Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlight prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offer a peek at 2021.
The Cardinals were dealt a punishing schedule that gave them 43 days to play 55 games after two COVID-19 outbreaks a week into the season. But St. Louis persevered, finished better than .500 and booked a spot in the postseason.
Having Major League-ready talent at the prospect level ultimately was crucial to the Cardinals' second consecutive playoff appearance. St. Louis had to dip down into the alternate site more than most and was one of only three teams to roster as many as 19 different rookies in 2020. The Marlins, who also suffered a lengthy COVID hiatus, and the Mariners utilized 20 different active rookies apiece.
After the postseason, the Cardinals and Yankees were the only clubs that did not hold an instructional camp for prospects. There were reports that St. Louis was skeptical of testing protocols, and the team had cause to be overly cautious. But player development director Gary LaRocque said they were satisfied with the performance and workload for the club’s key prospects at the alternate site in Springfield.
“Knowing we had a very successful alternate site, we also felt we wanted to have our pitchers ramp up one time,” LaRocque said, referring to the start of the 2021 season. “We have discussed an opportunity, we haven't finalized it yet, for a January camp. That's been our model.”
Until the new year, Cardinals performance staff will engage with the players that make up MiLB.com’s No. 12 overall farm system from afar. But in a very abnormal year, St. Louis did a very normal thing and posted a 13th consecutive winning season, obviously relying on some homegrown talent to do so.
System strengths: The club’s top 30 prospects list is split almost evenly between hitters and pitchers. In recent years, the strength of the Cardinals’ prospect pool has been on the mound. But a recent wave of position player talent has taken over the class of the system.
“We've been able to move and develop some hitters into the upper levels,” LaRocque said. “That gives us some real optimism about who's pushing on the door to get to the big leagues.”
Top prospect Dylan Carlson was one of 13 Cardinals to debut in 2020. His first stint in the Majors did not go so well. The 22-year-old batted .162 with a .458 OPS and four extra-base hits through his first 74 at-bats.
A trip back to Springfield in September proved valuable for MLB.com’s No. 14 overall prospect. Carlson returned to hit .278/.325/.611 with a pair of homers, a triple and four doubles over the final 12 games of the regular season. He even batted cleanup and reached base eight times in 14 plate appearances over three games in the Wild Card series.
“As a real credit to him, his first opportunity once he came back and worked on a few additional things, he went back up and obviously finished well,” LaRocque said. “That's a quality of Dylan's. He adjusts very well. … I think you look at all the work he's put into this over the last few years, he's prepared himself well.”
Carlson, who has experience at all three spots in the outfield, fulfills a position of need on the Major League roster. He’ll likely remain at the top or in the middle of the big league lineup on Opening Day and leave his prospect status behind early in the season.
The Cardinals have seven position players among their top 10 prospects – including No. 7 Masyn Winn, a two-way player. Second-ranked Nolan Gorman and No. 4 Ivan Herrera took steps forward at the club’s alternate site. Outfielder Jhon Torres (No. 9), 2020 first-rounder Jordan Walker (No. 6) and eighth-ranked Elehuris Montero highlight the club’s incredible depth at the hot corner.
In addition to Gorman, Walker and Montero, No. 16 Malcom Nunez is another third baseman to watch. The 19-year-old Cuban won the Triple Crown in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League in 2018, but struggled in his first season stateside the following year. Nunez was one of four teenagers invited to Springfield this summer.
“At 19, we're anxious to get [Nunez] the playing time,” LaRocque said. “This year, the patience that had to go into the season for all players, for him, we wanted to get him those at-bats. So that's the most important thing right now.”
Among these position players, power seems to be the tool standing out the most. Gorman, who belted 17 homers after being drafted in 2018, and Walker both display 60-grade power, while Montero and Torres both come in at 55.
Areas for growth: Including Winn, the Cardinals have 15 pitchers among their top 30 prospects. Of this group, only third-ranked Matthew Liberatore and No. 5 Zack Thompson are left-handed.
Although they are the two best pitchers in the system, with Liberatore having the potential to be the club’s top prospect soon, there isn’t much depth from this side.
Genesis Cabrera, who was acquired alongside No. 17 Justin Williams and No. 27 Roel Ramirez in the 2018 deal that sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay, posted a 2.42 ERA with 32 strikeouts over 22 1/3 innings this season. He’ll likely be a figure in the St. Louis bullpen for years to come, but the 24-year-old southpaw made 92 starts in the Minor Leagues. And the Cardinals, much like Adam Wainwright in the early stages of his career, haven't been shy about developing a starter in the Major League bullpen.
“It's been [a strategy] that we've had a lot of success with over the years where the exposure for a young pitcher getting to the big leagues even if it can be coming out of the bullpen can be very, very helpful for their future,” LaRocque said. “We've been very lucky that the Major League team has been very patient and provided those younger pitchers opportunities coming out of the bullpen. … But it's never held back what they will be down the stretch.”
Thompson, the 2019 first-rounder out of the University of Kentucky, saw a different version of this strategy after being drafted last year. After a full college season, he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for Class A Advanced Palm Beach, compiling a 4.05 ERA with 19 punchouts in 13 1/3 innings. His future is likely as a starter, and he, like all 2019 draftees, faced the challenge of having his first full season canceled.
