Updated: Dec 6, 2021
WELCOME TO THE DIRTY FLIRTY.
These are my top 40 prospects in The Cardinals organization, aside from the players that I’ve already covered in The Dirty Annexes. This little ditty here is the preface to all of the post in our Dirty series. So, if you’ve read this once then you don’t need to read it again!
A warning to those looking for Lars Nootbaar, Scott Hurst, Junior Fernandez, Johan Oviedo, Jake Woodford, Edmundo Sosa, and anyone aside from Angel Rondon that has already made a major league debut: That’s not really by bailiwick, as I’m sure you’ve heard enough about those guys from more qualified outlets already. Most of those guys have exhausted their prospect status, anyway.
A reminder that this is an exercise in futility, ranking prospects. It’s a landscape that is ever-changing and developing. We are almost always talking about kids that are just starting to understand both themselves and their bodies, while learning the most difficult and nuanced sport in the land. You never know when someone is going to start doing 200 pushups per day on their way to postseason glory.
I ask for your thoughts and feedback. I ask that you have fun. I ask that you remember that I’m a moron. Most importantly, I ask that you take all of the prospect rankings from every outlet in the spirit of what they are: a snapshot of that moment, with a bent towards understanding what might come.
FOLLOW THE LIST AND RANKINGS BY CLICKING THIS LINK TO THE ENTIRE LIST OF TOP 40 PROSPECTS AND ANNEXES AND RAMBLES!!!
#12: 1B Luken Baker
25 Years Old on Opening Day
Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft
Springfield and Memphis-ish
Luken Baker is big and massive and powerful, and 2021 was a such a great season for him at the plate for so many reasons. We’ll get to those soon enough.
The most impressive part of Baker’s 2021 seasons wasn’t what he did at the plate, but rather what he was doing at first base. When we last saw Baker in 2019, he was a DH. Sure, he played first nearly every day, but he was a DH. He was at his best at the end of the 2019 season for Palm Beach, but he was still minor league below-average then. It was trending in the proper direction, but his defense was far from promising. Now, there is an argument to be made that Baker has turned himself into something resembling an above-average MiLB first baseman.
Baker was making a scoop or an athletically stretching to save an error night after night in 2021. Baker was displaying more range than in the past, and he was using an advanced intelligence and feel at first that could only be described as “heady.” He isn’t Paul Goldschmidt or Joey Votto over there or anything like that, and I don't want to be misguiding in representing it that way. Now that I think about it, he kind of reminds me of Luke Voit at first base.
Speaking of Luke Voit, the other big step that Baker made was in the power department. In previous years, Baker was more of a line drive hitter that used mostly his upper body and his size to “will” pitches over the fence here and there. It appeared that Baker was destined for a doubles-first profile, which wasn't exactly an ideal projection for someone of Baker's position, size and speed. Early in the 2021 season, it became clear that Baker was leveraging his lower half more than ever. It resulted in a lot of warning track shots early on, and I’m sure that was frustrating for him.
As has happened with many a swing in the past, I wondered if the relative flat nature of his swing path was really the issue with his inability to muscle balls over the wall. When you watched on MiLB.TV, it seemed like the ball was spinning weirdly off of his bat and dying in the air because of it. He was hitting a lot of balls to the warning track while struggling to square pitches up. There were a lot of foul tips and foul balls during this period. Something was just a little "off." I've come to believe now that Baker was still adjusting to the kinetic transfer created by more use of his lower body.
The stats bore this out, as well. On June 12th, 32 games into his season, Baker was hitting 234/294/390 with four homers and seven doubles while striking out about 28% of the time. And, again, hitting a ton of balls to the warning track. As the weather began to heat up, thankfully, so did Baker.
Over his next 46 games and 195 plate appearances until August 5th when he came up lame on a swing, Baker hit 244/338/637 with 19 homers and 9 doubles. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a “power surge.” The thing that will really bake your noodle is that Baker was still hitting a ton of balls to the track during this span. Baker was also clearly hunting his pitch, and he looked more comfortable than ever at the plate. His strikeout rate dipped by about 2% and his walk rate raised roughly 3% over this time, to 11.8%. Baker was embracing slugging while making progress on his rates. The batting average wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Not in today’s day and age. Not when he was beginning to reach the next level of his defensive development. While Baker didn't change much in his swing, his intent to do damage was the clear difference maker. Using his lower half more to generate better leverage, Baker was also swinging harder than ever and with conviction to damage without altering what made his swing productive in the first place.
Then, on August 5th, Baker took a swing that caused him to miss a month of the season. I was worried that some of the comfort-in-the-box gains would be lost because of the injury. I could envision a situation in which Baker stopped unleashing that powerful swing trying to be a little extra careful not to strain anything. But before we get any further, and real quick, can you imagine having this monster all mad at you?!?!?! NO. THANK. YOU. The gif below and the swing in question aren't related at all. This was just something that came to my mind that I wanted to say. The gif of the swing will be below the gif of a pissed off Baker.
As I was saying, I was very concerned about what we would see when Baker came back to the Springfield lineup on September 4th. In part because of coming up lame before the rest, but also because of how long it took him to get going in 2021 before finding his stride.
This next part is why I feel confident in putting Baker so high on the list. From September 4th through the end of the season, a span of 67 plate appearances that includes seven at AAA, Baker hit 290/343/516 with three homers and five doubles. His strikeout rate over this time was about 24% and his walk rate was an uncharacteristically low, but now worrisome, 6%. Baker was also back to swinging with intent to damage, which was something that I was worried about following that swing on August 5th.
The thing that I'm going to be watching for the most with Baker in 2022 is how he adjust to left-handed pitchers. Baker pulverizes them, but he also struck out basically 30% of the time against them. He's going to need to clean that up a bit. As you'd suspect, it usually comes down to how well a lefty can throw an outside changeup or a fading slider inside on Baker. Even though he doesn't strikeout as much against righties, he has some real work to do in his approach against them if he is going to improve his average. Now, I can't stress enough how little I care about his batting average. Baker slugged .487 against righties on the season and walked a bunch, so I'm cool with little changing there. Just like with the areas of weakness of every player in the system and human being alive, getting better at the things that you struggle at would be cool. In the past, Baker has done a lot of damage to the opposite field, the oppo gap specifically. Continuing to do this will be huge for his success moving forward. He did most of his slugging damage to the pull side during the season, but he has more than enough power in his all-fields swing to have additional success. Finally, because of his swing path, sometimes Baker can run the risk of pounding the ball into the ground too much. Keeping the ball in the air is going to be a big key for him.
To end the season that way that Baker ended the season is so encouraging. To have the season that Baker had was so encouraging. There was so much growth in his game from start to finish. It obviously won’t hurt him to continue to refine his approach and cut out some of those strikeouts. However, I don’t want to see that happen if it’s going to cost him his power and intent gains. This is the fun part with prospects; what the next step is.
I’ll be fascinated to see if the Cardinals add him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule Five Draft. I would, if I were in their position (But I also would have added Nick Plummer, so what do I know?). I can’t say enough good things about Baker’s 2021 season.
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In addition, you all know how important and valuable @cardinalsgifs is to the pictures that fire up these articles. I wouldn’t do the write-ups if it weren’t for him.
Thank For Reading!!