UCB September Project: Top 7 Cardinals Prospects

Though no longer a regular blogger and now just a “Friend of the UCB”, occasionally one of their monthly projects comes along that grabs my attention and makes me want to pick up the keyboard again.   The annual “Top 7 Prospects” is one of those.

1.  Oscar Taveras – OF

Taveras Home Run SwingThe 22 year old outfielder may have lost his rookie status this season, but Cardinals fans have yet to see what the young man is capable of doing.  For that reason, I am keeping him as a prospect and that makes him easily the top of the list.

In parts of six minor league seasons, Oscar Taveras has a career slash line of .320 / .376 / .516 with 122 doubles, 24 triples, 53 home runs and 324 RBIs.  No, that’s not why he is my top prospect.

In 1,860 plate appearances, he has struck out only 243 times.  That is a 13% K rate.   Very impressive for somebody with what can only be described as a violent swing.   Compare that to Matt Adams 17% (who is now an every day player), Randal Grichuk (19%, 23% this year in AAA) and Xavier Scruggs (28%, down to 21% this year).   Put all of this together and that screams future heart of the batting order clutch run producer.   But no, that’s not why Taveras is at the top of my prospect list.

Oscar Taveras, along with Greg Garcia, have won league championships at nearly every level that they have played – Johnson City in 2010, Quad Cities in 2011 and Springfield in 2012.  Along the way, he was joined by Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal, making a most formidable core of young and exciting players.  Barring a horrific mid-season injury and the callup of the those other players in 2013, they may have been able to add another championship in Memphis.

At some point in his career, and it won’t be in 2014, the coaches will finally realize that Oscar is best being just Oscar instead of molded into some other player that they think he needs to be.  When they do, his career will soar, and some of those clutch hits we have missed from Allen Craig, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran will return to the Cardinals.  In bunches.   This young man is not a future All Star, he will be a Most Valuable Player.  The only questions are how soon, and sadly, which league.

kaminsky2. Rob Kaminsky – LHP

The just turned 20 year old has completed his second professional season in the Cardinals farm system, and what a season it was.  In 18 starts with the Peoria Chiefs, Kaminsky posted an 8-2 record and led all Midwest League starters with a 1.88 ERA.  He has a big league curveball, a more than adequate fastball and work in progress changeup.  Many pitchers have success in the lower levels of a minor league system, so what you want to see are improvements in the key indicators.  For Kaminsky, these are mostly bright green.  He has dropped nearly a walk per 9 innings and his 1.013 WHIP was fourth among starters.   That tells you that he is not only around the plate, but he is missing the fat part of the opponents bats.  For a left hander, especially if they keep developing him for the rotation, you won’t obsess too much over the drop in strikeouts.  A +7 K/9 IP rate is still pretty impressive.

Don’t be surprised of Kaminsky is fast tracked to Springfield (AA) very early next year.

3. Alexander Reyes – RHP

Here is the big right handed power arm to complement Kaminsky, and what an electric arm it is.   He is already in the mid to upper 90s on his fastball and has a very good curveball to go with it. Like Kaminsky, he also just turned 20.   What stands out were his 137 strikeouts in just 109 1/3 innings pitched, up just a bit from his numbers in rookie ball.   That was good for 6th in the Midwest league in K/9IP, second among starters.

The development area for Reyes is control, not uncommon among young flame throwers.  As he learns to repeat his delivery and get a bit more under control, the walks should come down, and when they do, his prospect watch number will skyrocket.

One word of warning here – There Is No Such Thing As A Can’t Miss Pitching Prospect.   I could easily write thousands of words about John Ericks, Brian Barber and dozens of others.   It is early days for both Kaminsky and Reyes, but they do seem to be the genuine article.  Though he won’t make my list for this year, a healthy Tyrell Jenkins could make this group of young pitchers the best we have seen yet.

4. Sam Tuivailala – RHP

Though his named seemed to confound some ESPN broadcasters,  we will all soon learn to pronounce TOO-ee-vah-lah-lah and marvel at the fire he unleashes at opposing hitters.

The date was June 20, 2012, the second game of the season for the Johnson City Cardinals.  Originally drafted as a shortstop in 2010, this would be the last time Sam Tuivailala would appear as a position player.  As the designated hitter, Tuivailala would go 1-4 on the day, the hit being a solo home run in the third inning.  Three weeks later, he would complete the transformation from position player to flamethrowing reliever.   He would collect 23 strikeouts in 13 innings with Johnson City, 50 in 35 1/3 with Peoria in 2013 and 97 over 60 innings in 2014, at the top three levels of the Cardinals farm system.

