I’m always late to the party. Derrick Goold and the UCB (I can’t see that without thinking Upright Citizens Brigade) have already done their Top Seven blogs, and they’re all well thought out. That means there’s room, in the market, for one that’s not well thought out–and that’s where I come in.
A lot has changed since I started this blog four and a half (yikes) years ago. The MV3 Cardinals that we watched, back then, by candlelight–often not even in HD–masked a farm system that was as bad as farm systems get. Its top prospect, Blake Hawksworth, pitched two games in 2004 before going down with the first of what would be a million billion arm injuries. The position player reinforcements included such luminaries as Shaun Boyd and Mike Ferris. An evil ghost hell-bent on blog mischief was the Cardinals’ first round draft pick. Things did not look good for the post-Rolen, post-Edmonds Cardinals.
Obviously, things didn’t work out quite that way. The vastly weakened 2006 club stumbled its way to a World Series victory, thereby justifying all of the farm system strip-mining that had come before it, and in the meantime the Cardinals had a few good drafts. 2008 has been the year those post-Lambert drafts start to make an impact on the big club, in ways both direct–Chris Perez–and indirect–where’s Colby Rasmus going to play?–and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s great to have prospect conversations that don’t begin with “When are there going to be some prospects?”
Here’s how this conversation about prospects begins: I’m going to exclude players who’ve already played a significant role in the majors this year, i.e. Chris Perez but not Jason Motte; Joe Mather but not Nick Stavinoha.
1. Colby Rasmus – CF - Brett Wallace’s year certainly went better, but inertia keeps Rasmus atop the list for what will hopefully be the last year. You know the story: he started slow, he picked it up, he got hurt mid-breakout, and didn’t make it back in time to get his numbers up. He’s the same guy who hit 29 home runs last year. He’s got every tool but hitting for average, which might make his 2009 start–hopefully in the bigs–seem slower than it really is. If you’re worried about him at all, think about it this way: he’s fifteen days older than the next guy on this list, and he spent all of last season terrorizing AA.
2. Brett Wallace – ?? - Brick Walrus was looking like a pretty good first round pick on August 19. Assigned directly to full-season ball he’d hit .327/.418/.490 in 41 games with the Quad Cities River Bandits, immediately showing off the broad-based offensive talents that had overshadowed his lack of readily apparent physical grace and gotten him drafted so early. It was the kind of debut that lived up to every expectation. But an Allen Craig injury, combined with a competitive Springfield team, led to the first-rounder getting moved up to AA faster than anyone had imagined, and that’s why it’s impossible not to be excited about this guy’s bat.
That .367/.456/.653 line obviously has some air in it–according to First Inning he was hitting a ton of ground balls and no line drives in Springfield, which means that his numbers don’t seem all that predictive in either direction–but to punish AA pitchers two months after they take your aluminum bats away shows a ton of both natural talent and developed skill. And he hasn’t been moved off of third base yet!
3. Daryl Jones – CF - That slugging percentage is a little inflated by his speed, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Did anyone honestly expect Daryl Jones to do anything at the beginning of the year? The only tool he had shown, up to April of 2008, was being young. He’d struggled in rookie ball, he’d struggled in A ball, and he–famously, by now–didn’t even make the most recent Goold-penned Baseball America Top 30. To be knocked out of the prospect ranks at 20 is an unpromising marker. But in the last five months he’s gone from has-been to will-be again, mainly on the virtue of raising his batting average by a hundred points. What did it? To the rate stats:
AVG OBP SLG ISO K% BB% LD% GB%
2006 .248 .335 .409 .161 21 9 14 58
2007 .217 .304 .296 .079 22 10 11 55
2008 .316 .407 .483 .167 23 13 21 42
These numbers surprised me. Having not paid close attention to his walk and strikeout totals back when he looked like a future former baseball player, I was expecting one of the primary factors in his renaissance to be a new-found respect for the strike zone. But as it turns out Daryl Jones, whose first name was Raw Third-Rounder for the first two years of his career, has always known when to swing and how to make contact. He even showed off a little pop in 2006, particularly with Johnson City. The difference, in 2008, was the kind of contact he made.
At the risk of sounding like Debbie Downer for two prospects in a row I expect Jones to fall back a little next year, unless he improves his home run power, because if nothing else he’ll probably have trouble hitting eight triples in 400 at-bats again. But he’s finally a prospect based on what he’s done, instead of what he might do.
4. Jess Todd – SP - Hopefully that was enough to stifle, for a few months, at least, the heretofore constant talk of moving Jess Todd into the bullpen. The short (gasp!) righty (blanch!) threw 150 innings, struck out three batters for every one he walked, and kept the ball in the park at an average rate. He made it all the way to AAA and held his own there. Only 23 during the 2009 season, he’s got the full year to get himself ready to join the Cardinals rotation, but if he pitches like he did in 2008 he won’t need it.