“As a student of the game, in Zack's case, he wanted to know everything about his game that was going to help him as he continued to move,” LaRocque said. “And then we did some smaller things as he was working in simulated games to try to make sure he was applying it. ... For Zack Thompson, it was [to] continue to get the innings as a buildup, as a progression.”
What changed in 2020: While there is an overarching trend of the Cardinals’ system becoming more hitter-centric, the most glaring change to their system came during one trade.
This past January, the Cardinals and Rays came together on a trade again. St. Louis landed another lefty in Liberatore, then the No. 41 overall prospect who now ranks No. 52, and in exchange, the Rays received a pair of Major League outfielders who were constantly squeezed out of the everyday lineup: Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena.
Martinez was spun off to the Cubs at the 2020 deadline, but Arozarena produced an historic postseason, complete with the all-time home run record as the Rays went on to win the American League pennant.
Liberatore has all the tools of a front-end starter. He has excellent command of a four-pitch mix that features a low- to mid-90s fastball and a sharp, biting curveball. He’s 6-foot-5 and only 21 years old with 111 professional innings to his credit.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak brought up Arozarena unprompted in his first media address of the offseason. The trade may have quickly thrust the 2018 first-rounder into the spotlight as the most important player in the Cardinals’ system, but he certainly seems up to the task.
“He studies his game as well as anyone we've ever seen. He really wants to make sure that he's on top of all the information. It's a wonderful quality,” LaRocque said. “He went out when he threw and really distinguished himself. So we were extremely encouraged by everything we saw. His work ethic, his production … he's got good stuff. He's got great presence. He's a competitor. And we're looking forward to getting that season under his belt and getting him those innings that he needs.”
Alternate site standouts: Liberatore and Gorman were among the players said to have stood out in Springfield, but the development of Herrera, the 20-year-old backstop sounds particularly intriguing.
Herrera, who was thought of as bat over glove when he signed for $2 million out of Panama in 2016, batted .284/.374/.405 with nine homers, 10 doubles and 47 RBIs in 87 games between Class A Peoria and Palm Beach in 2019. He continued the natural steps offensively as a catcher at the alternate site, according to LaRocque.
But his defensive progression, beginning with a spring and summer camp under the tutelage of nine-time Gold Glover Yadier Molina, was exceptional.
“He has all the skills in place to be an offensive catcher. And he works extremely hard at it. So at this stage, he continues to work at both,” LaRocque said. “He continues to improve his arm strength. He has lengthened out his arm over the last two or three years to where it's now one of the tools that really does stand out for him. So we're very pleased with how he continues to progress.”
Herrera batted .324/.439/.382 over 41 plate appearances as a 19-year-old with Glendale in the Arizona Fall League in 2019.
Impact rookies: Although he never was likely to spend a day in the Minors, Kwang Hyun Kim was incredibly effective in his first MLB season. The 31-year-old lefty signed with St. Louis in December after 12 seasons with SK Wyverns in the Korea Baseball Organization. Over eight games and seven starts for the Cardinals, Kim, who went on the IL with a kidney ailment in September, posted a 3-0 record with a 1.62 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 39 innings.
As for the homegrown talent, Carlson joined legends Albert Pujols and Stan Musial as the only Cardinals to bat cleanup in their postseason debut -- he had two hits and reached four times against the Padres while Pujols and Musial both went 0-for-4.
But he wasn't the only one. No. 12 prospect Johan Oviedo had some rough looking numbers in five regular-season starts – 0-3 with a 5.47 ERA, 3.6 BB/9 and 5.8 K/9, but he made the postseason roster as a bullpen option.
The 22-year-old Cuban, who sports a 4.36 ERA in 75 appearances over four Minor League seasons, ate up some valuable innings for a club that desperately needed reinforcements on the mound with the condensed schedule. Of his five starts, three were on the back end of doubleheaders, and he pitched at least five innings in each of those games.
“Oviedo distinguished himself real well this year, obviously got into the big leagues,” LaRocque said. “[He] had to pitch and get the right innings so he could be ready to go to the big leagues on any given day.”
Next big thing: Gorman, the No. 43 overall prospect, is next in line for the top slot in the Cardinals system. His performance after being drafted in 2018 catapulted him to this point. The 20-year-old showed some gap power, but had a hard time during 125 games of full-season ball between Peoria and Palm Beach in 2019. He batted .248/.326/.439 with 15 homers, six triples, 30 doubles and 62 RBIs, but he also struck out 152 times.
The club feels as though Gorman ironed out some of his swing-and-miss issues at the alternate site. There was also a noted improvement of his defense – along with most of the organization’s infielders – after working with instructor and former Major Leaguer Jose Oquendo.
“[Gorman] continues to impress with his upside offensively. And he made the most of what was two-plus months at the alternate site in Springfield. We were very pleased with his progress overall,” LaRocque said. “He's an extremely hard worker. He studies the game, he's a real student of the game, and he took advantage of that.”
With no Minor League schedule, the player development director was pleased with what he saw from the 6-foot-1, 210-pound lefty. Either Gorman or childhood friend and Phoenix-area high-school rival Liberatore will take over for Carlson as the club’s top prospect, most likely in April.
Gerard Gilberto_ is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, **@Gerard_Gilberto**._