By Rob Rains
The Cardinals four full-season minor league affiliates are set to start their season on Thursday night and as usual that means the top prospects in the organization are scattered among the different teams.
For the first time in four years, there is a new number one prospect in the organization after Alex Reyes graduated off the list last week. He is succeeded by third baseman Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals’ top pick in last year’s amateur draft.
Gorman, who won’t turn 19 for another month, will begin this season where he ended last year, with the Class A Peoria Chiefs. Other prospects will begin in Memphis, Springfield, Palm Beach, Peoria or in the extended spring training program, where players who were not assigned to a full-season club will continue to work out as they wait for an opening on a team or for the short-season team’s schedules to begin in June.
Here is a team-by-team rundown of where the top prospects will begin their seasons:
Most of the prospects who will be at the Triple A level are already well known because of their time spent in the majors last season or their performance with the major-league club during spring training.
Leading the way as the Redbirds begin their defense of consecutive PCL championships is a starting rotation filled with prospects – Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, Jake Woodford and Genesis Cabrera. The left-handed Cabrera is the newcomer, having been acquired in the trade last summer which sent Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay.
The group of position players will be led by catcher Andrew Knizner, moving up from Springfield, and infielder Tommy Edman, who is expected to be the primary shortstop after impressing team officials with his performance in the big-league camp this spring. He also will be used at second and third as the team mixes and matches Max Schrock, Ramon Urias and Edmundo Sosa at all three spots.
Outfielder Lane Thomas also moves up from Springfield after leading the organization’s minor leaguers in home runs and RBIs last season. He is expected to play mostly in center field but also will be used in both corner spots. Randy Arozarena also will be back in the outfield for Memphis once be recovers from a broken hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch this spring.
The Redbirds will host Omaha, Kansas City’s top affiliate, on Thursday night.
Two of the youngest, and best, position player prospects in the organization will begin the year with the Double A Cardinals. Outfielder Dylan Carlson, coming off a strong spring, and third baseman Elehuris Montero are both just 20 years old.
Carlson spent most of last season at Class A Palm Beach while Montero played at Peoria for most of the season, winning MVP honors in the Midwest League. They will be among the youngest players this season in the Texas League.
Joining Carlson in the outfield will be Scott Hurst, who had an impressive spring as he made several appearances in major-league games coming over from the minor-league camp. Hurst was the Cardinals’ top pick in the 2017 draft, selected in the third round.
Also beginning the year at Springfield will be left-hander Evan Kruczynski, expected to head up the rotation, and right-hander Connor Jones, who is being converted from starting to the bullpen after a strong showing as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League.
Springfield opens its season on the road at Northwest Arkansas.
One of the Cardinals’ top picks in last year’s draft, first baseman Luken Baker out of TCU, is set to begin this season in Palm Beach. The Florida State League is a notoriously tough league for hitters, which will make for an interesting challenge for Baker.
One of the more intriguing pitching prospects beginning the year at Palm Beach is right=hander Johan Oviedo, one of their higher-priced international signings out of Cuba a couple of years ago. This could be a big season for him as well as right-hander Junior Fernandez, who seems to be a perennial prospect but has had trouble advancing through the organization.
The 21-year-old Oviedo will be the opening-night starter against Jupiter.
Gorman won’t be the only former first-round draft pick beginning the season with the Chiefs. He will be joined on the left side of the infield by shortstop Delvin Perez, the number one pick three years ago who will be making his full-season debut. Despite the fact Perez has struggled offensively for much of his career, he still is only 20 years old.
Outfielder Leandro Cedeno, who also can play first base, has been promoted from Johnson City, where he showed impressive power last season with 14 homers in 59 games. The native of Venezuela will be 20 for most of this season. Also moving up to the Chiefs will be two catchers ranked highly in the organization, 18-year-old Ivan Herrera and 20-year-old Zach Jackson.
There also will be several pitchers to watch who will be starting the year in Peoria, including left-hander Jacob Scheslener and right-handers Tommy Parsons, Alvaro Seijas and Sebastian Tabata, a 21-year-old who is making the jump to Peoria from the Dominican Summer League, where he was dominating last season.
Parsons, signed as a non-drafted free agent last summer who pitched at Johnson City, will be the opening night starter at Cedar Rapids.
At least three of the players considered among the best prospects in the organization will be spending the start of the season on the back fields at the Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium complex in Jupiter.
Right-hander Griffin Roberts, the top pitching selection in last year’s draft, is there because he was suspended for the first 50 games this season after testing positive for marijuana. He can play and work out on this level because there is no admission price for the games and Roberts will be eligible to move to a full-season club near the end of May.
Also here, more because of their age and lack of experience, are outfielder Jhon Torres and third baseman Malcom Nunez.
Torres, a 19-year-old native of Colombia, was one of the players the Cardinals acquired from the Indians in last summer’s trade that sent Oscar Mercado to Cleveland. He hit .397 with four homers in 14 games for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals after the trade. It is logical that he will be assigned to Johnson City when the rookie league team begins its season in June.
Also probably headed to Johnson City will be Nunez, although the Cardinals’ draft selections this June could affect that plan and leave him on the GCL team. Nunez, a native of Cuba, is only 18 and is coming off a season in which he won the Triple Crown in the Dominican Summer League, posting a .415 average in 44 games as a 17-year-old.
Also likely to pitch in some games in the extended program is left-hander Steven Gingery, selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft out of Texas Tech. He had to sit out last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
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