With Carlson now in majors, childhood friends Gorman, Liberatore move to the top in annual re-ranking of Cardinals best prospects

By Rob Rains

With Dylan Carlson’s overdue promotion to the major leagues last week, it’s time to re-rank the top prospects in the Cardinals organization.

It goes without saying that the 21-year-old Carlson is currently the best prospect in the organization but he is ineligible for this list because of his status as a major-leaguer. This list, now in its fifth year, is made up of prospects who have yet to make their major-league debut.

In addition to Carlson, five other players who were on last year’s list have been promoted to the major league since then and are no longer eligible – Junior Fernandez (6th on last year’s list), Randy Arozarena (8th), Jake Woodford (11th), Genesis Cabrera (13th) and Kodi Whitley (17th).

Six players on this year’s list have joined the organization within the last year: one by trade (Matthew Liberatore), three through this year’s amateur draft (Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn and Tink Hence) and two as international free agent signings (Edwin Nunez and Jake Burns).

rob inside baseball logoAs with everything baseball-related in this year of COVID-19, it was harder to compile these rankings without any minor-league performances to evaluate and compare.

Nolan Gorman and Liberatore find themselves at the top of the list. The two, who grew up playing youth baseball together in Arizona, have been together again in Springfield this summer – but not as members of the Double A team as they had envisioned in the spring – but instead just working out in the Cardinals alternate site camp, which was filled with a number of the organization’s top prospects.

Here is the STLSportsPage 2020 re-ranking of the top prospects in the organization:

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

This season was supposed to be the breakout year for the left-handed hitting Gorman, just as was the case for Carlson last year at Springfield. Gorman has been following almost exactly on the same track as Carlson, just about a year behind, and at 20 years old, he also is the same age Carlson was last summer when he became the Texas League Player of the Year. Escaping the hitter-stifling Florida State League would have helped Gorman unleash his potential to become a solid middle of the order power bat and put him in line to challenge for a spot on the major-league roster as early as next summer. Like Carlson, the first-round pick in 2018 has a high baseball IQ and should make the necessary adjustments to be successful at the higher levels of the minors. Gorman’s defense at third base is still a work in progress and he will have to show that he can stick at the position as he keeps moving up in the system. Not being able to do more than just work out and play simulated games this year, however, probably will result in a short delay in Gorman’s projected path to the majors.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Matthew Liberatore. Last year: Not in the organization

liberatore inside 8-18As soon as the off-season trade with Tampa Bay was complete, the 20-year-old Liberatore immediately became the best pitching prospect in the Cardinals organization. The left-handed Liberatore was the Rays top pick in 2018 and was brought along slowly by Tampa Bay in his first two pro seasons, pitching in rookie ball and low Class A. He was poised to jump quickly through high A this summer on his way to Springfield, but like Gorman, his progress was slowed because of the cancellation of the minor-league season. That likely will result in Liberatore spending the 2021 season at Springfield but has not reduced the Cardinals’ excitement about his potential as a top-of-the rotation starter in the no-too-distant future. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Liberatore has the perfect pitcher’s body and profiles as the most promising left-handed starter the Cardinals have brought along since Rick Ankiel 20 years ago.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Zack Thompson. Last year’s ranking 5

While it’s been a long time since the Cardinals had a left-handed starting prospect like Liberatore, it’s been even longer since they had two left-handers who project to both be in the rotation for years to come at some point in the next few years. The 22-year-old Thompson was their top selection in the 2019 draft from the University of Kentucky and because of his age and experience probably will reach the majors earlier than Liberatore. Thompson also has spent this summer at the alternate camp in Springfield after pitching well in spring training. He likely will join Liberatore in Springfield’s rotation in 2021 with a mid-season promotion to Memphis a strong possibility.

Major-league ETA: 2021

  1. Masyn Winn. Last year: Not in the organization

The Cardinals’ second-round pick in this year’s draft out of a Texas high school, Winn has the potential to be either a shortstop, pitcher or both. He has always been a two-way player and the organization intends to allow him to try to do both, at least for the early portion of his professional career. The 18-year-old Winn was invited to be part of the Springfield summer camp, letting him get indoctrinated into pro baseball even though there was no minor-league season. He will begin next season in the low levels of the minors, but his exact destination could be determined by what happens to the structure of the minors, which could include the elimination of the Cardinals’ franchises in State College and Johnson City, where Winn most likely would have been assigned to begin the 2021 season.

