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Pipeline isn't loaded, but several top-end prospects could help the Cardinals soon

From the Catch '22: The Cardinals have a superb defense, but do they have a subpar offense? series
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Cardinals minor-league spring training day four in Jupiter

Cardinal minor-league infielder Nolan Gorman, right talks with fellow infielder Luken Baker on Thursday, March 10, 2022, after a turn at batting practice during day four of minor-league spring training at the practice facility in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JUPITER Fla. — A successful franchise can sometimes be equated with a successful player-development system.

First-year Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol knows it.

“That’s the lifeblood of the next few years. … We’ve done a good job within this organization of promoting from within and getting guys ready,” said Marmol, who once was a Cardinals minor leaguer himself.

Some prospects in St. Louis’ system will make their major-league debuts this year. Other intriguing prospects are lower in the pipeline.

From Low-A Palm Beach to Triple-A Memphis, here are some intriguing Cardinals prospects:

Class AAA Memphis

2021 record: 61-67

Top prospects: Infielder Nolan Gorman, utilityman Brendan Donovan, outfielder Alec Burleson, infielder Juan Yepez, catcher Ivan Herrera, left-handed pitcher Zack Thompson, left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore

PLAYERS TO WATCH

LHP Connor Thomas: Behind Liberatore, Thomas pitched the second-most innings (101 2/3) for Memphis in 2021. What may benefit the 23-year-old in 2022 and beyond is his ability to fill the strike zone, as evidenced by his .660 strike percentage over three years in the minors.

“The next step in his development is consistency,” Memphis manager Ben Johnson said. “He’s got everything he needs to pitch in the big leagues, and to pitch well. … There’s no question that he’s going to help out the major-league club here real soon.”

1B Luken Baker: He makes noise with the bat. A season ago, Baker finished with the Springfield Cardinals’ lead in home runs (26) and RBIs (68). He was second among qualified Double-A Central Division hitters in slugging percentage with a .530 mark, behind Royals prospect MJ Melendez (.628).

Class AA Springfield

2021 record: 45-75

Top prospects: Third baseman Malcom Nunez, outfielder Jhon Torres, outfielder Ryan Holgate

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RHP Connor Lunn: Lunn led Peoria pitchers in innings, with 120 1/3 in 2021. Like Thomas, Lunn is an effective strike-thrower who limits walks. Lunn lowered his free passes per nine innings from 2.95 in 2019 to 1.50 last year. He also limited hitters to a .292 on-base percentage.

SS Delvin Perez: Coming off back-to-back seasons with 20 or more steals, Perez had the 10th-most hits (103) in the Double-A Central in 2021. One strong aspect of Perez’s game is his batting average on balls in play. BABIP factors average on balls in the field of play, excluding home runs and strikeouts. Perez, 23, finished with the 10th-highest BABIP among qualified Double-A Central batters, with a .344 mark, suggesting that some regression may be in order but also that he hits the ball hard. Comparatively, outfielder Tyler O’Neill’s .366 BABIP was fourth-best among qualified MLB hitters in 2021. Fewer swings and misses could help Perez in a make-or-break year.

High-A Peoria

2021 record: 45-75

Top prospects: Infielder Masyn Winn, infielder Jordan Walker, right-handed pitcher Michael McGreevy

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RHP Gordon Graceffo: If Graceffo’s developmental track is anything like his fastball, he’ll be in the majors in a hurry. A fifth-round draft pick last summer, Graceffo sports a fastball that sits in the high 90s, and he reached up to 100 mph during back-field spring training games.

“(Graceffo) came very well prepared,” director of player development Gary LaRocque said. “He came into spring training and was right away ready for everything that spring training presents, and then you can see it in the work he’s done and the innings he’s pitched. So we’ve been pleased with what he’s done work-wise.”

LHP Levi Prater: Although his ERA from 2021 may not show it (6.72 in 68 1/3 innings with Palm Beach) the 22-year-old flashed some of the best swing-and-miss stuff across the Low-A Southeast. Prater tallied 104 strikeouts — good for fourth in the division — and finished his first pro season with a 31.2% K rate. To put that into perspective, Jack Flaherty had the highest strikeout percentage among the Cardinals’ qualified pitchers, at 26.1 in 2021, according to Fangraphs.

Low-A Palm Beach

2021 record: 37-80

Top prospect: Outfielder Joshua Baez

PLAYERS TO WATCH

IF Adari Grant: Signed as an international free agent in July 2021, Grant could be just the ninth player from the Bahamas to reach the major leagues if he works his way there. At 18 years old, he came into spring training as one of the younger Cardinals prospects.

“Every day he’s had opportunities to be at the Triple-A roster, he’s facing major-league pitching — all a part of his experience. And part of that is development as he starts off for the first time,” LaRocque said.

RHP Edwin Nunez: Nunez, 20, lit up the radar gun during his first season of pro baseball, throwing the 109 fastest pitches that Statcast recorded for Palm Beach pitchers. He topped out just above 101 mph, according to MLB Pipeline.

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