Re-ranking Cardinals top prospects – 2020 draft class, led by Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn, rises to the top

By Rob Rains

They pulled their scouts off the road in the middle of March, about the same time high schools and colleges around the country cancelled their 2020 seasons after playing only a handful of games.

Four months later, with virtually no new information to rely on, the Cardinals sat down to make their selections in the amateur draft, shortened to only five rounds because of the pandemic.

“In the preparations for our board, we tried to tackle it similar to how we had every other year, except it was absent games from the middle of March on,” said Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ assistant general manager and scouting director. “That sounds weird, but what I mean is we had regional meetings, we had crosschecker meetings. They were all on zoom.

“We had our player discussions, and those discussions were clearly absent a large part of what goes into a draft process. But they also did contain our evaluations of the players up to that point. We were as diligent as possible to make sure we maximized those opportunities.”

Both the scouts and the performance department refined how they went about their jobs – with the goal of lining up the team’s draft board “as similar as we would hope for in a full year,” Flores said.

It was an important draft for the Cardinals, who had four of the top 70 picks.

Two years later, it is even more obvious how important that draft was – all it takes to figure that out is to look at the list of the organization’s top prospects.

Three of the top four, and four of the top six, were selected by the Cardinals with those picks.

“I really think it’s a testament to the kids themselves,” Flores said. “Just think of what they were going through that year. They had been prepping for that year their entire life with hopes of a professional draft. Then they were selected, and they don’t have a season to go to.”

With a plan devised by Gary LaRocque, director of player development, and the performance department, the players got through 2020 – and then started to showcase their ability when they finally were able to play games again last year.

With limited analytic data to rely on, the Cardinals chose high school players with their top three selections in 2020 – Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn and Tink Hence. Their fourth pick was a college outfielder, Alec Burleson.

“Hopefully 10 years from now it will be one of the best drafts ever and those guys will be playing for the Cardinals for a long time,” said Chase Brewster, the president and founder of the Arkansas Sticks organization where Winn and Hence were teammates in the summer of 2019 and Walker was on a tournament team the previous year.

“Jordan and Masyn are prospects that every organization wishes they had one of and the Cardinals have both of them,” Brewster said.

There was more than luck involved with the Cardinals landing all three of those players. Part of the reason, Brewster believes, was the influence of area scout Dirk Kinney, who also is a part-time coach with the Sticks.

‘I think the Cardinals just worked harder than everybody else,” Brewster said. “They knew what kind of people they (Walker, Winn and Hence) were … More than anything they were all great kids, some of the greatest kids we’ve ever had.

“In 10-plus years that I’ve been coaching, Masyn Winn is the best leader I’ve ever been around bar none. I don’t even know who’s second because he is so far out ahead.”

Because of his coaching duties, Kinney got to spend time with Winn, who is from Texas, and Hence, who is from Arkansas, one of the states Kinney is responsible for scouting for the Cardinals. Winn and Hence were two of the players who shared a house with Kinney that summer.

Kinney also was with Walker at the PDP Trials for USA Baseball in the summer of 2019.

“He won’t like me saying it but I don’t think Dirk Kinney gets enough praise,” Brewster said. “There were questions about Masyn’s character and signability, there were questions about Tink’s health. Dirk had literally been in the same house with those guys for weeks at a time. He was able to say that what people think they see or speculate was wrong. He had been in the dugout with them, he had seen them in the biggest situations – he knew they were kids you wanted.

“I really think Dirk being around those kids gave the Cardinals an upper hand compared to other teams … He knew what kind of people they were as well as obviously being super talented.”

Flores, like Brewster, has watched as those three players have quickly climbed the prospect lists.

“There’s a specialness to the way that those young men have gone about their business,” Flores said. “Clearly they had the energy and the enthusiasm, but there’s also a maturity and a very strong competitiveness that drives these guys.”

This is the seventh consecutive year that STLSportsPage has re-ranked the top prospects in the Cardinals’ organization, following the amateur draft and the trading deadline.

Before revealing the complete list of the top 22 prospects for 2022, a reminder about the standard disclaimers for those who might be new to this list, which include one change in the arbitrary rules from past years.

There are three players on the list who made their major-league debuts earlier this year but are now back in Triple A. Because they played sparingly with the Cardinals, and still have their rookie eligibility, the decision was made to include them on this list.

The other rules from past years have not changed, which means that players 25 or order are not eligible. Also, these rankings are based on potential for major-league success, not how close a player is to reaching the majors.

