3 Top Prospects That Can Get the St. Louis Cardinals over the Hump Next Season
Despite losing to the Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series on Wednesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals’ collection of promising young players has the organization poised to compete for years to come.
A strong case can be made that the Cardinals would not have reached the postseason—let alone the World Series—if not for their impressive young arms. Using 12 rookie pitchers during the regular season, the Cardinals led the major leagues (among rookies) with 308 games pitched, 36 wins, 541 strikeouts, a 3.25 FIP and, most importantly, a 6.7 fWAR (via FanGraphs).
And then, of course, there was 22-year-old Michael Wacha.
After a strong showing in the starting rotation during the final month of the regular season, Wacha became a household name in the postseason by going 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA, .151 opponents’ batting average and 33 strikeouts in 30.2 innings.
Even though the Cardinals graduated their top young hurlers to the major leagues this year, they still have a promising rookie class set to debut in 2014.
Here’s a look at three prospects who can get the Cardinals over the hump next season.
Oscar Taveras, OF
Oscar Taveras was widely regarded as the top offensive prospect headed into the 2013 season, as well as one expected to make an immediate impact upon arriving in the major leagues.
In 2012, Taveras—who was promoted directly from Low- to Double-A—destroyed Texas League pitching to the tune of a .321/.380/.572 batting line with 67 extra-base hits (23 home runs), 94 RBI and a 56/42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 games. It also marked the third consecutive season in which the left-handed hitting outfielder posted a .300-plus batting average.
Sadly, Taveras’ highly anticipated 2013 season didn’t unfold as expected. Opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, the 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May and it ultimately bothered him throughout the season and led to two separate stints on the disabled list. Overall, Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBI at Memphis but was limited to only 46 games.
There was a glimmer of hope in mid-August when reports had Taveras nearing a rehab assignment, fueling the belief that the outfielder could still receive a September call-up. Unfortunately, it was announced a few days later that he needed season-ending surgery. The surgery went well, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, though Taveras was restricted to a walking boot for the following eight weeks. Don’t worry, though; he’s expected to be healthy by spring training.
So, what makes Taveras such a special hitter?
Well, the left-handed hitter features an explosive, yet well-balanced, swing that enables him to keep the bat head in the zone for an extended period of time. As a result, he seemingly always achieves a favorable point of contact, while his extension through the ball allows him to generate backspin carry to all fields.
However, it’s Taveras’ unparalleled hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball ability that separates him from other highly regarded young hitters. Additionally, the 21-year-old’s ability to drive the ball the other way is already more advanced than a lot of big league hitters, and only stands to improve with additional experience against top-notch pitching.
Over the last two seasons, he has drawn an increasing number of comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero due to his aggressive, free-swinging approach, as well as his knack for consistently centering pitches throughout (and even outside) the strike zone.
Taveras simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it and he can barrel it, effortlessly. And while his approach may be challenged more at the major league level, Taveras should always make enough contact to negate any strikeout-related concerns.
Taveras is expected to be ready for spring training in 2014, and he could potentially contend for a spot in the Opening Day outfield depending on how Carlos Beltran's free agency plays out during the offseason. I still consider him the best pure hitter in the minor leagues because, well, he is—even when on the disabled list.
Expect him to make up for lost time next season with a monster rookie campaign.
Tim Cooney, LHP
Selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2012 draft out of Wake Forest University, Cooney has quietly moved up the organizational ladder over the past year and is now within striking distance of the major leagues.
Assigned to the New York-Penn League after signing, the left-hander made a strong impression by posting a 3.40 ERA and 43/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55.2 innings spanning 13 games (11 starts).
Given his college background, deep arsenal and advanced feel for pitching, the Cardinals decided to send the 22-year-old directly to High-A Palm Beach this year for his full-season debut. Cooney excelled in the pitching-friendly Florida State League as expected, registering a 2.75 ERA and 23/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings.
The organization continued to challenge the southpaw in early May with a promotion to Double-A Springfield, and he responded favorably with a 3.80 ERA and sterling 125/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 starts. However, Cooney’s lack of overpowering stuff was exposed at the more advanced level, as he allowed 132 hits (eight home runs) in 118.1 innings. Overall, opposing hitters batted .281 against him this season.
The 6’3”, 195-pounder features a fastball that sits in the low 90s with late run to the arm side, and he’s adept at attacking hitters on both sides of the plate with the pitch. The left-hander’s cutter represents another advanced offering, registering in the upper 80s with consistent glove-side slice.
Cooney’s changeup is arguably his best secondary offering and tends to play up thanks to the deception in his delivery and fastball-like arm speed. The pitch projects to be at least major league average and he already demonstrates an impressive feel for using it in relation to the heater. The 22-year-old also has a curveball in his arsenal, though it’s noticeably his least advanced offering and doesn’t project to be more than serviceable option at best at the highest level.
While his pure stuff pales in comparison to the other arms to come through the Cardinals’ system in recent years, Cooney does know how to pitch and exploit hitters’ weaknesses. The secondary arsenal leaves something to be desired—especially in regards to his breaking ball—and will need refinement as he continues to climb the organizational ladder. However, his combination of handedness and command should at least be enough to get him to the major leagues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some time in the Cardinals’ starting rotation next season.
Kolten Wong, 2B
Selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Wong moved at a level-per-year pace through the Cardinals’ system and impressed at each stop with his all-around consistency.
After a slightly disappointing 2012 campaign at Double-A, the 22-year-old put everything together this past season at Triple-A Memphis, batting .303/.369/.466 with 39 extra-base hits (10 home runs), 20 stolen bases and a 60/41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 107 games.
As a result of his success in the Pacific Coast League, the Cardinals promoted Wong to the major leagues in the middle of August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. Besides his two-game tear on August 19 and 20, when he combined to go 5-for-10 with a double and three stolen bases, Wong struggled to make the most of his limited playing time and batted only .153/.194/.169 in 62 plate appearances spanning 32 games.
Because he’s a left-handed hitter with above-average speed, Wong ultimately made team’s postseason roster and went on to collect one hit in six at-bats and appeared in seven games as a late-inning replacement.
While all of Wong’s tools should translate in The Show, the 22-year-old’s left-handed bat is the only one with true plus potential. His swing is short and direct, and he demonstrates excellent barrel control that plays up thanks to his advanced approach and pitch recognition.
With an above-average glove and potential plus hit tool, Wong is ready for an everyday gig in the major leagues. The Cardinals envisioned him as their future second baseman when they nabbed him in the 2010 draft. However, the emergence of Matt Carpenter at the keystone this season ultimately delayed his arrival in the major leagues and has raised questions about his future role in the organization.
However, the Cardinals know how to manage their talent. And if they believe Wong can serve as the starting second baseman next season, expect the organization to create a spot for him in the everyday lineup.