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2023 D50: Prospect #5 - But Also 2.d

Updated: Feb 14, 2023


Each post will feature these words, so feel free to skip accordingly. I offer the same always-standing apologies for the lackluster quality of my writing, as well as the stream of consciousness nature that I write with. I sincerely wish that I was better at writing than I am but, alas, here we are. Also, I'm very good at this as compared to most, but I am still VERY bad at it. Just think about that for a second, for context purposes.

I want to start off by reminding everyone that these posts are aided and enhanced by the works of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball America, and Prospects Live. Each embedded link will take you to their subscription pages and you should absolutely do that. Shout out to Geoff Pontes and Matt Thompson from Baseball America and Prospects Live, respectfully, because they're awesome. FanGraphs stats are OBVIOUSLY clutch and awesome, and that's why they are used in nearly every "Dirty" post. LOVE that FanGraphs.

Accordingly, @Cardinalsgifs provides his artistic touch to the pictures in each article, and I wouldn't do this at all if he wasn't a part of it. Special shoutout to @KareemSSN who is a must follow for Cardinals prospects stuff. His partner in crime is @Cardinalsreek and they have their own prospect list coming out soon!! Shoutout to Blake Newberry (@BT_Newberry) and Mr. Brian Walton (@B_Walton) for their work on their list over at The Cardinal Nation, too.

I also want to remind everyone that my list is different in that I don't include players with rookie eligibility that have made a Major League debut. So, you'll have to look elsewhere for Matthew Liberatore, Ivan Herrera, Alec Burleson, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez, Brendan Donovan, Jake Walsh, Andre Pallante, and ZacK Thompson. Some of these guys have exhausted their prospect status, anyway. I'm just trying to get ahead of this because I will 100% be asked about each. I did almost add 32-year-old Rule 5 draft selection Wilking Rodriguez to the list, but decided against it because he's 32-years-old, entering his age 33 season, and the coverage of him will surely be overly saturated by the time that Spring Training gets going. Also, I didn't add recently acquired Jose Fermín because I just don't care at all. I'm sure he'll make a Major League debut at some point in 2023 which will be cool but I just can't find it in me to care about it at all.

The last thing that I'd like to do is remind everyone that this is just a snap shot of THIS moment. I'm not 100% sure what every player on the list has worked on or has been doing this offseason. So, when I'm a little more conservative with a player like, say, Michael McGreevy, it's without the knowledge of what he's worked on this offseason, along with the gains that he's made in the areas that I'm concerned about. You never know when/if things are going to click for a player, and there's more reason now than ever before - with the advancements in modern baseball technologies - for a prospect to catapult themselves from out of nowhere. Vice versa, it's easier than ever for a prospect to fall off into obscurity.

Finally, I'd like to provide links to other sites that rank Cardinals' prospects. The Cardinal Nation, Prospects Live, and Baseball America all have their 2023 lists published, and MLB and FanGraphs will link to their most recent rankings from 2022:

THE CARDINAL NATION (Subscribe to the damn site, dummies) MLB


RHP Gordon Graceffo

Age 23 (In March)

Drafted in the 5th Round of the 2021 Draft

Listed at 6'4, 210


Editor's Note: Please take a second to watch the video above of Gordon Graceffo's presser with the media from Winter Warm Up. You'll get a feel for how poised this young man is. In addition, PLEASE FOLLOW THIS LINK TO AN INTERVIEW WITH GRACEFFO via our good friends Jason Hill and Blake Newberry from Viva El Birdos. Both are great listens and both will provide additional insight into this intense competitor of a young phenom.

Gordon Graceffo is my favorite prospect in the system. Just that simple.

Not even getting into his stuff, I just love the way that this young man carries himself. He's a pro before becoming a pro. He's worked on his own to add strength and velocity, and he's continued to refine his arsenal from top to bottom on his way to being the steal of the 2021 draft and the most prominent and promising pitching prospect in the Cardinals' upper levels.

There's nothing that I love more than watching Graceffo pitch. He pitches with an edge and energy that I'm sure will annoy some really stupid people but that I can't get enough of. He's the exact type of pitcher that this organization needs and he's the exact type of player that baseball needs. Graceffo is high-octane, high-energy, and highly competitive. Graceffo is more than a bulldog on the mound. What he is, is a fucking monster and I hope that he never looses that edge. Matthew Liberatore used to pitch with that edge (see, also: confidence) and it did him a world of good. He doesn't do that anymore and he's fringe because of it.

The good news with Gordon is that his stuff and his command are both better than Liberatore's, so there's less of a worry that he's going to fizzle out than there is/was with Liberatore. Graceffo will need to continue to grow as a pitcher and refine and adjust, but he's special as currently constructed.

