Re-ranking of Cardinals top prospects tries to answer the question: “Is there any help on the way?”

Re-ranking of Cardinals top prospects

By Rob Rains

Anybody who has watched the Cardinals on a regular basis this season likely has the same question when the topic of conversation turns to their minor-league system.

“Is there any help on the way?”

The answer is yes, but that yes comes with a couple of important caveats. With the exception of a couple of players, that help is probably not coming from the farm system in 2022. The other bad news is that there are not many pitching prospects who appear to be on the fast track to St. Louis.

In the sixth year of ranking the best prospects in the Cardinals farm system, done annually after the amateur draft and the trading deadline, only six pitchers made the list of the 21 best prospects for 2021 – and only two of those have pitched a game above A ball.

Before revealing this year’s rankings, it’s necessary to include the standard disclaimers for those who might be new to this list. To qualify for this list, a player must not have made his debut in the major leagues, even if he has not exhausted his rookie eligibility. That explains the absence of right-hander Angel Rondon, who was ranked 14th a year ago and pitched in two games for the Cardinals earlier this year.

The second arbitrary rule established the first year of these rankings was that only players under the age of 25 would be considered – thus explaining the absence of outfielder Nick Plummer, who has enjoyed a resurgent season at Double A Springfield this year but recently turned 25.

Cardinals top prospects - Rob RainsThe other necessary disclaimer is that these rankings are based on potential for success at the major-league level, not how close a player is to reaching the majors. Thus, only six of the 21 players on this year’s list are currently above the Class A level – and four of them are only 17 years old.

In addition to Rondon, eight other players who were included in the top 20 rankings for 2020 are not on this year’s list, for a variety of reasons. Righthander Johan Oviedo, ranked seventh last year, graduated. Three of the players ranked last year – third baseman Elehuris Montero (11), right-handed reliever Tony Locey (18) and infielder Mateo Gil (20) were part of the package traded to the Rockies for Nolan Arenado.

One player ranked last year, righthander Alvaro Seijas (15) was released by the organization. Three players still in the organization were dropped from the list – outfielder Trejyn Fletcher (8) catcher Julio Rodriguez (17) and infielder Franklin Soto (19).

The nine players coming off the list from last year, plus one addition since this is 2021, have been replaced by three players selected in this year’s draft, one who was drafted last year, three who were signed as international free agents over the last year, and three players who were in the organization in 2020 but weren’t ranked – including a former first-round pick who re-emerged as a prospect this season.

As has been the case each year of these rankings, except when the minor-league season was canceled in 2020, also included at the end of the list is another player to watch from each of the Cardinals’ five U.S. based minor-league teams – Memphis, Springfield, Peoria, Palm Beach and the Florida Complex League. All statistics are through games of Aug. 9.

Here is the STLSportsPage re-ranking of the top 21 prospects in the Cardinals organization for 2021:

1. Nolan Gorman

Last year’s ranking: 1

Gorman accomplished three things this season that allowed him to remain at the top of this list for the second consecutive year. The first was not allowing the canceled minor-league season in 2020 to affect his development, putting in the work necessary at the alternate site camp to keep making progress despite missing that game experience when he should have been, at 20, one of the youngest players in Double A. The second was to start out strong at Springfield this season and earn a quick promotion to Triple A Memphis, just weeks after his 21st birthday, where he still displayed the offensive skill-set (17 combined homers) that should make him a power-hitting, middle of the order bat at the big-league level. Perhaps most important to his immediate future, however, was that Gorman proved more than adequate in his ability to play second base, which will provide him with a more direct route to the majors instead of being blocked behind Arenado at third.

