Re-ranking the Cardinals prospects: Dylan Carlson takes over the number one spot

By Rob Rains

Much has been said and written in the last week about the prospects the Cardinals have coming up through their minor-league system; about the ones they weren’t willing to include in a deal to acquire a major-league pitcher before the trading deadline, and the others the Cardinals were willing to trade but were not able to move for the player they wanted.

Both realities lead to questions about how good are these prospects, and what is the overall state of the Cardinals’ farm system?

The answer, at least from one viewpoint, is that the top two prospects are elite, top 30 talents. Beyond that, however, is another truth – the farm system does not have as many high-quality prospects as it has had in recent years – which is why it was so hard for the Cardinals to make a trade.

Two of the players who are included in the top five in the farm system were just drafted in June, making them ineligible to be traded until after this season.

Rob-Rains-inside-baseball (1)Another reason for the lack of top-level prospects in the system, of course, is due to the fact that many of those players have graduated to the major leagues. Others have already been traded in the last few years. Others have not progressed as well as the people running the farm system or those in charge of the draft had hoped, sometimes because of injuries.

On the Cardinals’ current 25-man major-league roster, nine players were drafted and developed in the Cardinals’ system. One, Carlos Martinez, was signed as an international amateur free agent. Eight were obtained in trades. Four were signed as free agents – all ways to build a roster.

The preferred way, at least from the Cardinals’ point of view, is to sign and develop their own players – which is why their prospects are so important to them.

Each year, following the July 31 trade deadline, we re-rank the best prospects in the organization.

For the first time in four years, a player other than Alex Reyes is at the top of this year’s list. Dylan Carlson has had a monster season at Double A Springfield and takes over the top spot as Reyes moves off, finally passing rookie eligibility standards in the majors even though he has spent much of this season on the injured list at Triple A Memphis.

As has been the case in past years, anybody who currently is playing in the major leagues is ineligible for selection, which explains the absence of catcher Andrew Knizner, pitcher Ryan Helsley and outfielder Lane Thomas, all of whom would have been ranked among the top nine prospects in the organization. Knizner was ranked seventh in 2018, Helsley was ranked sixth and Thomas, in his first full season in the organization, was listed as “a player to watch” at Memphis. Tommy Edman was listed as the player to watch at Springfield and moved from that status almost directly to the major leagues, which is why he is not included on the list.

Dropping off the list from last year were Carson Kelly, who ranked third, after he was traded to Arizona; Adolis Garcia, who was ninth the last two years but has now exceeded the maximum age limit (25) to be considered for this list, and Justin Williams, 12th a year ago as he joined the organization in the trade that sent Tommy Pham to Tampa. Injuries and a disappointing season resulted in his being dropped from the list.

Also gone are pitchers Evan Kruczynski, ranked 13th a year ago, and Derian Gonzalez, ranked 17th in 2018. Kruczynski did not pitch as well this season as in 2018 and Gonzalez, who pitched only 33 innings last year, has missed all of this season because of injuries.

There are nine newcomers on the list, including four players selected by the Cardinals in this year’s draft. Since this is 2019, the list is now 19 players deep – plus the traditional “one to watch” category for each of the Cardinals’ seven U.S.-based minor league teams. All statistics are through Sunday’s games.

Here is the 2019 STLSportsPage.com list of the top 19 prospects in the Cardinals’ organization:

  1. Dylan Carlson. Last year’s ranking: 5

carlson inside 8-5In two years Carlson has climbed from being ranked 14th to become the top prospect in the Cardinals’ organization. The 20-year-old switch-hitting outfielder leads the Double A Texas League in home runs and  runs and is among the league leaders in numerous other offensive categories, achieving all of that while being one of the youngest players in the league. Carlson has also shown he is more than capable of playing center field, and runs well enough that he profiles as a 20-20 type player in the major leagues as his power will only continue to develop as he gets older. Respected for his high baseball IQ developed at an early age as the son of a high school coach and his maturity, Carlson is comfortable being the youngest player on his team, which will continue to serve him well when he reaches the major leagues.

