This is a completely half-assed list!!!!
OK, so hear me out: I'm breaking the Dirty Thirty-Five into five subsets of seven players for our mid-season report. Why am I doing this? Because that's literally all of the free time that I have. I TRULY, TRULY apologize for not having more time. I swear, I'll do everything that I can to make up for this moving forward.
Anyway, before we get started, remember to check out the article that highlights the Five Players From The 2019 Draft that I'm keeping the closest eye on. That should be released right after we conclude our little countdown here. Again, the depth of info, or lack-thereof, is because of the lack of free time I have. I promise that I've peered over countless hours of video and reports to give you my humble and honest opinions, albeit quick, on each and every player that I comment on. Besides, in this world of "TL;DR", my long and drawn out nonsense is probably best consumed in three or four paragraph form.
So, the system isn't in great shape right now. I'm just being honest. I hope that I have more time in the future to write about that. As of right now, I believe this to be the most concise list of top prospects in the organization. TRUTH BE TOLD, outside of the top 20-21 prospects, things don't look so rosy within the organization. Only time will tell, of course.
Over the next five days, I hope to give you more context in regards to that topic.
This also comes with one final warning: while I have watched hundreds of hours of video, and read countless reports on these players, this is the least amount of research that I have ever done for a countdown. While I have people I trust at nearly every affiliate in the organization, I usually use MiLB. TV as my primary method of investigation and cross-checking. However, MiLB updated their service and it's terrible, and that has really ruined the experience for me. On top of that, the system has been terribly boring, for the most part. And with the pitching in the organization taking such a large step backwards as compared to past seasons, it's less and less interesting to watch a start.
THE STATS IN THIS POST ARE CURRENT AS OF GAME TIME ON 7-9-2019
But I've rambled on long enough. It's countdown time!!! So, without Freddy Adu, Birds On The Black and Prospects after Dark presents....
THE DIRTY THIRTY-FIVE: PROSPECTS 21-15
Prospect #21: 1B Luken Baker
Palm Beach Cardinals
Drafted 75th overall in the 2018 draft
I feel for Luken Baker. I really do. He was really good at Peoria last year during an advanced assignment following the draft. He's then "rewarded" with a tough assignment to the Florida State League to start 2019. I'm joke around, but being assigned to Palm Beach, while a mental grind, isn't the prison that it used to be. With technology that allows for players and organizations to track success of players beyond the box score, and countless instructors stationed out of Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter is a different world than it used to be.
Still, I hate the league.
But I give Baker credit; he didn't let it break him early in the season. I like to break Baker's offensive statistics down into three brackets. Those brackets are actually months, and you can actually use his stats to illustrate what he was doing in each month.
First came April, as April comes first on the calendar, duh. During April, Baker wasn't hitting for power, but he was displaying an advanced approach that allowed him to get on base plenty. Over 94 April plate appearances, Baker slashed 253/417/360, but with only five doubles and one home run to show for it. His K% was over 23%, but his BB% was an incredible 20%+. Baker understood that he was in the Pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and he was adjusting his approach accordingly.
Then came May. During May, Baker became aggressive. No longer was he taking walks. In 99 plate appearances during the month, Baker only waked THREE times. When you listened to the Palm Beach games on the radio, the broadcasters would often talk about how Baker seemed to be swinging for the fences. While this approach increased his monthly home run total to three during the month of May, it did nothing for any of his other stats. His BB% obviously cratered, but his K% stayed the same. He went from hunting for his pitch, to trying to hit what was fed to him.
Then, since June 1st, it's been a balancing act for Baker. I've been told that there are a lot of hesitant swings out of him lately. His power and slug is basically nonexistent, posting a .255 slugging percentage over 108 plate appearances since June 1st. He's more selective than he was in May at least, and he's posted a BB% of 12% over that time. He's done this while striking out less, as well, to the tune of 18.5% of the time.
In the gif below, you'll notice why I like Baker's swing. There's a lot of balance in his swing for a big man. One thing that we have talked about a bunch with Baker, is that he doesn't have a prototypical home run swing. It's designed more for contact, and is flatter than your average power swing. Instead, Baker's power is supplied from his big-body and his raw strength. LOTTA leverage in this swing:
Moving on to our next point: Since the beginning of May, Baker's wRC+ has been 84, meaning it's been 16% worse than league average for the Florida State League. However, his season wRC+ is 99, meaning that he's still been league average on the season. That's how shitty the Florida State League can be on a hitter. Baker has been borderline terrible, and he's been basically league average. THAT LEAGUE IS A GRIND, and Baker is all the better for working through it.
