The St. Louis Cardinals System

(Image source: Viva El Birdos).

Few systems get as little hype as that of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Last year, the Cardinals usually were placed at the very bottom in farm system rankings, as really nobody was enthused about any St. Louis prospects.

One year later, how much has changed? Let’s take a look.

System Overview:

I mentioned in the opening that the Cardinals were often ranked dead last in farm system rankings last season. One would hope that their first-round pick would work toward helping them get out of that cellar, but while I think 2010 first-rounder Zack Cox is a nice prospect, he’s not even going to appear in this article, since I don’t consider him the best at his position in this system.

You won’t find the Cardinals on any list of “Best Draft Classes of 2010;” although their first four picks have solid shots at the majors, it’s tough to proclaim it any sort of coup for Mozeliak & Co.

Still, though, the Cardinals now find themselves far from the bottom of the pack in farm system rankings (at least in this writer’s humble opinion), thanks to a rather remarkable improvement in 2010 from a number of players in the system.

Suddenly, the Cardinals find themselves with a ton of interesting catchers, second basemen, and third basemen, and the rest of the positions are certainly not black holes. Oscar Taveras could become a star, Matt Carpenter looks like a great bet to be a solid MLB starter, and you have to figure that there’s an everyday catcher in this bunch.

On the pitching side, 2009 first-rounder Shelby Miller has emerged as a blue-chip prospect, and Deryk Hooker isn’t as far behind Miller as one would think. Carlos Matias was almost universally called the best Dominican Summer League arm as well, and there’s good pitching depth behind those front three.

The Cardinals’ biggest problem right now is twofold: 1) Now, a lot of their breakout 2010 stars need to show they can do it again, which some inevitably won’t, and 2) Very little of their top talent (Taveras, Miller, Hooker, Matias, Jenkins, Seth Blair) is out of A-ball, so there are still plenty of hoops to jump.

Still, though, this system has undoubtedly been revitalized.

It was a bit tough to rank these guys, as so many of their big 2010 performers still fall into “sleeper” status. My catcher decision will probably surprise, but I stand firmly behind it. First base was a bit tricky, as was second. I’m firm on placing Carpenter over Cox at third base. As usual, the third outfield spot’s pretty flexible, as is the back one or two slots in the five starting pitchers. The second reliever spot was also a challenge. So, there are certainly a number of spots in this system that could go to any number of players.

Catcher: Juan Castillo. Castillo, a big sleeper, was my #99 overall prospect back in August:

I realize how stupid it is to put Castillo, and [Mariners righthander and #100 prospect Dylan] Unsworth for that matter, on a top 100 list when they’re both nobodies at the lower levels.

Oh well.

I kept looking over Castillo’s numbers, trying to find a flaw in them that would make me go “Oh, he shouldn’t be on the list,” but it just never materialized.

The 20-year-old catcher split his time between the Appy League and the NYPL this year, batting .328/.368/.517.

That’s a potentially sustainable .328, because Castillo only struck out 11 times in 32 games. Potential .300-hitting catcher with some pop? Yeah, that’s good.

What about defense, though? Well, he threw out 16 of 30 batters attempting to steal off him, and has caught 42 of 92 in his career, a Pudge-esque 46%. Castillo’s receiving skills are nothing special for his age, but they aren’t terrible, and he could be a plus defender in that regard down the line.

So, to recap: catcher who makes a ton of contact, has pop, and has one of the best arms in the minors? This may be way premature, but I really think that’s worth this ranking. Of course, like many players, Castillo could implode in full-season ball (a la Josmil Pinto). We’ll just have to see.

Upside: 9.1, Downside: 2.3

First base: Mark Hamilton. It’s tough to call Hamilton a “prospect,” but if 29-year-old Brad Snyder could make my Cubs list, then why not the 26-year-old Hamilton? A .298/.389/.585 line in Triple-A shouldn’t go ignored, and it’s not like the Cardinals need their best first base prospect to be anything more than Pujols insurance, at least for this season. Hamilton will strike out, but he’s got plenty of walks-and-power ability. Will his swing work in the majors? It’s anyone’s guess, but he certainly has more business starting for someone than Casey Kotchman did last year.

