Cardinals Minor League Rankings: First Basemen

THE LEAD-IN


Welcome to the offseason!!


The offseason means that we have nothing better to do with our time than to make and read both dumb and subjective lists!! Hooray!


And who does dumb and subjective lists (with no bearing in reality) better than anyone? That's right, it's Bleacher Report!! I'm somewhere down on that list, but I'm going to do it anyway because I'm tired of letting Cardinalsgifs down, and I hate being the guy that isn't doing anything for Birds On The Black.


As you might have guessed, I'm going to be doing these rankings my way. There will be some rookie-eligible players that are omitted from the list. I'll talk about those "GRADUATES" before we get into each individual listing. With some of these, I'll throw a couple of extra players into the fray for the hell of it.


Also, the lists are going to be a little different. The Cardinals have gone out of their way to turn individualized infielders into utility infielders. SO, instead of ranking the second basemen and shortstops separately, I'm going to group that unit into one. There might be a 3B or two sprinkled into that mix, as well.


Also, I truthfully didn't know what do with the 300 pitchers that the Cardinals drafted during the 2019 draft. So, instead of including them into the SP or RP pitching rankings, I'm going to break them off into their own category.


"It's my world, my world, and those ancient people are dead."


Remember, these rankings are mine and mine alone. They are very subjective, and they will be brief. The re-ranked Dirty Thirty-Five will be just a few months away. When we get to that, we'll go back to being as objective and in-depth as possible.


Until then, let's have some fun! Discourse is both welcomed and encouraged. And remember, just like with my own opinions, your opinions are worthless!!


LET'S GET TO THE LISTS!!



THE FIRST BASEMEN



GRADUATE: Rangel Ravelo – Age 27 – AAA and MLB



I've decided to omit Ravelo from the list because he spent quite a bit of time on the major league roster. Also, he's older than your average prospect. So, that keeps him off of the list.

Ravelo is a fine defensive first baseman with limited ability in a corner outfield spot. He did just fine in a pinch-hitting role for the Cardinals, and he has a good approach that should allow him to be a productive pinch hitter-type moving forward.


I've often compared Ravelo to a Jeremy Hazelbaker-type player, and I'm gonna hold firm on that. There's a major league future for this young man if he can continue to take advantage of the pinch-hitting opportunities that he is afforded. After spending nearly ten seasons in the minor leagues, it's great to see a player like Ravelo do well in a specific role.


On a roster full of redundancies, it could be argued that Ravelo is better suited for JMart's role.


GRADUATE: John Nogowski – Age 26 – AAA



I'm keeping "NoGo" off of the list because, honestly, I don't know what to do with him. This list was written before the Rule 5 draft and before the Cardinals had to decide who to add to the 40-man to protect from the Rule 5 draft. I'm kind of operating from the position that Nogowski won't be one of those players protected (EDITOR'S NOTE: He wasn't protected). Because of what Nogowski does well (There isn't a player on the farm with a better understanding of the strike zone), I feel like there's abetter than average chance that a team will take a chance on him during the Rule 5. We'll just have to wait and see.


In addition to his approach and understanding of the strike zone, Nogowski is a plus-plus defensive first baseman. Nogowski showed a bit of a power surge in 2019, too, so I went back and watched all of the home runs he hit to see how many of those home runs were a direct result of the major league baseball being used in AAA. Well, I'm no expert, but I really feel like no less than 12 of the 15 home runs that he hit would have cleared AAA fences one year ago. Nogowski has an excellent feel for the barrel of his bat, and the power that manifested really isn't surprising. It's actually a product of a couple of years of work that paid off.


I like Nogowski a lot. He was once released from the A's minor league system, only to find his way into the Cardinals organization via unaffiliated baseball. He's worked hard and dealt with injuries, yet here he is, just one step away from the majors. With an advanced feel for hitting and impressive defense at first base, I have to believe that, eventually, someone will give this young man a chance that he's worked so hard for.


He is simply a graduate off of this list because he's going to turn 27 in January. If we are being honest with ourselves, if I'm being honest with myself, Nogowski should probably be considered #1 in this subset.




OK. NOW, THE LIST


#1: Luken Baker – Age 22 – Palm Beach



DO NOT GIVE UP ON LUKEN BAKER. I know that there are questions about his defensive abilities at first. I know that his slash line of 244/327/390 with a K rate of 22.6% leaves a lot to be desired. It's also a concern that Baker was hitting 221/307/330 with six home runs and 21 doubles in 358 at-bats entering August. There are some worrisome traits in regards to Baker, no doubt.


