Organizational Rankings: The Top 10 Starting Pitching Prospects

**Welcome to the Organizational position rankings!! This is the preface. What I aim to do with this list is to show you what the organization looks like beyond the obvious names at the top. As a result, aside from a brief mention at the beginning, players like Patrick Wisdom, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Giovanni Gallegos will not show up on the list. As a matter of fact, any player that has made a major league debut will not show up on the organizational position rankings. This is purposefully designed to be a quick glance of what's going on outside of what you see everyday, so it might seem light on details as compared to what you'll find on the Dirty 35. You'll get more in-depth analysis on these players come February when we do the preseason Dirty 35 rerankings.

You might being asking "how did you get to these rankings?" Well, THAT'S NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS JUST ENJOY THE RIDE. But know that I put a premium on proximity to the majors when doing these organizational rankings.


So, without further ado, Birds On The Black Presents...



THE TOP 10 STARING PITCHING PROSPECTS

Editors note: Kyle dives deeper into his Top 10 Starting Pitching Prospects with this podcast, available on soundcloud and iTunes!

SIDENOTE: Daniel Ponce de Leon, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, and Alex Reyes will not appear on this list because they've all spent enough time with the major league club for me to forget that they exist, from a prospect standpoint. I'm kidding of course, but they definitely aren't the prospects that I want to tell you about. They're major leaguers. You know about them. Let's talk about the next wave, shall we?!


Prospect #1: RHP Ryan Helsley - 24 Years Old - AA & AAA


Make no mistake, the only thing that stopped Helsley from making both a major league debut and a major league impact during the 2018 was shoulder fatigue that cost him half of the season following an abbreviated start in early June. After resting, Helsley attempted one rehab start on August 8th. He was on a pitch count for that game and he didn't make it through the third. After that start, his ability to bounce back didn't happen at the same pace that it had up to that point in his minor league career.


So, yes, health is a concern at this point and it needs to be monitored very closely.


BUT, everything else is wonderful when he is healthy. Mr. Helsley throws four pitches, all of which are above average and play well together. The one area that he needs to improve on, and we've been talking about this for a few seasons now, is putting away hitters. He often gets ahead of hitters before attempting to get too cute with his offspeed pitches. A smarter man would be able to do the ground work, but I'd bet that 25% of his issued walks come after he goes up on a hitter.


That's a shame, too, because his stuff is really good. This is a 3-2 count and the batter is sitting on this pitch. He never stood a chance. Executing this is what separates Helsley from Dakota Hudson, in my opinion.


He trusts his stuff, for sure. Now, he just needs to work on not caring about giving up contact. If healthy in 2019, he'll play a big role in the major league clubs success, whether it be as a reserve starter or an eventually back-end of the bullpen piece.


I'll say it until the cows come home; when healthy, he's a better prospect with a higher ceiling than Dakota Hudson. Thanks to THIS TREMENDOUS ARTICLE by the one-and-only Rob Rains, we know that Helsley appears headed for a happy and healthy 2019 season. Over the last three plus years I've probably written 10,000 plus words over various outlets talking about Helsley. So, I'm going to leave it here instead of going on and on.



#2: LHP Genesis Cabrera - 22 Years Old - AA & AAA


Coming at you straight from "The Department of Stats Can Be Deceptive" is Genesis Cabrera. You'll look at that box stat-line above and, more than likely, think "this is the second best pitching prospect in the organization? YIKES."


Well, first, suck it.


Second, as far as raw and pure stuff goes, Cabrera is all alone at the top of the list. He possess at least three pitches that CAN BE well above average in a slider, fastball, and change up and all three of those pitches come from the same-ish release point. He's worked extremely hard over the last two years to get his arm slot at the same angle for all of his pitches and you could really see that by the end of the season. He over-throws his change some times and loses command of it. Also, sometimes he reaches back just a wee bit too much to throw his fastball. You'll see some of that here in this pitch-mix .gif:


Cabrera also throws a curve, but when you watch the games on the minor league feed it's hard to tell how often he throws it. It doesn't seem like he throws it that often anymore. Instead, it just seems like his slider gets loopy. Either way, it's a below average pitch that he didn't seem to go to all that often late in the season.


Speaking of which, what really impresses me about Mr. Cabrera is his ability to match top-talent. He was really good for Memphis in the AAA playoffs. He's one of those pitches that has stuff that is so good that sometimes it fools a lesser umpire. In my time watching the Cardinals minor league affiliates, the only pitchers that I can remember doing that as frequently as he does were Alex Reyes, Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Ryan Helsley, and Jaime Garcia.


Getting back to the mechanics, Cabrera had to do a lot of work mechanically over the last two years to really repeat his delivery and he's finally at the point where it looks natural and real. I believe that is part of the reason that his command issues come up; because of these relatively new mechanics. I believe that the walk numbers will decrease as the 2019 season progresses and as those mechanics become more second nature.


