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Cardinals Nationals Spring Baseball

Outfield prospect Randy Arozarena (83) is congratulated after scoring a run during a Cardinals' spring training game against Washington in late February. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

When Alex Reyes began his long reign as the Cardinals’ top prospect four years ago he was the first of five pitchers atop Baseball America’s Top 10. Snug behind Reyes, the power righthander who has had his promise and potential detoured by injuries, were Tim Cooney, Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, and Marco Gonzales – three of whom have gone on to establish themselves as starting pitchers in the majors.

One, Flaherty, will start 2020 with Cy Young predictions.

Those were the top five prospects in the Cardinals’ system entering 2016, according to Baseball America, and Reyes would remain No. 1 for 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Pitching ruled the rankings, and had for years.

How things have changed.

This week, right in time to chew on for Thanksgiving, Baseball America released its Top 10 prospects for the Cardinals entering the 2020 season. Dylan Carlson, an outfielder, is ranked No. 1. For the first time in nearly a decade the Cardinals’ top two prospects are position players, Carlson and third baseman Nolan Gorman. Carlson is the first position player atop BA’s Top 10 for the Cardinals since 2014, when the late Oscar Taveras was No. 1. For context, consider Carlos Martinez ranked No. 2 that year and Kolten Wong was No. 3.

This is the second year that the Cardinals have had seven position players in the Top 10, and that is a high for at least the past 16 years. From 2005, when Adam Wainwright was No. 2 on the list, to 2018, the Cardinals skewed toward pitching, year after year. They had seven pitchers ranked in the top 10 in 2015 and no fewer than six from 2005-2009. In 2012, eight pitchers cracked the Top 10. (The two position players? Zack Cox and Allen Craig. Matt Carpenter came in at No. 12.) The tilt toward position players has arrived with the Cardinals flexing what opposing teams see as their ability to identify and then develop pitching and seeking position players higher in the draft. Carlson and Gorman were both high picks. Here’s a look at the advancing number of position players in the Top 10:

  • 2005: 3
  • 2006: 4
  • 2007: 4
  • 2008: 4
  • 2009: 4
  • 2010: 6
  • 2011: 5
  • 2012: 2
  • 2013: 5
  • 2014: 5
  • 2015: 4
  • 2016: 4
  • 2017: 6
  • 2018: 5
  • 2019: 7
  • 2020: 7

The sustained seven in the past two years is noteworthy because the Cardinals saw four players move on from last year’s rankings, either by graduation or performance. Two of them were position players. Before diving deeper into the 2020 list, here’s the 2019 Top 10 from Baseball America:

  1. Alex Reyes, RHP – Spent most of the year injured. Set for 2020 return, likely in relief.
  2. Tyler O’Neill, OF – Season interrupted with injury. Could get crack at LF in 2020.
  3. Dakota Hudson, RHP – Established himself as a starter. Received ROY votes.
  4. Nolan Gorman, 3B – Power prospect on the rise. Set to see Class AA in 2020.
  5. Elehuris Montero, 3B – Injury sapped him of production in 2019. More below.
  6. Genesis Cabrera, LHP – Power lefty headed to get a relief/start look in spring 2020.
  7. Lane Thomas, OF – Would have been featured player in September, if not for injury.
  8. Andrew Knizner, C – Strong bat is heir apparent at catcher, unless…
  9. Malcom Nunez, 3B – Brawny, strong teen didn’t repeat production, but has high ceiling.
  10. Dylan Carlson, OF – If you don’t know by now …

Baseball America’s Top 10 for the Cardinals, which will appear as part of the annual Top 30 in the Handbook, was written this year by Kyle Glaser. You can find his complete coverage of it here, including the list of “best tools” from the Cardinals’ system. Of note: Recent draft pick Trejyn Fletcher is considered the top athlete in the system, and former first-round pick Delvin Perez shows up as the best defensive infielder in the system according to scouts. The best defensive catcher in the system? Well, it’s neither of the two catchers ranked in the top 10, according to coaches and scouts. It’s Julio Rodriguez, an eager thrower behind the plate. Johan Oviedo has the best slider, per Glaser’s writeup.

