Organizational Rankings: Top 5 Relief Pitchers

*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." That said, know that I do usually put an emphasis on proximity to the majors when compiling the organization rankings.


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


THE TOP FIVE RELIEF PITCHERS

Editors note: Kyle dives deeper into the top relief pitching prospects in the St. Louis Cardinal organization with this podcast below, available on soundcloud & itunes podcast.

SIDENOTE: When I started writing and talking about prospects I never imagined that there would be a time that I'd write about relief pitching depth. Sure, there might be one (maybe two) relief pitchers in an organization worth addressing, but the major league bullpen of all 30 teams were usually supplemented by minor league starters. Until recently, minor league relievers were largely just innings eaters that you had to have with few rarely ever reaching the promise land.


That has changed.


As the collegiate game changes and as the professional game changes into a more bullpen-heavy game, teams are wisely starting to develop relief pitching. This past season, the Cardinals worked to acquire a few relief pitchers as their bullpen faltered for supplemental depth in the future. This, too, is becoming more common.


So, I guess we'll start taking note. ALSO, there's no Gio Gallegos on this list because he's already pitched for the Cardinals.


#1: Seth Elledge - 22 Years Old - A-Advanced & AA


The poetry and potential irony-but-probably-coincidence that comes with Sam Tuivailala being traded for Seth Elledge should not be lost on Cardinals' Nation. These two fellas might not look anything alike, but they basically do the same things as a pitcher.


Of course, the main difference is that Elledge has been pitching as a pitcher like you'd want a pitcher to do, whereas Tui was a position player before learning how to pitch and harness his mechanics and pitches. That's, in part, to say that Elledge is more polished and potentially more productive than Tui is/was.


Dallas Baptist University is creating quite the name for itself as a school that that produces hard-throwers, especially from and for the bullpen. It's not every draft that a designed relief pitcher is taken as early as the fourth round. Elledge's spin-heavy and mid-90's topping-out fastball coupled with a slider that can show above-average and a changeup in need of development make him well worth that selection.


When Elledge throws, he uses his entire body. Watching him pitch makes my entire body tired. The .gif below is of a two pitch mix. The first pitch is a slider that he over throws followed by a slider that makes me near orgasmic (the somewhat choppy .gif doesn't do justice to just how good it looked while watching live but should give you some idea of how sharp it can be):


That he uses his entire body is a good sign because that means that he isn't over-using his arm to throw. I imagine that it is intimidating if you are in the batters box. Just one, big-bodied Texan hurling his entire-self at the batter. I know that would intimidate me!


Trading Tui for Elledge was a great move for the Cardinals. Elledge finished the year pitching out of the Memphis bullpen during their playoff push and I was extremely impressed with what I saw out of him both there and at Springfield. I always caution that we shouldn't get our hopes up that one of these players could be a back-end-bullpen-stopper and I think of Elledge as more Dominic Leone than I do a Jordan Hicks, but if Bud Norris can close and be effective then I don't see why anyone else couldn't!



#2: Hector Mendoza - 24 Years Old - AA & AAA


Hector Mendoza is one of those pitchers that you watch and you fall in love with if you have no idea what his stats look like. That's why he is number two on this list. He's also number two on the list because he's the only one of these names that are guaranteed to still be a Cardinals' farmhand by the end of the day.


Mendoza is truly gifted. Now, there is a question about the application of those gifts that we need to see addressed, but what I've seen from him is enough to get me pumped up for his potential.


Truth be told, the next four pitchers could come in any order. I'm going with Mendoza first because I believe that his curveball is the best and most-consistent secondary offering of the group. His fastball is lively, too, but it doesn't offer much in the way of velocity as it usually sits in the low 90's. He is more successful when he is burying that fastball in on right-handed hitters. I love what his changeup can do when it's on (but lacks consistency):


For a pitcher with as much experience as he has, I'd definitely like to see more strikeouts. Hs fastball/curve combo is too good to not be striking out closer to a batter per inning. Also, his command is too good to be walking as many as he walked in 2018. Which brings me to my main complaint about Mendoza in 2018 and it's that he just gets too cute. Throw your stuff, big man! Let them hit it, or try to hit it at least!


Mendoza is an experience pitcher on the international circuit and he'll enter 2019 with a chance to make a major league impact at some point. Mendoza is well traveled, playing everywhere from Asia to Cuba to Mexico and I think that his 2019 season will be better now that he's been given time to settle into the states. Now all that he has to do is just let it loose.