However, I'm also aware that Baker's stats are buoyed by August, in which he hit 346/413/654 with four home runs and eleven doubles in 81 at-bats. As a matter of fact, Baker's 2019 was interesting, in general. His season was bookended by great months of April and August, with a ton of question marks during the three middle months of the minor league season.


When I checked in with my Palm Beach people in late June, they told me that Baker seemed way off-balance at the plate. It wasn't so much that he was lost, just that he might be trapped in his own head a little. This isn't unusual for a player in the Florida State League, and it's even less uncommon for a player that was spending his first full season of affiliated ball at the level.


So, with all of this in mind, the August resurgence that he showed is even more impressive, in my book. Baker walked 10.9% of the time in August to match his power resurgence, and that's a sure-fire sign of confidence and comfort. His 32 doubles on the season were the second-most in the FSL, as well. Baker also showed definite signs of development at first base. When I watched him in April, he looked like a below-average fielding first baseman, at best. When I watched him in August, he looked like an average fielding first baseman, at best. I know, I know. That isn't much to get excited about. Baker still has a lot of work to do, but at least steps were being made in a positive direction. Baker is limited by his speed, which is the bottom of the barrel, and that's a bummer.


Even with the struggle in the FSL, Baker posted a wRC+ of 115. That's 15% better than the league average. He'll enter 2020 surely destined to be the 1st baseman for Springfield. There's no telling what major league baseball is going to do with the baseball, and AA is supposed to start using the same baseball as the majors and AAA. Still, either way, I fully expect Baker to have a big offensive season in 2020.



#2: Brady Whalen – Age 21 – Peoria Chiefs



It was a pretty weird 2019 season for Whalen. Whalen is one of my personal favorite prospects in the organization, so I naturally spent more time with a close eye on him than I might have with other players on the list. I had a lot of thoughts about the kind of player that I thought he might turn into, and I wanted to see how that would all come together in 2019.


At first, it seemed like the 21-year-old was going to take the steps. In April, he hit 324/395/529 with three home runs and five doubles in 68 at-bats. Whalen was taking great at-bats, working counts, and doing all that he could within a count. The switch-hitting Whalen has somewhat of a flat swing from both sides of the plate, and it was nice to see him get the most out of his raw strength. He also only struck out 14 times in April while walking six times, and all indications were that he had taken the next step in his development.


But then May came, and with it, the strikeouts went way up. Whalen hit two home runs and an incredible 12 doubles in 101 May at-bats, but he also struck out 32 times. When you watched him, you could tell that he was trying a little too hard to integrate his above-average raw power in-game, and it wasn't balancing out properly at the plate. Still, this is the kind of thing that I love seeing out of a prospect at that level. Usually, with the players who take the next step, this type of adjustment is followed by a positive balancing-out. It's something that we saw out of Elehuris Montero in 2018.


It didn't work out this way for Whalen.


Instead, Whalen went in the opposite direction. After hitting a home run on May 16th, Whalen went 60 games before he hit his next home run. He hit 15 doubles during this period, and he walked plenty while driving his K rate down, but Whalen was treading water. The hitter that showed signs of being an aggressive, yet understanding, hitter with surprise pop due to his size and strength nearly vanished. Also, during this time, Whalen really struggled in the field. I view Whalen as one of the three best defensive first basemen in the organization, but he just didn't really have "it" during this period. I wondered if it was injury-related or confidence related, but all of that is just speculation. What I know is, the middle month of the season was rough on him.





Whalen recovered defensively down the stretch, and I'll stick with my thought that he's one of the three best defensive first basemen in the system. Even with the struggles at the plate, Whalen still led the Midwest League in RBI, and he was third in doubles. The power never came back around in 2019, but his approach really leveled out. Over the last two months of the season (232 plate appearances), Whalen walked 13.4% of the time while striking out a perfectly acceptable 16.8% of the time.


More than likely, Whalen will start the year in the Florida State League, where it'll be hard for him to produce the power that I'm asking him to demonstrate. More than likely, Whalen has a very "Luken Baker" 2020 for Palm Beach, but with a little strength training, improvement hitting from the right side, and luck, Whalen could finally show himself to be the player that I know he is capable of being.



#3: Leandro Cedeno – Age 21 – Peoria




Cedeno spent most of his time in the outfield during the 2019 season, but make no mistake: CEDENO IS NO OUTFIELDER.


You see, it really sucks to write negative things about a player. Especially in regards to a young man that's still trying to figure out his game. Being critical sucks, but sometimes you have to be honest.