In the below rundown, I’ll borrow a snippet from the Baseball America scouting reports, but to get the full report and the projected future follow the link above.

1. DYLAN CARLSON, OF

Not much new ground to cover here. Carlson is considered the best hitter the Cardinals’ system has produced since Taveras. To me, he projects as a No. 2 hitter on a contending team, and that’s no small thing in modern baseball. He’s 21, and this past season he came two stolen bases shy of being a 20-20 player in the Texas League. With a turn in Class AAA, he finished the year with 26 homers and 20 steals. He also hit .292/.372/.542 with a .914 OPS overall in 2019. The Cardinals and Carlson have agreed that his best approach to this winter is to repeat the work he did a year ago with some augment from the Cardinals and be prepared to compete for a spot on the opening day roster for 2020. If he doesn’t start there, the Cardinals expect he’ll reach the majors in 2020 – and likely to stay.

From Glaser: “Carlson has long shown advanced instincts, controlled the strike zone and flashed the ingredients to hit with above-average bat speed and hand-eye coordination. An added 10 pounds of muscle allowed him to impact the ball more, and as a result he jumped from 11 home runs in 2018 to 26 in 2019. A switch-hitter, Carlson ironed out his once-loopy lefthanded swing and is now at least an above-average hitter from both sides. He studies pitchers’ tendencies, stays within the strike zone and doesn’t miss his pitch when he gets it. Carlson’s pure power is average, but his growing strength and sound swing mechanics give him a chance to exceed that projection and hit 20 or more home runs each year.”

2. NOLAN GORMAN, 3B

Highly ranked and highly regarded, Gorman is still headed into what could be a defining season for him. He gets high marks for going to High-A Palm Beach and not seeing his offense flag like so many prospects do in the pitcher-oriented Florida State League. He took advice from Carlson at the Futures Game about how to survive in Jupiter, Fla., and slugged with it. Gorman hit .248/.326/.439 with 15 homers and a .765 OPS. He struck out 152 times in 456 at-bats this past season. He’s earmarked for the Texas League, where he should see a blooming of offense and power, and with that will come the test of how regularly he makes contact and how he adjusts defensively to the speed of the game. That’s what I mean by defining. The Cardinals are about to have an overlap and third base, and sorting out who sticks there and who can thrive there will come down to how the prospects perform there in 2020. Gorman is 19.

From Glaser: “Muscular with a broad chest and strong hands, Gorman possesses the plus-plus raw power to make balls disappear.”

3. GENESIS CABRERA, LHP

A sensation last offseason out of the Dominican Winter League, Cabrera is one of the Cardinals’ highly regard prospects that came to them from Tampa Bay in the Tommy Pham trade. Cabrera will get a chance to pitch about 30 or so innings again this winter, and the Cardinals want him to come to spring training ready for a starter’s workload. He’ll be on that program for as long as the Cardinals want to see him as a starter – and don’t need him as a reliever. He draws comparisons to Carlos Martinez because of his build and the stuff he fires from the left side, but Genesis does not have the control that Martinez did at the same age. Cabrera, 23, was 5-6 with a 5.91 ERA in 20 games (18 starts) for Class AAA Memphis. He struck out 106 and allowed 107 hits in 99 innings pitching for the Cardinals’ highest affiliate. He had a few cameos in the majors.

From Glaser: “Cabrera’s fastball sits 94-97 mph as a starter and ticks up to 99 as a reliever. He hides the ball well and it explodes out of his hand, inducing swings and misses even when he leaves it over the plate. … Cabrera is highly athletic, but his inconsistent delivery and violent arm action yield bouts of extreme wildness.”

