Jordan Walker is making his case as the best prospect in baseball. And the best Cardinals prospect since …….?
Growing up in the 1980s there was nothing bigger than pro wrestling. It was a golden age of muscle-bound heroes. Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, The Ultimate Warrior, Bam Bam Bigelow, the Million Dollar Man, the Junkyard Dog… stars upon stars!
I used to set my VCR – a herculean task – to make sure I recorded every episode.
The problem was that all the big wrestling events were pay-per-view. My parents were frugal. They weren’t going to let me spend my meager allowance – which was just their hard-earned money – on such ridiculous entertainments. My friends’ parents had similar views. So Wrestlemania’s and other big wrestling events passed us by.
Until one winter. I think it had to have been 1991 or 1992. It was a cold, boring January and I don’t know what got into my mom but I begged and begged her to let me have my friends over and order the Royal Rumble. I guess I had finally worn her out because she agreed!
So, my friends came over. We cooked up some bagel bites and had two liters of “Rocky Top” cola and root beer from Dillon’s Grocery Store on Sunshine St. in Springfield, MO. We watched a couple of dozen muscle-bound freaks do very real wrestling combat on each other for a few hours.
Can’t remember who won. I’m sure the internet could tell me. But my buddies and I were the real winners that day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jordan Walker. He’s tearing up AA. He’s barely 20 years old. He’s on his way toward the very top of the minor league prospect rankings. Questions are flying about him from Cardinal fans: When will he arrive in the majors? What position will he play? Who does he compare to? And the one I’m hearing more and more: where does he rank compared to other great Cardinal prospects, like Oscar Taveras?
We’re going to attempt to answer that question today. We’re going to take a look at three of the best hitting prospects the Cardinals have seen since Albert Pujols: Oscar Taveras, Dylan Carlson, and Jordan Walker. We’ll then throw their stats into the squared circle and let them battle it out!
We might even pick a winner at the end.
(But remember that there are no “losers” here. Just some players who were/are an absolute joy to watch and who did/are doing some amazing things at an extremely young age.)
We’ll start with Walker as his current season performance is what has precipitated this conversation. Walker was the Cardinals’ first round pick in the COVID draft of 2020. If memory serves, he spent a little time at the Alternate Training Site in Springfield after he was drafted but didn’t get his first professional plate appearance until last season. He was still just 18 years old when he debuted for Palm Beach in 2021.
He immediately started to hit. His slash line at A-ball PB was .374/.475/.687. That’s a .516 wOBA and a 205 wRC+. At 18, he was 2x better than the average player at A ball in his first taste of professional pitching.
That earned him a quick promotion and an instant challenge. There’s a bigger gap between A and A+ than you might think and a now 19-year-old “struggled” against more experienced talent, producing “just” a 124 wRC+ and a .367 wOBA. His walk rate fell and his K’s climbed, but overall, his batting line relative to age was still really good!
To me, that’s always been a mark of a truly great prospect. Can they face much higher competition relative to their age/experience and still manage to hit their way through the adjustment period? The “elite” hitting prospects seem to find a way. The “really good” ones take a little longer. Walker proved himself as an elite prospect when he struggled his way to a fantastic batting line at a silly young age in Peoria.
The Cardinals wisely left Walker alone there for the rest of 2021. He got a little time with the Major League club during Spring Training and proved (not that there was ever any doubt) that he was ready for the challenge of AA.
He started this season in Springfield still just 19, with a birthday coming in late May. Faced with another serious challenge from even more mature pitching, Walker again hit his way through the adjustment period, maintaining a high batting average and walk totals without the home run power that he’s known for. With 208 PAs under his belt now, Walker has settled in and is now crushing the ball; we’re seeing his true talent shine.
Despite his young age and relatively raw approach, Walker already has a very good batting eye – he has a 12.5% walk rate. His K’s have dropped from A+ to 22.6%, which is more than acceptable for a player his age with an 80 raw power score. His BABIP is high – and has been during his entire career – but it’s not from luck. It’s because he routinely smokes the ball to all fields with very high exit velocity.
Oh, and he also has 11 stolen bases, a strong arm, and athleticism at third base – a level of speed and athleticism that could translate to multiple other positions on the field. (And not just first base or hiding him in a corner outfield. He has the kind of speed, athleticism, and arm that we shouldn’t rule out center field early in his career.)
His season stats as of Tuesday morning – .322/.423/.534 with a .425 wOBA and a 145 wRC+ – have him gaining more and more attention as a possible #1 prospect in the game entering next season. I would guess that the club will leave him at AA until the All-Star Break. After that, assuming he continues to hit, a promotion to AAA seems likely so he can continue to face challenges that will force him to grow and adjust.
Now let’s jump to another Cardinal who left AA with top prospect credentials: Oscar Taveras.
Taveras’ journey closely resembles what Walker has done. At age 19, Taveras was in Quad Cities for his first run through professional pitching. He crushed it – producing a .386/.444/.584 slash line with a .460 wOBA and a 190 wRC+.
The Cardinals were not quite as aggressive with their promotions a decade ago. So, Taveras stayed in A ball for the full season and moved to AA at age 20, where he received 534 PAs. That number of plate appearances – and the passing of time – hide the ups and downs that Taveras likely experienced along the way. The result, though, was inarguably great. He finished with a .321/.380/.572 line and a 159 wRC+, with tons of buzz about being the best hitting prospect in baseball.
Taveras was a free swinger but he coupled that with a superior contact ability. He walked some – 7.9% – but his K’s were very low for a prospect of that age and experience level. He K’ed just 10.5% of the time. He played mostly centerfield for Springfield but seemed likely to be pushed toward a corner position in the major leagues.
The next season was somewhat lost for Taveras. The Cardinals promoted him to AAA as a 21-year-old in 2013. He suffered an ankle injury and played through it for a while before getting shut down with surgery. That season, his walks further deteriorated but his contact ability remained elite. Trying to play through injury stole much of his power.
He bounced back from surgery in ’14, now at age 22, and put up a very good .318/.370/.502 line with a 121 wRC+ in Memphis before debuting in the majors. His career was tragically cut short and we’ll never know how he might have translated his free-swinging, elite contact, and high-power bat to the majors! We can still dream, though.
I wanted to include Carlson to give us one more data point. Carlson did not achieve the same level of elite prospect recognition as the other two, but he was very well respected among scouts for his mature approach at the plate which showed itself at a young age. In many ways, Carlson shows us the differences between the “elite” prospects and the “very good” prospects at the same levels and age.
Let’s ignore Carlson’s age 17 and 18 seasons, since neither Taveras nor Walker have stats from that age. It is worth pointing out though, that Carlson had a 115 wRC+ in rookie ball as a 17-year-old and followed it up with a league average performance at A ball at age 18. The stats aren’t that impressive by themselves. Considering age and level, however, they pointed toward really good things to come.
Carlson proved that as a 19-year-old in A+ in a tough hitting environment in Palm Beach. He showed very good walk ability, a controlled swing (17.7% K rate), and light power in a place where it’s hard to hit homers. The result was a 112 wRC+, which is very good for a prospect of that age at that place. Very good. Not elite.
The next season, now age 20, everything clicked for Carlson. He grew stronger and found power. He continued to walk. His mature approach revealed itself in quality bat-to-ball skills. He had a .281/.364/.518 batting line in AA for a 142 wRC+. He followed it up with a BABIP-fueled blowout in AAA also at age 20. His 161 wRC+ at AAA was his best minor league performance and it propelled him to the majors during the COVID season of 2020. He peaked outside of the top 10 but well inside the top 50 in most prospect rankings lists.
Put all of that inside the ropes, maybe with a cage and some folding chairs, and let them go at it. What shakes out?
I think it’s relatively easy to see the difference in skill and performance between Carlson and Walker/Taveras. Carlson’s production stats were somewhat hurt by his extremely young age and that affected the attention he got from analysts and ranking systems. He earned promotions but didn’t have standout performances until he reached the age where you expect to see standout performances from a first-round pick with a mature hitting pedigree.
Walker and Taveras, on the other hand, had much more raw tools but still arrived in pro ball hitting at an elite level and never really stopped doing so, despite facing challenging environments at a young age. Even though their weighted stats – wRC+ – aren’t all that different than Carlson’s at AA, their lines and projectable tools provide notable separation. Carlson was a mature hitter at a young age and was, therefore, an exciting and highly-ranked hitting prospect; he is on his way toward being a terrific player. But the raw upside just oozed off the page with Taveras and the same is true of Walker.
As expected, Carlson finishes third in this competition. What about the other two? Taveras provides something of a cautionary tale for Walker. Taveras was already receiving top prospect consideration and was on his way toward a possible MLB debut in late 2013 when injury struck. Playing through injury and subsequent surgery dug into his stats and pushed him back a full year and he was never really the same hitter at AAA or above as he was in the low minors. How well would his aggressive (almost violent) approach to hitting have translated to the majors? We dreamed of Vladimir Guerrero. But we never got to see it.
Walker gets all the credit in the world for doing what he’s done so far. He has to keep doing it if he wants to keep pace with Taveras. Through his age-20 season, Taveras had 878 plate appearances in A/AA. So far, Walker only has 574 at the same levels and he’s likely looking at a promotion to AAA within the next few months. Can he continue to perform at his ridiculous pace? Can he avoid injury? Can he continue to make quick adjustments, and “hit through” the challenges he will face at a new level, where more pitchers can command breaking and off-speed stuff on the corners of the zone?
It’s too early to tell. But his combination of elite walk ability, an underrated contact bat tool (which I think is borderline elite but rates out on Fangraphs as a 25/50 right now… uh, what?), top-of-the-league power potential, speed, and athleticism gives him everything he needs to do just that.
He has hit. He should hit. I think he will hit. I have a very high level of confidence that he’ll keep hitting.
For my money, Walker is the most talented prospect of this prospect Royal Rumble, just barely inching out Oscar Taveras because he combines a similar level of raw talent with an approach that’s already more refined. He can produce the same kind of very hard contact without Taveras’ ultra aggressiveness.
Walker is almost what you would get if you took some of the best traits of Carlson and Taveras and fit them into an athletic third baseman.
That makes him, in my opinion, the best hitting prospect the Cardinals have had since Albert Pujols. He belongs in the same conversation as other elite hitting prospects – not all that far behind guys like Bryce Harper or, to stick with the same position, Troy Glaus.
Really, though, ranking these prospects doesn’t matter. I can’t remember who won that Royal Rumble 30-some years ago. I have no idea. What mattered, in the end, was how much fun we had watching them!
Watch Jordan Walker. Catch his highlights or, better yet, catch the ins and outs of his at-bats and his play in the field. He’s worth it. I promise.