Balancing injury risk versus reward of top pitching prospects presents draft challenge for Cardinals

By Rob Rains

Randy Flores has been through enough amateur drafts now as the Cardinals’ scouting director to know that each year’s evaluation process presents its own set of challenges and unique circumstances.

For Flores and the rest of the Cardinals scouts, the planning for next month’s draft has been no exception.

As the Cardinals begin their final review and analysis of all of the high school, junior college and college players eligible for this year’s draft, one of the biggest differences from past years is the number of highly ranked pitchers, both on the college and high school side, who are either coming off surgery or didn’t pitch a full season for one reason or another.

“It’s a unique and complicated scenario,” Flores said. “I’m curious to see if this is something that becomes a norm or if this is something that becomes a byproduct of some mixture of circumstances of what we are seeing this year.”

The Cardinals have the 22nd pick in the draft, which begins on July 17, and as a result of the uncertain status of so many quality pitchers, there will no doubt be several of them still on the board when it’s time for Flores and his lieutenants to make their selection.

Balancing the risk-reward of any draft pick, especially when millions of dollars are involved, is always a challenge – but adding in the medical concerns makes it even more difficult.

“There are a couple of things that we have to really examine and make sure that we have fully digested and come up with a plan about how we want to attack it,” Flores said. “I’m hopeful that with the process that we have in place that we are able to make the best decision possible given the complexity of predicting someone’s health, especially in light of past injury issues.

“There are pitchers who have gaps in their playing history. You can squint and see dozens of those just in the college ranks, and all teams are navigating where that fits on their board, given the circumstances.”

Picking in the same part of the first round where the Cardinals normally pick – their first selection has ranged from 18 to 23 under Flores (except for the 2017 draft, when they did not have a first-round pick) a strategy that seems to have worked for them is to set up their board, then see who falls lower than was expected.

What could affect that process this year, unlike recent drafts, is the strong likelihood – in part because of all the pitching concerns – that the first dozen or so picks in the draft could all be position players.

“It only takes one surprise to create a domino effect,” Flores said. “That could be historic.”

As the Cardinals evaluate the pitchers who would have questions attached to their selection, they will rely on the review of medical records by team doctors and performance personnel.

“There is a pretty robust medical review process because of the MLB combine,” Flores said. “There is never 100 percent accuracy, because there are different interpretations of health, but I am confident we will get to the best answer possible.”

All of the pitching questions also will force Flores and his scouts into a comparison, trying to rank and place pitchers who do have a complete season, or more, of data available to analyze versus those who have limited results in the last year or so because they are recovering from injury, are still hurt or had another reason they didn’t pitch.

How it all plays out won’t be known until draft night, but here are five pitchers who might still be available when the Cardinals make their first selection who, in many other years, would likely all be off the board:

Kumar Rocker  –  A former Vanderbilt star, the righthanded Rocker is one of the biggest wild cards in the draft. He was the 10th overall pick in 2021, but the Mets declined to offer him a contract because of medical issues. Instead of going back to school, Rocker is pitching this spring for a team in the independent Frontier League trying to demonstrate to teams that he is healthy.

Connor Prielipp – A lefthander from Alabama, many of the draft experts believed that Prielipp was headed toward being a top five selection this year before he underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2021. He has thrown twice for scouts this spring, including what was described as a very positive outing at the combine last week. The concern is that he has been limited to 28 innings over the last two years.

Carson Whisenhunt – A lefthander from East Carolina, Whisenhunt’s health isn’t a question. He missed this entire spring season after testing positive for a banned substance (which has not been identified) over the winter. He made his 2022 debut on June 12 in the Cape Cod League, and Flores was on hand for that game before flying cross-country to get to the MLB combine in San Diego.

Dylan Lesko – Considered the top high school pitcher in this class before undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this spring, Lesko is a righthander from Georgia. Because he is still in the early stages of his rehab and recovery, selecting Lesko might be the riskiest pick of any of the pitchers with medical concerns, despite the high upside if he does have a 100 percent recovery from the surgery.

Brandon Barreira – A high school lefthander from Florida, Barreira made the decision to end his season before his team’s schedule was over to limit his chances of being hurt before the draft. The question about Barreira isn’t about his health or his pitching ability, it will be about what team’s think of his reason for stopping his season early.

“If someone drops because of a health risk or if he’s not pitching a complete season this year, it further complicates the board for all of us,” Flores said. “One of the things we will have to decide is whether the risk warrants the selection at a certain spot.”

If the Cardinals elect to play it saver because of medical concerns, there still will be plenty of pitchers to chose from, including high school lefthander Robby Snelling, prep righthander Brock Porter and college arms such as Cooper Hjerpe of Oregon State, Gabriel Hughes of Gonzaga, Blake Tidwell of Tennessee and Justin Campbell of Oklahoma State. They could also pivot and take a position player, hoping to find the next Nolan Gorman or Jordan Walker.

Unlike some recent drafts, the Cardinals do not have any extra picks in the 20 rounds this year. They will make two choices on the first night of the draft, the first-round pick and their pick in the second round, number 59 overall. Rounds 3-10 will be conducted on July 18 and rounds 11-20 on July 19.

Having the draft pushed back a month to July has been a pleasant development for Flores, who said his biggest travel challenge this spring, other than the sticker shock of the cost of his airline tickets, was racing to the gate to catch a flight, and luckily not having many problems with cancelations or delays which seemed to be the norm across the country.

“What I enjoy about having the draft later is the time provided to process, audit and review, using the tools that are afforded to us,” he said. “In previous drafts it was a sprint to the conference tournaments, and then you blink and you are lining up your board.”

Another difference is that this year, for the first time since 2019, the Cardinals will be able to bring all of their scouts to St. Louis for the draft.

“All of the different departments involved are looking forward to that,” Flores said.

Photo of Kumar Rocker by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

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