Major-league ETA: 2020

  1. Nolan Gorman. Last year’s ranking: 2

A year younger than Carlson at 19, the third baseman and No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft is similiar to Carlson in baseball IQ and maturity. The left-handed hitter has more natural power than Carlson and profiles as more of a middle of the order bat. Gorman began the year in Peoria and was promoted to Palm Beach, where he has been able to handle to tough adjustment of hitting in the Florida State League. He is on the same path as Carlson, which means he likely will be playing in Springfield next season, which should provide the same boost to his offensive numbers that it did for Carlson. Gorman’s defense is still a work in progress, and he will have to show that he can stick at third base as he advances through the higher levels of the organization, but there is no doubt his bat will play.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Trejyn Fletcher. Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

This ranking might be a little premature, but it reflects the potential of the 18-year-old outfielder, picked in the second round of this year’s draft out of a high school in Maine. Fletcher was able to be drafted this year after reclassifying in the spring; if he had remained in next year’s draft he already had been tabbed by one scouting service as the top prep player in the country and had been committed to Vanderbilt. A right-handed hitter, scouts project that Fletcher has the ability to develop into a five-tool player. He was promoted from the Gulf Coast League to Johnson City after just eight games and in his first 27 pro games had three homers and 20 RBIs despite being mostly used as the leadoff hitter. The grind of playing every day, after a very limited schedule of games in high school, is going to be an adjustment.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Elehuris Montero. Last year’s ranking: 4

Montero’s rise through the organization was stalled this year because of injuries that kept him out for much of the season. He missed three weeks in May and then was hurt again between late May and late July. When the third baseman was healthy, he showed the same offensive ability which made him the MVP in the Midwest League in 2018. Montero, who will turn 21 later this month, hit five homers and drove in 15 runs in 32 games at Springfield, although his average tailed off because of his prolonged absence. Like Carlson, he was one of the youngest players in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals try to place him in the Arizona Fall League so he could recoup some of the at-bats he lost this season because of the injuries.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Zack Thompson. Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

The left-handed starter was the Cardinals’ top pick in this year’s draft and was limited in his first pro season because of the heavy workload he carried this spring at the University of Kentucky. He logged just eight appearances in his first two months in the system, a total of eight innings, but did record 14 strikeouts. The Cardinals believe the 21-year-old could move quickly next season, probably splitting time between Palm Beach and Springfield, due in part to their lack of high-end left-handed starting prospects at the top level of the system.

Major-league ETA: September 2021

  1. Junior Fernandez. Last year’s ranking: 14

It took overcoming injuries and a move to the bullpen, but Fernandez appears to finally be developing into the pitcher the Cardinals thought they signed as a17-year-old international free agent in 2014. Since his promotion from Springfield to Memphis in late June, Fernandez has been dominant, allowing three earned runs in 19 innings with 22 strikeouts. His control can sometimes still be an issue, but that and trying to find a spot on the 40-man roster is all that appears to be keeping him from being promoted to the major leagues. Fernandez was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft last winter and went unclaimed, but that won’t happen again this year.

Major-league ETA: September

  1. Malcom Nunez. Last year’s ranking: 18

The 18-year-old third baseman made a big jump in the prospect rankings after he moved from the Dominican Summer League, the lowest level in the system, to Johnson City. The Cardinals gave him a brief exposure at Peoria, but he struggled at that level. Since arriving in Johnson City, where he is still one of the youngest players in the league, Nunez has posted a .349 average in 16 games. The only concern about the 5-foot-11 right-handed hitter is his weight, now higher than his listed weight of 205 pounds. The native of Cuba will have to be able to control his weight gain if he wants to both remain a third baseman and advance through the system.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Randy Arozarena. Last year’s ranking: 8

All that has kept Arozarena from being promoted from Memphis to the major leagues this season has been the lack of a spot on the 40-man roster and an opportunity for playing time in the crowded Cardinals outfield. It certainly has not been because of a lack of production. Once the 24-year-old recovered from a broken hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch in spring training he has not stopped hitting, producing a .381 average in 45 games at Memphis to go along with an OPS of 1.032. Including 28 games at Springfield, his combined totals so far this season include a .356 average, nine homers and 15 stolen bases. There does not appear to be much more he needs to do in Triple A before getting a chance in the majors.