4. RYAN HELSLEY, RHP

While obviously eligible for Baseball America’s rankings, Helsley seems less like a prospect and more like an impact. He was on the Cardinals’ postseason roster and a prominent member of the bullpen late this past season. Like Cabrera, Helsley will come to spring training ready for a starter’s program, and the Cardinals could look to stash him at Class AAA as the ace of that staff if they don’t need him in the bullpen. History tells us they’ll be too tempted not to have him and his fastball in the bullpen. Helsley was limited to 37 1/3 innings in Class AAA this past season. He had 36 innings in the majors, so making the leap to a starter’s workload may be a lot to ask right away in 2020. He struck out 41 in those 37 1/3 innings at Memphis and allowed only 29 hits and 20 walks allowed. According to the skills survey, Helsley has the best fastball in the Cardinals’ system, and in Glaser’s scouting report you’ll see part of the reason why.

From Glaser: “With thick, sturdy legs and an explosive right arm, Helsley overpowers hitters with a fastball that sits 97-98 mph and touches 101 in relief. It features elite spin and is a potentially plus-plus pitch, though it presently plays down because he struggles to locate it.”

5. IVAN HERRERA, C

A name to know. At 19, Herrera is an accomplished offensive prospect, and he did well in the Arizona Fall League to burnish that reputation. If Knizner’s timing isn’t right to be the heir apparent to Yadier Molina, then Herrera’s will be. At Class A this past summer, Herrera hit .284/.374/.405 for a .779 OPS. He had nine home runs and 72 strikeouts offset by 40 walks. He’s still working on improvements behind the plate – some that come through experience and some that come through sharper fundamentals. He’ll continue that as part of big-league spring training, it appears. Which means sunrise workouts with Yadier Molina. Should be a good slingshot for him to vault into the higher affiliates – and he won’t turn 20 until June.

From Glaser: “Herrera is an offensive catcher who makes frequent contact with a compact, righthanded swing. He is short to the ball, rarely swings and misses in the strike zone and lines the ball to all fields.”

6. ZACK THOMPSON, LHP

You’ve seen this show before. Taken 19th overall out of an established, strong college program, a Cardinals pitcher is expected to move swiftly through the system because of stuff and his polished approach. What happened for Michael Wacha, worked for Marco Gonzales, and we saw recently with Dakota Hudson will likely continue with Thompson. Drafted this past June, the University of Kentucky lefty did well with minimal work in his first pro season. He threw 15 1/3 innings overall at the Cardinals' two Jupiter, Fla.-based affiliates. He struck out 23 and allowed 19 hits while walking only four. He overpowered hitters at those levels. Glaser explains why it’s noteworthy that Thompson’s curveball graded as the best in the organization – after only 15 1/3 innings really to show it.

From Glaser: “Thompson’s fastball sits 91-94 mph as a starter and touched 97 in relief at high Class A Palm Beach after he signed. His slider was better than his curveball in college, but his curveball showed better in pro ball as a plus 74-77 mph offering. … Thompson mixes all his pitches and has a confident, aggressive demeanor.”

7. ANDREW KNIZNER, C

A well-known name who has seen a steady climb through the system at a new position, and it’s that new position that could keep him at Class AAA for part of 2020. His bat doesn’t belong there, that’s for sure. Knizner hit .276/.357/.463 for a .821 OPS – and even in the inflated days of Triple-A play in 2019 that’s strong for a catcher. He had only 37 strikeouts in 246 at-bats. He’ll turn 25 during spring training, and the Cardinals have not abandoned their window shopping for a backup catcher in 2020. A reunion with Matt Wieters remains possible, depending on the offers he receives elsewhere. The Cardinals suggest that they’d rather have Knizner getting reps behind the plate and getting better handling the game as a catcher than to sit and watch most of the time, gathering rust and not developing, at the major-league level. If the Cardinals don’t sign a backup for Molina, it will be interesting to see how the major-league coaches work Knizner’s schedule so that he develops while cast in a little-used job.

