The new year and new minor-league season that follows later this spring will bring new opportunities for Cardinals prospects. On the pitching side, it will bring prospects opportunities to build off the developments they made during the 2022 season.
For some minor-league pitchers within the Cardinals’ farm system including Tink Hence and 2022 first-round pick Cooper Hjerpe, that’ll mean new workloads.
Coming off a year where he threw just eight innings in eight outings of rookie ball in 2021, Hence threw 52 1/3 innings while spending the 2022 season in Class Low-A. The 20-year-old righty struck out 81 batters and walked 15 across 52 1/3 innings. He finished the Florida State League with a 1.38 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP.
Although he didn't have the innings to qualify for the Florida State League’s leaderboards, Hence was named the league’s pitcher of the year along with recognition as a Florida State League Postseason All-Star after he threw four scoreless innings and allowed just two hits in his lone postseason appearance.
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Over the course of the season, Hence’s workload built up from a maximum of three innings through his first eight starts, to a four-inning ceiling in five of his last eight starts. That trend is expected to carry into 2023.
“I would say the idea is just to continue to gradually build up his workload,” Cardinals senior minor league pitching coordinator Tim Leveque said. “Don't think it's going to drastically increase but I do think that it will gradually increase as the year goes on. I think he showed us that he can handle that.”
Hence, along with seven other Cardinals prospects including Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn, was sent to the Arizona Fall League. There, as a pitcher who has never appeared in a game above the Class Low-A level, Hence posted a 2.16 ERA in 8 1/3 innings of relief while striking out nine and walking four.
“As a pitcher,” Leveque said of Hence. “When you do that against older guys, that helps your confidence. Like, 'Hey, my stuff can play here.' But he doesn't get fazed. … He's just highly competitive.”
A former high school draftee that could follow a similar track as Hence is right-hander Alec Willis. Willis, a 19-year-old seventh-round pick in the 2021 draft from Regis Jesuit high school in Colorado, pitched 11 1/3 innings in the Florida Complex League this past year. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound righty had a 1.56 ERA with 16 strikeouts and issued two walks across six outings.
The Cardinals feel like Willis, who turns 20 at the end of March, is in a position for a similar gradual workload seen with Hence in 2022.
Hjerpe, the Cardinals' first-round pick in the 2022 MLB draft, did not appear in a game for a Cardinals minor league affiliate after turning pro in July. Hjerpe ended his junior season at Oregon State University with an 11-2 record, a 2.53 ERA over 103 1/3 innings, and an NCAA Division I leading 161 strikeouts.
Hjerpe's 103 1/3 innings with the Beavers were nearly 20 more than fellow Cardinals prospect Gordon Graceffo logged in his 2021 with Villanova before getting drafted that July. The Cardinals didn't feel the need to push Hjerpe into a minor-league game given his workload at OSU.
The first-rounder reported to the Cardinals' training complex in Jupiter, Florida after the draft. He threw a few bullpen sessions and live batting practices, Leveque said. The 21-year-old's sessions left the Cardinals "encouraged" with what they saw as he gets set for his first season in the minor leagues.
“He's another kid who's very smart, very competitive, very (aware) to what he needs to do in his career,” Leveque said of Hjerpe. “That's what we took away from him the most.”
Michael McGreevy — the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2021 — logged 144 1/3 innings this past season in time with Class High-A Peoria and Class AA Springfield. The next step the Cardinals see in his development will be with his pitch arsenal. McGreevy utilizes a four-pitch mix of a sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball. "Organic growth" with his repertoire and the mix of an occasional four-season fastball along with more use of his slider could come in 2023.
“With just the work he puts in and how much effort he puts into what he does,” Leveque said of McGreevy. “I think that will just kind of organically happen with him just because how committed he is to what he does. I think that'll just be the natural step.”
Growth from a literal standpoint is what 22-year-old righty Inohan Paniagua's next step in development will involve. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 148-pounds, the hope is for Paniagua to add weight to his frame.
Paniagua, who was signed by the Cardinals as an international free agent in 2017, ended 2022 with a 2.81 ERA and 145 strikeouts over 137 2/3 innings. In what was his first full season as a starter, Paniagua was promoted from Class Low-A to Class High-A near the end of July. He finished the season in Class High-A.
"I don't think organizationally we were surprised," Leveque said of Paniagua, who earned Cardinals minor league pitcher of the month recognition twice during 2022. "I think that he just continued to grow and evolve, right? He's got some pitchability. I think what we saw this year was a guy who really took that next step as a pitcher."