Updated: Nov 27, 2018
*Welcome to the Organizational position rankings!! This is the preface. What I aim to do with this list is 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 Poncedeleon, 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, 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. Know that I usually do lean heavy to proximity to the majors when doing the organizational rankings. Sue me.
So, without further ado, Birds On The Black Presents...
THE TOP 5 CATCHING PROSPECTS
Editors note: Kyle dives deeper into the top catching pitching prospects in the St. Louis Cardinal organization with this podcast below, available on soundcloud & itunes podcast.
SIDENOTE: Just to avoid the confusion, Carson Kelly does not appear on this list because he has accrued enough MLB service time in days on the active roster to not be rookie eligible in 2019. Just clarifying. There are other outlets that have yet to realize it so, here ya go.
#1: Andrew Knizner - 23 Years Old - AA & AAA
Statistically, 2018 was a disappointing season for Knizner. After his breakout 2017 season, it seemed like he was poised to steal the reigns of the fictitious and narrow-sighted title of "eventual backup to Yadier Molina" from Carson Kelly.
But that didn't exactly happen. And I'm willing to bet that the young, smart, and extremely talented "Kiz" would be the first person to express his disappointment with his season.
Don't let the numbers and the start of this article fool you, it was still a very good season for Knizner. He spent a lot of time during the season in a weird type of limbo. He was passed up by Jeremy Martinez early on for a promotion the AAA, a promotion that Kiz deserved. Then, a few weeks later, he finally got that promotion and he really excelled. During his first Memphis tour, Knizner hit 333/400/444/844 over 51 plate appearances in 14 games. Knizner deserved to stay, but then Yadi came off of the major league DL and that sent Carson Kelly back to AAA which sent Knizner back to AA.
After the demotion, Knizner never seemed to get going. The right-handed hitter with a habit of hitting the ball into the right-center field gap seemed to lose a ton of momentum. And here is where the true beauty of "Knizner; The Hitter" unfolds. This is what losing momentum looks like for him: Over his last 50 games at AA he hit 301/337/415/752 and had hits in 38 of those final 50 games. That's how good and polished he is.
Sure, maybe when it's all said and done the best option moving forward for Kiz is to have him playing a corner infield position to get him to the majors quicker. I will say that his defense behind the plate seemed to take a tiny step backwards during the season. At the end of his turn in the AFL in 2017 he seemed like he'd be able to stick at catcher. But this year was brutal for his measurable defensive skills. Of course, it's not worth selling off on this extremely smart and hardworking young man yet. My guess is, he'll right the ship faster than he took a step back.
Knizner has become prisoner to the Cardinals handling of Carson Kelly and that is a shame. The Cardinals owe it to both themselves, Kelly, and Knizner to find a more permanent home for both of those gentleman. The way that I'd like for it to happen is with Kelly as Yadi's backup and Knizner playing catcher every day for Memphis, but only time will tell how it will really shake out. I'm ready to see what a AAA regular Andrew Knizner can do over a full season. Spoiler alert: It's going to be good. And never forget that Knizner wins anyway, because he's dating a Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
#2: Dennis Ortega - 21 Years Old - Full Season-A
It turned out to be a very good season for Ortega, and the Cardinals desperately needed that from him, from an organizational perspective.
We've spent a lot of time talking about who is going to replace Yadi when his career comes to an eventual end (probably in 2025). Will it be Carson Kelly? Will it be Andrew Knizner? Well, if he keeps up the development that he showed in 2018, Ortega makes way more sense on the timeline. Between Ortega, our "Next Man Up", and the next player on the list, the Cardinals have interesting options in reserve, at the very least.
Ortega has that "it" factor that you want out of catcher. You can tell that he is a team leader-type, at least in spring training when I watched him in the backfields. There, Ortega had a commanding presence as compared to the other minor leaguers. Ortega is a really good defensive catcher that has managed to get a little better behind the plate each season. His size and skill set remind me of where Carson Kelly currently is. That's to say, Ortega might currently be on par with what we've seen from the major league version of Carson Kelly.
During the Midwest League All-Star game, Ortega threw a runner out at second by about 1,000 steps off of a ball in the dirt that most catchers would have no business even trying to gun down to second. Now, he isn't consistently this good and consistency is going to be the big point of emphasis for him moving forward, but the skills are all there.
The big question with Ortega was how his bat would develop following a 2017 season that could be best described as "terrible." Well, Ortega certainly exceeded my expectations. Between May 1st and June 27th when he went on the DL for what I believe was a hamstring injury, Ortega slashed 310/342/434/775 with three home runs and five doubles while only striking out 17 times in 120 plate appearances. He was incredible for his first 10 games after coming off of the DL, hitting 350/422/500/922, but he seemed to fatigue out at the plate during the last month of the season. It seemed like he was trying to incorporate more power into his game and that pushed his strikeout numbers up and his slash numbers down.
As I'm sure you can tell, I'm a big fan of Ortega and I'll be anxious to see where he starts the 2019 season at. Smart money is on him starting at Palm Beach, but there's always the chance that the Cardinals get aggressive with him and start him at Springfield. Either way, the coming season is going to be an important one as the Cardinals continue to appraise and make their decision about who Mr. Molina's eventual successor might be.
#3: Ivan Herrera - 18 Years Old - Rookie A & AA
I've talked on and off about Herrera for the last two years. If you don't know anything about him, now would be the time to start learning. Herrera is a toolsy offensive catcher with the ability to stick at catcher if his development goes 80% correct from this point on. IF that's the case, if that's how it pan's out, then he'll truly be the heir to Yadi's throne if Dennis Ortega can't seize control of it.
You wont' find a scout that doesn't think that Herrera's bat will play as he climbs the minor league ladder. His approach is as professional as you will find from a teen aged catcher. His swing is short and beautiful and never over-used.
While I haven't seen much of Herrera behind the plate, all indications are that he'll stick. I caution that there are still so many variable for a prospect that has yet to have an extended taste of full season baseball. To really make a decision about their ability to catch long term is just a fun guessing game, but as of right now it appears that Herrera is a league-average defensive catcher. He still has many of the weak spots that most teen aged catchers have, but he's filled with athleticism as this gif will demonstrate. This is not an easy play:
From what I have seen, he seems just a click too slow with his pop time. However, of all of the things to complain about, I feel good with where he currently is to not be overly-worried about it. Make no mistake: the catching position is the most demanding on the diamond and a catcher's work at mastering their craft is never complete and it's always laborious. Herrera is about to learn that.
I really like Ivan's approach at the plate and if he can continue down the path of a walk rate of 8-9% and a strike out rate of 15-18% with limited but budding pop then he'll be good to come 2021/2022. One last time: there is stil. plenty of development for the teenager to go through but there is time for it to happen. With a solid foundation to build on, it appears Herrera is a prospect worth knowing.
#4: Zach Jackson - 20 Years Old - Rookie A & A-Advanced
No, I cannot figure Zach Jackson out. Look, I just don't believe that he is going to stick at catcher. my mind won't allow me to believe that a 6'3" (potentially bigger than that) person could handle the rigors of the position. I also struggle to figure out what kind of an offensive profile he'll have. He's just kind of a paradox, to me.
And, for the record, I'm being wayyyyyyy more aggressive with Jackson than I care to be. I'm not even fully sure why I put him here. I guess that I'm just buying in to some of the hype and potential that he's shown.
But I will say that I was largely dismissive of him even though he commanded an above-average bonus as a sixth round pick out of high school in the 2017 draft. He just seemed like the toolsy type that you take a chance on and hope for the best. You know, like Walker Robbins. Turns out, Jackson did a lot in the offseason between 2017 and 2018 to really clean up his swing and now he looks like a different hitter than the kid that the Cardinals drafted.