It really isn't worth spending a lot of time talking about what he did to those poor High-A hitters in the Midwest League for Peoria before his promotion to Springfield. Instead, I'll just simply say that each of his High-A starts were comically dominant regardless of who he went up against. I'm probably mistaken, but I don't remember ever watching a Cardinals prospect dominant that way, even against a level that they were clearly too good for. It was "next level" dominant, and the closest that I think of is what Ryan Helsley used to do at the "A" level. Alex Reyes never showed this command and neither Jack Flaherty nor Luke Weaver (please do not forget how dominant Weaver was in the minors) were ever so clearly better than their competition. Maybe pre-AA Zac Gallen deserves a shoutout here, but Sandy Alcanatara didn't while he was a Cardinals prospect.

Now, the struggle was real for Graceffo upon his first taste of AA. The timing ended up being tough for him, too, as he struggled a little with the feel of his pitches during this time. Graceffo is a competitor that doesn't make excuses, and he prides himself on how he works through his issues as best as he can. That didn't stop the "feel" issue from playing a large role in his mid-season struggles at Double-A.

I won't be able to speak to it much, but another thing that seemed to hurt him was what was described to me as a pitch-tipping issue that opposing teams picked up on relatively quickly at the AA level. Whatever the tip was (I believe it to be release point but I'm not 100% sure), it allowed hitters to jump his fastball and curveball. I've read a few places that say that Graceffo throws his fastball and curve from a different angle than his slider and his change, but I've seen data at the end of the year that reflected that he had it cleaned up by the end of the season. Whether it was because he cleaned up the "tipping" issue or because he got a little rest as the Cardinals throttled down his pitch counts in August, Graceffo started to get more swings and miss towards the end of the season. It was also encouraging that he saw a spike in the amount of swing and miss that he got against his fastball, specifically. Anyway you cut it, even with the September adjustment that led to success, there are still some mechanical consistencies that Graceffo probably needs to sort out.

Graceffo's fastball is a devise pitch among scouts. It's a pitch that got swings over 50% of the time but missed the bat less than 20% of the time while getting hitters to chase 26% of the time during the 2022 season. This has led some scouts to mischaracterize the pitch as vulnerable or as a pitch in need of work. I totally understand that, but I don't think it's a 100% accurate characterization. While his fastball does get more contact against it than your average mid-to-upper 90's fastball because of it's movement profile, what Graceffo does with his heat is command it pretty damn well. Because of his ability to sustain velocity deep into starts, it's not a pitch that's easy to square up in any way, and Graceffo isn't afraid to go to the pitch specifically to induce contact. Unless a hitter is specifically sitting on that pitch and Gordon gets too much of the plate with it (like he did too often in the middle part of his Double-A tenure), they aren't going to be able do the damage against it that other heaters with this profile might otherwise allow.

It's been a point of emphasis this off-season for him, but I know it to be factual that Graceffo is in a position where he can use his entire arsenal in every count against any hitter. This is another reason why I think that scouts are missing the mark on evaluating his heater. Graceffo's slider profiles as potentially plus, but could even be more than plus moving forward. During the 2022 season, the slider was his primary off-speed offering at it got swings about 58% of the time, a whiff rate of 42-ish%, and chase rate of 40%. Every so often he'll throw it more like a cutter which is not his intent, but it's still a pretty good pitch even then. Gimme dat sweet 2300 RPM slider that had a xwOBAcon of .288 during the season.

Both his curve and his change are what I would call average BIG LEAGUE pitches as currently constructed, but with some work needed to solidify that characterization. To me, Graceffo's curve flashes well-above average and the changeup has every chance to be a plus Major League offering, too. His curve is more average right now because it lacks consistency, even though it spins 2500 RPM and has about 59 inches of drop while profiling as a 12/6 curve. From a Minor League standpoint, both his curve and his change are at least above average pitches as currently constructed. Not just because of how well he commands those pitches, but because of how they move and how and when he uses them. It's funny, too, because his changeup is the pitch that he cites as the pitch that he likes to go to in order to get the strikeout. Hard to argue against that when the 83 MPH pitch is dropping and moving, and getting whiffs 42% of the time to go along with a chase rate of about 35%.

Actually, now that I've typed all of this, I'd like to point out that the truth about Graceffo's arsenal is that it's not too far off from being Minor League "plus" across the board in large part because of both his command and movement profile. Maybe the best way to characterize his arsenal is that it's as close to being average across the board as it is to being plus across the board. Sounds like a top 100 prospect, to me. And just to reiterate the point, your "plus" scout will never give the fastball the credit it deserves because of some of the contact data around it. That's such a shame for them. Graceffo does need to make sure that he doesn't leave it too much over the plate as he moves up the ladder, but that could/should be said about 95% of fastballs in baseball. Again, this isn't Matthew Liberatore or Michael McGreevy. Those two should be talked about together. Gordon Graceffo absolutely should not be. That's not to bag on McGreevy or Liberatore, both of whom will have long MLB careers. It's just to point out that Graceffo is something... different.

