Updated: May 1, 2019
THIS IS A COUNTDOWN!!!!! Over the next forty-something days starting on February 12th and ending on March 28th, I will be rolling out my Top 35 prospects in the Cardinals organization. We call it "The Dirty Thirty-Five" because it's marketable, I think. Also, we call it that because my write-ups and evaluations are a little different. I’m kind of a quirky and goofy guy and the evaluations fit that personality. I've already written about the four players that graduated off the list. I've also written about the guys that just missed the list. You should check those out because you're going to have questions about my sanity afterwards. The article about the guys that didn’t make the D35 is really freaking good. This list is my own. It's terrible. I'm fine with it. Remember, have fun with these lists. Ranking prospects is a joke, but it's fun so treat all of the prospect ranking accordingly.
Luken Baker - First Baseman
Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft
A+ Palm Beach
STATS AS OF 5-1-2019
This is the story of a player who's draft stock dropped just enough, because of injuries and defensive concerns, that the Cardinals were able to steal him with the 75th overall selection in the 2018 draft.
Luke Baker is a monster of a human being. He's listed at 6'4" 265, and everyone that has seen him in person remarks about how big he is. Not in a "Wow, that guy is big" kind of way. But, rather, in a "WHAT IS THAT? IS THAT A PERSON? HOW DID HE GET SO BIG?" Kind of way. Here's a home run that he hit while playing for TCU at Minute Maid Park:
As I mentioned, Baker fell down the draft board because of injures and defense. First, let's talk about the injuries.
At one point, upon entering Texas Christian University, the big-bodied-Baker looked like he had the potential to be a two way player. Unfortunately, arm issues derailed his pitching career as a freshman. From there, Baker pivoted to first base full-time. In his sophomore season, Baker got into a collision while covering first and suffered a significant injury to his arm that cost him his season. Then, as a junior, Baker suffered a season ending leg injury while sliding into second base. When the Cardinals drafted him, he was still rehabbing from the leg injury and that, more than anything else, is why he was available for them to take at 75th. Baker's organization debut was delayed because of the injury and that's why I kept him off of my Dirty Thirty-Five midseason rankings. I wanted to see him be healthy and play before I gave him a spot on the list.
Before we get to his organizational debut, I want to talk about the other aspect of his game that helped him fall to the Cardinals; his defense. One thing that happens often in the draft is, if you can't play a position in addition to first, you'll see your draft stock fall a little. The other thing is, your stock really falls if you profile as a likely below-average first baseman.
With Baker, a lot of evaluators saw him as a potentially average-or-below first baseman, and that hurt his stock. Personally, I don't think that he's a good first baseman. Not at all. But he's fine over there.
As of right now, I am making that evaluation based off of what I saw out of him at Peoria. Remember, his time there came after a severe leg injury that brought his final collegiate season to an early end. His footwork is bulky around the bag (as you'd expect for someone that is his size), but he's quicker than you'd expect (for now). While I do not expect him to ever be the kind of first baseman that would throw DRS lovers into fits of arousal, I do think that he'll be serviceable (or "fine") over there for more than a couple of years. Obviously, a healthy 2019 will help us paint a better picture.
One thing that is undeniable is that Baker is very slow. He isn't Yadier Molina-slow, but he is Carson Kelly-slow. This limits some of what Baker can do defensively at first, but it also limits what he can do on the bases. What I've enjoyed discovering is that Baker is a big-time hustler on the diamond, and what he lacks in base running swiftness, he makes up for in hustle and base running IQ.
I've already mentioned that his season got off to a late start, and I've already mentioned his GCL "rehab-ish" which isn't really worth addressing further, so we are going to focus on his time at Peoria. Like I mentioned when doing the write-up of prospect #13 Evan Mendoza, getting the advanced promotion to a full-season affiliate during a player's draft season is pretty rare. It's a tough assignment for even the more polished hitters. It's the first time that a former collegiate will face pitching that's better and more consistent than what they've ever seen. Also, they are usually seeing this high-level pitching after they've played more games than they've ever played. Luken Baker handled this tough assignment very well, and then some.
While Mendoza's time at Peoria was more limited than Baker's, Baker was substantially more impressive than Mendoza was just one year earlier.
I think that the wRC+ of 123 that he put up is even more impressive because of how much time he's missed over his last two collegiate seasons.
There is an argument that can be made that the time off that he received because of injury allowed for him to be more well-rested than some similar-type players. I'd argue that the sheer amount of time that Baker has missed over the last two years makes his success at Peoria even more impressive.
When you see Baker you assume power, but his approach to hitting is a bit different than that. Yes, he has amazing pop because of how big and strong he is. He's like Matt Holliday or Scott Rolen in that regard. But like with Rolen and Holliday, Baker isn't trying to put the ball over the fence. He's just trying to do what he can with it (This is, of course, where I have to put the disclaimer that I am not comparing him to either other that to say that they have a similar-type body-strength and approach). Baker also does a good job of using the entire field.
Because of his patient approach that sees him work counts and take walks, he's pretty good at going with breaking pitches to the opposite field. He's even pretty good at fighting an inside pitch with an inside-out swing, and that allows him to slice those pitches to the opposite field, when needed.
What I'm trying to say is, his approach is more refined than you'd expect from someone that is his size. Even though he is big and powerful, his swing doesn't technically match that of a power hitter, either. It's more flat than the typical power swing. Usually, when he gets a hold of one, it's because he's muscling it out. Baker's drive with his lower half is a thing of beauty. He does an amazing job of barreling the ball, too, and I'm willing to bet that he has some elite hand-eye coordination.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We have very little to actually go on with Baker because of various injuries that have cost him exposure. What we have seen gives us the profile of an every day first baseman for a couple of season on a second division team, at the least. As a right-handed bat with a good approach against right-handers, and a contact-oriented but powerful swing, Baker looks like a major league contributor. It'll all come down to how his defensive profile continues to grow, and if he has a change in injury-luck. I've often compared him to Evan Gattis, or Evan Gattis as a ceiling, and I guess I'll stick by that for now. This is an aggressive spot for him, but I believe it's a spot that he'll have earned by the end of the 2019 season.
MAY 1st UPDATE
Baker is showing why you just don't invest that much into batting average. He's also showing us exactly how correct I am in my appraisal and anticipation for the season. The 24% K rate definitely sucks, but the 20% BB rate is AMAZING. Just as we suspected, the power is minimal because of his line-drive approach, but with signs of busting out recently. I love what we are seeing out of Baker at the plate early on in the season.
Thank you to FanGraphs for the stats!
Thanks For Reading!!