Upside: 8.2, Downside: 6.4

Second base: Daniel Descalso. A solid-but-unspectacular player, Descalso hit .281/.349/.420 in Triple-A at age 23 last year. A doubles hitter with average defense, he’s never going to be a star, but could turn into the 2010 version of Orlando Hudson, which works out to being a solid starter. With a 48/47 K/BB in Triple-A last year, Descalso certainly established that he won’t be striking out too much in the majors, which helps his cause.

Upside: 8.0, Downside: 6.5

Shortstop: Ryan Jackson. The best in a thin crop of shortstops, the 2009 fifth-rounder hit .278/.359/.362 across the two A-ball levels in 2010. With three career homers, he’s not a longball threat at all. While he has an okay approach (84/59 K/BB), it’s only going to get more and more difficult to sustain that against upper-level pitching, so he’ll need to really refine his discipline or add some power to have a big league future. He’s not a speed threat (13-for-25 in career steals), but is considered a strong defender despite making 27 errors in 2010.

Upside: 7.7, Downside: 3.7

Third base: Matt Carpenter. Carpenter has done nothing but rake in pro ball since being drafted in the 13th round in 2009, hitting .300/.403/.444. He spent most of last year in Double-A in his first full pro season, which was understandable since he was already 24. Carpenter hit .316/.412/.487 in Double-A, with an 88/64 K/BB in 105 games. He’s certainly going to bring a good approach and draw his fair share of walks, and Carpenter is a reasonably athletic player who even stole 11 bags last year. There are questions about his power, but Carpenter should at least smack a bunch of doubles and hit .270/.360/.400 with solid defense at third, which is plenty solid.

Upside: 8.9, Downside: 6.7

Outfielder #1: Oscar Taveras. Taveras hit .322/.362/.526 in Advanced Rookie just after his 18th birthday, which certainly puts him on the map. He’s a plus defender in the outfield corners and has tremendous contact and power ability. Taveras will need to add some plate patience–he walked just 12 times in 53 games–as he moves up, but that’s doable. He could become a top 100 prospect if he continues to hit.

Upside: 9.4, Downside: 2.6

Outfielder #2: Thomas Pham. Pham hit .262/.377/.392 in High-A, but then really busted out after being promoted, with a .339/.429/.537 line in 38 Double-A contests. Pham just turns 23 next month, so he doesn’t have the old-for-his-levels problem of Carpenter. Pham’s always had serious contact issues–he struck out 40.4% of the time in Low-A in 2008–but he’s drastically improved his approach to the point where they’re manageable. Pham offers some speed and defensive ability as well, and is an intriguing five-tool player in the Curtis Granderson mold. We’ll have to see if he can build on his Double-A performance before comparing him to top MLB’ers, though. Pham is an excellent sleeper.

Upside: 8.7, Downside: 5.5

Outfielder #3: Aaron Luna. Luna is another member of the Cardinals’ .400+ OBP-in-Double-A club, hitting .270/.426/.470 there in 2010. A 73/63 K/BB for a power guy is pretty special. Luna hasn’t even hit more than 15 homers in a season, and he isn’t the most athletic player out there, so he’ll have to prove he’s good enough to avoid a Matt Diaz sort of platoon career. He’ll be 24 at the start of the season, so he’s not especially young.