Major-league ETA: 2022

2. Jordan Walker 

Last year’s ranking: 6

It was difficult to rank Walker last year. The first-round pick in the draft, he was just out of high school, and played only a dozen games there as a senior before the season was canceled. He also had to wait to make his pro debut until this season, and his work at the alternate site camp kept his visibility controlled. He has made up for that in a hurry in just three months this season, tearing apart pitching at Palm Beach, which is now low Class A, and earning a promotion to high A Peoria after just 27 games. At 19, and a young 19 at that, he is more than holding his own against a league of more-established players (combined .319 average between both levels). A right-handed hitter, he is playing third base but there is a possibility he will begin getting some work at first base in the near future. If he follows the path set by Dylan Carlson and Gorman, Walker should spend most of 2022 at Double A, get a taste of Triple A before the end of the year and start knocking on the door for a promotion to the major-leagues.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 3.. Matthew Liberatore

Last year’s ranking: 2

The Cardinals were very aggressive in their assignment of some players to minor league teams to start this season, no more so than with the 21-year-old Liberatore. After pitching in low Class A in 2019 before his trade to the Cardinals, and then having to spend 2020 at the alternate site camp, Liberatore jumped all the way to Triple A Memphis. It was a big change in the quality of hitters he faced on a nightly basis, and the learning curve wasn’t always reflected in the box scores. The lefthander would have no doubt enjoyed more success had he started the year in Double A, but the Cardinals believe Liberatore’s path to the majors will be expedited by what he learned this year with Memphis. Whether he comes to spring training next year battling for a spot in the Cardinals rotation or set to return to Memphis could be determined by what other moves the organization makes this winter. If he returns to Triple A, it won’t be for long.

Major-league ETA: 2022

 4. Masyn Winn

Last year’s ranking: 4

One of the reasons why Winn, last year’s second-round pick, was ranked higher than Walker in 2020 was because of his potential as a possible two-way player. That potential is still there, but Winn has yet to take a turn on the mound, playing exclusively at shortstop so far in 2021. His performance there, however, and at the plate are enough to keep him ranked in the same spot on this year’s list. A leadoff hitter and a team catalyst, Winn took a little longer than Walker to earn the promotion from Palm Beach to Peoria, where, at 19, he still is one of the youngest players at that level. What will be interesting to monitor is how he performs on the mound when/if he gets that chance as the Cardinals try to map out the best plan for his future.

Major-league ETA: 2024

5. Joshua Baez

Last year’s ranking: not in the organization

If it seems like there is a trend in recent drafts for the Cardinals to use one of their top picks on a high school hitter with the potential to become a power hitter, that’s because that’s exactly what’s happened. After taking Gorman in 2018 and Walker last year, the Cardinals took Baez, an outfielder, with their second pick and signed him away from a scholarship to Vanderbilt. Like Walker, Baez is physically imposing and appears that he best suited to become a corner outfielder. He will be making a big step up in competition compared to the normal pitching he faced in the prep ranks near Boston, which is why he was assigned to the Florida Complex League to begin his career and why he will need time, and at-bats, to develop.

Major-league ETA: 2025

 6. Ivan Herrera

Last year’s ranking: 5

Generally considered the heir-apparent to Yadier Molina when he finally retires, the 21-year-old Herrera has spent this season at Double A Springfield, where he has not hit as well as he has in the lower levels of the minors. A career .309 hitter coming into this season, Herrera has hit almost 100 points below that this year. He also has not had as much success throwing out would-be basestealers this season (17 of 53) as he has in the past, but the one advantage Herrera still has going for him is his age. A native of Panama, Herrera likely will get at least one more full season in the minors to work on improving both offensively and defensively before he is ready for the majors.

Major-league ETA: 2023

7. Edwin Nunez

Last year’s ranking: 9

Signed as an international free agent in June 2020, the 19-year-old righthander made his professional debut this year for Class A Palm Beach. A 6-foot-3 native of the Dominican Republic, Nunez throws in the upper 90s and has the physical stature to get bigger and stronger. His problem this season, as happens with a lot of hard-throwing youngsters just learning how to pitch, has been his control. Nunez has walked 41 batters in 40 innings, leading to a high ERA, but the Cardinals expect that issue to be resolved as Nunez continues to pitch. Having to miss last season because of the pandemic has no doubt slowed his progress and development.

