So far in this series we have looked into the three NL Central Division Farm Systems who have taken some hits over the past few years and find themselves with either lack of depth or nearly barren of any elite players as it pertains to the MLB Pipeline Top 100 Prospects. The Chicago Cubs are currently ranked at #23, the Cincinnati Reds slot in at #24 and the Milwaukee Brewers are pulling up the rear at #30. The last division rival that needs to be examined, the St. Louis Cardinals, currently sit only three spots behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, landing at #18; and unfortunately they are once again a Farm System on the rise.
The St. Louis Cardinals have captured 4 of the last 10 Central Divisions Titles and 11 in total since its inception in 1994. In recent years the team from The Gateway City has held the blueprint for building a competitor from within, as well as identifying and developing talent from places and in players that many other teams had overlooked. I honestly can’t even count the number of times I have heard someone referred to as a Cardinal’s Type Prospect over the years and with them climbing the ranks there are almost certain to be a lot more.
Currently the Cardinals have three players in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects; Dylan Carlson (#17), Nolan Gorman (#47) and Matthew Liberatore (#58). As many will remember Liberatore was acquired in the often questioned trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, where the Cardinals gave up Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena. Also acquired in this trade was 19 year old catching prospect, Edgardo Rodriguez, who is not in St. Louis’ Top 30, but added catching depth to an already loaded system. Top Catching prospect, Andrew Knizner (#6), who is one of three in the Top 30, is set to graduate after being promoted during September call ups last season. It should be noted that he struggled during this time, but I wouldn’t be too concerned as he performed well at every level prior to this. In 66 games at AAA Memphis he batted .276 with 12 home runs and 22 extra base hits. With Yadier Molina nearing the end of his career, it could be Knizner who takes over in the long term form the Cardinals. As I did in the first three articles in this series, I will use the rest of my time to discuss the Top 5 prospects in the system in order to avoid writing a novel article on the subject; not something I would be totally opposed to by the way.
1) Dylan Carson-OF (MLB Pipeline #17)
Carlson was selected in the 1st Round (33rd Overall) of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft from Elk Grove High School in California. The prep baseball star struggled at times in his first two years of his professional career, compiling a .246 AVG and a 25.8% Strike Out Rate. However, at an average of 3 years younger than his competitors, he truly held his own by belting 10 home runs and 45 total extra base hit.
The 2018 season was a little bit of transition year for the young outfielder as he started back in Peoria with the Low A with the Chief, but was eventually promoted to the High A/Advanced Palm Beach Cardinals prior to end of the season. He did not experience great success, but the powers that be made the decision to promote the 20 year old to the AA Springfield Cardinals to begin the 2019 season. They were handsomely rewarded for their risky move with an MVP performance from Carlson in the Texas League as he hit 21 homers while slashing .281/.364/.518. For the last 18 games of the year he was promoted to the AAA Memphis Redbirds where he continued his tear; crushing another 5 home runs and posting a 1.098 OPS.
Prior to the current shutdown he was knocking on the door to the big league club. Even if he doesn’t get his shot this year it won’t be long until he is regular in the outfield at Busch Stadium, torturing my Buccos as many Cardinals players have over the years.
2) Nolan Gorman-3B (MLB Pipeline #47)
Gorman was picked by the Cardinals in the 1st Round (19th Overall) in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from Sandra Day O’Conner High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Immediately after being selected he was assigned to the Rookie Advanced where he exploded; hitting 11 homers and batting .350 in only 38 games. He earned a promotion to Low A Peoria before the season ended, which may have been inadvisable as his average dropped to .202, but he did hit an additional 6 home runs. Last year he started off back with the Chiefs where the power continued to be unquestionable as hit another 10 homers and he improved on his patience at the plate; decreasing his K% (36.4% to 28%) and increasing his BB% (9.3% to 11.3%), which earned him another promotion to the High A/Advanced Palm Beach Cardinals at only 19 years old. He held his own for the remainder of the year improving upon his batting average (.241 to .256) and hit 5 more homers. There is no doubt that a return to Palm Beach was in his future, however if he continued to produce I could have easily seen him in AA by the end of the season.
3) Matthew Liberatore-LHP (MLB Pipeline #58)
Liberatore has yet to throw a pitch in the Cardinals organization, but already sits right behind long time friend Gorman on the Top 30. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 1st Round of the 2018 (16th Overall) Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Arizona the young left handed hurler has already pitched at 3 levels in his short career; finding different degrees of success at each. However, there have been some concerns about his walk rate as he has consistently allowed around 3.6 BB/9 and his K/9 has decreased at each level. In spite of these issues, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Each of the 4 pitches in his arsenal are average to above average; Fastball (60), Curveball (60), Changeup (55) and Slider (50). He has been focusing more on development and command to this point and still has room to grow, which points toward almost limitless potential.
4) Iván Herrera-C
Since being signed for $200,000 on July 7, 2016 this young man from from Panama has consistently shown that he can flat out rake in the box. Over three seasons he has slashed .309/.397/.431 with 11 homers, 9 coming this past season between Low A Peoria and High A/Advanced Palm Beach. As is a pattern with the Cardinals, they chose to challenge Herrera following a successful season by assigning him to the Arizona Fall League at only 19 years of age. He responded by batting .324 and showing patience at the plate, 5 walks and only 4 strikeouts. At this time his defense behind the plate is behind his presence at it, but he has been working extremely hard at blocking, receiving and framing. He has also continued to develop his arm strength, which along with his overall athleticism leaves room for further growth at the position.
5) Zach Thompson-LHP
Prior to being selected in the 1st Round (19th Overall) in the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Kentucky, Thompson has suffered some setbacks in his young career; such as failing a post draft physical in 2016 after being picked by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 11th Round. That along with other injuries caused some concern prior to his senior year, until he went 6-1 in 14 starts with a 2.40 and 130 strikeouts in 90 innings. Immediately after being drafted he was assigned briefly to the Gulf Coast League Cardinals before being promoted to the High A/Advanced Palm Beach Cardinals. He only pitched in 13 games (2 starts) and 15.1 innings, but was extremely impressive as he struck out 23 batters, while only walking 4. As of right now Thompson is slated to join the Cardinals rotation in 2022, but this lay-off could obviously delay this trajectory. However, when he does arrive he should be a consistently contributor at the middle of the rotation for years to come.
Of all the Farm Systems in the Central Division, the Cardinals always seem to hold the key to identifying, acquiring and developing talent; sometimes from the most unexpected places. This along with their ability and willingness to bring in big name talent from others, makes them a tough team for others to supplant at the top of the division. It has obviously happened from time to time, but the Cardinals have never made it any easy task and with the level of talent they have in the minors, it is not going to get any easier.