By Rob Rains
Change has become the theme of this Cardinals’ season and that is reflected in the annual re-ranking of the organization’s top prospects, which has undergone a major overhaul from the 2017 list.
The list is compiled each year immediately following the July 31 trading deadline, and in the 12 months since last year’s list was published, nearly half of those players – eight – have graduated to the major leagues.
That group includes the four players who held down the third through sixth spots in the 2017 rankings – Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, Dakota Hudson and Tyler O’Neill. Two more of the ranked prospects who are now on the Cardinals are Luke Weaver and Jordan Hicks, while the final two are now in Miami – Magneuris Sierra and Sandy Alcantara – included in the package that the Cardinals sent to the Marlins last winter in exchange for Marcell Ozuna.
One name that didn’t change is the one ranked once again as the best prospect in the Cardinals’ organization, right-handed pitcher Alex Reyes. This is likely a list Reyes wishes he could escape, considering this is the third consecutive season he has found himself on top, a result of missing all but one game the last two years because of injuries.
As has been the case in past years, anybody who currently is playing in the major leagues is ineligible for selection. And since this is 2018, we have added one name to our list, which also includes one additional player to watch from the seven U.S.-based minor league teams. All statistics are through Sunday’s games.
Nearly 75 percent of the list – 13 of the 18 players – either were not ranked last year or were not in the organization, another example of how much things have changed in the Cardinals’ farm system in the last year.
Here is the 2018 STLSportsPage.com list of the top 18 prospects in the Cardinals’ organization:
1. Alex Reyes. Last year’s ranking: 1
As much as he likely appreciates the honor of being the Cardinals’ top prospect, for the third year in a row, Reyes would like to get off this list because that would mean he is finally pitching in the major leagues. That was supposed to happen last season, before Tommy John surgery ended his year before it began. Then it was supposed to be this year, but his comeback ended after only four innings in his only game for the Cardinals because of a torn lat muscle. Despite those setbacks Reyes is still only 23, and will pitch all of next year at 24. There is no reason the right-hander should not be ready by the start of spring training and assume his spot near the front end of the Cardinals’ starting rotation. Major –league ETA: 2019.
2. Nolan Gorman. Last year: Was not in the organization
The first of all the new names on this list, Gorman was the Cardinals’ top pick in the June draft and immediately became the best position player prospect selected by the Cardinals in years. A left-handed hitting third baseman, the 18-year-old Gorman is one of the youngest, and best, players in the Appalachian League and has earned raves from everybody in the organization for his ability and his makeup. He has shown he can hit for both power (11) and average (.346), a rare combination at his age. His 11 home runs already (34 games) are the most by a teenager for the Johnson City club since 19-year-old Roberto De La Cruz hit 16 in 2011. He still has some work to do, especially on defense, but should be a quick climber through the organization. Major-league ETA: 2021.
3. Carson Kelly. Last year: 2
Moving down one spot on this list from last year is not a negative for Kelly but has more to do with Gorman entering the organization. Being relegated to bench duty with the Cardinals for the second half of last year did slow down Kelly’s progression, especially offensively, but he has rebounded nicely this year at Memphis – hitting .315 since June. Now 24, there is a serious question about what the Cardinals’ plan is for Kelly moving forward since Yadier Molina, despite being 36, shows no signs of slowing down and Kelly cannot remain in Triple A forever. Major-league ETA: September.
4. Elehuris Montero. Last year: Not ranked
The fastest riser on this list who was in the organization last year, Montero was identified last season as the player to watch from the rookie level Gulf Coast League team. He jumped two levels to the Peoria Chiefs this season and at the age of 19 – a couple of years below the league average – has been one of the best players in the league. Like Gorman, Montero is a third baseman, but his bat will determine where he plays. He was signed out of the Dominican Republic for a $300,000 bonus in 2014, when he was just 16. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals try to jump him two more levels, to Springfield, next season as they have done with some position players in the past. Major-league ETA: September 2020.
5. Dylan Carlson. Last year: 14
Another big climber on this list, Carlson began the year by returning to Peoria but quickly showed he was ready to move up to Palm Beach, where at 19, he has been one of the youngest players in the notoriously tough on hitters league. A switch-hitting outfielder, Carlson is in the same category as Gorman when it comes to possessing a high baseball IQ and advanced maturity. He is not as natural a power-hitter as Gorman, but that should come as he gets older and stronger. His seven homers at Palm Beach is a good total for that league. Major-league ETA: September 2020.
6. Ryan Helsley. Last year: Not ranked
An injury setback kept Helsley from being ranked higher on this list. He has not pitched for the last two months after successive rocky starts at Memphis. The right-hander has been rehabbing “shoulder fatigue” in Jupiter and began a rehab assignment on Monday with the GCL Cardinals. Before he was sidelined, Helsley, who just turned 24, was following the path of Hicks toward a spot in the major-league bullpen with 78 strikeout in 67 innings combined between 12 starts at Springfield and Memphis. The organization hopes he will be able to pitch again before the end of the season. Major-league ETA: 2019.
7. Andrew Knizner. Last year: Not ranked
Like Montero, Knizner was included on last year’s list as one of the players to watch beyond the top 17. A seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State in 2016, Knizner has continued to demonstrate at Springfield that his bat can play in the major leagues, hitting 321. The question of when that can happen will be determined more by his progress defensively behind the plate. There are at least some people in the organization who think that his performance in that area could limit him to becoming a backup or prompt a move to first base to advance his career. Major-league ETA: September 2019
8. Randy Arozarena. Last year: Not ranked
Despite trading so many outfielders in the last year, the Cardinals still have a strong group in their pipeline, including Arozarena, who has split this season between Double A and Triple A as the 22-year-old fights for playing time. One of the free agents signed after he defected from Cuba, Arozarena needs to become a more disciplined hitter to improve his on-base percentage, which would allow him to make better use of his above-average speed. Major-league ETA: 2020.
9. Adolis Garcia. Last year: 9
Even though he is ranked in the same spot as a year ago, Garcia is a much improved player and should be the next outfielder summoned to the big leagues from Memphis when the need arises. Another free agent signed after he left Cuba, the 25-year-old Garcia has hit for more power this year (21 home runs, compared to 15 all of last year) and after getting off to a very slow start at Triple A has raised his average to a respectable .269. Like Arozarena he needs to work on his plate discipline to cut down on his strikeouts and draw more walks and become a better basestealer. Defensively he has the arm to play right field. Major-league ETA: September.
10. Griffin Roberts. Last year: Not in the organization
Roberts was the Cardinals’ second overall pick in this year’s draft behind Gorman after pitching for three years at Wake Forest, where he was used as both a starter and reliever. Because of heavy workload during the college season, the Cardinals did not use the 22-year-old right-hander in a game until last Friday. The rust showed as he allowed two hits and walked two while only recording four outs. This long delay in having him pitch in a game was the same plan the organization used for Michael Wacha and Dakota Hudson, just to name two, as the Cardinals prepare him to a full season in 2019. Major-league ETA: September 2020
11. Genesis Cabrera. Last year: Not in the organization
A 21-year-old left-handed pitcher, Cabrera was one of three prospects acquired in the deadline trade that sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay. The Cardinals are particularly high on the fact that he is a left-hander because of a shortage of potential left-handed starters, particularly in the top levels of the organization. He made his Springfield debut on Sunday, allowing two runs in six innings. The Cardinals believe there is a lot of room for the Dominican Republic native to grow physically, which could bring added velocity to his md-90s fastball. Major-league ETA: 2020.
12. Justin Williams. Last year: Not in the organization.
A left-handed hitting outfielder, Williams joined Memphis last week after the Pham trade. Known to possess a great deal of raw power, as demonstrated when he won home run derby’s at Petco Park and at Wrigley Field while in high school, Williams, who will turn 23 later this month, has yet to transfer that power into game situations but the Cardinals believe that skill can still develop, especially if coaches can work with his swing to improve his launch angle. Williams was drafted out of high school in the second round by Arizona in 2013 but was then traded to Tampa as part of a package to acquire Jeremy Hellickson. Major-league ETA: 2020.
13. Evan Kruczynski. Last year: Not ranked
This might be an an aggressive ranking for Kruczynski, a 23-year-old left-handed pitcher, but it is based on the comparisons some in the organization have made between him and Austin Gomber. Physically they are similar, with Kruczynski being 6-foot-5, and they have a similar pitch inventory. Kruczynski, the Cardinals’ ninth-round pick in 2017 from East Carolina, began this year at Palm Beach, where he averaged a strikeout per inning, before he was promoted to Springfield. In his first two games at Double A he has allowed one run in 14 innings. Major-league ETA: September 2019.
14. Junior Fernandez. Last year: Not ranked
After being a starter for his first four years in the organization, Fernandez moved to the bullpen this year and the 21-year-old right-hander is still adjusting to that change. The Cardinals believe working as a reliever will allow Fernandez to make better use of his fastball, which can come close to triple digits. He has only pitched 20 innings this season after missing the first two months of the year because of a right shoulder impingement, an injury that ended his 2017 season in July. Fernandez made eight appearances for Palm Beach before he was promoted to Springfield. Major-league ETA: 2020.
15. Jake Woodford. Last year: 16
Now 21, Woodford has made steady progress in rising through the organization since being drafted out of a high school in Tampa in 2015, the Cardinals’ third pick in that draft. He began this season in Double A before being promoted to Memphis, where the right-hander has posted a 2.73 ERA in his first six starts and limited opponents to a .213 batting average. In his last start he threw six shutout innings, allowing only three hits. Major-league ETA: September 2019.
16. Julio Rodriguez. Last year: Not ranked
The Cardinals have a pair of 21-year-old catchers splitting the job at Peoria in Rodriguez and Dennis Ortega. While Ortega has been to the major-league spring training camp as a non-roster player, Rodriguez is kind of a sleeper prospect. A native of the Dominican Republic, Rodrigeuz has some pop in his bat and defensively has thrown out nearly half of would-be basestealers this season (31 of 66) which is close to the same percentage he had in his first two seasons after signing as an international free agent. Major-league ETA: 2022.
17. Derian Gonzalez. Last year: Not ranked
Added to the Cardinals’ 40-man roster last winter after pitching well at Palm Beach, Gonzalez made four appearances in the major-league spring training camp and did not allow a run in 4 1/3 innings. A 23-year-old native of Venezuela, the right-hander missed about seven weeks this season because of an injury but is now back pitching out of the bullpen in Springfield, posting a 1.80 ERA in his first seven games. He has averaged almost a strikeout per inning throughout his minor-league career. Major-league ETA: September 2019.
18. Malcom Nunez. Last year: Not in the organization
Nunez is the youngest player to make our top 18 list, just 17. Even though the Cardinals were not allowed to give any international free agents more than a $300,000 signing bonus the last two years because of exceeding their allotted pool in 2016, they may have found a gem in Nunez, who signed after defecting from Cuba. He has spent his first professional season on one of the Cardinals two teams in the Dominican Summer League, where he has posted a .427 average with 17 extra-base hits in 96 at-bats, drawing 15 walks while striking out only 18 times. Major-league ETA: 2024.
Players who were ranked last year but dropped off this year’s list and where they were ranked: Devin Perez (8), Johan Oviedo (10), Edmundo Sosa (15) and Jonatan Machado (17)
Here is an additional list of one prospect per team who also bears watching, remembering that two of the players mentioned in this category a year ago moved up to be ranked in the top seven players this year – Montero and Knizner.
Memphis – Another of the strong group of outfield prospects in the system is Lane Thomas, who was acquired from Tampa Bay last season and could very well have been ranked in the top 18. He was in Double A for most of this year before a promotion to Memphis and has a combined total of 23 homers, an organization-leading 74 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and a .271 average. Thomas, who will turn 23 later this month, also is an above-average defender.
Springfield – The Cardinals might be grooming the 23-year-old Tommy Edman to become a utility infielder as he can play short, second or third, starting at least 20 games at each of the three positions this season. He also has put together a solid offensive season – including 30 extra-base hits, a .300 average and 23 stolen bases. Edman was the team’s sixth-round pick from Stanford in 2016.
Palm Beach – One of the two outfielders acquired in the deadline trade with the Indians for Oscar Mercado was Conner Capel, a 21-year-old left-handed hitter. He was drafted by the Indians in the fifth round in 2016 out of a Texas high school and the son of former major-league pitcher Mike Capel decided to play pro ball instead of heading to the University of Texas. He hit 22 homers in the Midwest League last season.
Peoria – Johan Oviedo has dropped in these rankings in each of his three years in the organization since the Cardinals signed the 6-foot-6 right-hander, but he has still moved up a level each year and is still only 20 years old. Control has been one of the issues holding Oviedo back, but he also has averaged a strikeout per inning throughout his career, another indication that he can still prove to be worth his $2 million signing bonus after he defected from Cuba.
State College – Delvin Perez has dropped from second on this list in 2016 to unranked two years later as the former No. 1 draft pick has struggled in the start of his professional career. Still only 19, the shortstop still has time on his side and to his credit has performed better this season but the fact he still has not made a full-season club has to be disappointing to the Cardinals since he came into the organization with so much hype, a player expected to be one of the top five to 10 picks in the draft but who fell to the Cardinals at 23.
Johnson City – Signed by the Cardinals out of Venezuela when he was 16 years old, Leandro Cedeno has emerged as a player to watch with eight homers, 25 RBIs and a .343 average through 33 games. This comes a year after Cedeno, converted from catching to first base, played only nine games last season in the Gulf Coast League before it was discovered he had a serious medical condition. He hit four home runs in those nine games which tied for the second most on the team for the full season. The right-handed hitter will turn 20 later this month.
Gulf Coast Cardinals – A native of Panama who just turned 18 in June, Ivan Herrera has been one of the best hitters in the GCL this season with a .381 average. A catcher, Herrera has a lot to work on defensively, especially with his throwing, but it is his bat which has the organization excited about his potential. He posted a .335 average in the Dominican Summer League last season in his first professional season.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains