Editor's note: Before the season started, Derrick Goold gave his ranking of the top prospects in the Cardinals system. Two of the players Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez, already have joined the big league team.
Other prospects are making huge noises already. Nolan Gorman and Michael McGreevy each earned player of the month honors in their leagues. So did a prospect who didn't even make the top 12, outfielder Moises Gomez who leads all of the minors with 13 home runs.
Here's the original ranking:
The Cardinals opened their minor league camp in early March at the team’s Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla. Present for those workouts was a trio of highly touted talents: infielders Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker and lefthanded starter Matthew Liberatore.
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In the standings, the Cardinals’ minor-league affiliates had one of the most disappointing seasons in several decades with losing teams galore. Yet a handful of individual players had breakout years, including two recent draft picks playing at three different levels. Such is the dichotomy of the Cardinals’ farm system. They haven’t had a hitter like Gorman or Walker powering his way to the majors in almost a decade, and now they have two potential middle-order presences. But they also don’t have the depth to nourish a pitching staff like the ones that carried the Cardinals to four consecutive National League Championship Series from 2011-2014.
Baseball America ranked the Cardinals’ system 18th overall, writing how “the depth of the system falls off quickly.”
Almost 20 years ago, the Cardinals waded into the rising tide of advanced analytics and shifted their business model to lean more on the farm system to buoy contenders. They wanted to become a model for player development, and they did so when it came to pitching. They feel that success has helped sustain 14 consecutive seasons by providing contributors like Allen Craig to Harrison Bader or providing prospects to trade for players from Matt Holliday to Nolan Arenado.
As the Cardinals’ reliance on drafting and development talent grew so too did the coverage of the farm system. Through the years, the Post-Dispatch has added to its reporting on the farm system so that includes a Minor League Insider, online updates from around the affiliates, and the annual Bird Land 7, a ranking of the top seven prospects in the system.
Well, it’s time to expand again.
For the 2022 season, the Post-Dispatch has launched “STL Pinch Hits,” an app and web site dedicated to increasing the wingspan of our Cardinals coverage. Exclusive minor-league coverage will a featured element – with Daniel Guerrero, our dedicated minor-league beat writer, weekly features, and an annual ranking of the top prospects in the system. But why stop at seven?
Introducing … the Dispatch Dozen.
This ranking of the top 12 prospects in the Cardinals’ system considers all players who have not yet appeared in a major-league game. (Other rankings consider players who have been in the majors but remain eligible for the Rookie of the Year award.) To determine the order, we consider the Four Ps of prospects: Position, Proximity, Performance, and Potential. A player at a premium position, such as shortstop, who is on the verge of the majors with a high ceiling and robust stats is going to top the rankings. The player’s proximity to the majors proved a tiebreaker atop these rankings. The potential and position of another prospect yet to have the production or proximity has him ranked aggressively high. And one player’s proximity to the majors and positional versatility gets him on the list ahead of others who have hint at higher potential.
Enough prelude. Here is the ranking:
Derrick Goold rates the prospects
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 12: Brendan Donovan, INF
Height/Weight: 6-1, 195
Acquired: Drafted 2018 (seventh round), South Alabama
In 2021: .304/.399/.455, .854 OPS, 12 HR, 66 RBIs, 19 SB (Class A, AA, AAA)
Scouting Report: If the trade deadline offers a peek into how deep and talented opponents find another organization’s system, then roster decisions are a referendum on the internal view of prospects. The Cardinals see Donovan on the immediate horizon. Added this offseason to the 40-man roster, the lefthanded-hitting infielder was also sent to the Arizona Fall League, a “finishing school” for minor-leaguers. Donovan grades high on two facets for any prospect: proximity and production. Toss in positional versatility and he’s a candidate to leave spring training with a spot on the big-league bench. An accomplished, high-average hitter in college, Donovan joined Burleson in the race up the affiliates this past summer, batting .319/.411/.449 in 50 games at Class AA and .288/.389/.496 at Class AAA. He’s got an advanced feel for the strike zone, comfort deep in counts, and a punchy swing. Watch the positions he plays during spring training as Cardinals test his range beyond second base. That means time at third. That could mean time in the outfield. The Cardinals, annually on the lookout for a lefthanded-hitting utility option, cleared the roster so Donovan has an avenue to contribute in 2022. As far as indications of the team’s evaluation of him, that ranks high.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 11: Malcom Nunez, 3B
Height/Weight: 5-11, 205
Acquired: International signing July 2018 (Cuba)
In 2021: .268/.339/.404, .743 OPS, 9 HR, 39 RBIs, 15 2B (Class A, AA)
