Updated: Feb 8, 2020
As we begin our exploration of the Cardinals minor league system as we enter the 2020 season, I believe that there is no finer place to start than with the five players that just missed being included on the Dirty Thirty-Five (D35).
I had a lot of trouble narrowing down this list to just five prospects. Truth be told, I really like a lot of the players that I am not going to have time or space to mention in greater detail. Once you get beyond the top 20-25 or so prospects in the organization, things get pretty redundant. I'd go so far as to state that prospects 30-50 could probably be put in any order, if we were ranking them that far.
Before we get to the list of the top five prospects that aren't on the D35, I want to give a quick shout out to some of the players that were also in consideration for the list.
Utility fielder Kramer Robertson probably deserves a spot on the D35, but I couldn't get myself to do it. I am encouraged by his ability to play above average defensively all over the infield, and I love how productive he was at AA while hitting the minor league baseball. However, his production at AAA, coupled with his average-to-below arm strength, really limits his potential. Thus, he only gets a mention. I'm anxious to see how much time he gets in the outfield during the 2020 season.
One of my favorite players in the organization is utility fielder Yariel Gonzalez. Gonzalez has played all around the diamond (with the exclusion of catcher, center field, and pitcher) over four seasons in the minor leagues. He's average defensively at all of those positions, too. I watched him play an average short stop, and that really "wowed" me. Gonzalez was signed as a minor league free agent back then, and I'm a big fan of that kind of story. The 25-year-old probably doesn't make enough hard and consistent contact to be a viable major league option, but if he does it'll be something akin to Rangel Ravelo. This switch-hitter has surprise pop from both sides of the plate.
I have a personal love and appreciation for utility infielder Irving Lopez. The Mexico native is kind of a cult hero similar to Kramer Robertson, but with a more complete game. If I had to pick one player that I'm leaving off of the D35 to make a surprise major league debut in 2020, I'm going with Lopez.
Outfielder Conner Capel is weird. He's a plus defensive center fielder, and he has a swing that generates a ton of power. However, Capel is brought down by terribly faulty swing mechanics, and an approach caught between what to do with the power that he has. The left-handed-hitting Capel is still only 23 years old, so there's always a chance that he can put it all together.
Speaking of fun outfielders, 22-year-old Lars Nootbaar made a great impression on the organization during the 2019 season. The contact-first hitter is an excellent representative of the USC hitting philosophy that we've seen from other grads like Jeremy Martinez. The thing is, Nootbaar is going to have to start hitting for something that resembles power if he is going to find his way onto the D35. He's a clunky outfielder, too, and that holds his prospect status back. He does have a nice little line drive swing.
Three full seasons after being drafted, and I still have no idea what to expect from outfielder Terry Fuller. I know that he is still very raw and that he still has a lot of growing to do in his game, but I also know that he is a ton of fun to watch. There's no mistaking that this 21-year-old left-handed power bat has a ton of potential and a solid foundation to build upon. It's just that, right now, there's a very long way to go at the plate and in the field. I hesitate to even mention him here, but I'm also very hopeful that he blows up in 2020.
To end our run of fun outfielders, 21-year-old Tyler Reichenborn might just be the cream of the "fun to watch" crop. Drafted (and I believe unsigned) by the Dodgers in the 35th round of the 2018 draft, Reichenborn made his way to the Cardinals organization via minor league free agency. Reichenborn is an athletic and surprisingly electric outfielder with an above-average arm. His bat is lively, too, and I can't wait to see what the 2020 season has in store for this young man. There's definitely "small sample size theater" going on here on my part.
If you are looking for a prospect at the lowest levels to hitch your wagon onto, I would look no further than 19-year-old Ramon Mendoza. Mendoza played 2B primarily during the 2019 season for both the GCL and DSL teams, but he can also play a little 3rd. This is a total stats-and-hearsay play for me, as I haven't seen Mendoza with my own eyes just yet. I do love his offensive production during the 2019 season.
Brady Whalen Brady Whalen Brady Whalen. BRADY. WHALEN. You see, I love the switch-hitting Whalen. He's another one of my personal favorite prospects. At various and inconsistent times during the 22-year-olds minor league career, he's proven to be the type of prospect that you'd drool over. The problem is, he's never done all of those things at the same time. He faces a tough assignment for offensive momentum in the Florida State League, but he's a smart hitter that might just be up for the challenge.
As you'll find throughout the D35, I have a lot of trouble giving minor league relief pitchers the respect that they deserve. I'm still having trouble taking that role seriously at the minor league level. However, two right-handers deserve some love. Both Bryan Dobzanski and Edgar Escobar are names to keep an eye on. Dobzanski can dial it up to the high 90's with a good breaking and offspeed pitch, but he's going to need to keep the ball out of the middle of the plate to maximize his potential. Escobar has a dangerous cutter to match a fastball that I've seen max out at 95 while living in the 92 range. His arm is lightning fast, as well, and that creates plenty of swings and misses. I worry that he doesn't have enough to get past the upper levels of the minors.
There are plenty of other players worthy of a mention (players like RHP Connor Jones, RHP Roel Ramirez, 1B/OF Kevin Woodall, and many, many others), but this is where I'm going to leave it for now.
Now, most of these write-ups are taking nearly word for word from the position rankings that we did at the end of November. I have added between 2-4 additional gifs, and additional thoughts, to each write-up.
AND WITH THAT, HERE ARE THE FIVE PROSPECTS THAT JUST MISSED BEING A PART OF THE DIRTY THIRTY-FIVE (In no particular order, really).
1B JOHN NOGOWSKI - AGE 27 - Memphis
When I do the preseason D35 rankings, I hate putting the older guys on the list. It just seems like too much of a misdirect. I mean, how in the world can you put a player that's 27 years old on a list that is basically about youth in an organization? You can't, really (and it's why I'm adding Rangel Ravelo to the list of Graduates that will come out next).
That said, Nogowski still deserves your attention. He's the best defensive first baseman in the Cardinals' minor league system, and I'm not sure that he's substantially worse than Paul Goldschmidt defensively at this point. He's bulkier, and he doesn't necessarily have the agility of Goldy, but he does everything else defensively on a near-Goldy level.
Offensively, there are few hitters in the system that have an understanding of the strike zone that Nogowski has. He knows how to hit. He can make contact with nearly anything. He knows what to swing at, and he knows when to swing, too. He'll work counts and hunt for his pitch. Even for being an advanced age at AAA, carrying a walk rate of nearly 15% while only striking out about 12% of the time is impressive. He's truly too good for AAA.
You can see all of this in his mechanics. There's zero wasted motion, and everything is simple, balanced, and direct. I'll be honest: probably a third of the teams in the league would have done well to draft Nogowski in the Rule Five draft.
Nogowski's power "surge (?)" in 2019 was aided by AAA's usage of the MLB ball, and I have to believe that his lack of power is the only reason why another major league organization didn't jump on him. His gap to gap approach and contact-first mentality should, however, have been enough to make him intriguing.
Somewhere down the line, this young man is going to get a chance. I don't know where or when, but I promise that he'll be every bit as good as Nick Martini or Jeremy Hazelbaker.
RHP Seth Elledge - Age 23 - Memphis & Springfield
Elledge was acquired for Sam Tuivailala near the 2018 trade deadline, and he was nothing short of impressive after being acquired. It really seemed like he was on the fast track to the majors. His sinker/Slider (which is called a curve, but has more of a traditional slider movement and velocity) combo was impressive and commanded, and it really seemed like his spot on the D35 entering 2019 was more than warranted.
Unfortunately, 2019 was a weird year for Elledge. As I've mentioned before, the Cardinals put an emphasis on developing multi-inning relievers at the minor league level in 2019. In Elledge's first appearance of the season, the long-time relief pitcher was asked to pitch a three-inning appearance. It was a terrific and efficient performance, but it was also probably the last time that we saw the 2018 version of Elledge until about the end of May. Elledge went from 10 appearances of 2+ innings in 2018 to 16 appearances of 2+ innings in 2019. I firmly believe that in the over-emphasized pursuit of multi-inning relievers, Elledge season was hurt.
Elledge really seemed to thrive once things got more regular for him. He went a seven-appearance stretch from the end of May until the end-ish of June without allowing a run. Shortly after that, Elledge was promoted to Memphis, and he was pretty good there. He had a rough first AAA appearance in which he surrendered five earned runs in 0.2 of an inning. From there, he held hitters to a batting average against of .196 over his last 20 appearances, including 32 strikeouts in 33 innings.
The best part of his season is that, because of pitching depth issues caused by injuries and promotions, Elledge started the last two games of the season. Elledge was terrific and efficient over these two performances. I do not think that it's a coincidence that Elledge had success with adequate rest. I, once again, believe that his early-season struggles were a product of overuse without appropriate rest. It easy to tell when Elledge is tired because he gets really sloppy with his lead/landing leg.
One area where Elledge is going to have to improve is how he holds runners on. He can get lazy and over-focused on the hitter when a runner is on base. This causes a lot of big leads and stolen bases. He adjusts once the base is stolen, but then it's just an obnoxious amount of throwing over. It also isn't a surprise that Elledge is at his best when he's slider heavy. The gif above against Iowa is of Elledge striking out Wilson Contreras. So is this next one. These gifs paint the prettiest picture of the road toward success for Elledge:
Following a successful stretch in the Arizona Fall League, Elledge looks poised to help the major league team in 2020. He has the potential to help in a multi-inning capacity, but that doesn't mean that he has to be a multi-inning specialist. The question is, will his two pitch mix be enough?
