and position players. This is crucial as the Cardinals continue to stockpile large contracts without a top-shelf payroll. They need cheap talent to fill out the roster, and it always helps to have good cheap talent.
Shelby Miller SP
Age/Level (as of 4/2012): 21/AAA
Starting the run of high-powered arms in the Cardinals system, Miller has all the stuff to be a top-notch starter. With a mid-90s fastball that can hit 98 and two secondary pitches (a 12-6 curve and change) that flash plus but are at least average or a tick above now, Miller has an ace’s repertoire, and considering his strong build, he can sustain that deep into games. Mechanically, I wouldn’t call him pretty, especially as he noticeably throws across his body, but the arm action is easy and repeatable. The one concern about Miller is his control, which continues to waver at times, but considering he just turned 21, I’m not terribly concerned.
Carlos Martinez SP
Age/Level: 20/High-A or AA
Few guys have silly arm speed, where they throw ridiculously hard while looking like they’re just warming up. Matt Moore is the pinnacle of this, but Carlos Martinez is close. That fastball sits in the upper-90s and frequently hits 100, even late in the games. To that, he adds a plus curveball and an improving change, but he needs to gain more consistency with both pitches. After moving up to AA, Martinez had significant control problems probably due to having some problems staying over the rubber, and his little bump in the road is the reason he’s not a tier higher, though I really wanted to put him there. As he spins during his delivery, he wavers from side-to-side, and that will hinder anyone trying to throw the ball straight. Martinez could probably use some more time in High-A, but I don’t think he’d need to stay there long.
Tyrell Jenkins SP
With a toned down delivery and more mature approach to pitching, Jenkins is looking less like the raw talent the Cardinals took in the supplemental round last summer. Jenkins fastball is already in the low-90s and hitting 95, and as he fills out, he should hit that top number more regularly. In addition to his above-average fastball, he has a nice curveball and change-up, and still showing his rawness, he’ll need quite a bit more time gaining consistency with those pitches. Jenkins is a bit behind the other two pitchers on this list, but by the time everything is over, he has the chance to be nearly as good.
Oscar Taveras RF
Projection: 3-5 WAR
Taveras can really whack the ball. Known already for an ability to drive the ball, a .386 average and 40 extra-base hits will only re-affirm that observation. Taveras can really hit with an above-average to plus hit tool, and he adds average to above-average power that could improve as he fills out. Questions that remain center around his aggressiveness at the plate (he can take a walk) and his ultimate position as he does occasionally play center but profiles better in a corner. If he was a sure bet to stay in center, he’d likely be a tier higher, but once you switch to a corner, you need to hit a lot more. As far away as he is, we’re still waiting to see how good the bat will be, but he looks just fine.
Kolten Wong 2B
Projection: 2-4 WAR
A bit of a controversial pick due to his slight build, Wong has begun to prove any doubters wrong with a strong Low-A debut. That, of course, won’t completely convince anyone, but he showed excellent defense along with the ability to make consistent contact. His swing involves a high-leg kick, which can hinder a hitter against good secondary pitches as it’s a timing mechanism, but he makes plenty of contact. Wong also has an advanced approach, as you might expect from a college player, and he even has average-ish power. Even better, Wong is a strong second baseman with solid range and an above-average arm. Wong’s high-leg kick makes me wonder how well he’ll adjust to hitting better secondary pitches, but guys have done it before.
Matt Carpenter 3B
Age/Level: 26/AAA or MLB
Projection: 2-4 WAR
If there one was one Cardinals player mildly upset about the way David Freese hit in the playoffs, it was probably Carpenter, who is now effectively blocked while also being old for a prospect. Despite all that, Carpenter remains a solid player that continues to hit well, take bookoos (is that how you spell it?) of walks, and hit for a decent amount of power, though the organization might celebrate if he hits 15 homers in a season. At the hot corner, Carpenter isn’t spectacular, but he’s not terrible, either. With Freese and Cox in the organization, Carpenter is basically trade bait, but I continue to think he’s one of the more underrated prospects the Cardinals have.
Matt Adams 1B
Most of what you’ll hear about Adams revolves around his massive size, but once you look past that, you see a solid player. At the plate, he has plus power and could hit 30+ homers a year, and he even adds a solid hit tool. One question might be how patient he’ll be (remember that first baseman need to develop into elite offensive players to be much of a prospect), but considering he’s always been young for the level, he can certainly improve a bit in the area. Defensively, Adams is better than you might think at first, but he may not be any better than average even if he continues to improve. His bat will have to carry him, but it is a big bat. Now, let’s see if he’ll have a spot in St. Louis or if he’ll be trade bait.
Trevor Rosenthal SP
When you’re selected in the 21st round, it will take some time and more than a nice Low-A season to get people excited about you. Rosenthal is that guy. While the 4.22 ERA might look great, the 10 K/9 and 3 BB/9 are pretty impressive, and it wasn’t done by accident. Rosenthal can run his fastball up to 96, though it sits more in the 91-94 range, and his curveball could be a plus offering already, though he’ll need to work on that change-up. Mechanically, he does a good job of staying compact through his delivery and using his lower body, and I think getting a full season shot at starting can end up with him in AA.
Jordan Swagerty SP
Projection: 3/4, Relief Ace
Due to the development of a change-up, Swagerty has gone from a relief prospect to a legit starting prospect. Already armed with a low-90s fastball that could hit 95 and a nasty slurve, the change-up was the last piece of the puzzle. The question now is if the Cardinals will give him the chance to start (they had him in the bullpen late in the year, though that may have just been to limit the former college closer’s innings) or if they’ll put him in the bullpen. He has the frame to hold up to a starter’s workload, and although his delivery is a bit funky, he seems to do well with it. Swagerty’s another good arm in the system, and we’ll see what the Cardinals see as his future role.
Zach Cox 3B
Projection: 2-4 WAR
No one really disputes that Cox can hit, but his ultimate potential does worry some scouts. While he can hit and has a solid approach, his power may be average and is more fringe-average. When you’re a third baseman and not a particularly good one (has the arm but doesn’t move particularly well), you have to get your value from somewhere. If he can stay at third and continue improving his defense, he’s a solid regular without the power, but he’ll, otherwise, need the power.
Big Question – Maikel Cleto
Just outside of the Top 10 sit 3 power arms that will likely end up in the bullpen or already have – Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez, and Cleto. Cleto gets the nod here because there still remains a possibility that he could start, and he retains some potential to be a good starter. His arsenal basically begins and ends with his fastball, which is the main concern about him remaining in the rotation, but it’s a good one that sits in the mid-90s and can hit 98 and 99 on the radar gun. He does have a curve and a change, but while they flash average or better, they aren’t consistently there. Another concern is his control, but Cleto has calmed down his delivery and improved in the area. Cleto still has massive potential (#2 if the secondary pitches develop) as a starter, but he could very well also end up a middle reliever with no usable second pitch.