The inverse of this is that, sometimes, he has that "disinterested" appearance that fans appear to think Carlos Martinez has. Personally, I believe that it's a symptom of frustration from not having "a feel" for pitching that day. I'd still like to see him have a consistent and amped-up energy throughout the 2019 season. Just like with CMart, Cabrera works extremely fast when he is dealing and it's a frantic pace that only a watcher of Prospects after Dark can appreciate.



#3: RHP Jake Woodford - 22 Years Old - AA & AAA


There isn't much about Jake Woodford that I understand, honestly. There are times when he is really good and there are times when he looks absolutely terrible. He did spent a good portion of his 2018 season as a 21 year old pitching in advanced leagues without really embarrassing himself and he looked really good at points during the end of the season, so that probably has something to do with it.


Woodford will start 2019 at AAA Memphis and will be an important reserve option for the Cardinals. There were times towards the end of the 2018 season where you could see why the Cardinals used a first round selection on him and that has me really excited. The interesting thing with Woodford is that his struggles never seem to be command-related. Instead, his struggles seem to come from a lack of bite on his pitches. Of course that's a concern, but he shows signs of life often enough with all of his pitches to think that he'll be able to put it all together soon enough.


Woodford does allow wayyyyyy too much contract and he'll need to increase the amount of bats that he misses to be a legitimate major league starting option moving forward. One thing that I do love about Woodford (and one of the main reasons that I'm putting him this high on the list other than that he's ticketed for Memphis at such a young age) is that he keeps all of his pitches low in the zone. I was surprised by how good his command of the lower-half of the strike zone is. I do love some of the steps forward that his curve showed during the 2018 season, as you'll see here:


The good news in regards to Woodford is that he could stall out in 2019 and still have time to be a really good pitcher. Unlike with many prospects in general, time is definitely on Mr. Woodford's side. As I've stated on more than one occasion, I'm not really a fan of how aggressive the Cardinals have been with promoting him. I think that he would have done well to have started the year in Palm Beach instead of Springfield, but what do I know? Ultimately, I think that Woodford's best role would probably be in the bullpen, but I'm not willing to call it just yet.



#4 RHP Griffin Roberts - 22 Years Old - GCL & A-Advanced


As you can tell from the statline above, there isn't much to go on in regards to Mr. Roberts and a professional sample. As you know, it's also very unlike me to put a player with such a small and insignificant sample so high on any list. However, Roberts is different.


As both a starter and reliever for Wake Forrest, Roberts showed consistent signs of dominance that few pitchers show at the collegiate level. He does this by commanding a truly devastating slider. It's wiffle ball-esque and easily one of the best pitches in the organization. When he throws it out of the bullpen it'll make you laugh much like Adam Ottavino's does and Luke Gregerson's various sliders used to a couple of years ago. He does some fun stuff with it, too. Like backing it up on a righty (looks like a curve, right? Well, it's just one of the many ways that he manipulates his slider. CRAZY stuff):


Of course, it's not as good as Mr. Ottavino's is, but it's as close to a "Lite" version of it as you'll find in the minors.


Of course, there are some mechanical issues to work out. Doctor Roberts has a tendency to fly open on the front side, especially when he is throwing his offspeed pitches. He also uses a pretty violent delivery at times that I'm sure will have people smarter than myself worried about his long-term health and sustainability. Rumor has it that the Cardinals are already working with Roberts on it. That's good news. There's a lot to unlock with this young man.


His chance to stay as a starter will depend on how his changeup command and development comes along. What I know for sure is, his fastball/slider combo is good enough to be close to major league ready by the end of the 2019 season. During the draft, there were a lot of people that were worried about his low-90's fastball not being enough for the major league level, but I've watched him blow it by too many hitters to write it off just yet. I'm willing to bet that it gains velocity as the Cardinals work to smooth out his mechanics, as well. So, for me at this point, my only concern is with the development of a third pitch.


Much like the Cardinals I'm sure, I'm banking heavily on this projectable right-hander.



#5 LHP Evan Kruczynski - 23 Years Old - A-Advanced & AA


As I said in his Dirty 35 write up, I was largely dismissive of the East Carolina product after he was drafted by the Cardinals in 2017. He just seemed "fine" to me. Maybe I was right at the time, but I was probably wrong. What I know for a fact is, the 2018 version of this stud is substantially more than "fine". Rather, he's bordering on "leGit."


He's also the most underrated pitching prospect in the organization now. A designation I once gave to Austin Gomber three years ago and Ryan Helsley two years ago.


Early in the year I watched one of his starts for Palm Beach against Bradenton and the Bradenton lineup didn't stand much of a chance against him. It was the way that he worked against the right-handed hitters that really stuck out. Immediately, you could tell that his above average curveball and changeup paired extremely well with a low 90's and well-commanded fastball. He has the ability to work in on righties that few lefties in the minors have ability to do.


