Yepez, Walker, Liberatore win top awards for Cardinals 2021 minor league

Editor’s note: We’ve been watching first baseman Juan Yepez, third baseman Jordan Walker and left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore for a while and have done features on them. In case you missed them:

Our features on them:

Juan Yepez CLICK HERE.

Jordan Walker CLICK HERE.

Mattew Liberatore CLICK HERE.


Press Release from St. Louis Cardinals Wed. March 16, 2022:

The St. Louis Cardinals announced today their 2021 Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year selections, honoring Juan Yepez, Jordan Walker and Matthew Liberatore for their accomplishments on the field.  This marks the first time since the award’s inception in 1995 that co-recipients have been selected for Player of the Year honors.

“We are pleased to recognize Matthew Liberatore, Juan Yepez, and Jordan Walker as our organizational minor league Pitcher and co-Players of the Year,” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations.  “Matthew and Juan were standouts at the Triple-A level while Jordan quickly adjusted to full-season ball with a strong debut season.  We are excited for the strides all three players have made in their development.”

Yepez, 24, slashed .286/.383/.586 with 27 home runs, 29 doubles, 77 RBI and a .969 OPS across 111 games for Memphis (AAA) and Springfield (AA).  The Venezuelan native led all Cardinals minor league players in home runs, doubles, RBI, slugging and OPS and ranked in the Top 5 in hits (105, 5th), walks (51, 5th) and runs (67, 5th).

After putting up a .958 OPS in 19 games to start the season at Springfield, Yepez was promoted to Memphis on June 1.  He went on to lead all Triple-A East hitters in slugging (.589) and OPS (.971), while ranking in the Top 10 in average (.289, 10th), on-base percentage (.382, 5th), home runs (22, T-5th) and extra-base hits (47, T-6th), despite playing in only 92 games.  Yepez was named the Cardinals August Minor League Player of the Month and a Triple-A Postseason All-Star.  He was added to the Major League roster for the first time in his career for the National League Wild Card Game at Los Angeles on October 6, but did not appear.

Following his successful minor league season, Yepez participated in the 2021 Arizona Fall League earning co-Hitter of the Year honors, hitting .302 with seven home runs and 26 RBI.  He ranked in the Top 10 among AFL leaders in home runs (T-2nd), RBI (2nd), slugging (.640, 4th) and OPS (1.028, 8th) and was named a Fall League All-Star.

“Juan had a breakout season in 2021, hitting for average and power, with good plate discipline across the top two minor league levels and the Arizona Fall League,” said Assistant General Manager & Director of Player Development, Gary LaRocque.

Yepez is the first Latin-born Cardinals minor leaguer to win Player of the Year honors since outfielder Magneuris Sierra won in 2014 and the fifth overall joining Oscar Taveras (2012), Albert Pujols (2000) and Pablo Ozuna (1998).  He was acquired from the Atlanta Braves for 1B Matt Adams in May 2017 and joins Tyler O’Neill (2018) as only the second Cardinals minor leaguer who was not originally drafted or signed by the club to win the award.  Entering 2022, Baseball America ranks him as the organization’s No. 9 overall prospect and named him “Best Hitter for Average” in their Best Tools Survey.  He also ranks as the No. 7 first base prospect by the same publication.

Walker, 19, slashed .317/.388/.548 with 25 doubles, four triples, 14 home runs, 14 stolen bases and a .936 OPS across 82 games for Low-A Palm Beach and High-A Peoria.  The club’s 2020 first-round selection out of Stone Mountain, Ga. was the only Cardinals minor leaguer with at least 14 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 2021 and ranked among Cardinals minor league leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (9th), slugging (3rd), OPS (2nd), hits (103, T-6th), extra-base hits (43, 4th), home runs (T-8th), doubles (5th), runs (63, 7th) and stolen bases (T-5th).

He wasted no time making an impact in his professional debut, hitting a home run on the very first pitch he saw as a member of the Palm Beach Cardinals on May 4 at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.  Despite missing 19 games with a wrist injury, Walker flourished with a .374 average, 1.162 OPS and 18 extra-base hits in 27 games, twice winning Low-A Southeast Player of the Week honors.  He was promoted to Peoria on June 29 and named the Cardinals June Minor League Player of the Month.

In 55 games at Peoria after his promotion, Walker led the Chiefs with 66 hits, eight home runs, 25 extra-base hits, 27 RBI, 39 runs and a .831 OPS.  He finished the 2021 season with a .418 average and .821 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers.

“Jordan had a tremendous start to his professional career and continued to develop and improve as one of the youngest players at the High-A level,” said LaRocque.

Walker is the first Cardinals minor leaguer to win Player of the Year honors playing exclusively below Double-A since outfielder Magneuris Sierra (Gulf Coast League Cardinals) in 2014.  Entering this season, Baseball America named him as the organization’s top overall prospect and “Best Power Hitter” in their Best Tools Survey.  He also ranks as the top third base prospect and No. 24 overall prospect by the same publication.

Liberatore, who had yet to pitch above Low-A prior to the 2021 season, spent the entire season at Triple-A Memphis as a 21-year-old, finishing the season with a 9-9 record and a 4.04 ERA in 22 games.  In his first season of play in the Cardinals organization, he set career-highs and led all Cardinals minor league pitchers in wins, strikeouts (123), innings pitched (124.2), and games started (18).

Liberatore was named the Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Month for June, posting a 3-1 record with a 3.42 ERA in four starts.  He won the award again in August after posting a 2.84 ERA across four starts, including three consecutive 7.0 inning outings allowing just three total earned runs.  The 6’4” southpaw finished the season strong with a 2.67 ERA and 57 strikeouts over his final 10 appearances (57.1 IP).

“Matthew was challenged early at the Triple-A level, worked hard to come up to and exceed the level of the league and ended the season as one of our most consistent pitchers in the system,” stated LaRocque.

In June, the Peoria, Ariz. native helped USA Baseball qualify for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, allowing just two runs across two starts (9.2 IP) with eight strikeouts.  A month later, he started for the National League in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Coors Field, working a perfect first frame and retiring a trio of top 10 prospects on 13 pitches.

A first round draft selection by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 and acquired by the Cardinals via trade in 2020, Liberatore is the first left-handed pitcher to win the award since Austin Gomber earned co-Pitcher of the Year honors in 2015.  Liberatore enters the upcoming season as the organization’s top pitching prospect for the third consecutive season and the No. 50 overall prospect according to Baseball America.

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