By Rob Rains
As the Arizona Fall League enters its final week, Cooper Hjerpe has already accomplished his primary goal of pitching in the prospect-laden league.
He has stayed healthy.
The Cardinals’ first-round draft pick in 2022 wasn’t able to say that during the regular season, when he was shut down from May until September after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his elbow while pitching for the Class A Peoria Chiefs.
That injured limited Hjerpe to just 41 innings in the regular season – after not pitching at all for the organization in 2022 following a heavy work load during his collegiate season at Oregon State before the draft.
“For me it’s kind of a little refresh and hitting the reset button,” Hjerpe said of his Fall League experience. “Mentally I want to get back to that competitive edge or playing the game, developing that muscle memory. It’s great to be back in the swing of things.”
Each organization was allowed two starting pitchers on the Fall League rosters, and with the Cardinals’ spots filled by Tekoah Roby and Inohan Paniagua, Hjerpe has been pitching in relief – which likely is a better assignment now considering his lack of innings pitched during the season.
Hjerpe has worked 8 1/3 innings during the fall league regular season, recording 15 strikeouts. He has had some command issues, with six walks, but that wasn’t unexpected considering his lack of work the last two years.
The change in role is only for the fall, however, and Hjerpe will go to spring training in his familiar role of being a starter.
“This isn’t a role change or anything,” Hjerpe said. “It helps me keep throwing and start the ramp up for spring training.”
The injury was the first in Hjerpe’s career and did provide a kind of wake-up call.
“At first I thought I had torn my UCL or something,” Hjerpe said. “I realized it could always be worse. I could have been out for a year with Tommy John. It was the best-case scenario in my situation but wasn’t ideal.
“It was a good self-check. You don’t realize how drastic an injury can change your career until it happens to you. I’m just happy to be here and keep playing.”
Hjerpe’s pitching coach on the Scottsdale Scorpions, Eric Peterson, also works as the pitching coach for the Double A Springfield Cardinals, and he has enjoyed getting the extra chance to work with Hjerpe – who well could be pitching for him again next season.
“He’s got good stuff,” Peterson said. “It’s a good opportunity for him to compete. He’s got a few things to work on for next year.”
Hjerpe was one of three Cardinals’ prospects who earned a spot in Sunday night’s league All-Star game, along with Roby and outfielder Victor Scott II. Hjerpe appeared in relief in the eighth inning, retiring the only two hitters he faced on a foul popup and a swinging strikeout.
It also was a good game for Roby and Scott. Roby started the game for the National League and worked a perfect first inning, getting the leadoff hitter to ground out before striking out the next two hitters.
Scott started in center field and led off the first inning with a double, then stole third. Scott drew walks in his next two plate appearances and each time stole another base, giving him three on the night.
For the regular season, Roby has recorded 18 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings over his five starts.
Scott has 16 stolen bases in 22 games to go along with three homers and a .272 average. Impressively he has also drawn 10 walks while striking out only eight times. He is one off the league lead for steals behind Washington U. product Caleb Durbin from the Yankees system.
It is likely that Scott, Roby and Hjerpe all will be in the Cardinals spring training camp when it opens in February through non-roster invitations.
Here is a rundown of how the other five Cardinals’ prospects have fared this fall:
Edwin Nunez – The important number for Nunez, a hard-throwing righthanded reliever who spent most of the regular season at Peoria, is that he has issued only two walks in 8 2/3 innings. Trying to cut down on his walk total has been the focus for Nunez since he broke into the Cardinals’ system in 2021 with Palm Beach and averaged more than a walk per inning. This fall Nunez also has recorded two saves.
Inohan Paniagua – The righthander has appeared in five games, covering 13 2/3 innings, recording 13 strikeouts. He also missed a good portion of the regular season because of an injury.
Andre Granillo – Another reliever who reached Triple A Memphis in the regular season, Granillo has 13 strikeouts in nine innings this fall, allowing only two runs.
Jeremy Rivas – The regular shortstop for most of the fall for Scottsdale, Rivas has hit .236 in 20 games but still is trying to learn how to reduce his strikeout total, striking out 21 times in 72 at-bats. He was the youngest player in the Cardinals’ spring camp last year and figures to be back again next spring as a non-roster player. He spent the regular season in Peoria.
Jimmy Crooks – The catcher at Peoria for the regular season, Crooks got in some games behind the plate this fall while also seeing time as the DH and at first base. He struggled offensively, hitting .179 over 39 at-bats in 13 games.
The regular season in Arizona ends on Thursday but the Scorpions are one of four teams battling for a spot in next weekend’s playoffs.
Photo of Cooper Hjerpe by MLB via Getty Images
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains