The Best Kept Secrets in the Farm System – Part 2

Yesterday, we took a look at the progress Tyler Lyons has made since being optioned back to Memphis. With a challenging six weeks ahead for the Cardinals, largely against divisional rivals, his return to St. Louis is looking more and more likely. With the non-waiver trade deadline just over a week away, the possibility also exists that Lyons, or any of the young pitchers we’ve enjoyed watching debut this year, may be heading on to another team.

Before we get upset over the loss of a Keith Butler or Joe Kelly, it might be a good idea to get to know some of the young players that will be taking their places.

1. Zach Petrick (RHP) – Springfield.

Oh, if there is ever a feel good story to match that of Brock Peterson, who made his major league debut last night, it is Zach Petrick. Zach is the younger brother of former Cubs pitcher, Billy Petrick. Billy was a third round draft choice for the Cubs in 2002, and made it to the big leagues in 2007, appearing in 8 games. Shame on them for letting the younger Petrick get away.

Zach Petrick pitched for the University of Northwest Ohio and apparently slipped by the scouts who were looking for talent elsewhere. Disappointed and getting ready to try out for a local independent league team, Petrick finally got the call that he waited for on draft day, and he would soon find himself with the Cardinals rookie team in Johnson City.  Credit Petrick’s college coach, Kory Hartman, for working the phones for his young pitcher, as well as Cardinals scout, Brian Hopkins, for returning his call.  You can read the entire story here.

His first six appearances for Johnson City would come out of the bullpen, and he was sensational.  In 11 innings of work, he would pick up a pair of wins while holding the opposition to a .184 batting average.   More impressive were his 17 strikeouts to just 3 walks.  Petrick would actually hit more batters (4) than walk.

That prompted a move into the rotation where Petrick would show that he could get through a lineup multiple times.   In 7 starts, he would pick up 3 more wins without a loss, striking out 33 in 35 2/3 innings.  Opponents were held to a .198 batting average, and his 2.27 ERA would be tops among all the Johnson City starters.

Petrick would begin the 2013 season with the Peoria Chiefs, the Cardinals Low-A affiliate.  That would last just two months as Petrick dominated the league.  In 24 appearances, all in relief, Petrick would pick up another win to go with 7 saves.   As in Johnson City, his strikeouts (46 in 34 innings) and walks (just 8) were impressive.  The 0.79 ERA was just eye popping, so it was no surprise when he was promoted to Palm Beach at the end of May.

Over the next two weeks, Petrick would appear in 5 games, all in relief.  In those 10 innings, he would give up 6 hits, allow 2 runs (both unearned).  He would strike out 11 to go with just 1 walk.   That prompted another move into the rotation, and his results were even better.  Including one 4 inning start to get him stretched out, Petrick would pick up 3 more wins without a loss.  In 23 1/3 innings, he allow 2 runs, 1 earned, on 15 hits, 2 walks and 21 strikeouts.

If this is beginning to sound a little bit like the Trevor Rosenthal story last year, you would be right.

Following a dominating 7 1/3 inning 1 hit game against Bradenton, Petrick would be promoted to Springfield (AA).  On July 16, he would make his AA debut, and it was nothing short of sensational.  Over six innings, he would hold the division leading Arkansas Travelers (LAA) to just 1 run on 4 hits.  He would allow one walk while striking out 8.   He would record his tenth win as a professional, and has yet to take a loss.  Not a bad first year for the young right hander.

If you are looking for some type of comparison for Zach Petrick, think Seth Maness with a bit better velocity.   He throws a fastball, slider, change up and can spot every one of them for strikes.  His fastball does have a lot of movement, but it looks like it is going exactly where he wants it to go.   While he does not appear to be overpowering, he seems to confound opposing hitters with regularity.

2. Lee Stoppleman (LHP) – Springfield

Has there been a better name for a future closer than Stoppleman ?  That may be what we are looking at with this big hard throwing left hander.

StopplemanStoppleman was a 24th round draft selection last year.  Like many players drafted out of college, those extra years of development allow for a faster path through the minor league system.  That path was sped up even more, thanks to a series of injuries in St. Louis in late May.  They created a huge void in the both the Springfield rotation and bullpen, and Lee Stoppleman was one of the pitchers called on to fill it.  While some of the others have struggled with their rapid advancement, Stoppleman has been brilliant.