The two issues throughout the season that I noticed with Mr. Kruczynski were, first, that his curveball command was spotty, at times. Moving forward, that's what I'll be keeping the closest eye on. The second thing that I noticed is that it takes him a little time to get a feel for all of his pitches in a start. Often times, you'd see him fighting his stuff in that first inning only to settle down by the time that the second inning rolled around. This was especially true in the AFL. It just seems like he needs to calm down his nerves a little bit before he takes the mound. If he has the feel early on in a start, he'll finish deadly.


I can watch this pitch combo every fifth day and lived a #blessed life. Take note of how well Kruczynski hides the ball, as well:


Kruczynski finished the year at AA on a very solid note and he pitched as well as any starting pitcher in the Arizona Fall League. With lower body action that's reminiscent of Mark Mulder but much quicker with his upper body, Kruczynski is the next prospects that you haven't heard of that you'll be hearing a lot more about.



#6 RHP Johan Oviedo - 21 Years Old - Full Season-A


Oviedo is the one pitching prospect that I can't wait to talk about a little more when we dive back into the Dirty 35.


If you've been following me for a while, you'll know that Oviedo is a beast that stands 6'6" with a strong frame that holds about 225 pounds. You'll know that he can dial it up into the mid-90's but has struggled to maintain his velocity both from start to start and as the season goes along. You'll also know that he has two offspeed offerings in a change up and a curve and that both could be above the major league average in time.


I'm sure that you've looked at his stats and thought "man, this kid is the sixth best pitching prospect in the organization? What's happening down there? First, that lefty is second and now this guy is sixth?"


Well, Oviedo is the tale of two halves. He was terrible in the first half of the season. He really struggled with command and confidence during his first taste of full season baseball at Peoria. He also struggled in the early season because of the cold weather.


Over his last 13 starts of the 2018 season, Oviedo held batters to a batting average of .212 and an OPS of .610 while posting a 3.06 ERA and striking out 68 in 70.2 innings pitched. Peoria is a tough assignment for a pitcher as young and inexperienced as Oviedo was/is, and I'm willing to bet that his second half was just a stepping stone towards better things for the young man. He still needs to clean up the command, though, as he walked 40 batters over those last 70.2 innings.


Age and time are on his side and the Florida State League should help to settle some of those very young nerves. I think that he's going to need to slow down his pace on the mound and clean up the action on his plant leg to really command all of his pitches. With just a little tweaking and discipline, Oviedo could be a force.



#7 RHP Angel Rondon - 20 Years Old - Short & Full Season-A


Sometimes, often times to my embarrassment actually, I am dismissive of players at the lowest levels of the minors. The trek to the majors is long and laborious, and, often times, even the players that put up good numbers don't make it out of the "A" level of the minors. However, major league baseball is changing and teams are becoming more aggressive with these players. It's time to take note of these performances on a scale that I am not necessarily comfortable with.


That's where the soon to be 21-year-old Rondon comes in. This is an aggressive ranking for him. Probably the most aggressive that you'll see. But I love his raw stuff and his up-side and I'm kind of banking on it.


Truth be told, I hadn't seen a ton of Rondon before he was promoted to Peoria for the July 13th game against Lake County. But Rendon impressed immediately. Rendon hides the ball extremely well from hitters and he has a little quirk in his motion during the wind up where he brings his glove into his body while tilting his left arm downward before exploding towards the hitter. It's a little like what Jordan Hicks does with his hands but way more pronounced. I specifically decided to use the word "exploded" because you can tell that the fastball has a ton of life. All indications are that it sits in the low-mid 90's during starts but I've been told that the kid can really dial it in there when need-be.


Rondon throws his breaking pitch, which flattens out like a cutter when it isn't working properly, with enough command that I have confidence that it'll stay average, at least. I worry that it doesn't deceive lefties enough and that'll be something worth keeping an eye on in 2019. You'll notice from the above .gif that it can be filthy and even filthy against lefties. I love the swing that that the poor southpaw-swinger shows.


What I know for sure is that you usually have a major league caliber pitcher when a 20 year old keeps his strikeouts high and his walks low during his first taste of full-season baseball. Rondon might be the most interesting pitcher to keep an eye on in 2019. More than likely, this is a long term bullpen option, but he's been too effective so far to be dismissive of.



#8 RHP Casey Meisner - 23 Years Old - A-Advanced & AA


The big knock on Meisner (as the 6'7" right-hander entered the organization via the trade with the ATHLETICS that sent Josh Lucas westward) was that he really struggled to repeat his motion. Understand, this is nothing new for taller pitchers. It's something that Oviedo struggles with at times, too. That's a lot of body to stay in control of. This is a common, and almost-always warranted, complaint/concern with all tall pitchers.


Well, one of the joys of the 2018 season was watching Meisner work extremely hard to straighten out those problems. He still has a few hiccups here and there, but he's done a tremendous job of fixing most of those mechanical issues. Better than you might expect, too.


I really like Meisner's fastball, change, curve, slider mix. He doesn't throw with a ton of velocity and he over-throws his slider when he does throw it, but his stuff is pretty good. In particular, I love his curve. Because of his arm action and throwing motion, both his fastball and his curve move in motion with his swinging arm.