#3: Derian Gonzalez - 23 Years Old - AA & AAA

WARNING: BY THE TIME THAT YOU ARE READING THIS, GONZALEZ MIGHT BE IN ANOTHER ORGANIZATION. HE WAS JUST REMOVED FROM THE CARDINALS 40 MAN ROSTER AND IS CURRENTLY GOING THROUGH THE WAIVERS PROCESS. IF CLAIMED BY ANOTHER TEAM, HE WILL NO LONGER BE IN THE ORGANIZATION. I DO NOT EXPECT HIM TO BE CLAIMED, BUT PITCHING WILL ALWAYS BE THE CURRENCY OF BASEBALL AND YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH IN YOUR SYSTEM.


There were three things that really worked against Gonzalez in his pursuit for a successful season with a potential major league debut in 2018.


First, he was terrible in his first appearance of the season for Springfield. He faced four batters during that appearance and all four of them got a hit while three of those four hitters scored. From there, he was nearly unhittable over his next five appearances. But in that fifth appearance he had to go 2.2 innings that saw him throw 45 pitches. This shouldn't have been the biggest deal for the former starter, but he was coming off of a long appearance just a few days earlier. He was great in both of those appearances, too.


But, as often happens with pitchers transitioning to relief, fatigue got the better of Derian. It was never officially confirmed, but fatigue appeared send him on a two month-long DL stint. That's the second thing that worked against a major league debut for the former 40-man roster member. His next two appearances following those high pitch count games were abysmal. Those games were followed by the extended DL stint.


From that point on, the Cardinals were extra careful with Gonzalez. He was given at least two days between appearances from his first relief outing on July 20th until the end of the Springfield season. He was pushed into a multi-inning role on a couple of different occasions but he never threw more than 30 pitches in any of those games.


And that was just what the doctor ordered because Derian was GREAT upon returning from the DL. In 16.1 innings over 13 games he posted a 2.76 ERA while holding hitters to a batting average of .224 and an OBP of .303. He only allowed one extra base hit, a double, to the 58 batters that he faced. Things were looking good and positive and wonderful.


Then, the third obstacle that tripped up his season came in the form of a late-season-ending elbow injury. Here's to hoping that the positives signs that he showed when he was healthy were just a stepping stone to bigger and better things in 2019 as a member of the Cardinals organization.



#4: Junior Fernandez - 21 Years Old - A-Advanced & AA


Of all of the names on this list, you've heard Fernandez' the most, I'm sure. The former starter was once on the Jordan Hicks/Sandy Alcantara plan. He was supposed to be helping the major league team with his plus plus fastball by now.


But shoulder fatigue sidelined him in 2017 and came back again in 2018 and here we are talking about this talented right-hander as a relief pitcher instead of the starter that he should be.


NOW, I need to preface all of this by saying that I think that there's a chance that Junior ultimately finds his way back into a rotation. It's just, as of right now, he's a relief pitcher and we will operate accordingly until he's penciled into a rotation.


A day after Ryan Helsley's season basically ended because of shoulder fatigue, Fernandez made his season debut following shoulder fatigue. I just wanted to bring that up to say that baseball is dumb sometimes. Anyway, Mr. Fernandez was dominant out of the Palm Beach bullpen over eight appearances. His fastball/change combo with a sprinkle of slider was just too much for that level. His velocity was back up to the mid/high-90's, too. It's a high-spin bee-bee, too.


So, Junior was then promoted to Springfield. There, he was beat around a bit in his first game but then settled down to pitch well for Springfield for the last month or so of the season. He had some ups and downs and his velocity and command didn't maintain throughout, but both were better than I would have expected from a player that missed nearly an entire year of baseball because of shoulder fatigue.


You'll notice in the above .gif that he does throw with some violence in his motion. There are a lot of people that have attributed that violent delivery to his fatigue issue. What I know for sure is, that violence makes it hard for him to consistently locate his slider and his change up in particular. His stuff is good, but his command is what needs work.


Like with the four names that came before him, Fernandez is poised to make a potential major league jump in 2019 if all of the stars align perfectly for him. Fernandez was not protected by the Cardinals from the Rule Five draft, so there's a chance that he'll be marching towards a major league debut in 2019 with another organization.



#5: Conner Greene - 23 Years Old - AA & AAA


WARNING: BY THE TIME THAT YOU ARE READING THIS, GREENE MIGHT BE IN ANOTHER ORGANIZATION. HE WAS JUST REMOVED FROM THE CARDINALS 40 MAN ROSTER AND IS CURRENTLY GOING THROUGH THE WAIVERS PROCESS. IF CLAIMED BY ANOTHER TEAM, HE WILL NO LONGER BE IN THE ORGANIZATION. I FIRMLY EXPECT ANOTHER TEAM TO TAKE HIM AND A BETTER WRITER WOULDN'T HAVE INCLUDED HIM.