There is so much to like about this big lefty.  Stoppleman throws hard and he throws strikes.   In 21 appearances with Springfield, he has given up runs on just three of those outings.  Opponents are hitting just .153 against him.   He is also averaging a strikeout per inning (22/22), which is a metric that many like to use when spotting potential major league pitching talent.  His control is not as good as some of the other pitchers, but 11 walks to go with those 22 strikeouts isn’t bad, especially when combined with that .153 batting average against.  In a few shorts weeks of work, he has gone from curious newcomer in the bullpen to the key late inning setup man for Deryk Hooker or Kevin Thomas.

While it is still a bit too early to call this one, Lee Stoppleman could be another Kevin Siegrist.  Take those two names together, and don’t be surprised when Marc Rzepczynski is traded some time in the next ten days.

3. Tim Cooney (LHP) – Springfield

In 2011, the Memphis Redbirds (AAA) had just five left handed pitchers on the roster.   For the entire year.  They were Rich Rundles, Ron Mahay, Raul Valdes, Nick Additon and Nick Greenwood.  Neither Mahay nor Valdes lasted more than a few appearances and Rich Rundles was not invited back and is now pitching in one of the independent leagues.    While that sounds bad, the lower levels of the farm system were in even worse shape.

Turn the calendar ahead 2 years, and the Cardinals seem to be loaded with lefties, and very good ones at that.  This 22 year old lefty was drafted in the third round in 2012 out of Wake Forest.   As with Lee Stoppleman, Cooney made a rapid advancement through the farm system and was part of the same group of promotions that included Stoppleman and another left hander, Ryan Sherriff.

In 12 appearances with Springfield, Cooney has thrown 73 innings.  That’s just over 6 innings per start – check 1.   Of those 12 starts, he’s only been roughed up in two of them – accounting for 13 of the 28 earned runs he’s allowed.   He has also recorded 73 strikeouts (there’s that magic number again – 1 K/IP) and given up only 13 walks.  Check 2 and 3.

But lets take a closer look at his last three starts.

Date Opponent W/L IP R H BB K
July 6 San Antonio W 6 2/3 1 4 1 6
July 6 NW Arkansas W 5 2/3 0 7 2 9
July 6 Arkansas W 7 1 5 0 6
Total 3-0 19 1/3 2 16 3 21

It seems as if Mr. Cooney has caught up with the Texas League.   He has become something of Springfield’s answer to Tyler Lyons, and is just as much fun to watch.

4. David Popkins (OF) – Palm Beach

If the Cardinals had been lacking left handed pitching in the farm system, speedy switch hitting outfielders have been an absolute wasteland.  While they aren’t exactly downing in them right now, David Popkins might be an indication that there may be more coming.

Popkins was free agent signing following the 2012 draft, where the now 23 year old had been playing with the University of California in Davis.    He has spent most of the 2013 season in Palm Beach, and might be the hottest hitter right now in the minor league system.

Popkins got off to a slow start with the Cardinals, hitting just .217 at the end of May.  Since then, he is hitting .390 with 12 doubles,  3 triples,  5 home runs  and 23 RBIs.   That is pretty impressive performance when you consider that the Florida State League is very pitcher friendly.

One other note about Popkins, he is a very streaky hitter.  He has two hitting streaks of 13 games and another one at 9 games.  Since June 1, there haven’t been many 0-fers.

Popkins is 6-10 in stolen base attempts, which might not seem like much.  But it is a step in the right direction.

5. Cory Jones (RHP) – Peoria

JonesIf there was ever a baseball player that just looks like a pitcher, it is Cory Jones.  He’s a big right hander (6ft 5in, 225) that throws in the mid 90s, and can dial it up to 97 mph on occasion.   He also has a heavy curve to go with that.  That should conjure up an image of Mitchell Boggs, and that might not be too far off.

Jones was on his way to Oregon from the College of the Canyons (Santa Clarita, Ca) when the Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round last year.   The now 21 year old signed, and is now tearing up the Midwest League for Peoria.    In 8 starts for the Chiefs, Jones has won 6 and lost just 1.  He is also going deep in his starts, pitching at least six innings in all but his first start.   He currently has a 1.21 ERA and opponents are hitting just .188 against him.

If there is a concern, it is that he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, especially for a big power arm.  That tends to make his control appear to be worse than it is.   Fortunately, the strikeouts rate is getting better over his last couple of starts.

Over the next few weeks, we will take a look at some other hidden gems down in the Cardinals farm system.  Until then, I encourage all of you to take a look at John Nagel’s outstanding blog, Cardinals Farm.  John and his contributors, Corey Rudd and Joe Schwartz, do an excellent job keeping up with the young players in all levels of the minor leagues.

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