This is the part where I tell you that Baker is a bad fielder at first. The gif above is a great play by his standards. It's a good play by average standards. I've been told that he's better now than he was at the beginning of the season, but he's a bad fielder right now. SO, there's that.
I'm anxious to see what the rest of the season has in store for the big-bodied Baker. He is clearly doing some adjusting and course correcting, and a strong finish to the 2019 season will easily propel him back into the top 10 in the organization. Truth be told, the large drop on the list really wasn't fair of me. But I made a choice that the three big-upside teenagers deserved a little extra credit and attention. Let's talk later, when Baker is in the Texas League.
Prospect #20: RHP Johan Oviedo
Signed as an International Free Agent in July of 2016
It took Oviedo a little time to get going during the 2018 season, but there weren't too many pitchers in the organization that were as effective as he was in the second-half of that season.
So, it wasn't that big of a surprise when Oviedo came out guns-a-blazing in the pitching-friendly Florida State League to start the 2019 season. Over 33.2 innings at Palm Beach, Oviedo held hitters to a batting average against of .230 while only allowing two extra-base hits: one home run and one double. That's a lot of soft contact.
It seemed a little early for a promotion, but injuries at Memphis and Springfield allowed for Oviedo's promotion to Springfield just six appearances into the 2019 season. Since arriving at AA, it's been a rocky-go for him. Where Oviedo was having success at Palm Beach and Peoria in 2018, was in getting hitter's to chase his fastball up in the zone, and the breaking pitch in the lower-half of the zone. As you might expect from Double-A hitters, there isn't much in the way of the chasing of those pitches early in counts, and that's hurting Oviedo..
Aside from this, command is the big issue with Oviedo. It has been since he found his way out of the rookie leagues. He's walked 30 in 54+ innings at the AA level. He's often working from behind, and that's really worked against him. It's hard to get a hitter to chase when they are often ahead in the count. Oviedo has also worked mostly in the mid-to-low 90's from what I understand, and maintained velocity has always been one of the concerns with him.
The other thing that I've seen a lot out of Oviedo is a curveball that doesn't do what he wants it to do all of the time. Often times, it goes flat and doesn't break. It's a pitch that has the ability to be a well above-average pitch with consistency, but it's inconsistent more often than not.
I do really like Oviedo's change-up. It's a bit of an unheralded pitch, but it, too, needs more consistency. Obviously, "consistency" is going to be the magic word moving forward in regards to Oviedo and potential success. Here's what happens when he's using it well with the fastball. Th gif below is a three-pitch mix. The first pitch is a fastball that he blows by the hitter. He was really dealing this day, and his fastball stayed in the mid-90's throughout the entire start. He follows that up with a fastball that the hitter fouls off because it gets too much of the plate. On the next pitch, with the runner going, Oviedo drops the change on the outside corner:
With all of that in mind, sometimes Johan looks DYNAMIC. When it's clicking, and he's throwing everything from the same slot without slowing down his arm, and it's doing what he wants, he profiles as a mid-rotation arm. More often than not, without more consistency, this is a pipe dream. He is only 21, so there's plenty of time for him to find it.
If I had to hedge my bets, Oviedo probably profiles as more of a dynamic bullpen arm in the future, based on what he's shown - more often than not - thus far in his career. But if he takes that next step in his development, then he's going to be a very good starting pitcher.
Oviedo is coming off of his best start, in my opinion, since receiving the promotion to Springfield. And here I am, wondering if he's about to repeat his second-half performance in 2018.
Prospect #19: RHRP Junior Fernandez
Signed as an International Free Agent forever ago (July of 2014)
Sometimes, it takes a pitcher a little longer to develop. Sometimes, a pitcher comes along and reminds us why we shouldn't over-hype a teenager, even if he is a dynamic player. Sometimes, there's just no predicting how someone is going to rebound from injury, or how they're going to take to a change in role, or how their path will manifest.
Just two off-season's ago, Junior appeared to be on the fast track to the majors, similar to the track that Jordan Hicks and Sandy Alcantara were on. He had displayed the stuff that you'd want to see out of a potential major league starter, but he was just starting to put it all together. Then, shoulder fatigue (and other arm issues) basically took an entire season away from Fernandez, from the mid-point of 2017 to the mid-point of 2018. When he returned to the mound in 2018, it was as a reliever. Truth be told, his stuff always profiled best out of the pen, but you never give up on a rotation arm until the very last minute.