The adjustment to AA one year removed from starting for Villanova is a tough adjustment. Even with the total domination of the High-A level, there were still reasons to expect that Graceffo would come back to Earth. It's not the struggle that Graceffo had shortly into his time in AA that sticks with me, it's how he adjusted. The Cardinals began to throttle back his pitch count at the beginning of August because of a taxed workload in his first affiliated season, and that's when we saw Graceffo get a chance to catch his breath, regroup, and explode again as the Cardinals dramatically increased his work load from his last collegiate season.

Over Graceffo's last seven starts of the season, we watched Graceffo rediscover his "normal". Over those last seven starts and 31 innings, Graceffo struck out 26.2% of hitters while walking 9.8% and posting an ERA of 3.19 (albeit a higher FIP of 4.73). His batting average against over this time period was .176, his slugging percentage against was .333 with a WHIP of 1.00 against the 122 batters that he faced. The near 50% groundball rate during this period helped, but the main difference was that Graceffo started to put his arsenal on the black instead of just on the corners and fringes. Graceffo was also back in full attack mode and it was a thing of beauty. All of this nonsense is just to say that Graceffo got a chance to take a "blow", and he used that time to make himself better. Over his three starts and 16.2 IP in September to end his 2022 season, Graceffo did not allow a run, and he only allowed five hits and two walks while striking out 22 of the 58 batters that he faced. He also hit two batters, but fuck those guys, ya know. THAT, my freaks, is how you end a fucking season.

As I'm sure that you know by now, Graceffo saved his best start of the season for his last start of the season as he took a perfect game into the 6th inning before giving up a hit. Graceffo was hitting 99 MPH in the 6th, and there wasn't a hitter in the talented Tulsa Drillers lineup that had any idea what to do with what Graceffo was throwing. He was pitching free and easy, and he was doing it with that fire that we love to see. It was a start that was beyond special. It won't go in the Minor League history books or anything like that, but it was a start that allowed us to watch a young man end his first full season of affiliated baseball on what I believe to be the highest note of any start within the organization during the 2022 season (shoutout to Wilfredo Pereira who would come in 2nd on this list). The spotlight was on him. All of our eyes were on him. All he did was dominate like no other Cardinals Minor League starter could during the 2022 season.

And that's the gist of Graceffo. He'll never settle being just "good". He's going to be more because he's committed to being more and he won't stop until he gets there. You're gonna fucking LOVE watching this young man pitch. You'll notice that this is the first time that I've mentioned that Graceffo takes a step back out of the windup and that's because I. DO. NOT. GIVE. TWO. SHITS. ABOUT. THAT. AND. NEITHER. SHOULD. YOU. It doesn't matter at all. If someone points to this mechanic as being a cause for concern or something that he might need to change then go ahead and dismiss anything that individual ever says.

The question with Graceffo isn't if he's going to make a Major League impact, it's if he's going to be a reliever or a starter when he makes that impact.



We throw the term "ace" around a little easily for my liking these days, so I'm obviously not going to sit here and tell you that Graceffo has that ability. I'm also not going to tell you that he doesn't have that ability. More than likely, what the Cardinals have in Graceffo as a starter is a work horse that prides himself on going as deep into starts as he's allowed while throwing a ton of meaningful strikes and eating as many innings as possible. In both of these ways, he's a little like Cardinals Legend Lance Lynn, but with an entire repertoire of pitches instead of just four hundred different fastballs. I think something like that is what we will *LIKELY* see out of him if he's given a chance to be a starter long-term. Think something similar to that, but with the potential for more. Hell, maybe even something like healthy Miles Mikolas. Why not. Maybe what I'm saying is that he'll be a starter that's VERY effective and efficient while being undervalued by the masses.

If he is eventually stuck in a long-term bullpen role, he's going to be a difference maker like Helsley is. That doesn't necessarily mean that Graceffo is ever going to be a top five reliever in baseball like Helsley is, but it also doesn't... not... mean that, either. Helsley never got his shot at the rotation. And you know what? Not having Helsley as a starting option actually hurt the Cardinals for a couple of years as they dicked around with less talented pitchers like Dakota Hudson and John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon, just to name a few. The same thing will happen if they get stupid with Graceffo. I guess it really doesn't matter for Graceffo one way or the other because he's going to be good regardless of his role.

Like Helsley, one way or the other he's going to produce at the Major League level as long as he's healthy. When you are talking about a player and person and pitcher that is this gifted, when your only concern is if this command-first power-pitcher is going to get too much of the plate every so often, then you celebrate that young man. I resisted my better urges to name him as the unanimous 2nd best prospect in the system because I didn't want my bias to shine through as brightly as it's capable of. That's a shame, too, because Gordon Graceffo most certainly deserves it.

Thanks For Reading!! Kyle Reis


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