Major-league ETA: 2024

  1. Ivan Herrera. Last year’s ranking: 10

For the last few years fans have wondered, as have people inside the organization, who should be considered the heir apparent to Yadier Molina behind the plate once, or if, Molina retires. It was Carson Kelly for a while, then Andrew Knizner, but the answer might be Herrera. Now 20, Herrera has made steady progress through the organization since signing as a 16-year-old out of Panama. He split last season between Peoria and Palm Beach before finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. He also was part of the Springfield camp this summer, and likely will be playing there next year. A career .309 hitter in the minors, Herrera’s bat is still ahead of his defense, but the Cardinals have been pleased with how hard he has worked to improve behind the plate.

Major-league ETA: September 2022

  1. Jordan Walker. Last year: Not in the organization

The power-hitting Walker was the Cardinals top pick in this year’s draft and they were able to sign the 18-year-old away from a commitment to Duke. A third baseman, Walker is getting his first taste of pro baseball by working out this summer at the satellite camp in Springfield but won’t be able to play his first professional games until next season. The right-handed hitting Walker, already 6-foot-5, could one day form a nice middle-of-the-order combination with Gorman, although one of them will have to move off third base. Walker also earns praise for his mental approach to the game, not surprising given his commitment to Duke. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals are as aggressive with his team assignments next year as they were with Gorman, which would likely mean beginning the year at Peoria.

Major-league ETA: 2024

  1. Johan Oviedo. Last year’s ranking: 9

The 22-year-old right-hander took a major step forward in the last year as he improved his physical conditioning by losing weight and reshaping his body. He will be set back slightly, as will most of the top prospects, by not getting to pitch in actual games this summer but the Cardinals still expect him to develop into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. An imposing figure on the mound because of his 6-foot-6 size and frame, Oviedo made it to Springfield last summer and likely would have split time between there and Memphis this season. He just needs to refine his pitches, develop more control and he will be ready for the major leagues.

Major-league ETA: September 2021

  1. Trejyn Fletcher: Last year’s ranking: 3

Fletcher, selected in the second round out of a Maine high school in 2019, has taken a small step back in the rankings this year because his hit tool has yet to develop as the organization had hoped. He still obviously has time on his side at just 19 and the outfielder, who had been committed to Vanderbilt, likely will see improvement as he gets to play games and become comfortable with the pro game. Fletcher still profiles as a five-tool player and his speed in the outfield is a definite asset to his game. He probably will start next season in Peoria.

Major-league ETA: 2024

  1. Edwin Nunez. Last year: Not in the organization

Nunez is probably one of the two most unknown players on this list as he was signed in June as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic. The 18-year-old right-hander throws his fastball in the mid 90s and has touched 100 and at 6-foot-3 he has the physical frame to get bigger and stronger. Nunez was considered one of the top pitching prospects to come out of the Dominican Republic this year. He has not been able to pitch this summer so more than likely he will begin his pro career next season in the rookie level Gulf Coast League.

Major-league ETA: 2025

  1. Tink Hence. Last year: Not in the organization

The second of the Cardinals two picks in the second round of this year’s draft, Hence is one of the youngest player in the class; he didn’t turn 18 until earlier this month. The right-handed pitcher was a summer ball teammate of Masyn Winn and like Winn was committed to play college baseball at Arkansas. Hence can throw four pitches for strikes, hits the mid 90s with his fastball and the Cardinals believe he will only get better as he starts working with professional coaches and gets bigger and stronger. Because of this lost season, Hence will more than likely begin next season in the Gulf Coast League but could earn a fairly quick promotion and begin his move up through the organization.

Major-league ETA: 2025

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

It really wasn’t through anything that Montero did wrong last year why he has dropped down several places in thie year’s rankings. It really reflects the fact that he suffered through an injury-filled 2019 season. The MVP of the Midwest League in 2018, Montero also is missing needed development time this summer because of the cancellation of the minor-league season. He likely will be back at Springfield to begin next season, but then he will be competing with Gorman for playing time at third base. The biggest challenge for Montero will be to prove that he can still produce offensively as he moves up in the system and faces more consistent quality pitching. If he does that, the Cardinals will find a place for him – perhaps as a future DH, which almost certainly will be in the NL to stay starting in 2022.

