The Cardinals have a group of hitters beginning to coalesce at the top of the system, presenting the organisation with a real opportunity.
Okay, so the 2021 season hasn’t really gone the way we all hoped. The pitching has imploded, the injury bug has bitten hard and deep, and while the offense has been mostly fine, between injuries and a few notable struggles, it hasn’t been nearly good enough to carry a team that has had a hard time getting out of neutral since hitting a season-high eight games over .500 way back in May.
As it stands right now, the Cardinals have a 3% chance to make the postseason, which is, pretty obviously, less than ideal. Unfortunately, the club’s philosophical leanings seem to rule out them even considering selling at the deadline this year to have a better chance in the future, which is a big part of why we’re in this mess in the first place. But, that’s really neither here nor there at the moment; we’ll have plenty of time to brood over. perhaps even agonise over, the deadline of inaction, another missed opportunity to make real improvements.
For now, I’m more interested in looking for positives that have come from this benighted season, and for that we can look to the minor leagues. It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the Cards’ farm system in terms of pitching (though Angel Rondon is sneakily starting to put a few very impressive outings together over the past month or so, and Matthew Liberatore has made big strides in his overall repertoire, while not necessarily getting great results as he’s working through things; oh yeah, and Connor Thomas), but things look much, much brighter if we flip over to the hitting side of the ledger. In fact, the Cardinals are beginning to show signs of a real bumper crop of offensive talent percolating up into the upper minors right now, the kind of bumper crop that could absolutely fill in the margins of a roster that lacked depth in 2021, and perhaps even add to the team’s core going forward.
Let me start by saying I will not be including some of the Cardinals’ best hitting prospects here, which probably seems counterintuitive, but I have a reason. Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn are both spectacularly exciting prospects, but they really belong in a different conversation than this one. Both are very clearly core-level players, both play premium defensive positions (though, admittedly, Walker’s long-term outlook includes the same roadblock at third base as that of Nolan Gorman, who I actually will be talking about here), and both are probably two to three years away.
Walker in particular could force an acceleration of that timetable, should he hit the way he did in Low A this year, but still, 2022 is almost certainly too early for him, and even 2023 would be a very rapid rise. He is a very young nineteen right now (nineteen and two months, specifically), while Winn is about two months older, but also learning a more difficult position and is a little behind Walker in both physical maturity and maturity as a hitter, the result of dividing his attention between pitching and hitting in high school. (It is worth noting Winn is very much making up for lost time on the hitting front, though.) Either or both of Winn and Walker could potentially zoom through the system, but more realistically, even as exciting as they are, we’re looking toward midseason or September of 2023 as the earliest I would expect to see either. Thus, they are really in a different wave of talent, and a different timeframe, from the players I’m covering here today. Their positions also set them somewhat apart, which I’ll get to shortly.
This is the group of players about whom we will be speaking:
- Nolan Gorman, INF, Triple A (Age: 21y, 2m)
- Lars Nootbaar, OF, Triple A (23y, 10m)
- Juan Yepez, 1B/3B, Triple A (23y, 5m)
- Conner Capel, OF, Triple A (24y, 2m)
- Kramer Robertson, INF, Triple A (26y, 10m)
- Brendan Donovan, INF, Double A (24y, 6m)
- Alec Burleson, OF/1B, Double A (22y, 7m)
- Nick Plummer, OF, Double A (24y, 11m)
- Aaron Antonini, C, Double A (22y, 11m)
Now, looking at that list with just the information I provided, there are a couple names that stand out. Everyone on the list is between 22 and 24 years old (though Nick Plummer is getting close to 25), with two exceptions: Nolan Gorman, who is very young, and Kramer Robertson, who is very old. Well, old in prospect terms; obviously, he’s still quite young in human terms. But for a prospect? Nearing 27 might as well be 35. Gorman doesn’t entirely fit with this group because he is a real top prospect, but he does fit as the sort of leading figure here; he is a non-premium defender currently in search of a positional solution due to being blocked at his natural spot. Robertson, meanwhile, is one of the few hopefuls still trying to salvage the Cards’ disastrous lost draft of 2017, which set the organisation back significantly when they sacrificed their top picks due to both the Chris Correa punishment and the Dexter Fowler signing.
Here is each player, listed with his wRC+ for the season:
- Gorman: 131 (AA), 89 (AAA)
- Nootbaar: 145 (AAA), 32 (MLB; only 30 PAs)
- Yepez: 156 (AA), 123 (AAA)
- Capel: 120
- Robertson: 114
- Donovan: 128 (A+), 163 (AA)
- Burleson: 154 (A+), 117 (AA)
- Plummer: 149
- Antonini: 99
Here we see Aaron Antonini really doesn’t fit in by this rubric; he is currently finishing up an absolutely brutal July that has seen his wRC+ plummet, and by dint of his being a catcher is really kind of an odd duck in general. Still, his walks-and-homers approach gives him a reasonable offensive ceiling, and I just wanted to highlight a guy who could be an intriguing backup catcher in a year or two. Antonini is a left-handed hitter, which could make him an ideal pairing for Ivan Herrera (currently having a tough season at Double A, but even a little younger than Gorman and, obviously, a catcher), or whoever ends up the heir apparent behind the plate.