One player has graduated from the 2021 list, second baseman Nolan Gorman, who had been the number one prospect the last two years. One other player came off the list because he was traded to the Pirates at this year’s deadline, infielder Malcom Nunez, who ranked eighth on the 2021 list.

Six players who were ranked a year ago fell off the list for a variety of reasons – primarily because the Cardinals’ farm system is much stronger now than it was a year ago. Dropped from the list, but still in the organization, with their ranking from last year, were righthander Edwin Nunez (7), outfielder Jhon Torres (13), outfielder Ryan Holgate (14), outfielder Carlos Carmona (17), shortstop Delvin Perez (20) and catcher Jake Burns (21).

This year’s list includes two players selected in this year’s draft, one selected in the 2021 draft, one signed as a minor-league free agent last winter, one signed as a non-drafted free agent last summer and two who were in the organization a year ago but did not crack the rankings.

The rankings include an additional player-to-watch at each of the Cardinals’ five U.S. based affiliates – Memphis, Springfield, Peoria, Palm Beach and the Florida Complex League.

All statistics are through games of Aug. 10.

Here is the STLSportsPage re-ranking of the top 22 prospects in the Cardinals organization for 2022:

1. Jordan Walker

Last year’s ranking: 2

This should not come as any surprise to anyone who has paid even limited attention to the Cardinals organization over the last year. Walker has shot into the top 10 on lists of the top prospects in the game. He was just 19 when this season began and the Cardinals challenged him with a promotion to Double A, where he was the youngest player in the Texas League. Walker, who turned 20 in May, has more than held his own in the league as he displayed the potential to both hit for power and average that he showed in Class A in 2021, posting a .305 average with 13 homers, 49 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. What will be interesting to watch is the transition Walker has just begun from third base to the outfield, a move that could put him on a quicker path to St. Louis.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 2. Masyn Winn

Last year’s ranking: 4

There isn’t much doubt that the 20-year-old Winn could play shortstop defensively in the majors right now, with the timeline for that promotion to be determined more by the progress he makes offensively. After beginning the season in Peoria, Winn moved up to Springfield in late May and performed so well at both levels that the organization dropped the idea of developing Winn as a two-way player, knowing he could throw in the upper 90s from the mound. Between the two levels he has a .302 average with 11 homers, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. As is the case with his close friend Walker, Winn will get bigger and stronger as he gets older – which should only help him offensively.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 3. Gordon Graceffo

Last year’s ranking: Not ranked

The fastest climber on this list, the righthanded Graceffo was the Cardinals’ fifth-round pick out of Villanova in the 2021 draft and had barely begun his career when last year’s rankings came out. This year has been a different story as he roared through the Midwest League to begin the year, earning a quick promotion to Double A where the 22-year-old quickly established himself as one of the best starters in the league. Combined between the two levels he has a 2.94 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 113 innings and only 16 walks. Capable of reaching triple digits, Graceffo is a strikethrower with hit and miss stuff – which could continue to push him quickly toward the major leagues.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 4. Tink Hence

Last year’s ranking: 9

The Cardinals are continuing to bring the righthanded Hence along slowly but he has pitched enough to impress people not only in his own organization but personnel from other teams too – the reason his name came up in trade talks this summer. Hence, who turned 20 in early August, has been at Palm Beach all season, where he has pitched just 38 innings, but in those innings has 64 strikeouts and a 1.18 ERA. Hence likely won’t be under the same workload limitations next season and could rise quickly to the top levels of the farm system.

Major-league ETA:2024

 5. Matthew Liberatore

Last year’s ranking: 3

The 22-year-old Liberatore is just as good of a prospect as he was a year ago and the reasons why he is two spots lower on this list is a reflection of how Graceffo and Hence have risen, not that Liberatore has fallen. The lefthander has not pitched as well in his limited chances at the major-league level as he would have liked, but those outings showed him what he needs to do improve and gave him something to work on at the Triple A level, which he has done, and will have more prepared to earn a spot in the rotation as soon as next season. In 14 starts at Memphis he has a 4.77 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 77 innings.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 6. Alec Burleson

Last year’s ranking: 10

The fourth player from the 2020 draft class to be ranked high on this list, all the 23-year-old Burleson has done since joining the organization is hit. He has been among the top hitters in the Triple A International League all season after quickly moving up three levels in 2021, his first season, after the 2020 minor-league season was cancelled. In 91 games he has a .329 average with 19 homers and 74 RBIs.Two of the reasons the lefthanded hitting outfielder has yet to earn a promotion to the majors is the crowded outfield situation in St. Louis and the fact that he has another year remaining before he needs to be placed on the 40-man roster but that won’t keep him from making the jump much longer.

