It is really too early to do that, but at least we know the name of the “Player to be Named Later.” It is Michael Blazek. To some, that might seem too high a price to pay for a guy on the same career trajectory as Fernando Salas. I disagree.
In a discussion with members of the United Cardinal Bloggers earlier this year, Cards General Manager, John Mozeliak, talked about how he had gotten some advice from former GM, Bing Devine. One of Devine’s rules was that you had to trade away good talent to receive good talent. More than the A-ha! of a lopsided trade, Devine wanted to ensure that he would be able to trade with that team or GM again in the future, should the need arise. That included within the league or later, in the division. Of course, one of his biggest trades would turn out to be one of those gotcha deals, but Ernie Broglio’s struggles were not thought to be due to a career ending injury at that time.
There is no question that the Cardinals gave the Brewers some seriously good talent in Michael Blazek. It has been fun watching him make the transition between starter that had hit a ceiling to reliever that broke through that, leaving us all to wonder what his new ceiling might be. There is also no question that we will miss seeing Blazek throw that high heat late in games, but for the baseball fan this is like breeding dogs – you just can’t keep all of the puppies.
Assuming that there are no catastrophic injuries, and making a couple of guesses about what the Cardinals will do over the winter, next year’s pitching squad looks something like this.
Starters: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly
Starter candidates: Tyler Lyons, Carlos Martinez, John Gast, Seth Maness, Jaime Garcia
Starters not brought back: Jake Westbrook
Bullpen: Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate, Seth Maness, Jason Motte, John Axford
Bullpen candidates: Sam Freeman, Keith Butler
Relievers not brought back: Fernando Salas, Victor Marte, Jorge Rondon, Edward Mujica
Where does Michael Blazek fit into that list ? He doesn’t. Before you put Michael Blazek ahead of Keith Butler on the depth chart, take another look. Both pitchers will be 25 years old next year. Blazek was drafted out of high school and progressed methodically through the farm system. Butler was drafted two years later and shot up through the farm system, jumping low A to high A in 2011.
Blazek was a starter that made a transition to the bullpen after hitting a ceiling in AA. He moved to the bullpen in 2012 and restarted his development with a good season. His breakthrough came in 2013. By comparison, Butler has had success at each level where he has pitched. He has always pitched in the late innings, collecting 62 saves over his five professional season. The only time he has had an ERA over 3 was this season in Memphis, as he bounced between there, Springfield and St. Louis. The only reason that he began the 2013 season in Springfield is that Memphis was already full and had a closer (Marte). In 13 appearances with Springfield, he collected 7 saves with an ERA of 0.66.
As impressive as Blazek as been, he would be 17th or so on the pitching depth list with only 12 spots available, and that’s if they don’t resign Edward Mujica.
But that’s not the only consideration here. There is some fine young pitching talent that will soon be pushing their way onto this list, not to start the 2014 season, but perhaps not long after.
Lee Stoppleman – currently in Memphis, promoted to help Memphis get into the playoffs and carry them as far as he can. Stoppleman is another impressive left hander. He is tall like Kevin Siegrist, but is more of a slinger. As a result he doesn’t have as much velocity, but is deceptive in his delivery which makes it seem as if he is throwing harder than he is. Stoppleman has a good assortment of breaking pitches and can throw them all for strikes. He was drafted in 2012 and has already earned a win in AAA – yeah, he’s been pretty impressive.
Deryk Hooker is another Michael Blazek type project. He was also a starter that hit his ceiling at AA. He moved to the bullpen this year and turned in numbers that are quite close to Blazek’s first year as a reliever. He doesn’t throw as hard as Blazek, but has a similar arsenal of pitches.
Eric Fornataro would have been the first pitcher expected to be called up in 2013, if he didn’t make the club out of spring training. He almost did the year before. Fornataro is another Mitchell Boggs type, even with the exaggerated closed stance in the set position. He was the setup man for Keith Butler in Springfield’s Texas League Championship team, but injuries and control problems have made 2013 something of a lost season – again like Mitchell Boggs. Fornataro would be behind Blazek in the depth chart, but a return to 2011 form would change all that rather quickly.
Seth Blair is one of the two great enigmas in the Cardinals farm system – the other being Tyrell Jenkins. Blair has an explosive fastball, and when he is on, can be overpowering. But he has been very inconsistent and tends to have some big blow up innings. Injuries have played a big part in this, but his arm is just too good to pass up. I would not be surprised if he became the 2014 starter turned reliever project for Bryan Eversgerd next year in Memphis, and we see him turn into a top tier talent.
Jose Almarante is a hard throwing right hander that has sort of come out of nowhere this year. That’s not entirely true, but his early professional career did not suggest anything like what we have seen recently. Almarante was one of those called up to AA when the Cardinals started stealing pitchers from Memphis. Unlike some of the others who struggled, Almarante turned in a career year, earning a ride to Memphis to finish the 2013 season. He is one to keep an eye on next year or the year after. Almarante will be 25 next year.
Tyrell Jenkins – the other enigma. Injuries have slowed the development of this exciting right hander, but the depth of the Cardinals pitching has allowed the team to go slowly with him. Their patience may pay off big time if he can ever stay healthy. Before an injury cut short his 2013 season, he was lighting it up in the Midwest League. Electric arm does not do Jenkins justice in the few times I have seen him pitch.
Jordan Swagerty – perhaps the best of the young pitchers is someone that we’ve sort of forgotten about as he lost a year with Tommy John surgery in 2012. Swagerty was on a fast path when the injury hit, and is expected to return to that next year.
A bit farther out are Danny Miranda and Zach Russell. Both of them have made the jump to AA and pitched well in their short time there. Boone Whiting is also an intriguing young right handed starter that could make the move to the big league bullpen next year, as Seth Maness did in in 2013.
There are two important things to remember when thinking about pitchers in the minor leagues
1. There ain’t no such thing as a can’t miss pitching prospect
2. There is no such thing as too much pitching
Even when you take those two pieces of wisdom into consideration, the Cardinals have more pitching than available places to put them, and more on the way. When evaluating the Michael Blazek for John Axford deal over the coming months, perhaps years, make sure and do in the context of all this talent. There is little question that Michael Blazek has impressive talent and all of the tools to have a long and successful major league career. The question is where does he fit within the abundance of pitching talent in St. Louis and is that more valuable than adding some veteran insurance to a bullpen that has been spectacular at times, but also quite vulnerable. Before playing the Luke Gregerson “one that got away” card, remember that the Cardinals have won one World Series Championships, made two more post-season trips and perhaps one more this year since that deal.