Cardinals Minor League Rankings: Relief Pitchers

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 lists, I'll throw in 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 LIST!!



THE RELIEF PITCHERS



GRADUATE: RHP Junior Fernandez – Age 22 – Basically Everywhere



I'm finally happy that I get a chance to destroy a fun little narrative that has been running around lately.


Yes, Fernandez did start the year with Palm Beach. And, yeah, it's a remarkable story that he went all of the way from the A+ level to the majors. SO. DAMN. COOL!


However, this part of the narrative ignores the fact that Fernandez spent the end of his 2018 season at Springfield, and it glosses over the fact that the Cardinals were stupid for starting him in Palm Beach in the first place. The Cardinals tried to do this cute little thing where they brought in a bunch of career minor league pitchers on minor league deals with the intent of using pitchers that they drafted as starters out of the minor league bullpens. It was a dumb and foolish move, and it didn't pay off on any level. It was narrow-sighted and irresponsible, and they lucked out with progress that Fernandez made.


All of the credit for this goes to Fernandez. A lesser prospect would have entered the season demoralized, and it would have handicapped their season from the get-go. Or, a lesser prospect would have taken it as a spiteful move, and they would have gone to war every appearance in an effort to prove the organization wrong. That's a move that usually backfires at the minor league level, as well.


No, Fernandez instead handled it like a professional. He pitched within himself. Junior didn't over-extend. He just worked on locating his pitches and repeating his mechanics. It took him a month to finally get the promotion to the level he should have started at.


It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention that Fernandez tore apart the competition at AA. The batting average against of .176, the slugging percentage against of .196, and the 42 strikeouts in 29 innings prove that. He was ready for that challenge at the beginning of the season. With three pitches that elicit swings and misses (fastball, slider, and changeup), nothing short of advanced talent was going to do damage against Fernandez out of the bullpen.


What was fun to see was that he basically repeated these numbers at the AAA level. The Cardinals did this weird thing (that I view as harmful with this type of pitcher, a pitcher with arm fatigue issues) where they tried desperately to stretch him out into a weekly multi-inning reliever. No surprise, but this was when Fernandez's command started to really struggle.


Fernandez is going to be a fireman at the major league level if he can stay healthy, mark my words. Unless he takes a huge step backwards this offseason, there's no reason to not just grant him a spot in the 2020 bullpen. The Cardinals really could have used this dynamic arm in the playoffs.


If used properly, Fernandez is going to be a valuable bullpen piece for the 2020 team.



BUT BEFORE THE LIST


Just a reminder that it's the same story for nearly every relief pitcher in ANY organization: they need to work on command.

Another across the board fact, if they were a starter before they became a reliever, they got a velocity bump by becoming a reliever.

Also, Most open arms only have two viable pitches, and at least one of those pitches requires refinement. At the same time, all of the bullpen arms at the minor league level since the beginning of time are working on some type of third pitch. Go ahead and add these little blurbs to nearly all of these mini-profiles.



OK. NOW, THE LIST!!



#1: RHP Kodi Whitley - Age 24 - Palm Beach, Springfield, & Memphis



There isn't a relief pitcher that did more for his stock in the minor leagues for the Cardinals than Whitley.


Whitley is a fascinating subject from the jump. He was drafted in the 27th round of the 2017 draft, but that was following Tommy John Surgery. More than likely, Whitley would have been selected between rounds 10 and 15 had he stayed healthy and continued to perform the way that he had before he hurt his elbow. Personally, I LOVE this draft strategy, and Whitley is probably the best value pick from that draft.


Whitley has a funky and deceptive over the top delivery that really helps his stuff play up. It's a little bit like a combination of Ryan Helsley's and Gio Gallegos' delivery. What'ss really intriguing about Whitley is that he is a four-pitch mix relief pitcher. His slider and his curveball work really well together. His sinker has mid-to-late 90's velocity, and you can tell that he's working within a count to use it up in the zone to polish off hitters. You'll also see that it has a ton of late life. I don't think that I have a feel for his changeup, but he seems to have a good enough feel for it that it'll be a useful pitch at the major league level.


Make no mistake, Whitley will make a major league debut in his future if he can stay healthy. The mix is too good, and his command of it is good enough. Whitley has shown the ability to get both lefties and righties out, as well, which includes an impressive 23-ish% strikeout rate against left-handed batters and a 30% strikeout rate against right-handers.