Major-league ETA: 2023

 7. Zack Thompson

Last year’s ranking: 11

The Cardinals’ first-round pick in the 2019 draft, Thompson has worked as both a starter and reliever this year and has enjoyed more success coming out of the bullpen, especially in his limited time with the Cardinals. The lefthander has allowed only one earned run in 17 innings as a reliever at the major-league level with 14 strikeouts. Thompson, 24, also found success in the bullpen during his time in the Arizona Fall League but it still is likely too early to say which role he will fill long-term as his career moves forward, possibly depending on where he is needed most. At Memphis he has 62 strikeouts and 17 walks in 48 innings.

Major-league ETA: September

 8. Ivan Herrera

Last year’s ranking: 6

For the last few years many in the Cardinals organization have considered Herrera the long-term successor to Yadier Molina. The future arrived a little earlier than planned for Herrera, as injuries to Molina brought the 22-year-old to the majors this season. He was just 2-of-18 in 11 games but that performance hasn’t changed the opinion that he will get a long look in 2023, when the Cardinals expect he will perform much better offensively. In 42 games at Memphis he hasa .276 average with three homers and 22 RBIs.

Major-league ETA: 2023

9. Moises Gomez

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

One of the surprise stories not only in the Cardinals’ system but throughout the minors, Gomez has been among the top home run hitters in all of the minors this season, hitting 29 homers combined between Springfield and Memphis. Signed as a minor-league free agent after he was released by Tampa Bay, the 23-year-old outfielder had never before hit more than 19 homers in a season. Perhaps just as important as the home runs has been the fact that he has hit for a much higher average this season than in past years, a combined .298 average with 72 RBIs in 90 games between Double A and Triple A.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 10.Cooper Hjerpe

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

The Cardinals’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, the lefthanded Hjerpe is one of two players selected this year to make this list, even before making his pro debut. As they do with almost all of the college pitchers they draft, the Cardinals will limit Hjerpe’s appearances this summer after a heavy work load this spring at Oregon State, where the 21-year-old recorded 161 strikeouts in 103 innings. Hjerpe could move quickly through the system as he begins to pitch, much like Graceffo has done this year.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 11. Michael McGreevy

Last year’s ranking: 12

The top pick by the Cardinals in the 2021 draft, the 22-year-old McGreevy earned a quick promotion from Peoria to Springfield, where the righthander has learned that how well a pitcher is performing in the hitter-friendly Texas League is not always reflected by their statistics. He is more of a pitch-to-contact pitcher than Graceffo but can still get his share of strikeouts, a combined total of 92 in 108 innings to go along with a 3.89 ERA.

Major-league ETA: 2024

 12. Jonathan Mejia

Last year’s ranking: Not ranked

The youngest player on this list, Mejia is a switch-hitting shortstop who turned 17 in April. Already 6-foot, 185 pounds, he is playing his first season for the Dominican Summer League team. The Cardinals believe he can hit for average and will develop more power as he gets older and stronger. In 40 games he has a .250 average with five homers and 32 RBIs. Mejia will have to prove that he can play well enough defensively to stick at shortstop as he moves up through the organization.

Major-league ETA: 2028

 13. Inohan Paniagua

Last year’s ranking: Not ranked

This has been a breakout season for Paniagua, 22, who began the year in Palm Beach before moving up to Peoria. After striking out 62 batters and walking 19 in 46 innings last year, the righthander has been even better this season. Combined between the two levels he has 121 strikeouts in 114 innings while compiling a 2.52 ERA. Paniagua has twice been named the organization’s minor-league pitcher of the month.

Major-league ETA: 2025

 14. Won-bin Cho

Last ear’s ranking: Not in the organization

The first amateur player the Cardinals have signed out of the Far East, the South Korean outfielder has had his first pro season interrupted twice by injuries, both times the result of collisions in the outfield. The 18-year-old is a lefthanded hitter who has posted a .205 average in 47 at-bats for the rookie Florida Complex League team. Cho just needs playing time to develop skills that scouts believe will allow him to hit for average and power while also showing he has the defensive talent and speed to stick in center field.

Major-league ETA: 2027

 15. Joshua Baez

Last year’s ranking: 5

 Baez is another young outfielder who has been hurt much of this season, the biggest reason behind his ranking falling 10 spots this year after he was the Cardinals’ second round pick out of a Boston area high school in 2021. Like many prep players, especially those coming from a cold-weather state, Baez, now 19, struggled in his transition to pro ball last year, hitting just .158 with 28 strikeouts in 76 at-bats for the Complex League team. He has a .231 average this year in just 26 at-bats. Despite that slow start, the belief is that he has the size, strength and skills to develop into a power hitter.