Arm injuries changed his path, and it took him the rest of 2018 to figure out the role, but he's been a completely different pitcher in 2019. When I started to compile this list, I knew that I was going to take Seth Elledge off of the list and put Fernandez on it. Initially, I had Fernandez around the 30th spot on the list because I never give minor league relief pitchers the credit that they deserve. However, upon watching Junior pitch at both Memphis and Springfield, I am now 100% sure that this is the type of arm that has a chance to be dominant in the back-end of a bullpen.
As a matter of fact, and I'm going to put this is quotes to emphasize it, Fernandez should be in the major league bullpen. Not only is his stuff good enough, but his arm's history is volatile enough that every bullet that he shoots at the minor league level is a bullet that he can't shoot at the major league level.
Yes, Junior still struggles with command, and over-throws the baseball sometimes. Guess what? So does every pitcher in their early 20's that can throw the ball 100 MPH. We've seen this with Jordan Hicks. Now, imagine if Hicks had spent the last year and a half at Springfield and Memphis pitching out of their bullpen instead of pitching out of the Cardinals bullpen. You'd call that a waste of resources, right? I probably would, too.
Here is Fernandez's first AAA strikeout. Three pitches. It took the minimum to get the batter out. Three different pitches, at that! LOVED LOVED LOVED That he started him off with the change. Loved that he followed that up with breaking pitch, only to finish him off with a 99 MPH fastball. By the way, this is a bases loaded situation that he came into. IN HIS AAA DEBUT. ENJOY:
Fernandez's delivery can be violent at times, and that's worrisome. He's come a long way in repeating his delivery, but he still doesn't do it on every pitch. That, too, is worrisome. What isn't worrisome, is that he throws one of the best change-ups in the organization, and he throws it consistently. He also pairs that with a breaking pitch that flashes plus out of the bullpen, but is less consistent than the change and fastball.
In that Memphis debut that you saw above, Fernandez exceeds his season high in innings and pitches-thrown during an outing, throwing 3.1 innings and 50 pitches. I'm anxious to see how he rebounds from being over-extended. Fernandez has been good in the three appearances since, but he was also extended to 2.1 innings two appearances ago on July 1st, and he didn't look the same afterwards during his next appearance of 1.1 innings of July 5th. I can't help but think that the Cardinals organization is trying too hard to generate multi-inning relievers. But I digress, for now.
Fernandez, while not as elite as Jordan Hicks, is a pitcher of a similar mold. He has an elite arm, when healthy, and enough deception and movement on three pitches to get plenty of swinging-strikes. Under most circumstances, I would never put a relief-only option so high on the list, but Fernandez is a unique case. If I wasn't such a fickle bitch, and if I were being honest with myself, he probably deserves to be higher. Now, let's hope for good health.
Prospect #18: OF Trejyn Fletcher
Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft
Look, I'm going to keep it really simple with Fletcher: he's a lot like Terry Fuller, if Fuller hadn't spent so much time playing football, and if Fuller was built like a normal human being instead of a damn monster.
You won't find a person that doesn't see Fletcher as a special athlete. That part is not up for debate. You also won't find too many people that don't think that he possesses truly elite raw power and potentially elite raw speed. Even more, you probably won't find anyone that will put him this low on the Cardinals' organizational list because of his supreme athleticism, his raw power, and the howitzer for an arm that he has. It's been widely reported and talked about since he was drafted, but Perfect Game had him as their #1 draft prospect for the 2020 draft before he reclassified for the 2019 draft. That's the kind of pedigree that the Cardinals lack in the organization, and it's a player with the hype that should warrant a top five spot on a top prospects list.
Quick intermission of thought: Speaking of that raw speed and athleticism, here's a little gif of Fletcher going first to third on a grounder:
I, however, am dumber than your average bear. SO, instead, this elite athlete fits barely inside of the top 20. LET ME EXPLAIN MYSELF.
Let me tell you why I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid just yet. FIRST, rankings that far in advance are awfully premature. You don't have to look further than the post-2018 projections for the 2019 draft to see that. Or, any other draft, for that matter.
SECOND, Fletcher is absolutely all of those superlatives above, but he's also very very raw, and coming from a cold weather climate. Now, if there's one thing that the drafting of Nick Plummer should teach us it's that we shouldn't get too excited about big numbers from high school kids in cold climates.
Third, Fletcher needs some serious coaching. His mechanics at the plate are all over the place, and you won't find two video of him in which his hitting mechanics are the same. He's also very raw in the outfield.
FOURTH, I just don't know enough about him, and I just haven't seen enough of him. You folks know how I operate: I want to see the kid. The little that I've seen has been against obviously inferior talent in highlight reels. Until I see more, I'm always going to be reserved when it comes to a teenager. People like myself that make these lists? We tend to get awfully irresponsible with shiny new toys as we over-hype them to a level of ridiculous hopes and expectations. I'm not going to do that here.