If you had to pick one relief pitcher that hasn't made a major league debut that could have a Gio Gallegos-like impact on the 2020 team, Whitley is the guy.



#2: RHP Bryan Dobzanski – Age 24 - Palm Beach, Springfield, & Memphis



This a purely "feel" pick on my part for the 2nd best reliever in the Cardinals' organization. I think that smart people would tell you that it's one of the other names that I am going to bring up. I just really like watching Dobzanski pitch, and I think that his stuff is underrated. When we get to the D35, other pitchers from this list will be rated ahead of him.


First, Dobzanski is an athlete. He was a BIG sign for the Cardinals when he was drafted in the 29th round of the 2014 draft. There are plenty of baseball players that also receive scholarship offers to play football as Dobzanski did, but there aren't many high schoolers that are as decorated in Wresting as the consecutive State Champ Dobzanski is/was. All of these superlatives and accolades are part of the reason why the Cardinals gave him a sizeable signing bonus to get him into the organization.


The other reason that his signing bonus was so high is that he had a projectable frame and some raw tools that were worth extra money and attention. These days, Dobzanski can pump his fastball beyond the mid-90's, while throwing an equally impressive slider that he appears to be able to adjust the depth of. I also believe that he has a somewhat impressive curveball in that repertoire, albeit not on the same level as the slider.


Oddly enough, Dobzanski is going to have to get better against right-handed hitters. The OPS against of .812 that was posted against him is NONONONO Bueno. The assumption here is that the incorporation of a consistent changeup would be a big help in ending some of these issues. I feel like we are already on the right track here because Dobzanski showed that improvements with his command of it from month to month.


The Cardinals have shown a push in developing multi-inning relievers, and I think that Dobzanski has a chance to be that. The former starter is just a refined and consistent changeup away from being there.


#3 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 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 mentioned above with Dobzanski, 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 impressive there. He had a rough first AAA appearance in which he surrendered five earned runs in 0.2 of an inning. Still, 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, and 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 is 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 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.



#4: RHP Ben Yokley – Age 27 - Palm Beach




THIS IS MY LIST AND I'LL DO WHAT I WANT WITH IT.


You gotta love that Ben Yokley.


Yokley was drafted in the 29th round of the 2015 draft out of the Air Force Academy. Because of his service commitment to the Air Force (aside from a 13.1 inning stint with Johnson City after being drafted), Yokley didn't get a chance to get going within the organization until the mid-part of the 2018 season. He displayed impressive command for someone three years removed from organized baseball, but you could tell that he was kicking the rust off of his repertoire.


Then, of course, as Rob Rains points out in this terrific piece, Yokley underwent hip surgery between the 2018 and 2019 season. It just seemed like Yokley was having every obstacle thrown in front of him in his pursuit of the major leagues.


The good news is that 2019 was a massive step in the correct direction for Yokley. His command, velocity, repeatability, and movement on all of his pitches got better as the season progressed. He started to show signs of fatigue at the beginning of July, and that coincided with an IL stint. Yokley came back at the end of the season and pitched well over his last two appearances. His velocity stood out in particular, and he was consistently pumping his mid-to-high 90's, explosive fastball in at the corners of the strike zone. You'll get a really great feel for the late life on his slider in the gif below. His explosive fastball and the late life on his slider is why he really sticks out. He's more than Mitch Harris.


It should go without saying, but Yokley is definitely the type of player that you root for. He is an inspirational story of service and perseverance, and I hope that he continues to show significant signs of growth during the 2020 season. I'd expect the Cardinals to be aggressive with him moving forward. He's going to need to cut down on the walk and long balls to have sustainable success. Consistency with the sinker is the key, in my opinion, for slugging suppression.


It's definitely not like me to include a 27-year-old on any list that I put together. Yokley is an exception. Plus, it's just nice to highlight a person like this.


#5: RHP Ronnie Williams –Age 23 - Springfield & Palm Beach



AGAIN, IT'S MY WORLD AND I'LL DO WHAT I WANT WITH IT (Escobar is really #5).


If I had to pick one reliever to have a bit of a breakout 2020 season at the minor league level, I'd pick Williams.