Tuesday, February 1, 2011

TEAM #19 – St. Louis Cardinals

Miller has established himself as the best prep pitcher from a deep 2009 class

If we only looked at the Top 10 of an organization, the Cardinals might not have moved much from last year’s dismal rankings (TEAM #29 – St. Louis Cardinals ). But here at Diamond Futures we look at the strength of the entire Minor League system and few systems in the League possess the depth as that possessed by the Cardinals. Led by tremendous improvements in a Latin American scouting program that had been barren for most of the past decade, the Cardinals have among the three deepest systems in baseball. Jeff Luhnow deserves much of the credit, as his ascension and the doubling of the international scouting department appear to coincide. The turnaround began in 2007, reached a new level in 2009, and is starting to bear fruit in this year’s list, as half of the top six players hail from the region. The main impact has been a system that had traditionally been replete with low-ceiling college players, is now beginning to shows signs of producing players with much greater upsides. Small signs are visible in the fact that between 2006 and 2008, the first seven rounds of Cardinal drafts had produced 21 college selections vs. 2 prep selections. The last two years have witnessed that ratio fall to approximately 2:1. The benefits of the strategy shift should become more visible over the next couple of years.

With all that good news, that doesn’t mean we can escape the negatives. At the Major League level, 2010 produced a disappointing second place finish. A full season of Jake Westbrook and further development of Jaime Garcia should improve the rotation, but the addition of an aging Lance Berkman is unlikely to ignite an offense that has likely slipped to the below League average level. Couple that with improvements by the Brewers and Cubs over the off-season, and the Cardinals look like they will have to battle just to remain in the top half of the N.L. Central. While Cardinal fans could take solace in the half dozen or so Minor League players that are knocking on the Big League door, only Eduardo Sanchez looks to offer a potential upgrade to the existing roster, as the Cardinals premium talent remains a couple of seasons away. Further bad news exists in the middle of the Cardinals’ prospect list, as the #4 thru #25 range is among the weakest in baseball. This can partially be attributed to a player development philosophy that has seen tool-challenged college draft picks conservatively assigned, clogging up the system for higher upside players. Further changes to their drafting strategy remain a ‘must’.

On balance, we see the Cardinals as an under-appreciated system. There are already significant signs of future improvement. Their tremendous depth at the system’s lower levels bodes well for continued advancement toward the top half of this list. We feel the system would be further served by dealing away the glut of low-ceiling, older, near-ready prospects for additional pieces to help this year’s Major League team—any takers?

Best Pick from 2010 – This is a no-brainer, as we have been a huge Jaime Garcia advocate for a long time—ranking him among the top 100 candidates for three seasons now. We ranked him #1 heading into the season and he responded with a fantastic 2010 campaign that had him finishing third in a strong N.L. rookie class.

Worst Pick from 2010 – On the downside, we have also been Daryl Jones believers, giving him the benefit of the doubt with regards to an injury-plagued 2009 season. While we did downgrade our long-term outlook for him to a likely 4th outfielder type in 2010, we still ranked him at #3 in a weak Cardinal system. You will have to go quite a bit farther down the list to find Jones this year.

Grade A

1) Shelby Miller, RHP (2010 Performance Scores– Dominance 77; Control 60; HRrate 52; Stamina 64)

The 2009 draft’s prep pitching class was one of the deepest in recent memory. Heading into that draft, we rated Miller third among a top six that included Tyler Matzek, Jacob Turner, Matt Purke, Tyler Skaggs and Zack Wheeler. While Purke committed to TCU, and Matzek and Turner have only basically met expectations, Miller has ascended to the top of what still appears to be an outstanding group. Rarely does a pitcher step right from the prep ranks with a fastball that is an effortless mid-90s offering and has the potential to be more. Yet Miller combines that with two secondary offerings that, while currently still developing, both show plus potential. If there is a negative, it is that Miller will be governed by his ability to display command, but this is nothing unexpected from a 20yo. The Cardinals were adequately cautious with Miller in 2010, still he edged out Turner and Skaggs for the #1 Performance Score in the Midwest League (MWL). Seeing him as their future ace, expect more of the same in 2011, with an initial assignment in the Florida State League (FSL) likely. Don’t be surprised, however, if they are unable to hold him back and he spends a good portion of the year in the Texas League (TXL)

Grade A -

2) Zack Cox, 3B

Cox rode a blistering start at Arkansas last spring to a Top 25 Collegiate Performance Score and our #12 ranking heading into June’s draft. Bonus demands caused him to fall to the Cardinals, where they were only happy to offer him a Major League deal. The Cardinals assigned him to the Arizona Fall League (AZFL), where despite posting respectable numbers, he hardly looked capable of justifying his $3 million plus deal. We rarely put significant stock in an unexpectedly poor debut, so we will fall back on our pre-draft assessment here. Cox’s strongest skill is a plus contact ability with solid strike zone management skills. His power projects to be little more than average and his speed a tick below. Defensively, Cox has the arm and footwork to remain at third base, but we might ask whether his offensive profile—which would be above average at second base and only average at third—might make a move across the diamond a better bet. You will find that we aren’t quite as high on Cox as some, but his talent should not be ignored either. Cox will get his first real test in the MWL this spring, but everyone expects he will see the FSL before 2011 is out.