Upside: 8.2, Downside: 6.1

Starting Pitcher #1: Shelby Miller. Easily St. Louis’ best prospect, Miller came in 31st on my Top 100, and I’ve seen him even sneak into the top 10 on others’ lists:

At age 19, Miller whiffed over 12 batters per nine in a full-season league. Any questions as to why he’s this high? His 3.71 ERA hid a splendid 2.42 FIP, and while he has a reputation as a hard thrower, Miller isn’t the sort of wild fastball guy [Angels righthander and #36 prospect Fabio] Martinez Mesa is: he walked just 2.85 batters per nine this year (140/33 K/BB in 104 1/3). His fastball touches 97 at times, and—wait for it—he complements it with a plus curveball. Few teenagers have mastered (to this degree) the art of blowing hitters away without walking them.

Upside: 9.6, Downside: 4.5

Starting Pitcher #2: Deryk Hooker. Hooker also found a spot on my Top 100, at #72:

Hooker isn’t brought up much when discussing top pitching prospects, but he’s sneaking into the conversation thanks to a fantastic 2010 split between both A-ball levels. He posted a 2.40 FIP in Low-A and kept it at 2.55 in High-A, thanks to a 90-94 mph fastball, plus curve, and solid changeup. At just 21 years old and set to start 2011 in Double-A, Hooker’s ahead of his timetable despite dealing with a 50-game drug suspension in 2009. He’s got a similar repertoire to Adam Wainwright, which should make Cardinals fans giddy.

Upside: 9.1, Downside: 4.5

Starting Pitcher #3: Carlos Matias. Matias is widely regarded as the top international pitcher of the 2010 signees, as he posted a 78/14 K/BB in 59 innings in the Domincian Summer League in 2010. Matias was already 18, so he was two years older than the other headlining DSL pitching prospect–Seattle’s Brandol Perez–but he showed the best stuff in the circuit, with a mid-90′s moving fastball and power curve. With that combination and his plus command, there’s a lot to dream on here, but it’s difficult to place him much higher until he comes to the US.

Upside: 9.7, Downside: 1.4

Starting Pitcher #4: Tyrell Jenkins. Just 18 years old, Jenkins has just three pro innings under his belt, and while he’s very raw, the 50th overall pick in 2010 has excellent potential, with a mid-90′s fastball and hard curveball. He’s got lots of work to do on his mechanics and changeup, but the raw materials are there for Jenkins to become a solid power arm.

Upside: 8.8, Downside: 1.7

Starting Pitcher #5: Joe Kelly. Kelly’s hard sinker enabled him to post a 65% groundball rate in Low-A, which makes him one of the best groundball specialists in the minors. His 92/45 K/BB could use work, and Kelly wasn’t young for the Midwest League, but he allowed only three homers all year. Kelly needs to work on his secondary stuff, particularly his changeup, since his arm angle makes it easy for lefties to pick up his pitches. Still, this sort of power sinker makes him an intriguing prospect.

Upside: 8.5, Downside: 3.8

Relief Pitcher #1: Eduardo Sanchez. Sanchez is ready for the majors at age 22 after posting a 31/12 K/BB in Triple-A. He throws a heavy fastball in the 93-96 mph range, which pairs with his decent slider to give him plenty to work with as a reliever. He may not be a shutdown guy, but should be a valuable arm at least.

Upside: 8.6, Downside: 6.6

Relief Pitcher #2: Francisco Samuel. Samuel has more upside than Sanchez, with a fastball that approaches triple digits, but he’s long had command issues. Cardinals coaches are adamant he’ll solve his command one day, and if he does, look out–his slider is a wipeout offering when he spots it properly as well. He could turn into Daniel Bard if Samuel ever throws strikes, but walking 18 batters in 11 1/3 Triple-A innings isn’t a good start. The clock is ticking for the 24-year-old.

Upside: 9.3, Downside: 4.7

Topics: Aaron Luna, Carlos Matias, Daniel Descalso, Deryk Hooker, Eduardo Sanchez, Francisco Samuel, Joe Kelly, Juan Castillo, Mark Hamilton, Matt Carpenter, Oscar Taveras, Ryan Jackson, Shelby Miller, St Louis Cardinals, Thomas Pham, Tyrell Jenkins

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