Major-league ETA: 2027

 16. Jose Davila

Last year’s ranking: 15

A 19-year-old righthander, Davila has split this season between the Complex League team and Palm Beach. Already 6-foot-3, Davila has the physical frame to get bigger and stronger which let him gain a little more velocity out of his already mid-90s fastball. Combined between the two levels he has 40 strikeouts in 39 innings with a 1.85 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .183 batting average.

Major-league ETA: 2026

17. Leo Bernal

Last year’s ranking: 18

Just 18, Bernal has spent the year at Palm Beach, where the switch-hitting catcher has hit three homers and posted a .255 average with three homers and 20 RBIs in 30 games, skipping the Complex League team after spending his first pro season in 2021 playing on the Dominican Summer League team. Scouts believe that Bernal, like Herrera a native of Panama, has both the offensive and defensive skills necessary to stick behind the plate.

Major-league ETA: 2026

 18. Jeremy Rivas

Last year’s ranking: 16

The third shortstop on this list along with Winn and Mejia, the 19-year-old Rivas spent this season at Palm Beach, where he has earned praise for his defense and his high baseball IQ but has struggled offensively, striking out in 81 times in 353 at-bats while compiling a .249 average. Rivas will have to cut down on that total as he moves up in the organization since he likely will not hit for power.

Major-league ETA: 2027

19. Luis Pino

Last year’s ranking:19

Pino is a native of Cuba who signed with the Cardinals last year, spending his first pro season in the Dominican. The 18-year-old outfielder moved up to the Complex League team this year and has been getting work in both left field and center, but likely profiles best in the corner as he moves up in the organizations. Scouts believe he can hit for average and has power potential. He has two home runs and 14 RBIs in 26 games but just a .220 average.

Major-league ETA: 2027

20. Brycen Mautz

Last year’s ranking: Not in the organization

The Cardinals’ second pick in this year’s draft, Mautz, like Hjerpe, is a lefthanded pitcher who excelled at throwing strikes and getting swings and misses this spring while pitching at the University of San Diego, recording 129 strikeouts in 90 innings, issuing 22 walks. He has yet to make his pro debut but based on his college experience the 21-year-old could move quickly through the system once he begins to pitch.

Major-league ETA: 2025

 21. Alec Willis

Last year’s ranking: Not ranked

A seventh-round selection out of a Colorado high school in 2021, the 19-year-old righthander is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, a body frame that should allow him to gain velocity on his already mid-90s fastball as he gets older. Willis pitched in only one game last summer and has made four appearances so far this season for the Complex League team, striking out 11 batters in 5 1/3 innings.

Major-league ETA: 2027

 22.Ryan Loutos

Last year’s ranking: Not ranked

A non-drafted senior sign last summer out of Division III Washington University in St. Louis, Loutos has shot up through the Cardinals’ system, reaching Triple A barely a year after he signed. A righthanded reliever, the 23-year-old Loutos sits in the mid 90s and can touch 98, giving him the swing-and-miss ability necessary to pitch out of a major-league bullpen. Combined between stops at Peoria, Springfield and Memphis Loutos has 55 strikeouts in 49 innings.

Major-league ETA: 2024

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

Memphis – Righthander reliever Freddy Pacheco climbed three levels of the farm system in 2021, reaching Memphis, and has been a solid contributor to the Redbirds bullpen this season with 11 saves and 61 strikeouts in 45 innings.

Springfield – Outfielder Mike Antico deserves attention for at least one reason – his ability to steal bases. An eighth-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2021, Antico has 55 steals and has been caught just six times combined between Peoria and Springfield this season.

Peoria – Signed as a minor-league free agent in 2020, Gianluca Dalatri has become the closer for the Chiefs. Physically imposing at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, the righthander has 56 strikeouts in 36 innings while only issuing 12 walks combined between Palm Beach and Peoria, posting a 1.71 ERA.

Palm Beach – Another member of the 2021 draft class, lefthander Alfredo Ruiz (sixth round) has found success coming out of the bullpen in Palm Beach, recording 24 strikeouts and walking four in 18 innings, compiling a 2.45 ERA.

Complex League – The Cardinals signed shortstop Adari Grant out of the Bahamas as an international free agent in 2020. He played in the Dominican last summer and this year has moved to the states, where he has struggled offensively, striking out in about one-third of his at-bats, hitting .234 in 29 games, but at 18 he still has time on his side to figure it out.

Photo of Walker and Winn courtesy of Springfield Cardinals

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.