3) Carlos Martinez (Matias), RHP (2010– Dominance 80; Control 67; HRrate 55; Stamina 71)

Martinez had originally signed with the Red Sox in 2009, but failed to pass his age/identity investigation and was suspended by MLB. The Cardinals kept up with him during the suspension, and witnessed an uptick in his velocity that prompted them to sign the then 18yo to a $1.5 million bonus as the Dominican Summer League (DSL) season got underway. Pitching in the DSL, Martinez became one of the circuit’s two intriguing pitching stories (the Mariners’ Brandol Perez being the other), as he consistently fired filthy, mid- 90s fastballs past defenseless teen hitters. Both his curve and change rate as serviceable Major League offerings. An athletically gifted pitcher, the Cardinals can envision Martinez as a future front of the rotation hurler. There remains considerable development, between here and there but we have been sold as well. Martinez will make his U.S. debut in 2011. Considering his age, a full-season assignment is not out of the question—even if unexpected. Martinez has the potential to vault up this list over the coming year.

Grade B

4) Tyrell Jenkins, RHP

We had the athletically gifted Jenkins rated as an early sandwich round selection heading into June’s draft, so the Cardinals received excellent value by getting him at #50—despite the cost of his $1.5 million bonus. At 6’4”, 180lbs, there is considerable projection left on his already low-90s fastball. The rest of Jenkins is pure speculation about his upside, however, as he is tremendously raw, and thus far has none of his three secondary offerings at a level to inspire confidence. Jenkins will begin 2011 in extended Spring Training. Given his rawness, he is likely to debut in the Appalachian League (APY) this summer.

5) Oscar Taveras, OF (2010– Power 74; Discipline 61; First Base Rate 60; Speed 60)

We doubt you will find Taveras rated higher by anyone else, but his performance—as a 18yo—that earned him the top Performance Score in the APY (edging out the more highly valued Aderlin Rodrigez and Oswaldo Arcia), was enough to make us feel extremely comfortable with this ranking—and perhaps it is conservative. Taveras quickly becomes the poster boy for the revamped Cardinals’ Latin American efforts. He shows plus power potential, advanced plate discipline skills, solid contact skills and at least average center field speed. Defensively, Taveras is a natural centerfielder, but looks to have enough bat to play a corner if that should become necessary as he matures. But I haven’t gotten to his most intriguing quality--Taveras has an extremely precocious baseball IQ. He makes all the right fundamental baseball decisions, and shows an advanced feel for situation and decision making. If it isn’t clear, consider Taveras as one of the games most underrated prospects. If we don’t wrap this up now, we’ll have to rank him even higher. Look for Taveras to begin 2011 in the MWL—as an 18yo.

6) Eduardo Sanchez, RP (2010– Dominance 75; Control 51; HRrate 57; Stamina 26)

Regular readers will know our perspective on Minor League relief pitchers, but Sanchez is a case we believe in. With a consistent hi-90s fastball, Sanchez has spent the last two seasons breezing through FSL, TXL and PCL lineups in late inning situations. Sanchez compliments the heater with a power slider that freezes hitters. He consistently keeps the ball down in the strike zone, posting a 1.65 GO/AO ratio over the last two seasons. The downside is that Sanchez does have bouts with control, something that was on display this winter in Venezuela where he walked 12 batters in 10.2 innings. Sanchez will be given an opportunity to earn a bullpen slot with the Cardinals this spring, but expect him to return to AAA to begin the season.

7) Seth Blair, RHP

After a fine summer in the 2009 Cape Cod League and a Top 20 Performance Score his junior year at Arizona State, Blair entered the draft as a sandwich round/early second round pick—pretty much where the Cardinals drafted him. Blair has a low-90s fastball, that could become a mid-90s offering in short stints. His curve projects to at least Major League average. If he can develop an off-speed offering, Blair projects to become a quality #2/#3 starter. The downside is that Blair’s change still needs considerable work, as does his command. There are those that believe that Blair may eventually end up in a relief role, but there is no reason for the Cardinals to move in that direction right now. Look for Blair to begin 2011 in either the MWL or the FSL.