Don't let that compliment distract you from the fact that the left-handed swinging Jackson strikes out A LOT. 34% over 184 plate appearances in the Appalachian League is a staggeringly high total. I do really like the 14.1% walk rate, but there isn't a league in baseball where you can get away with striking out that much. Obviously, that is the biggest area of concern.
At this point in his career, Jackson has played catcher exclusively in the organization. I do have my concerns about his ability to stay at the position in the long run. He's a little slow getting out of the crouch and he just seems a little too big for the position. This is from the high school showcase circuit:
As I've stated countless times, you keep players at short, catcher, and starting pitcher for as long as you possibly can. While I believe that Jackson is best suited for first base, only time will tell if he can stay at catcher. I'm even curious if he'd be able to play third base. I just really love his arm.
#5: Jeremy Martinez - 23 Years Old - AA & AAA
Jeremy Martinez was nearly the everyday catcher in the Arizona Fall League for the Surprise Sagueros coached by Stubby Clapp and the world was officially off of its axis. That was until about the mid-point of that winter league. He spent most of the back-half of the AFL in a reserve-role, where he's best suited.
all hate-and-disrespectful-kidding aside, Mr. Martinez is a great organizational piece. The former USC product had spent most of his season as the back up to Carson Kelly, Steve Baron, and Andrew Knizner at different points and it was nice to see him get a little time against elite-level talent. The thing about Martinez is, he makes a ton of contact and walks plenty while hardly ever striking out. I gotta tell ya, I really like his swing, too:
If there was one prospect in the organization that I could compare to a lighter hitting version of former Cardinals steroid-taking catching prospect Cody Stanley, it'd be Martinez. He does plenty with the bat and just enough behind the plate to stay relevant and important within the organization.
The other thing about Martinez is that he is a one of those players that just understands baseball. He has the "I.Q", as it were. The bottom line with Martinez is that he is the kind of catcher that almost always finds their way to the major leagues, usually on the most limited of basis. Think something similar to how former Cardinals' prospect Brian Anderson found his way to the majors for the most limited of exposures.
NEXT MAN UP
There are a couple of interesting names that I have decided to pass up on. Brian O'Keefe has had a nice little career as a power-first catcher. Jose Godoy is just one of those well-rounded minor leaguers that every organization needs, greatly. At one point early on in the season at the Rookie Level Affiliates, it looked like Carlos Soto was going to break out like Herrera did. Unfortunately for him, things got really weird and he'll have to do a lot to regain his stock. The good news is that there is a player in a backup-type role with interesting skills, and that player is..
Julio Rodriguez - 21 Years Old - Full Season-A
Rodriguez spent most of his season backing up (even though it was more of a time share than a typical starter/backup role) Dennis Ortega in Peoria. Rodriguez hit really well in spells, but fatigued out at the plate late in the season.
That's all fine enough, but where Rodriguez really excels is behind the plate. I've gone way too long without writing about him and how good he is defensively. He has a plus arm with plus game calling ability and he's really really good at blocking balls in the dirt. I really love the defense of Dennis Ortega as I stated above, but Rodriguez seemed more consistent day-in-and-day-out as compared to Ortega. I'm really anxious to see where and how far Rodriguez' defense takes him. He really seemed to perform well when taking over the full fury of the Peoria catching duties while Ortega was on the DL.
You'll see from the .gif below that Rodriguez has a pretty nice little swing and some explosiveness to build on top of:
Rodriguez isn't the sexiest prospect on the list, but he's a good defensive catcher that makes enough contact to not embarrass himself. If I'm being honest, I really wish I would have swapped him with Zach Jackson on the list. But, this is the price that I pay for being as dumb as I am.
With a few little tweaks to his hitting approach, he could easily fly up this list. He has the ceiling of a very good backup catcher in the major leagues and if he were in another organization he'd easily be a top three organizational catcher. Gotta love the catching depth in the Cardinals organization. There aren't too many organizations in baseball with this type of talent with the tools of ignorance.
Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats.
Thanks For Reading!!