Major-league ETA: 2026

 8. Malcolm Nunez

Last year’s ranking: 12

Another in the line of promising third basemen in the organization, Nunez has progressed well this season as is reflected by his moving up several spots from last year’s ranking. After beginning the year at Peoria, Nunez earned an early-season promotion to Springfield, where at 20, he has been one of the youngest players in Double A. He has struggled to get untracked offensively at that level, but the Cardinals are still encouraged by the progress he has made, citing how much better he hit at Peoria this year, where he struggled two years ago. Nunez will continue to have to prove that he can remain at third base defensively.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 9. Tink Hence

Last year’s ranking: 10

After having to sit out last season because of the canceled minor-league season, the right-handed Hence was off to a great start for the rookie level Florida Complex League team when he was shut down because of a sore shoulder. The Cardinals do not believe the injury is serious, but it did lead to a drop in velocity. The lost season certainly affected Hence, who recently turned 19. Once he gets the shoulder issue resolved, however, Hence has the ability to begin a steady rise through the organization, especially given the lack of top-end pitching prospects in the system.

Major-league ETA: 2025

 10. Alec Burleson   

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

The 22-year-old outfielder has probably been the breakout player in the Cardinals farm system this season, beginning the year at Peoria, earning a quick promotion to Springfield and a subsequent assignment to Memphis. A left-handed hitter, Burleson was a supplemental pick between the second and third rounds of the 2020 draft out of East Carolina. Spread across the three levels, he has hit 18 homers and posted a .290 average. Depending on other moves which might come over the winter, it’s possible that Burleson could come to spring training next year battling for a roster spot as a backup outfielder.

Major-league ETA: 2022

11. Zack Thompson

Last year’s ranking: 3

The drop in Thompson’s ranking from 2020 to this year is really not all his fault. After pitching just 15 innings in 2019, when he was the Cardinals’ first-round pick out of Kentucky, then missing last season, the Cardinals put him in Triple A Memphis this season when in retrospect it might have been better for him, like Liberatore, to start in Springfield. The right-handed Thompson, who will turn 24 in October, struggled through the first half of the season, posting a 8.91 ERA through the end of June. He has shown progress lately, however, allowing just two runs in a combined 17 innings in his last three starts, an encouraging sign that he might be catching up to the level of the league.

Major-league ETA: 2022

12. Michael McGreevy  

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

The Cardinals’ top pick in this year’s draft, the right-handed McGreevy has yet to make his professional debut following his college season at UC-Santa Barbara. McGreevy’s best attribute is that he throws strikes. He walked only 11 hitters in 101 innings during the college season, a trend the Cardinals certainly hope continues as he transitions to pro baseball. McGreevy, who turned 21 in July, could move quickly through the organization but likely will begin his career at Palm Beach sometime before the end of this season.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 13. Jhon Torres

Last year’s ranking: 13

Even though his ranking remains the same, Torres has shown this season how much progress he has made offensively in the last two years, even without playing in 2020. When he was on the Peoria Chiefs in 2019, he struggled, hitting just .167 before having to go back to rookie ball. The Chiefs were a low Class A team then, but this year, the now 21-year-old Torres has hit almost 100 points higher, and shown some power potential, even though the Chiefs have moved up to the high A level. The Cardinals hope Torres can continue to show that progress when he moves up again to Double A.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 14. Ryan Holgate

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

The Cardinals selected the 21-year-old outfielder from the University of Arizona with their supplemental pick between the second and third round in this year’s draft. A lefthanded hitter, Holgate hit both for average (.351) and showed some power (11 homers in 200-plus at-bats) this season for the Wildcats. He was assigned to low A Palm Beach to begin his pro career, along with several other college players selected in this year’s draft, and the Cardinals would be more than pleased if he progresses as quickly as the college outfielder they drafted last year, Alec Burleson.

Major-league ETA: 2025

 15. Jose DaVila

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

An 18-year-old righthander from Venezuela, DaVila was signed as a free agent in 2019 but then didn’t pitch last year because of the pandemic. Already 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, DaVila has the physical frame to get stronger with a mid 90s fastball and the ability to spin the ball, skills that project him as a candidate for a mid-rotation starter in the majors. He has split this season between the Florida Complex League team and low A Palm Beach.

Major-league ETA: 2026

16. Jeremy Rivas

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

One of the Cardinals’ 2019 international signees, the 18-year-old Rivas has been the primary shortstop this season for the Florida Complex League team. He is very steady defensively, even if there are some questions about his range, but scouts believe he has the skillset to remain at shortstop as he moves up in the organization having been impressed with his baseball IQ and his understanding of the position despite his young age.