8) Lance Lynn, RHP (2010– Dominance 56; Control 54; HRrate 40; Stamina 73)

For the last three years, Lynn has rated as the #8, the #5, and again the #8 prospect on our Cardinal list. This is the range that tells us that he is too good to dismiss, but too flawed to be special. 2010 epitomized this, as he posted the #7 Performance Score in the PCL with solid, but unspectacular numbers. Still just 23yo, the former first round selection has established a solid high floor that should result in an opportunity at some point for a mid-rotation Major League shot. Lynn is a large, durable pitcher with a fastball that is a low- to mid-90s offering. His curve is potentially a useable pitch. The flaws, however, lie with a change that remains underdeveloped, and more importantly, a tendency to frequently pitch up in the zone—something that led to him allowing 21 HRs in 2010. Lynn will enter spring training with an eye on winning a rotation spot, but, short of an injury to someone, the likelihood is that he returns to AAA.

9) Allen Craig, OF (2010– Power 73; Discipline 50; First Base Rate 60; Speed 37)

We have never been tremendously enamored with the limited ceiling Craig. Now 26yo, Craig fell a bit short of the .760 OPS that we had projected for his Major League debut. Other than that though, little has changed since we rated Craig at #5 going into last season. He still possesses above average power, with average contact and strike zone management skills. His speed, or lack thereof, borders on the ‘base-clogging’ variety. There is no real upside left here, so what you have is a defensively limited corner outfielder that is not likely to produce more than a mid .700 OPS. This looks like a platoon player to us, and that is how the Cardinals are likely to use him in 2011.

Grade B-

10) Daniel Descalso, 2B (2010– Power 46; Discipline 76; First Base Rate 55; Speed 58)

The gritty Descalso is far more likely to endear himself to the Cardinal fans than he is to ever produce significant numbers at the Major League level. Exceptional plate discipline is his only plus skill. His contact skills and speed rate as average, with his power slightly below. Defensively, he is versatile, doing an adequate job at both second and third. The profile is that of a utility infielder, although he could be a solid Major League contributor for many years. We expect him to nail down a roster spot this spring.

11) Matt Adams, 1B (2010– Power 79; Discipline 70; First Base Rate 38; Speed 51)

Adams is a player that we have consistently ranked higher than most, as he came in at #16 on our list last year and moves up to #11 this year after a #15 Performance Score in the MWL this past season. Adams is a great example of what reputation means on most of these lists, as he was a 23rd round draft pick, from a tiny Division II school, and received no bonus. Had his entry into professional ball been accompanied by more fanfare, then you would certainly be hearing more about him on prospect lists. What most aren’t aware of, is that his performance at tiny Slippery Rock College in Pennsylvania, was legendary, as he led all Division II hitters in 2009, with a .499/.566/.853 line and established a lore of prodigious home runs. With a burly 6’3”, 230lb, frame, the power we have witnessed the last two seasons is real and he shows remarkably strong strike zone awareness for a masher with his profile. Defensively, he is a converted catcher that shows solid first base skills, but is not tremendously athletic. His speed is below average, but not as bad as you might think, given his size. The negatives—outside of his defensive position limitations—are a lack of patience at the plate, the fact that he has faced conservative placements because of the inane Cardinal philosophy, and that he battled elbow soreness for most of the last half of the season in 2010 that forced him to be shut down a few weeks early—certainly a cause for concern. With over 700 professional ABs we have a good handle on his true performance abilities. Despite the fact that he was a 21yo in the MWL, his 41 doubles and 22 home runs, in that pitchers paradise, cannot be easily dismissed. While we don’t see a tremendous ceiling for him, it is greater than that of either Allen Craig or Matt Carpenter, who receive more accolades. Providing all is well with the elbow, we’ll find Adams terrorizing pitchers in the FSL in 2011.

12) Jordan Swagerty, RHP

We had Swagerty rated as a solid second round selection entering June’s draft, making the Cardinals selection of him another of their 2010 draft that we felt received good value. Swagerty throws a low-90s fastball, but uses it more to set up his plus-curve that is his out pitch. One of the college games better 2010 draft eligible closers, Swagerty does possess a change that some feel could be developed into a useable pitch and allow the possibility to consider him for the rotation. It won’t surprise us if he is in the MWL rotation in 2011. Looking down the road, we rate Swagerty higher than we would a typical bullpen prospect without a dominate fastball, as we consider the possibility of an eventual rotation assignment. That isn’t the outcome that we expect though.

Other Potential Top 300 Prospects - None

Feel free to post any questions and or comments. We will try to answer them in our weekly Mailbag segment.

You can find an explanation of our grades here Diamond Futures Annual Prospect Rankings Series and an explanation of our 2010 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation and here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2010 season.

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