Major-league ETA: September 2022

  1. Malcom Nunez. Last year’s ranking: 7

The fourth third baseman on this list, the 19-year-old Nunez ranks between Montero and Walker in terms of age, development and experience. He spent most of last season at Johnson City but was overmatched offensively during a short stint at Peoria. He is one of the prospects who could be impacted by the expected loss of the State College franchise next season, which likely would have been his best destination. He was invited to the team’s alternate site camp this summer but like the other young prospects will suffer from not playing competitive games. Nunez is going to have to prove that his weight will not become an issue, which could prompt a move off third base.

Major-league ETA: 2025

  1. Jhon Torres. Last year’s ranking: 15

The 20-year-old Torres was one of the players the Cardinals acquired from the Indians in the 2018 deadline trade that sent Oscar Mercado to Cleveland. The young outfielder had a solid season at Johnson City last year but like Nunez, struggled when he was exposed to the higher level competition at Peoria during a brief stay. Torres likely will head back there again in 2021 and should enjoy more success with another year of development. The right-handed hitter has the size (6-foot-4) to grow into becoming a power hitter; he has 19 homers in his first 152 games in the minors.

Major-league ETA: 2024

  1. Angel Rondon. Last year’s ranking: 16

A native of the Dominican Republic, the 22-year-old right-hander was named the minor league pitcher of the year for the Cardinals in 2019 when he won 11 games and posted a 2.93 ERA in 28 starts combined between Palm Beach and Springfield while also averaging a strikeout per inning. More than likely Rondon will start next season back at Springfield but could be in line for a mid-season promotion to Memphis.

Major-league ETA: 2022

  1. Alvaro Seijas. Last year: Not ranked

Still only 21 years old, Seijas has been on and off these ranking lists since 2015 when he signed with the Cardinals out of his native Venezuela. The right-hander had a bounce-back season in 2019, posting a 2.81 ERA in 24 combined starts between Peoria and Palm Beach and earning a spot on the 40-man roster. He has been at the Springfield camp this summer, and should get back there at some point next season once games resume.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Jake Burns: Last year: Not in the organization

One of the youngest players in the organization, the 17-year-old Burns signed with the Cardinals as a free agent last September when he was just 16. The catcher is a native of Australia and impressed Cardinals scouts during various international tournaments. He is a bat-first catcher but also knows defense at his position has to be a big part of his game. Most likely Burns will begin his pro career next summer in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Major-league ETA: 2026

  1. Julio Rodriguez. Last year’s ranking: 12

The third catcher in the top 20 rankings, Rodriguez has been slightly ahead of Herrera in terms of assignment the last couple of years and the challenge for him going forward will be to see if that can continue. At 23 he is older than Herrera, probably isn’t quite as good offensively, but might have an edge behind the plate. He probably should play in Springfield next year, but if Herrera is there too, the question will be how to divide the playing time to ensure both get the work they need.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Tony Locey. Last year’s ranking: 14

The third-round pick in the 2019 draft out of the University of Georgia, Locey had a solid debut pro season even though, as with almost all college pitchers, he pitched a very limited number of innings, 17, over 12 games. What stands out is that in 15 innings at Peoria he recorded 28 strikeouts. As a right-handed reliever, the 22-year-old Locey could come quick and it is not out of the question he could be in the Springfield bullpen sometime next season.

Major-league ETA: 2023

  1. Franklin Soto. Last year: Not ranked

A 20-year-old shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, Soto was listed last season as the player to watch from the rookie level Gulf Coast League Cardinals. He was one of nine members of the first graduating class from the Cardinals academy in the Dominican Republic. He struggled offensively in his first pro season in the U.S., hitting .226, but as he grows and gets stronger the Cardinals are confident that part of his game will improve. As is the case with other prospects near his age and level of development, deciding where he should play next year will be challenging if the State College and Johnson City teams are eliminated.

Major-league ETA: 2025

  1. Mateo Gil. Last year: Not ranked

The son of former major-leaguer Benji Gil was selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2018 draft. A TCU commit at the time, Gil spent his first full season at Johnson City last year and had a solid offensive season. The shortstop likely profiles best as a utility player at the major-league level with the ability to handle all of the infield positions. Now 20, he will likely be asked to make the jump to Peoria to begin next season.

Major-league ETA: 2024

Dropping off the list from last year were Griffin Roberts (14) and Logan Gragg (19).

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

About Rob Rains 191 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.