From Glaser: “Knizner’s bat separates him from other catchers. He keeps his barrel in the zone, uses the whole field and has the hand-eye coordination to make frequent contact and limit his strikeouts despite an aggressive approach. Knizner’s line-drive stroke and average power limit his home run output, but he has the strength to elevate to his pull side and reach double-digit homers.”

8. LANE THOMAS, OF

A year after leading the Cardinals’ minor-league system in home runs, Thomas had his best chance to run away with some playing time late in the 2019 season. And then he got hit by a pitch. The Cardinals’ plan to let him loose in center for a stretch ended before it began. Hello, 2020. Of the numerous outfielders on the 40-man roster, Thomas leads the group of challengers for playing time in the outfield. He hit .268/.352/.460 for a .812 OPS at Class AAA. He had 10 homers and 80 strikeouts in 265 at-bats for Memphis. The past few years, his prominence in the rankings has been undercut by how the Cardinals got him – from Toronto in exchange for international spending money. There seemed to be a sense that a prospect doesn’t move for money. This time one did. Thomas, 24, could even be ranked a little higher as the scouting report makes clear.

From Glaser: “Thomas has an intriguing blend of strength, speed and instincts. He takes a simple approach at the plate and stays within the strike zone. When he connects he makes consistent, hard contact, and he has learned to elevate to make the most of his average, line-drive power. He is prone to swinging and missing in the zone. Thomas is a plus runner who makes better use of his speed in center field than on the bases. … Staying healthy has been an issue for Thomas. He has played a full season just once in five years.”

9. ELEHURIS MONTERO, 3B

Recently added to the 40-man roster, Montero has taken the lead on the depth chart for the Cardinals’ third-base prospect position. It’s an open question whether he remains at the hot corner or moves across the diamond at some point to first base. At 21, though, he could see significant time at Class AAA Memphis, depending on his spring, and depending on how the Cardinals want to sort out where he and Gorman start the 2020 season. It’s possible, Montero gets Class AA to open and Gorman returns to Palm Beach. But neither is expected to live there all summer. Montero hit .194/.245/.316 with a .562 OPS and seven home runs this past season. He was limited by a wrist injury and then a broken hamate bone. He missed more than 2½ months. The Cardinals are encouraged by his recovery from hand injuries, but his push toward full strength with his grip, with his swing, with his production will trickle into 2020.

From Glaser: “Montero’s youth and tools hold promise despite his down year. He is a physical, strong hitter with excellent hand-eye coordination, bat speed and plus raw power. He does damage when he connects and uses the whole field. Montero got by on his natural gifts at lower levels and is still learning to develop a plan against upper-level pitchers.”

10. RANDY AROZARENA, OF

The lickety-split outfielder has hit at every level he’s played, from Mexico to Memphis. At 24, Arozarena hit .344/.431/.571 for a 1.003 OPS and 15 homers at two levels this past year. He was second only to Dylan Carlson really in offensive production, and his OPS was higher than the Cardinals’ top prospect – and at a higher level, too. Arozarena added 17 steals to his baseball card. Like Thomas, he comes charging into spring training with a chance to compete for an opening in the outfield – or make one for himself. If the Cardinals find some way to go outside the organization for the left-field spot, then there will be a pell mell for center field with incumbent Harrison Bader having to hold off Thomas, Arozarena, and possibly others. The question for the Cardinals with Arozarena is how his success will translate to a level that is far faster and cleaner defensively and against pitchers who he won’t be able to wait out because of their ability to throw quality strikes. He’s got a sneaky good game – good power, good feel at the plate, great speed – and there’s a role for him in the majors. He’ll get to define it.

From Glaser: “Arozarena is an energetic spark plug with tools, but he is still learning to take consistent at-bats. He separates balls from strikes and drives the ball gap-to-gap when he connects. He is extremely aggressive and prone to over-swinging, which results in lots of whiffs against breaking stuff and inconsistent quality of contact.”

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The annual Bird Land 7, which ranks the prospects who have yet to appear at all in the majors, will be part of the offseason coverage here on StlToday.com. You can probably already guess the top two.

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