We have already seen Nootbaar in the majors this year, as sort of the outrider of this group, and while he both played very sparingly and didn’t exactly wow anyone in the time he did get, he has still put together a remarkable campaign in Triple A, one that would probably be getting more hype had he been more of a draft prospect once upon a time. Nootbaar’s offensive game is based on outstanding plate discipline (14% BB, 19.5% K rate in Triple A), and an ability to consistently make hard contact, albeit at a lower launch angle than is strictly ideal. (Nootbaar hits the ball on the ground too much, but also has a line drive rate of almost 29% at Memphis this year. File that thought away.) His batting line this season is made even more impressive than it should be by an elevated HR/FB%, but even without that Nootbaar is putting together a fantastic campaign. He’s a solid defender in a corner outfield spot, but not a center fielder, which limits his usefulness a bit. The question is whether a player can be productive at the big league level with this batted ball mix.
Gorman, by far the youngest of this group, is adjusting to Triple A just fine currently. He has continued the pattern of his whole minor league career so far; he struggled out of the gate in Memphis, improved his walk rate, started hitting more line drives, and then started to add in real power. That seems to be the way Gorman adjusts to pretty much every jump in levels. At first he struggles, then he irons out his plate discipline, then he starts hitting. The power is always the last thing to come. Since the 14th of July, Gorman is hitting .352/.407/.630, with an 8.5% walk rate, just an 11.9% strikeout rate, three doubles and four home runs in 59 plate appearances, and a .349 BABIP. His wRC+ from the first of July through the 13th was -66; from the 14th to now it’s 172. In other words, it looks like Gorman has pretty much figured out Triple A, and his biggest obstacle at this point may actually be the fact the Cardinals made a long-term strategic mistake this past offseason.
Juan Yepez, the guy you totally didn’t remember was the return from Atlanta for Matt Adams, beat up on Double A pitching this spring by walking nearly as often as he struck out (11.7% BB to 16.9% K), and doing incredible damage at the plate by barreling up the ball consistently. His ISO at Springfield was .302, and his line drive rate was 26.1%. Now, it’s worth noting that batted ball data at the minor league level is not as reliable as it is in the majors, but particularly at the upper levels it’s not bad. Yepez hit a lot of line drive at Double A this year. Since moving up to Triple A, though, that number has fallen from 26% to just over 14%, with most of the missing line drives turning into ground balls. Still, in 167 Triple A plate appearances, he’s hitting .248/.347/.490, with a 10.8% walk rate and 22.2% strikeout rate. His BABIP in July is just .216, which is holding his overall line for the month down, but he’s also running a .313 ISO, allowing him to put up a 123 wRC+ over that time. I’ve compared Yepez to Allen Craig in the past, and I stand by that now. Like Craig, it’s going to be a challenge to find places for Yepez to play in the majors (the universal DH would help out a lot on that front), but I think he could be a very productive hitter over the next half-dozen years for a team willing to give him a chance.
Conner Capel, one of the two outfield prospects the Cardinals received from Cleveland (hate the Guardians name, by the way; should have gone with Spiders), in the Oscar Mercado deal (remember when the Mercado trade was cause for angst toward the front office?), has put himself back into real prospect discussions this season, after having done nothing to impress in either 2018 or ‘19 after the Cardinals acquired him. Capel’s best quality is strong plate discipline; he’s walking at nearly a 13% clip, while keeping his strikeout rate just under 20% for the season at Triple A. This season, though, he’s also added real power to his game, with a .218 ISO and eight homers in 218 trips to the plate. There was always power projection in Capel’s profile, but it had never really shown up prior to this year. Capel is capelble of handling center field at a reasonable level, which gives him a little more versatility. Both Capel and Nick Plummer have to be in the mix to fill a fourth outfielder role in the near future, I would have to think, although it’s also possible the Cards end up trading one or both as they try to figure out the roster of the future.
Robertson is old for his level and lacks power, but he does have one of the strongest plate approaches in the system and is capable of handling shortstop, giving him a possible path to the majors as a utility player. He is very much cut from the Greg Garcia mold of player, with a walk rate of almost 15% this season leading to a .370 on-base percentage. Robertson is not a likely bet to contribute at the major league level, but he is having a very solid season, plays up the middle, and gets on base. It’s not out of the realm of possibility he could fill a major league role for some team for a few years.