Major-league ETA: 2026

17. Carlos Carmona

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

Carmona is the youngest player to make this list, having just turned 17 on July 1. A righthanded hitter, Carmona is playing center field in the Dominican Summer League and scouts believe there is a lot of projection for the 6-foot-2 Carmona to become a power hitter as he develops and gets older and stronger, with the ability to move to one of the corner spots if he can’t stay in center as he moves up in the organization. Carmona doesn’t have plus speed but moves well and runs good routes in the outfield.

Major-league ETA: 2027

18. Leo Berna

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

It will be interesting to watch and compare Bernal with another young catching prospect, Jake Burns, as both begin to move up through the organization. A native of Panama, the 17-year-old Bernal is playing in the Dominican this summer after signing as part of the 2020 international class. As was the case with Burns, Bernal impressed Cardinals scouts with his performance in various international competitions the last few years, including in the Little League World Series. He has a plus-arm behind the plate and also is a switch-hitter.

Major-league ETA: 2026

19. Luis Pino

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

A native of Cuba who signed with the Cardinals earlier this year, Pino is playing center field in the Dominican Summer League but profiles better as a corner outfielder going forward. Pino is shorter (5-foot-11) and stockier than Carmona so there is not as much physical projection as he gets older. He has impressed coaches and scouts with how hard he hits the ball, even if didn’t always result in a base hit.

Major-league ETA: 2027

20. Delvin Perez

Last year’s ranking: Unranked

This year began with Perez, a former first-round draft pick, earning a somewhat surprising non-roster invitation to major-league spring training and has gotten better for Perez since. After using the time made available because of last year’s canceled season to get bigger and stronger, Perez has regained his prospect status with an impressive season at Springfield. Still only 22 years old, Perez will have to be added to the 40-man roster this winter or risk being exposed to other teams through the Rule 5 draft.

Major-league ETA: 2023

21. Jake Burns

Last year’s ranking: 16

A native of Australia, Burns was another player who had his pro debut delayed for a year because of the pandemic. The 19-year-old catcher is playing for the Florida Complex League team. He is a bat-first catcher, but also knows how well he plays defensively will be important to his progression through the organization.

Major-league ETA: 2025

Here is the list of additional players to watch at each of the Cardinals’ five U.S.-based affiliates:

Memphis – First baseman Juan Yepez has risen steadily through the organization since he was acquired in a trade from the Braves for Matt Adams in 2017. This has been a breakout year for the 23-year-old, however, with 19 home runs combined between Springfield and Memphis. He has certainly put himself into consideration for a spot on the 40-man roster this winter after hitting just 26 homers in 1,311 career minor-league at-bats coming into this season.

Springfield – Another player who has improved as he advanced through the system is infielder Brandon Donovan, 24, who was a 7th-round pick out of South Alabama in the 2018 draft. Promoted from Peoria to Springfield he has responded with a .322 average in his first 41 games in Double A, where he has logged time at all four infield positions plus left field.

Peoria – Other players have earned most of the headlines for the new high A affiliate, but it’s 24-year-old Chandler Redmond who leads the team with 13 homers. A 32nd-round pick out of Gardner-Webb in  2019, Redmond made the jump to high A from rookie-level Johnson City, where he led the team with 12 homer as they won the Appalachian League title in 2019. He has played all over the field for the Chiefs, but his future probably will be at first base. He was promoted to Springfield on Tuesday.

Palm Beach – A righthanded pitcher, 20-year-old Dionys Rodriguez has been a starter in low A this summer, primarily to get innings, even though he profiles as a reliever as he moves up in the system with his fastball-slider mix. Scouts believe Rodriguez will have an uptick in his velocity as a reliever and that should help him continue to pound the strikezone, having recorded 44 strikeouts in 34 innings this season while only walking 12.

Complex League – A righthanded hitting outfielder, 20-year-old Adanson Cruz has been in the organization since 2018 but is playing his first season in the U.S. this summer. He has been playing center, but could move to the corner in the future with the potential to both hit for power and average. He was one of the players who graduated from high school last year at the Cardinals’ academy in the Dominican Republic.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo of Nolan Gorman by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.