Major-league ETA: September

  1. Johan Oviedo. Last year: Not ranked

Oviedo, another of the players the Cardinals have signed out of Cuba like Arozarena and Nunez in recent years, was ranked 10th on this list two years ago but fell out of the rankings a year ago as he struggled. Still just 21, the 6-foot-6 right-hander has rebounded this season. He started out the season at Palm Beach, going 5-0 with a 1.60 ERA, earning a promotion to Springfield. He has not been as successful yet at that level, but the Cardinals are encouraged by his progress. He still walks too many hitters, but he also has continued to average more than a strikeout per inning.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Ivan Herrera. Last year: Not ranked

A native of Panama, Herrara was listed as the player to watch last season from the Gulf Coast League Cardinals, where the right-handed hitting catcher was one of the best hitters in the league. Despite being only 18 when the year began, he jumped all the way to Peoria and acquitted himself well, earning a mid-season promotion to Palm Beach. Herrara’s bat is still ahead of his defense behind the plate, but he has thrown well and shown improved arm strength this year and the Cardinals are encouraged by his progress.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Jake Woodford. Last year’s ranking: 15

A first-round pick out of high school in Tampa in 2015, the right-handed Woodford has made steady progress as he climbed through the minor leagues and is now on the cusp of a promotion to the Cardinals. He has not been as consistent this season, his first full year in Triple A, as the organization would like. He has had three starts this season when he pitched seven scoreless innings, but the 22-year-old also has had five starts when he allowed five or more runs. Even though he has been a starter throughout his professional career, a move to the bullpen at some point is a possibility. He was used in relief in major-league spring training games and performed well.

Major-league ETA: September

  1. Julio Rodriguez. Last year’s ranking: 16

Another catcher, who turned 22 in June, Rodriguez earned a promotion from Palm Beach to Springfield that coincided with Herrera’s move up to Palm Beach. He was solid on both offense (7 homers in 71 games) and defense in the Florida State League and in his minor-league career has thrown out more than 50 percent of opposing basestealers. His defensive performance should not be affected by his move to Double A but the Cardinals want to see how he handles the necessary offensive adjustments.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Genesis Cabrera. Last year’s ranking: 11

The Cardinals were excited by Cabrera’s performance in winter ball coming into spring training, but the left-hander has not pitched as well as they had hoped this season, including in his brief time in the major leagues. Obtained from Tampa in the trade for Tommy Pham last year, Cabrera still has two things going for him – the ability to throw a ball hard, and age, as he won’t turn 23 until October. There still is a bit of uncertainty about whether he profiles better as a starter or reliever; the team’s need at the big-league level might be the determining factor for his future.

Major-league ETA: 2020

  1. Griffin Roberts. Last year’s ranking: 10

This has not been a good season for Roberts, the Cardinals’ second pick in the 2018 draft. The right-hander from Wake Forest began the year serving a 50-game suspension after testing positive for marijuana and then has not pitched well after that in Palm Beach, where he was 0-6 in his first nine starts with a 5.82 ERA before finally earning his first pro win on Sunday with six shutout innings. As is the case with Cabrera, Roberts could become a reliever at some point in his career – he both started and relieved in college – but using him as a starter now gives him more experience and letshim log more innings. Perhaps starting out fresh and on time next spring will help his performance.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Jhon Torres. Last year: Not ranked

One of three players at rookie league Johnson City to be ranked in the top 15, Torres is in his first full season in the organization after being one of two outfielders acquired from Cleveland at last year’s deadline that sent Oscar Mercado to the Indians. A 6-foot-4 right-handed hitter, the 19-year-old Torres got a brief trial at Peoria, like Nunez, but has thrived since moving down to Johnson City with four homers and 11 RBI in his first 18 games. In less than three full seasons in the minors, 137 games combined between the Cleveland and Cardinals’ organizations, Torres has 17 homers and 84 RBIs.