NOW, I did just bring up Nick Plummer. I'm sorry about that. I really am! I know that is a grave of my own digging, so let me explain that I was only bringing Plummer up because of the cold weather climate talk. Fletcher is not Plummer. He's better in every way at the same age, except for plate discipline. He's stronger and faster, with more power (both in-game and raw) and a better arm. Actually, I'd love to see how Fletcher would do if given the same at-bats as Plummer has received at Palm Beach. I'd kill to see how different the stats would be. At this point, I've beat up on Plummer enough. I'm just trying to clarify that Fletcher is better as a prospect, and from a scouting standpoint, than Plummer has probably ever been. But remember when the hype-train drove Plummer to unreal expectataions land? Well, let's not do that again, OK?
And that's where we will end it. It's been GREAT to see him do extremely well in the early going of the GCL season. It's even cooler to see him get the promotion to Johnson City. The Cardinals need him, and the next two members of the list, to get as close to their respective ceilings as possible. Give Fletcher some time to get orientated and work on his mechanics, then we'll start talking about a top 10-5 prospect in the organization.
Prospect #17: 3B Malcom Nunez
Johnson City Cardinals
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2018
In my mind, prospects 18, 17. and 16 on this list are a three-pack of limitless potential. In my mind, their continued development just might make or break the Cardinals long-term success. In my mind, as of right now, they are more along the lines of "prospects 16.a, 16.b, and 16.c". They form a triumvirate of hope and potential at the lower levels that the Cardinals really haven't had, from a high-upside standpoint, since I've been following the organization.
Nunez gets the spot ahead of Fletcher because he's more technically sound than Fletcher is, and because his bat and skills are more developed. Once Nunez gets the back and shoulder issues that have kept him out of the lineup for Johnson City in check, he's going to go on a tear. He's too good of a hitter not to.
Also, I will put this gif in everyone of Malcom's write-ups until I retire. I could watch it over and over, and I'd recommend that you (and I am going to basically force you to) watch it over and over again:
As electric as his bat can be, and as good as his approach has shown the capability of being, what really hurts Nunez is his free-swinging mentality. During a brief stint with Peoria earlier in the year, Malcom got off to a tough start. Shortly in to his short-stint there, he showed signs of understanding m that he wasn't going to get much to hit, and adjusted accordingly. This period was brief, unfortunately, and by the time that his tenure with Peoria was up, he was back to swinging like a maniac at everything that was thrown his way. It wasn't the most promising full-season debut for the 18-year-old, but the tough nature of the assignment wasn't worth over-investing in the results.
I'm probably dead wrong here, but doesn't Nunez's pro-made swing kind of remind you of a right-handed swinging Ray Lankford (it doesn't)? At least, timing-wise? Or, bat-path wise? He gets his hands up higher than Lankford did, BUT STILL. Or, is this just me fantasizing about Lankford again?? You tell me (also, he girthy):
I will say, I was less-than impressed with what I saw out of Nunez defensively during his short stint with Peoria. He'd do a good job of squaring the ball up to his body, but he always seemed to play the wrong hop. He'd do well to be more aggressive at third instead of sitting back on balls hit to him. That arm of his still looks good, though.
And that's where we are at currently with Nunez. He's hurt, and we are waiting to see how he recovers when he returns to the rookie level Johnson City lineup. One of my concerns with Nunez was how his body was developing, but he looked to be in girthy-good shape during that short Peoria stint. While I'm not investing too much into his struggles there, the one thing that became absolutely clear is that he has work to do on his approach, while adjusting his understanding of how he is going to be attacked, if he is going to take the next step in his development.
Prospect #16: OF Jhon Torres
Johnson City Cardinals
Acquired from CLE as part of the Oscar Mercado trade
I love Jhon Torres. With him, I just.... I just see "IT". I see it in his swing. In his skill-set. I see it in-game. I see a raw baseball player that is just seasoning and reps away from being a top 200-250 prospects in baseball.
Like with Nunez, Torres got a small taste of Peoria about mid-way through the first half of the season. Also like Nunez, Torres was terrible, at first. He was chasing everything and striking out a ton. It actually killed my soul. While Nunez was starting to figure it out a little bit, Torres was still swinging like a jackass at everything thrown his way. It was... not encouraging, let's say.
Then, before he was removed from Peoria and sent back to extended spring training, something natural started to happen. All of the sudden, Torres was doing a better job of identify breaking pitches and understanding how he was going to be attacked. Over his last eight games with Peoria, eight of twenty-one mind you, Torres hit 333/345/444 with three doubles in a small sample of 29 plate appearances. His K% was still an alarming 34.5%, but that was actually down from the 40% that he was putting up over his first 13 games with Peoria. It felt like he was figuring it out, even if only a little bit.