With that in mind, I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that Cedeno is the worst minor league outfielder that I have ever watched play the outfield. He gets terrible reads off of the bat, and he takes terrible angles to get to the baseball. HE NEEDS TO BE PLAYING FIRST EVERY DAY. He's not a particularly talented first baseman, either, and that's why I want to see him getting as many reps there as possible.


While it didn't manifest the way that I thought it would during the 2019 season, it's Cedeno's plus raw power that sets him apart from the rest within the Cardinals organization. Cedeno has top-three raw power in the organization, behind Nolan Gorman and Terry Fuller. It was definitely troubling to see that he only put six balls over Midwest League fences during the 2019 season. Especially when you consider that he hit 14 home runs in 140+ fewer at-bats the year prior in the hitter-friendly Appy League.


About midway through the Peoria season, the Cardinals pulled Cedeno from the league for a few weeks to work on his approach. I noticed right away that this involved a constantly changing leg adjustment as a timing mechanism. He had renewed success with Peoria after he returned there on June 20th, which was highlighted by August in which he hit 323/333/485 with two home runs and ten doubles in 99 at-bats. Of course, he only walked twice while striking out basically 25% of the time, which kinda sucks. However, it helps extrapolate the trend that is Cedeno as a hitter: He's at his most successful when he's swinging aggressively early in counts.


I don't know if the power and approach will ever lineup perfectly for this young man, but I do know that his raw strength is a thing of beauty. I'm content with the fact that he is probably never going to walk while striking out 25+% of the time, but it has to come with the in-game power that he showed during the 2018 season. Cedeno is a great young man and a hard worker, and I am really pulling for him to maximize his game.



HONORABLE MENTIONS (In A Particular Order)


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, he played 1B exclusively for Johnson City, and the outfielders in the organization are plentiful, so I wanted to include him here.


Lott comes from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and he reminds me a little 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.


Because he played in the Appy League, I didn't get to see him much. I was told that he really tired out down the stretch, and his stats show that to be the case. I'm expecting big things during the 2020 season for this big boy with dependable raw power and a surprisingly compact swing. I imagine that a little rest will go a long way for this young man. Whichever way his career goes, this is the exact type of player that you love to see your team take with the back of their top ten-rounds pick.


Dariel Gomez - Age 23 - State College



Dariel Gomez is not a very good first baseman. I've gotten so caught up with trying to describe the below-average... ness of Luken Baker that I forgot how below-average Gomez is.


There are actually times when he tries to pick a ball out of the dirt and it makes me laugh. I feel like an asshole for saying so, and I feel like an asshole for doing so, but it's not in my character to not be honest about such things.


Gomez also lumbers around the bases. He is not quick. On the 20-80 grade scale, Gomez is idealistically a 30. He's somewhere between Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly on the slow scale.


So, why is he on the honorable mentions list? This is why:


As you can see for yourself, Gomez has pop. I really like players who hit the ball hard.


I've been impressed with Gomez's power to all fields. He strikes out a lot, especially against lefties, but he is also better at using all fields than most of his type of hitters are. He was old for the State College level in 2019, but I was really impressed with what I saw out of his bat. While I spent time picking on his speed and his defensive abilities, it's also worth noting that Gomez is a smart defender and an intelligent baserunner. He knows what he is capable of, and he has a keen sense of what the opposition is going to do.


Obviously, without considerable gains in speed, athleticism, pitch recognition, and plate discipline, Gomez will never be anything more than organizational depth. He is, however, the type of player that small towns across America will enjoy watching when he comes to their town.



Chris Chinea - Age 25 - Springfield & Memphis



The fun thing about these lists is that it gives me a chance to highlight some of the organizational soldiers that I otherwise would not get a chance to if I was just doing the Dirty Thirty-Five. Chinea is one of those guys.


A 17th round selection in the 2015 draft, Chinea has bounced back and forth between catcher and first base since his debut in the organization. He's average at both positions, but where he stands out is as a team leader. Chinea is another one of those guys that's bigger than he seems. That's probably just me projecting the gravitas that I'm assuming that he has.


For five seasons, Chinea has produced while performing an essential role for the organization at every stop along the way. He had a very good season for Springfield, but he was overmatched in Memphis. More than likely, Chinea is too small to play first at the next level with a K/BB rate that is too erratic for the next level. Still, I really like Chinea, and he's been a fun player to watch for the last handful of seasons.


Thank you to @Cardinalsgifs for the sexy picture and to FanGraphs for the sexy stats!! Thanks For Reading!!

Kyle Reis