Major-league ETA: 2024

  1. Angel Rondon. Last year: Not ranked

A right-handed pitcher, Rondon, 21, was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2016. He has gone back and forth this season between Palm Beach and Springfield, compiling a combined record of 9-4 with a 2.63 ERA in 22 starts. He has averaged a strikeout per inning and limited opposing hitters to a .208 average. A strong finish to this season in Springfield could position Rondon for a chance to make the Memphis rotation next year.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Kodi Whitley. Last year: Not ranked

A 24-year-old right-handed reliever, Whitley might become the latest small-college, late-round find for the Cardinals. He was drafted in the 27th round in 2017 out of Mont Olive, N.C., and began this year in Palm Beach but already has reached Memphis because of his ability to throw strikes. In a combined 52 innings he has walked 16 while recording 61 strikeouts and posting a 1.73 ERA, converting eight of 10 save opportunities.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Tony Locey. Last year: Not in the organization

The Cardinals’ third-round pick in this year’s draft out of the University of Georgia, the 21-year-old Locey was quickly moved to Peoria after just two games in the Gulf Coast League. As is the case with all of the college pitchers in their first year with the organization, the Cardinals are carefully monitoring his workload this season so he has had only a limited number of appearances, nine, covering 12 2/3 innings, but he has struck out 24 hitters. Five of the eight runs he has allowed came in one outing. The Cardinals will need to decide whether to develop him as a starter or a reliever.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Logan Gragg. Last year: Not in the organization

Selected in the eighth round out of Oklahoma State, the right-handed Gragg is 6-foot-5 and will turn 21 this month. He began his pro career in State College but already has been promoted to Peoria, where he has made two starts. In a combined 21 innings he has struck out 25 hitters, walked only five and posted a 2.91 ERA. Depending on how he finishes this season, Gragg likely will either return to Peoria or move to Palm Beach to begin next season.

Major-league ETA: 2023

Here is the bonus list of one more “player to watch” for each of the Cardinals’ U.S.-based affiliates:

Memphis – Edmundo Sosa has seemingly been listed as a prospect forever, but still is only 23 and in his first full season in Triple A. He has shown more power this year, hitting 12 homers, and profiles as a player who likely could succeed in the majors as at least a utility infielder if not as a starter.

Springfield – If nothing else, Lars Nootbaar deserves to be on a watch list for likely having the best name in the organization. The left-handed hitting outfielder has some ability to go along with his name, however, becoming the first position player from the 2018 draft to make it to the Double A level.

Palm Beach – Another player featured on this prospect list in the past who has earned his way back to at least become a player to watch is right-hander Alvaro Seijas. He is still only 20, and the native of Venezuela has a combined record of 5-6 with a 3.22 ERA this year as a starter in Peoria and Palm Beach.

Peoria – After struggling to get untracked in his first three pro seasons, Brady Whalen has hit much better this season, leading the Midwest League with 71 RBIs. He also ranks among the league leaders with 26 doubles. Drafted as third baseman out of a high school in Washington, Whalen has moved to first base and should be line for a promotion to Palm Beach and perhaps can reach Springfield next year.

State College – Another player who has progressed this year after two struggling seasons, in part because of injuries, is outfielder Terry Fuller. The 15th-round pick in 2017 signed with the Cardinals out of a Georgia high school, turning down a chance to play college football at Auburn. Fuller was promoted to State College after starting the year at Johnson City. Only 20, he had a .288 average in his first 17 games with the Spikes.

Johnson City –  Mateo Gil is the son of former major-league Benji Gil and was drafted in the third round last season, signing with the Cardinals instead of going to TCU. He turned 19 last month and has spent this season in Johnson City as the team’s shortstop.

Gulf Coast League – Another shortstop to watch is Franklin Soto, also 19, who moved to the U.S. after playing two years for the Cardinals’ Dominican Summer League team. He was one of nine members of the first high school graduating class from the Cardinals’ academy in the Dominican Republic earlier this year.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photos by Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals

About Rob Rains 115 Articles
Rob Rains , who runs STLSportsPage.com was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, St. Louis Media HOF 2018, and is a former National League beat writer for USA Today’s Baseball Weekly. For three years he covered the Cardinals for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat until its demise in the 1980s. Rains was awarded the Freedom Forum Grant to teach Journalism for a year at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State. Now based in St. Louis, Rains is often a guest on Frank Cusumano’s Pressbox Show on 590AM and has been writing books, magazine articles, and covers the Cardinals and Blues for STLSportsPage.com. He has written or co-written more than 30 books, most on baseball, including autobiographies or biographies of Ozzie Smith, Jack Buck, and Red Schoendienst. Rains volunteers his time helping run Rainbows for Kids, a 501 (c)(3) charity for families of children with cancer in the Greater St. Louis Area.