Down at the Double A level, Nick Plummer has absolutely pummeled opposing pitchers this year. His BABIP for the season is .408, and his line drive rate is over 30%, a number that actually supports that .408 mark. Nick Plummer has barreled up the ball at an incredible rate in 2021. On the downside, he’s old for Double A (or at least old for a real prospect at Double A), still strikes out too much, and doesn’t have a whole lot of power. His .199 ISO for the season isn’t bad, by any means, but he’s not exactly Aaron Judge, either. He’s walking 12.7% of the time, which is quite good, but his strikeout rate is still over 27%, which is not. It’s an improvement from the past few years, when his K rate never fell below 30%, but for a player who isn’t putting the ball over the wall very often, that is still a worryingly elevated strikeout number.
The real issue is that even as well as he has hit the ball this year, you cannot expect that BABIP number to carry over to the major league level. What Plummer has done exceptionally well in 2021 is convert contact into hits. Moving from Double A to the majors, though, you would have to think the strikeouts would increase even further, and better defense, more effective shifting, and simple regression would probably kill his BABIP. Plummer’s profile is, in a strange way, similar to that of former Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay, who made his living turning contact into hits at a high rate (career BABIP of almost .340), but he was also striking out at a rate ten percentage points lower than what Plummer is doing this season. It’s been really fun watching Plummer play this year; every game he seems to hit at least one booming line drive, and he has very intriguing opposite-field power. But even with all that, he feels like a tweener to me, and I have a hard time seeing him as anything more than a fourth outfielder. Maybe a good one, but still, I just don’t know how high a ceiling you can possibly project for him.
Alec Burleson, on the other hand, is having a borderline spectacular first full professional season, having begun the year at High A and forced a promotion to Double A after fewer than 50 plate appearances. He’s holding his own in Double A, although he isn’t dominating and the pitchers have kept him from working his way on via the walk. In college, Burleson was a low-power plate discipline monster; as a pro, he has adopted a much more power-heavy and aggressive approach. In High A he hit the ball in the air at an extremely high rate and ran a .310 ISO; in Double A he’s traded some of those fly balls for a higher line drive rate (23%, another Cardinal farmhand with an elevated LD% this season), and fewer strikeouts. Burleson is projected to be roughly a league average hitter in the major leagues right now, despite having yet to make it to Triple A. Where he fits defensively is less clear, though he hasn’t really looked bad in the outfield this year. Still, his speed is below-average; this is another guy who would benefit from the universal DH.
Finally, we come to the guy who is most definitely not the best prospect on this list, but just might be the most intriguing player in the near- to medium-term. Brendan Donovan is currently tearing up Double A, but he really shouldn’t be. He started the year in High A, basically overwhelmed the pitchers there with contact ability and, especially, plate discipline, then moved up to Springfield, where he has overwhelmed pitchers with, well, pretty much everything. He’s gotten over 130 plate appearances already at the Double A level, and has posted a ~160 wRC+ in those PAs. At 24 years old and hitting like that, he really should be trying his hand at Triple A, rather than continuing to prove he’s just too good a hitter for his current level. Only problem is, playing time for Donovan at Triple A is a little tough to come by. He’s a primary second baseman, though his true best defensive skill is his versatility; he’s played third, first, second, a tiny bit of shortstop, and a little left field this year.
The problem, of course, is that the Cardinals are already trying to change Nolan Gorman’s position to second base at Triple A, meaning Donovan’s most natural spot is currently taken by a guy who really needs the reps there. Juan Yepez is already playing both corner infield spots and the corner outfield positions as well, training for his own shot at a bat-first utility type in the bigs. Thus, the player in the Cards’ system who actually has legitimate ‘Ben Zobrist type’ potential (not saying Donovan is that good; just that he has superior on-base skills and the ability to play five positions), is stuck at Double A, because the at-bats may or may not be there in Memphis. He’s going to force his way there before long, it seems to me, but it’s a legitimate concern to worry about how to get all these players the developmental playing time they need.
After being drafted in 2018 in the seventh round, Donovan struggled out of the gate. He got a short audition in short-season ball, but looked worn down and not entirely healthy. We’re talking about fewer than 20 plate appearances, though, so in my opinion it is entirely fair to disregard that season. Since then, he has played at three levels over two seasons (and did get two PAs at Triple A late in 2019, but again, probably okay to ignore those), and has never posted a wRC+ below 127. He’s currently walking 14.2% of the time, against just a 16.4% strikeout rate. His power is somewhat modest, but he is also running a .381 BABIP in Springfield, fueled by a 30.2% line drive rate. (Yes, the line drive rate keeps coming up.) Donovan’s speed is only about average, but he’s a smart baserunner and a surprisingly efficient basestealer, as well, going 13-for-16 in stolen base opportunities this year. The only real downside is the fact he’s 24 already, very much the victim of bad timing on the lost 2020 season, but he’s still one of the most interesting players in the whole of the farm system.
So what we have here is a group of eight hitters, all of whom are putting up some fairly remarkable numbers of one type or another, all grouped in the top two levels of the system. (I’m disregarding Antonini here; I highlighted him already, and he doesn’t really fit with the rest of these guys that well for a few reasons.) Only one, Gorman, really fits the bill of a top prospect, and has age relative to level really on his side. None play premium defensive positions at a high level, though again, Gorman is working at second, and Donovan can handle multiple spots including some up the middle. I didn’t include Delvin Perez, who is hitting well at Double A, because he feels like a different class of player. There are also a couple other guys on the fringes of this group; Luken Baker has been hot lately and is trying to get some attention, but he strikes out a lot and his overall numbers aren’t quite that strong. Chandler Redmond is basically left-handed Luken Baker. Malcom Nunez is actually holding his own in Double A at just twenty years old, with better plate discipline than I would have expected at the very least, though he’s clearly struggling a bit so far to make quality contact against the best pitching he’s ever faced. The really top top prospects are still down at High A, Masyn Winn and Jordan Walker, and will force their way into playing time when they get here, if indeed they get here.
Amongst these eight, it is striking how often a high line drive rate comes up in scouting them. Yepez hit lots of line drives at Double A but is currently hitting a bunch of home runs at Triple A, which seems like a fine tradeoff, but as for the others, there are a lot of lower launch-angle hitters here, which is very interesting. I don’t know what a Jeff Albert-led farm system would look like in terms of hitters, but it’s intriguing that after a few years of Albert putting his protocols in place throughout the system, we have all these line drive-heavy hitters, many of whom are showing above-average plate discipline numbers to boot. That sounds a whole lot like the hitting pipeline he built in Houston, hopefully minus the trash cans. Of course, the Astros also had a bunch of premium draft picks they were building with, too; as much as I like Nolan Gorman, he’s not Alex Bregman, nor is Lars Nootbaar George Springer. These are, mostly, non-premium prospects, picked in the middle rounds of the draft, that are beginning to coalesce into a group of bats that could have an impact on the Cards’ plans over the next few years.
Of course, the problem is that you can’t possibly roster all these players at once, even if every single one of them panned out to be a major league quality hitter. The Redbirds suddenly have this very interesting, meaningful depth of hitting talent in the high minors, and it’s going to require some fairly intensive sorting to figure out who to keep and who to dangle on the trade market to try and improve the big league club in some way. I’m sure right now there are several of you having PTSD flashbacks of Luke Voit and Randy Arozarena, though in fairness, Tyler O’Neill has been better than Randy this year and Giovanny Gallegos has been the Cards’ best reliever for three years running now, so maybe those weren’t such terrible decisions after all.
What is really concerning is the notion that, despite their outstanding performances, these players may not actually be worth all that much in trades. Draft stock carries over in discussions far, far longer than it should, and a guy drafted in the seventh round who then hits like crazy up through Double A is still a seventh-rounder when trade talks start up, even if he’s also a potentially really good hitter. Plus, given the situation at the big league level this year, even if it’s a consolidation trade, I don’t know that sending away useful talent between now and the end of the month is the best idea. Those sorts of deals seem better made in the offseason, rather than in the heated crush of the deadline, when it’s all about short-term gains and sellers trying to extract maximum value for their rentals, rather than teams reshaping and bolstering their overall rosters.
Of these guys, Gorman obviously has to be put to the side, made available only in trade talks for legit star players, or star-level prospects at some other position. Capel would seem to have a leg up on a few of the other guys here, as he can handle center field, whereas most of the other outfielders cannot. I don’t think he’s quite as good a hitter as Nootbaar or Burleson long-term, but he’s a better fourth outfield candidate, since he could spell Harrison Bader against tough right-handed pitchers. Juan Yepez has power potential that’s hard to give up on, and Brendan Donovan offers the kind of versatility that teams believe is extremely important in the days of long bullpens and short benches — though admittedly, that’s a little less of an issue with the extra roster spot.
In the end, it is quite obviously better to have players playing well than not, but this group presents both opportunities and challenges. Opportunities in that the Cardinals could have multiple quality hitters knocking on the door of the big leagues in the very near future, and challenges in that they will have to find some way of extracting real value from this group, when the path of least resistance, to simply let them all play and try to find playing time, is exceedingly unlikely to work. Still, 2021 has, in many ways, been a banner year for the Cardinals’ system (though not so much on the pitching side, unfortunately), even if not taking into consideration the guys whose names are constantly making news.