There is excitement surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals farm system heading into the 2017 season. When Derrick Goold released Baseball America’s top ten Cardinals prospects, he noted that general manager John Mozeliak called it the deepest of his tenure. Our own prospect-experts John Nagel and Kyle Reis have the Redbird Daily prospect rankings in the works.
I tried to remember the last time the Cardinals had such a deep prospect talent pool. I paged through Baseball America’s Top 100 rankings and stumbled upon the pre-season rankings for 2012 and 2013. Both years, the list featured six Cardinals; 2013 arguably had the most MLB-ready talent.
Following are those players with their Baseball America prospect ranking and age at its time of publication:
3. Oscar Taveras, OF, age 20
6. Shelby Miller, RHP, age 22
38. Carlos Martinez, RHP, age 21
39. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, age 22
76. Michael Wacha, RHP, age 21
84. Kolten Wong, 2B, age 22
There are a couple major points that stick out among these players. Of the five still playing baseball, four are facing seasons which might be considered “make-or-break” years. Three of those four are facing a pivotal year despite having previous success at the MLB level. Since Miller is no longer a Cardinal, I will focus on the year ahead for Rosenthal, Wacha, and Wong.
Entering the 2017 season, the St. Louis Cardinals front office announced that the relief pitcher and former closer will be given a chance to start, a role which he last held in the minor leagues. This is a curious move to say the least and, in my opinion, signals that Rosenthal may not be part of the Cardinals long-term plans.
First off, the Cardinals already have a surplus of starting pitching. Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Mike Leake are in no danger of losing a rotation spot. Lance Lynn will have the fourth spot so long as his health holds up, with Alex Reyes likely to claim the remaining rotation spot. That leaves two MLB starting pitchers on the outside looking in – Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver. Adding Rosenthal into the mix makes little sense, as he is unlikely to surpass any of those seven for a rotation spot in 2017.
Additionally, this signals the Cardinals lack confidence in Rosenthal to commit to him as a late-inning reliever. The emergence of Seung-Hwan Oh (and Rosenthal’s own ineffectiveness) pushed him out of the closer role in 2016. Kevin Siegrist and Brett Cecil are both very good setup relievers. Wacha, if left out of the rotation, could serve as a high-leverage right-handed reliever. Where Rosenthal fits in the bullpen mix appears murky.
As I’ve already mentioned, Wacha will likely find himself outside the five man rotation when the 2017 season begins. The former NLCS MVP has fallen far since being named an All-Star in 2015. He has become increasingly homer-prone, and was hit harder last year than he ever had.
Given those developments, it is unsurprising that Wacha has gotten worse by ERA and FIP every year since he debuted. Another major problem is his strikeout rate, which has also fallen every year. Adding to these concerns, his health is becoming an annual issue. He has hit the disabled list with shoulder injuries two of the past three years (2014 and 2016), and struggled at the end of 2015 with fatigue.
There were rumors this offseason that the Cardinals were shopping Wacha. As with Rosenthal, he lacks a definite role with the St. Louis Cardinals, which makes him expendable. The Cardinals need Wacha to prove that his shoulder can handle a full season workload before they commit to him beyond this year, but it is unclear if he will receive that opportunity. If Wacha struggles with health or effectiveness, his time in St. Louis may be limited.
The young second baseman should have the most confidence in his long-term fit in St. Louis, but that in itself isn’t saying much. Wong has only exceeded 450 plate appearances in one season, and has been twice demoted to AAA. Manager Mike Matheny has shown a glaring lack of confidence in the young infielder, and while Mozeliak has remained steadfast by his side, one has to imagine that Wong’s time to prove himself is running short.
The general manager hopes (odd word choice from the GM) that Wong gets the opportunity to prove himself in 2017. Wong has already locked in a contract that takes him through 2020 with a club option for 2021. If he performs well, the everyday role at second base is his. However, utility infielder Jedd Gyorko, with a similar contract through 2019 plus a 2020 club option, remains just behind Wong. He has played second base more than any other position in his career, and proved himself last season in St. Louis. If Wong struggles again in 2017, he might find himself on the bench (or in another uniform) even more in the upcoming seasons.
Lastly, the trajectory these players have taken shows that while having a deep farm system is both necessary and exciting, those prospects rarely develop into MLB stars; even developing top prospects into MLB starters is relatively uncommon. This development risk is greater when players are less projectable at lower levels of the farm system. This remains a major reason for caution regarding the Cardinals farm entering 2017.
That said, the Cardinals and fans should be optimistic about the organization. The overall prospect talent and depth is among the best in the MLB. The Cardinals likely have a top ten system that could vault into the top five if the younger players perform well early in 2017.
However, as the 2013 class has exemplified, MLB results are what matters at the end of the day. Let’s hope these players right the ship with the St. Louis Cardinals next season as they pave the way for the wave of young talent behind them.