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With some prospects on the rise, Cardinals offseason moves could come with them in mind

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Gordon Graceffo

Cardinals minor-league pitcher Gordon Graceffo, 22, takes a breather after finishing a bullpen session before a back-field simulated game on Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.

When the Cardinals held on to their blue-chip prospects at this year’s trade deadline, they held on to pieces they believe can help them contend in the years to come. Now, with the offseason looming and the Cardinals looking to make roster additions through trades or free agency to prepare for 2023, some moves will be made with those prospects in mind.

“I think, you know, right now, we have a lot of talent coming with (Jordan) Walker, (Masyn) Winn, to name a few,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, during an end-of-season news conference on Wednesday. “So we’ve got to be very careful on what we do this offseason in terms of, you know, making sure we still create opportunity.”

With Walker — considered by many to be the top prospect in the team’s system — the Cardinals have already pivoted to streamline his path to the majors. Once the Aug. 2 trade deadline passed, the former first-round pick was moved from third base to playing the outfield, where he’s set to get a look in spring training.

The 20-year-old, along with other Cardinals prospects, is continuing his development as a hitter and defender in the Arizona Fall League, where he is batting .280 with an .876 OPS and three homers through his first 14 games after batting .306 with 31 doubles and 19 home runs in 119 games with Class AA Springfield.

Could his strong 2022 give him an opportunity to compete for a starting outfielder job with the Cardinals in 2023 when spring training begins?

“I think it’d be silly for me to like rule out any possibility with him,” Mozeliak said of Walker. “He’s had an incredible year. From a physical standpoint, he continues to get stronger; from a performance standpoint, he continues to have success. In terms of trying to think through a ceiling for him to where he might begin next year, I just don’t think that’s fair to him or us.

“But we’re definitely excited about what he’s bringing to the table and certainly glad we have him.”

Playing in Arizona with Walker is fellow 20-year-old and 2020 Cardinals draft pick Masyn Winn, who Mozeliak mentioned on Wednesday as one of the Cardinals prospects who made notable strides in his development this past season.

Coming off a down offensive year in 2021, Winn batted .283 with 36 doubles, 12 home runs and 43 stolen bases in 119 games between Class High-A Peoria and Class AA Springfield.

In 14 games with the Salt River Rafters — the team to which Cardinals, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Tigers and Rockies prospects have been assigned in the Arizona Fall League — Winn is batting .300 with an .837 OPS and has drawn 12 walks.

Known primarily for his play at shortstop, Winn has also played at second base as a way for him and other prospects from four other organizations to get playing time. While Mozeliak and the Cardinals would have preferred Winn stick to shortstop, the president of baseball operations noted that the defensive versatility was something that the organization values.

Along with Winn, right-handed pitcher Gordon Graceffo was another prospect Mozeliak mentioned whose developments were noticed.

Graceffo first turned heads during spring training while on the backfield in Jupiter, Florida. He flashed a triple-digits fastball that he didn’t have when the 2021 season ended. The former fifth-round draft pick and Villanova product began the 2022 season as a starter in Class High-A Peoria where he posted a 0.99 ERA and struck out 56 batters in 45 2/3 innings.

The strong start to his first full season of minor-league baseball led to a promotion to Class AA Springfield near the end of May. Against advanced hitters and in more hitter-friendly ballparks, Graceffo pitched to a 3.94 ERA over 93 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate dipped from a 33.9% rate in Peoria to a 21.9% mark in Springfield, while the wears of the season brought his velocity down a touch.

Still, Graceffo finished the year with perhaps his strongest stretch of the season. In his final three starts, Graceffo tossed 16 2/3 scoreless innings and struck out 22 batters. The consistent upper 90s fastball he flashed in March returned in September thanks in part to a limited workload that he credited to helping his body get right. He carried a perfect game through 5 2/3 innings and struck out nine in his final start of the year.

“When you think about our minor-league system, this guy went right up the charts. A super aggressive year for him,” Mozeliak said of Graceffo.

Beyond some of the former Cardinals top draft picks who turned into top prospects, a decision will need to be made on what the Cardinals choose to do with some breakout performers who weren’t on radars to start the year.

Among those names is 24-year-old Moises Gomez, who led all of Minor League Baseball with 39 home runs — the most of any Cardinals minor-leaguer in a single season — and 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Inohan Paniagua, who pitched to a 2.81 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and struck out 145 batters in 137 2/3 innings with Class Low-A Palm Beach and in Class Low-A Peoria.

Gomez has enough minor-league service time to elect free agency if the Cardinals don’t re-sign him. Paniagua is eligible for the Rule 5 draft and could go unprotected this December if he isn’t added to the 40-man roster within five days after the World Series ends.

A name making a late push for 40-man roster inclusion is 24-year-old left-handed pitcher Connor Thomas. Through his first four games in the Arizona Fall League, the 24-year-old has shown improved command and struck out 24 batters in 17 2/3 innings while maintaining a 1.53 ERA and walking just four. He, like Paniagua, is Rule 5 eligible if he does not get added to the 40-man roster.

Those decisions may come in the short term — as early as Thursday.

“We’ll have are final roster discussion tomorrow in terms of who we are thinking about adding and who we’re thinking about re-signing,” Mozeliak said.

A process Mozeliak noted may take some time to figure out.

“We still have time to discuss in how we want to think about redeploying our resources,” Mozeliak said. “As we start to explore both free agency and trade markets, we’ll have a better idea of what that looks like in the near future.”

St. Louis Cardinals president of operations John Mozeliak on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 talks about the return of Adam Wainwright for another season with the team.

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