Since being assigned to Johnson City for the start of the short-season affiliated rookie ball, Torres has looked like the hitter that really excelled for the Cardinals after being acquired in 2018. This corner outfielder with a plus arm is back to showing signs of being a dynamic offensive threat. He's been at the top of the JC lineup, too.
As the stats above show you, he's still striking out WAY too much, and often on breaking pitches. That's something that still needs work, and emphasizes just how raw Torres is. But if he figures it out, or, rather, once he figures it out (like he's demonstrated in the past), he's going to be a top 5 prospect in the organization.
Prospect #15: RHP Angel Rondon
Signed as an International Free Agent in 2016
FIRST, a gif of our boy throwing back to back curves:
Angel Rondon gives us a chance to peer into my brain, and the battle that goes on within it, in regards to a prospect. This is what it's like when a player like Angel Rondon emerges. I'm truly truly sorry for this:
KYLE: LOOK AT THIS KID!! HE'S AMAZING.
Rational Kyle: Yeah, he's making strides, and he has some good stuff, but he only throws two pitches well enough to matter.
KYLE: HE'S A STUD! THOSE TWO PITCHES ARE WELL ABOVE AVERAGE! HE'S A MAJOR LEAGUER!
Rational Kyle: Calm yourself down, you nitwit. There's a lot of work to be done. He might be doing enough now, but he's getting away with stuff that he won't be able to at the next level.
KYLE: WHAT DO YOU KNOW?! HE'S 21 AND PITCHING REALLY WELL AT AA!!!! HOW MANY PITCHERS HAVE DONE THAT IN RECENT YEARS FOR THE CARDINALS?! HE HAS FRONT OF THE ROTATION STUFF.
Rational, and now reactionary toward emotions, Kyle: No, he doesn't. Those guys are rare. Jack Flaherty has front of the rotation stuff. Carlos Martinez has front of the rotation stuff. And, even then, look at how hard it is to be a front of the rotation pitcher. You're an idiot.
KYLE: NO, YOU'RE THE IDIOT. HE'S HAD 16 STARTS ON THE SEASON AND HE'S ONLY YIELDED MORE THAN THREE RUNS IN THREE OF THOSE STARTS. HE'S STRIKING OUT 25+% OF HITTERS. AND HE'S COMING OFF OF THE BEST START IN HIS CAREER.
Rational Kyle: Sure, but his FIP at the AA level is 4.00, and that tells us that he's getting bailed out a bit. When you add in that his xFIP is 4.49, and that he's walking roughly 12% of batters at Double-A, you start to see some alarming trends.
KYLE: SUCK IT WITH YOUR TRENDS, YOU COCK. STOP BEING SUCK A PUNK-ASS-BITCH-ASS-DICK-ASS-BITCH AND OPEN YOUR EYES: THIS KID IS GOOD!!! AND HE STILL HAS ROOM TO GROW AND GET BETTER!
Rational Kyle: Actually... Yeah. That checks out. I agree.
Anyway, here's another gif. This time, it's of our boy striking out Royals' stud infielder Adelberto Mondesi while Mondesi was on a rehab assignment. It's also a five-pitch mix of his entire arsenal, and another example of how he uses and manipulates his curve so well:
Quick aside: If you're going to do the stupid powder blue jerseys, do them like these. Look at how good they look!! "Victory Blue", L.O.L.
LOVE the black bat, too mmm mmm mmm.
We were on Rondon in the off-season, weren't we?! There's no taking away that he's talented, and I love seeing a player as young as he is do so well at AA, but he needs to continue to refine a third offering and lower the walk total. Now, six of his twenty-five walks over 51.1 Double-A innings came in one start, a start in which he worked around that trouble to the tune of two earned runs over six innings. I bring that up, because I want to show you that his stuff is good enough, and he trusts it enough, to get out of trouble at the minor league level. With a fastball that keeps it's mid-to-low 90's velocity well into starts, a curve-ball that's deceptive because of Rondon's arm speed, and a quirky delivery that creates a ton of deception, few prospects in the organization have made the gains during the 2019 season as Rondon has.
FanGraphs is the hero that we both need and deserve, and their stats fuel these articles. Subscribe to their service, if you are able to. Nice little assist by Baseball Reference with the Fletcher stats, as well! I'd also like to thank Baseball Factory, @joebaileysports, and @TLee_WMTW for supplying the video that I gif'ed of Fletcher.
Thanks For Reading!!