5. Bryan Anderson – C - I like Bryan Anderson, I really do, but for the second year in a row I’m terrified by his lack of power. Being young for your league is great, and being able to hit .280 or .290 is great, but he’s running out of slack on the age rope–it doesn’t matter how young you are for the majors unless people see a lot of growth to project.
Here’s my problem: It’s okay to not be very good at a particular baseball skill when you have a lot of other ones. But I’m concerned when you have so little of something that you don’t have any more to lose as you move through the farm system. Players who succeed despite having no power usually show a little pop in the minors; the Brian Bannisters of the majors were striking people out by the bushel in the bush. But the stalled prospects lose a tool completely way too soon–they’re the control pitcher who runs out of strikeouts at AAA and gets knocked around in the majors, or, in this case, the contact hitter who isn’t able to punish mistakes in the minor leagues.
The replacement level for hitting catchers is so low that I’m confident that Anderson could become a very solid player. And he’s really young for his leagues, and always has been. But a player’s case for being a top prospect shouldn’t begin with two contingencies.
6. Pete Kozma – SS - This was probably the hardest pick for me to make. I didn’t–and don’t–think that Kozma was the right pick last year. He combined–and combines, to continue the rhetorical device past its expiration date–the low upside of a polished college player with the rawness of a high school tool chest. He’s impressed with the glove but shown little in the way of exciting offensive talent.
Nine times out of ten I think I’d take Niko Vasquez (whose name I keep misspelling), and in my heart of hearts I think he’s the better prospect, but after getting really psyched about Jose Martinez following an excellent half-season in Johnson City I’m just not ready to take under-heralded prospects’ short season totals completely at face value.
Kozma, then, had a solid year in A-ball. He showed off a broad base of average offensive skills and held his own in a pitcher’s league, which is good because he’ll probably start 2009 in an even more unbalanced pitcher’s league. Looking back at his numbers–attempting to see him as another prospect, and not the 2007 First Round Disappointment–he seems a little like Bryan Anderson, with the slower climb up the ladder offset, to an extent, by the lack of defensive worries. That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear about a first round pick, but now that you can’t unring that bell he might end up an above-average shortstop.
7. David Freese – 3B - The Luhnow/Mozeliak Cardinals just seem to collect this kind of guy, don’t they? Freese, like Ludwick, Duncan, Schumaker, Ryan, et al before him, is a little old to be a prospect and too close to his prime to be considered part of any youth movement. But starting right after I wrote him off he turned into the PCL Vlad Guerrero, throwing up a .360/.403/.652 line after the all-star break and going, in the process, from a guy who was a low-OBP slugger in the minors to a guy who might be a low-OBP slugger in the majors.
It’s easy to hind-see your way into a very rosy future for Freese. After all, he’s hit at every level, he’s made adjustments on the fly, and his ugly first few months came after making a leap from A ball, filled with teenagers and former teenagers, all the way to AAA. But those arguments are counterweighted by his age–he shouldn’t have had to make the jump in the first place–and his halved walk rate. A .911 OPS in the PCL is no guarantee that you won’t struggle to a .260/.310/.450 line in the majors, and Freese is no Scott Rolen with the glove.
The most significant counterweight, of course, is about 245 pounds of borderline all-star third baseman sitting in his spot. Freese, who will be 26 next year, derives his prospect tag from how ready he is to be a free average to above-average third baseman for the next two or three years, and for one of those years the Cardinals are paying a guy who hits his home runs in the major leagues. If someone bowls the Cardinals over with an offer for Troy Glaus Freese gives them the leverage to make it work, but it seems more likely that with Glaus ahead of him and Allen Craig and Brett Wallace behind Freese will end up filling someone else’s third base needs on the cheap.
Honorable Mentions: Niko Vasquez certainly has the capacity to make me look stupid by mid-April 2009, and I almost put him ahead of Freese. I wanted to include Jaime Garcia but Tommy John surgery is a tough sell; prior to that I would have put him third, ahead of Jones. Jon Edwards and Jason Motte are long-time GUB-approved sleeper prospects, but I couldn’t quite fit them in. Clay Mortensen got rushed like nobody’s business and couldn’t get anybody out in AAA, but unfortunately for him he’s already too old to stick around in the low minors. Finally, if Thomas Pham ever figures out which side of him the pitcher’s throwing the ball from he might do something really ridiculous. He finished just outside of the top ten in slugging percentage for the Midwest League despite batting .218.