Let the record show that I am writing these write ups before the Cardinals finalize their roster pre-Rule Five Draft protection-wise. At this moment, Greene is on the 40-man. However, I'd like to state that I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't on the 40-man by the time that this is published. I just wanted to throw that out there. I'll have a little "update" appendices by the time this is published. ****UPDATE: WORSHIP ME


Here's the issue with Conner Greene: He's so damn skilled and talented and he gets me so excited when I watch him because of how amazing his raw stuff is, BUT THE GUY HAS THE WORST COMMAND OF ANY PITCHER IN THE ORGANIZATION. It's brutal. It causes me internal pain. Watching all of that talent in pitch-movement wasted because of the inability to harness it is so damn sad.


During the season, Greene had a big velocity dip that saw the righty with the 100 MPH fastball turn into the righty with the 90 MPH fastball. It seemed, to me, that he was working on his mechanics and that might have caused the dip, but it's definitely worth bringing up. He did recover that velocity and that is a big plus.


Greene's curveball is damn underrated, too, but he slows his arm down to throw it and that's not good either. Again, maybe all of this is just mechanics that need to be worked out. Hopefully, at least. But what I know for sure is that he's been terrible in the Arizona Fall League and his stock has really taken a beating. That's why I worry that he won't keep his 40-man spot. Hell, that's why I'm even questioning his 40-man spot.


IF Greene can harness his filth then we will all be in for a treat. I really hope it happens because I love watching him pitch when he's pitching well. What concerns me even more is that he seemed to get his command in line a little bit better while starting but then lost it when he moved to the pen.


Until the command comes, all that you can do is cross your fingers and hope. It feels like that is what he is doing when he's trying to throw a strike most days.



NEXT MAN UP

After the initial group of five, there really isn't a ton to chose from. I thought about including

Roel Ramirez on the list if for no other reason than to mention that he was one of the players that the Cardinals acquired for Tommy Pham. Unfortunately, he just wasn't impressive enough for me to really dig into. Will Latcham is doing surprisingly well for himself in the Arizona Fall League after being a late addition to the Surprise Sagueros roster and I want to take an extra second to highlight him here. There will be time to talk more about him soon enough. Truthfully, I WANTED TO PUT HIM FIFTH ON THE LIST AHEAD OF CONNER GREENE BUT THEN COWARDED OUT. Latcham took the place of Andrew Morales in the AFL, and he would have been on this list in some capacity had he just stayed healthy. Anyway, here's a .gif of him:

Latcham is a fastball/curve pitcher with a lot of moxy. I wanted to include the above .gif because the little hop that he does after the pitch is a common thing for him. You can tell that he loves to pitch and that he has fun doing it. It's not everyday that a pitcher is drafted then pitching in AAA a little over a year later. Latcham deserves special attention.


Austin Sexton is one of my favorite prospects in the organization but he isn't close to the list. I do love his changeup, though. Speaking of players that I love, John Kilichowski is the left-handed version of Sexton at this moment. There is a lot for the Vandy product to build on if he can stay healthy. Austin Warner, Chris Ellis, and Connor Jones profile best in the bullpen, but they just aren't there yet.


However, it came down to Latcham and Jacob Patterson. You'll notice that we have yet to bring a lefty into the discussion, and that's why I went with...


LHP Jacob Patterson - 23 Years Old - A-Advanced

Patterson is the only lefty on the list and he was probably the only lefty reliever that put up a performance worth mentioning.


Patterson got off to a difficult start at Palm Beach. It took him the better part of the month of April to get his legs underneath him at the Advanced-A level. He really powered through and dominated both May and June before having a hiccup to end the season.


Patterson is best known for his deceptive motion. As you'll see, he completely turns his back to the hitter before pitching. Look at this freak (I love that slider):


This is cool, for sure. It's deceptive, too. It's also been sustainable for him to this point so there is no reason to think that won't continue as he climbs the ladder. However, I always worry about quirky stuff like this. I just think about how well John Gant did to remove the double-leg-clutch from his windup entering the 2018 season. I like deception and masking from a pitcher, but I just worry about overly-dramatic mechanics. Seems to me that there will eventually be a repeatability issue. Of course, that's total speculation for future times, as he's never had trouble repeating the delivery to this point.


Patterson is more than just a potential LOOGY and that's potentially more important than anything else. In 2018, he held right-handed hitters to a slash line of 195/262/288 while holding left-handed hitters to a slash line of 243/326/313 while facing a nearly identical number of hitters. A left-handed relief pitcher with that kind of success against righties is a truly valuable asset to have and I hope that it's a trend that maintains.


He is going to live and die with his average fastball and plus slider, when he commands both.


Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats.



Thanks For Reading!!

Kyle Reis