Cardinals fans that have only seen Sam pitch as part of the expanded September rosters need to remember that he only has 108 1/3 innings as a professional pitcher.   As a result of Rule 5 draft rules, Tuivailala must be protected this December by being placed on the Cardinals protected 40 man roster, and that’s why we have seen him in St. Louis.  We will see him again, and by what we have seen thus far, it won’t be long.

5. Stephen Piscotty – OF

Not Randal Grichuk, in spite of the mounting praise heaped on him from the local sports media, it is instead Stephen Piscotty.  As it turns out, Piscotty has benefited from the utter mess that the front office has made out of the Cardinals right field situation.  While Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk were driving up and down I-55, Piscotty was left alone to continue developing his bat.

Though he struggled a bit after the AAA All Star Game, Piscotty ended up with a very nice season in Memphis, confirming what many of us saw earlier – he is a right handed hitting Matt Carpenter.  He led Memphis in hits (114), doubles (32), and third in RBIs (67).  His .288 batting average is third among players with 300 or more plate appearances.     His 61 strikeouts (11%) shows impressive discipline for a production bat and his 43 walks gives his OBP a 70 point bump over his average.   All of these point to a very solid major league hitter.

His defense is good, his arm is very good.   His range may not be quite as great as Randal Grichuk, but he is just as quick to lay out for a line drive.  His arm is a plus and he was third in outfield assists with 4 (Grichuk 9, Robinson 5).

Because he had one more year of Rule 5 protection, Piscotty was not called up when rosters expanded in September.   He will be the Cardinals right fielder in 2016, if not sooner.

6. Jimmy Reed – LHP

This is really my committee pick here and it could easily have gone to John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney.   What all of these guys have in common are that they are left handed, control specialists, have effective breaking balls and on any other team would be a lock for the 4th or 5th starter.   Gast cannot stay healthy, but if he does then I may want to rethink this pick.   Cooney is the most developed, leading the PCL in wins while setting the Memphis Redbirds single season record.   Marco Gonzales may have the highest upside, based on rapid rise through the farm system and Tyler Lyons may be the most under appreciated player in the organization.

So why Jimmy Reed over the others ?  One word – complete.   Reed was successful at each level he pitched this year, including a short emergency promotion to Springfield.  He split his 2 decisions at the higher level and did not look at all overmatched as so many young pitchers do in that situation.  He reminded me of Tim Cooney when he was promoted to AA last year.

Reed has a low 90 mph fastball, plus curve and a nice little cutter that he has learned to throw as an out pitch.  Throw in an effective changeup and a good repeatable delivery and there is suddenly a lot to like about Reed.   He doesn’t get the attention that Cooney and Gonzales do, but he might end up being the best of the bunch.

7. Tommy Pham – OF

My twitter followers should be expecting to see the name Tommy Pham somewhere on this list, and I won’t disappoint.   If Tyler Lyons is the most under appreciated pitcher in the Cardinals farm system, Tommy Pham may be the corresponding position player.  Those that have not seem him play will look at his age (26) and immediately dismiss him as too old, ignoring that parts of several seasons were lost to injury.   Others will see 9 minor league seasons and proclaim a AAAA ceiling, ignoring the fact that he was drafted out of high school, and as we have already mentioned, lost a lot of time to injury.

For Pham, the organization asked him to do two things in 2014 after shutting him down last year for shoulder surgery: (1) stay healthy and (2) show that he can play at the highest level of the farm system.   Not only did he accomplish both, he excelled.

Pham started the season as something of the forgotten outfielder behind Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and newcomer Randal Grichuk.  When Shane Robinson was optioned, Pham dropped even farther back in the depth chart, but that is not the end of the story.  Far from it.

After a slow start, Pham started heating up, earning playing time here and there.   As players started moving up and down I-55, it was Pham that eventually took over in center field.   He also moved up from the scratch and dent part of the batting order to the leadoff spot, where his season took off, just as it did last year in Springfield.   He joined Tyler Lyons and Xavier Scruggs as consecutive winners of the PCL Player of the Week, the first time that has happened in Memphis franchise history.    He led the team in batting average (.324) which is the second highest in team history (Nick Stavinoha .337 in 2008).  His 6 triples and 20 stolen bases also led the team.   He was rewarded by being one of the last minor leaguers to be called up to St. Louis.

Next spring could be a very interesting time for Pham.  He is under team salary control and would seem to offer everything that Shane Robinson (arbitration eligible) does plus a little more, but at league minimum salary.  A bit of pop off the bench and plus defense could earn him a spot as the Cardinals fifth outfielder next year.  That would be, dare I say, Phamtastic.

These are my top prospects, what are some of yours ?  Please let me know in the comments and make sure to read some of the other UCB  member picks.

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