RHP Jack Ralston – Age 22 - 7th Round - State College
If you had to pick one word to describe Ralston as a pitcher, it'd be "quirky."
The second word that you would pick would be "deceptive." The third word that you would pick would be, "DON'T MAKE THIS GUY A RELIEVER JUST YET, DAMMIT."
As you might suspect from someone that throws the ball from his windmill arm-angle, his command is going to be the thing to watch. Personally, this was one of my favorite picks in the draft. I love both his fastball and his curveball, and he's going to be a bear if he continues to develop the changeup. When you watch video of Ralston, you end up finding a lot of terrible swings on both the curve and fastball. This might not continue against more developed hitters at the upper levels of the minors, but he got a ton of these types of swings pitching out of the State College bullpen.
Ralston is a big boy at 6'6", and he gets tremendous extension in his "windmill" delivery. Basically, he's on top of a hitter in an even more exaggerated manner than Michael Wacha was. At the same time, it's a tough line to walk because his mechanics have to be perfectly repeatable. Any small change in variance is going to make picking up an offspeed pitch a little easier. You'll also notice in the gifs that he has tremendous arm speed. I can't imagine that it's a lot of fun to face him. If only his delivery was more direct instead of so long.
The other thing that you'll find when you go searching for video of Ralston is that he manages to keep his 91-93 MPH velocity throughout an entire start. I REALLY like that, and it might be one of the more underrated aspects of this pitching prospects. We often get caught up in how hard a pitcher throws, when, in reality, we should probably pay more attention to how hard he's throwing in the 5th or 6th inning. Ralston appears to be the type of pitcher that doesn't drop velocity throughout a start.
Of course, the other issue right now is that he is a two-pitch pitcher. His long-term success all comes down to how he continues to repeat that unique and max-effort delivery, how the change continues to develop, and what kind of role he'll be able to carve out for himself in the long run. I firmly believe that Ralston has a big-league future, whether it be out of the pen or as a starter.
Rumor has it that the Cardinals are committed to keeping him in the bullpen, so this one might have already sorted itself out. This is also the reason why Ralston is on the outside of the D35. If the rumors are false and he finds his way into a rotation then he'll easily fit into the D35.
RHP Michael YaSenka – Age 21 - Johnson City & State College
I'll be honest, I didn't take YaSenka and his dominant performance in 2019 seriously. It wasn't until I went back and looked (while watching his last two starts from that crappy State College camera angle) that I realized just how talented he has the potential to be.
YaSenka is a fastball/slider pitcher, and I'm being completely transparent when I say that I don't have the slightest idea of what in the hell else he throws. I mean, I know that he throws a changeup. I know that he throws a sinker, too. But, like, I don't "know" either pitch just yet. It isn't easy to find any video of him, and the State College angle is just so terrible. I've heard a lot of positive things about him, but I try not to invest too much into what I am hearing.
What I know for sure is that YaSenka demonstrates an excellent command of his arsenal. I also know that he throws with more velocity than someone like Alex FaGalde does, but that he does it with similar control of his stuff. That's a huge positive, and it makes me believe that he has a chance to be more than just an organizational depth piece with an opportunity to be a brief major league bullpen arm like FaGalde does. YaSenka relies heavily on a sinker/slider combo to be effective. I know that he abused the Appy League with that combo. As the gif's show, YaSenka has a smooth delivery with little wasted motion. Nice and easy, just how we like it..
I'm going to be keeping a close eye on YaSenka in 2020. I'm hoping that the Cardinals are aggressive with him and send him to Peoria to start the year.
To put it as simply as I can, YaSenka is off of the D35 because I just haven't seen enough of him with my own eyes.
1B/OF Todd Lott – Age 22 - Johnson City
Lott was the Cardinals 9th round selection in the 2019 draft, and I'm willing to guess that he's going to develop into a swing 1B/OF for the Cardinals moving forward. However, just to be accurate, Lott played first base exclusively for Johnson City.
Lott comes from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and he reminds me the least bit of another farmhand that came from there: Stefan Trosclair. Lott made a name for himself in the Cape Cod League during the 2018 season. Success in that league gets you a lot of attention, especially if you are a hitter. Lott hit 293/333/469 with six home runs and eight doubles in 147 at-bats in the league, hitting with a wooden bat, and that put him further up on the radar of scouts.
Then, during the 2019 collegiate season, Lott dramatically cut down on his strikeouts while raising his walk rate, all without compromising the modest in-game power that he had displayed to that point. 2019 was an excellent season for this young man, the cousin of former NFL legend Ronnie Lott.