Scouting Report: A phenomenon that happens in rankings like this and organizations alike is “prospect fatigue.” Through no fault of the player, there are times where the closer he gets to the majors the more he slides in the rankings, simply because he’s been in the organization for so long, some since they were 16 years old. Edmundo Sosa encountered this and talked about drawing motivation from it. Delvin Perez, a former first-round pick, started this past spring at the same age as recently drafted college players. At 17, Nunez won the Triple Crown in the Dominican Summer League -- .415 average, 13 homers, 59 RBIs – and soared up the rankings. The next new, new talent. At 18, he was alongside high school picks in rookie ball and this past year, having slid in the rankings, he arrived at Class AA, at 20. Nunez hit .285/.351/.453 at Class A to merit the promotion, and he continued a person trend. He reaches a level, struggles, returns the next season, and surges. Nunez’s challenge will be adding loft and liners to his swing so that he gets greater damage and results from superb bat speed. How he figures into the Cardinals’ matrix with younger Jordan Walker rising, Nolan Gorman arriving, and Nolan Arenado manning third is unclear. Nunez’s bat will dictate that discussion, and here’s the thing: there’s time. He’ll return to Class AA to see if he can continue that second-stint success and he will still be young for the level.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No.10: Alec Burleson, OF
Height/Weight: 6-2, 212
Acquired: Drafted 2020 (second round), East Carolina
In 2021: .270/.329/.454, .783 OPS, 22 HR, 76 RBIs, 18 2B (Class A, AA, AAA)
Scouting Report: Burleson was a two-way star at East Carolina who garnered national accolades for his college success, which included a .341 career average. The Cardinals wondered what might happen if Burleson focused solely on hitting. By August 3 he showed them. That was the day he arrived at Class AAA Memphis – his second promotion of the summer and third level. Burleson skyrocketed through the system in his first pro season, hitting .286 at Class A, slugging .488 at Class AA, and spending 45 games as part of the Redbirds’ outfielder. At the highest level, his slash line cooled to a .234/.310/.357, but that did not diminish the impression he left. In 130 college games, Burleson hit a dozen homers. In his first 74 pro games, he had 18. Burleson unleashed his swing and unlocked added power that complemented a keen eye and contact-oriented approach. In 503 plate appearances this past summer, Burleson reached base by hit or walk 165 times. He struck out 101 times. The swiftest climber of any 2020 draft pick had Burleson getting a look in spring training and possibly following the path of fellow lefthanded-hitting outfielder Lars Nootbaar – turning that audition into a rise up the depth chart and then – soon – into the majors.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 9: Joshua Baez, OF
Acquired: Drafted 2021 (second round), Dexter Southfield HS (Brookline, Mass.)
In 2021: .158/.305/.303, .608 OPS, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, 3 2B (Rookie)
Scouting Report: After taking a round of batting practice at Busch Stadium this past year, Baez sat in the Cardinals’ dugout and began making plans for his return. “I would love to be here within two to three years,” he said. The Cardinals would welcome that expedited timetable, too, but their bet – their big bet – is that one of the youngest players available in the recent draft also has one of the highest upsides, even if it takes some patience to materialize. Baez’s size, strength, and spring-loaded swing impressed scouts during showcase season. Baseball America says he already has the best outfield arm in the organization and that he threw 98 mph off the mound. Baez learned baseball while living in the Dominican Republic, but attended high school in Boston, at times overwhelming opponents. The Cardinals wooed Baez from a commitment to baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt by going well above slot for the 54th overall pick. After agreeing to a $2.25-million bonus and taking BP at Busch, Baez showed his power promise in workouts and drills down in Jupiter, Fla. In games, he struck out 28 times in 76 at-bats for the Florida Complex club. Whether Baez rises in the rankings to be the top prospect in the organization (that’s possible) or struggles to connect potential to production will be a test of the Cardinals’ player development. Can they bring out the talent so that whenever Baez arrives he makes an impact?
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 8: Zack Thompson, LHP
Acquired: Drafted 2019 (19th overall), Kentucky
In 2021: 2-10, 7.06 ERA, 22 games (19 starts), 82 Ks, 93 IP, 1.84 WHIP (Class AAA)
Scouting Report: In fairness, it could be argued all that separates Thompson, first-round college pitcher circa 2019, from Michael McGreevy, first-round college pitcher circa 2021, is that Thompson has had a chance to struggle in the pros and McGreevy has yet to face that possibility. Few players in the minors were challenged more than Thompson, who went from limited innings in 2019 to zero games in 2020 to being asked to lead a Class AAA rotation in 2021. Thompson had a grand total of 13 1/3 innings for a full-season affiliate before pitching 93 innings for Triple-A Memphis. The learning curve was unkind, complicated by erratic command (57 walks). The lefty righted his season with a strong showing in the offense-happy Arizona Fall League. In nine games (all in relief), Thompson had a 2.08 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings. The 15 walks underscored an area of emphasis for Thompson because with his athleticism, his breaking pitch, and his above-average from the left he should be Liberatore’s wingman for years to come. The Cardinals already have a number picked out for him: He’s been chosen to be the first to wear No. 57 since the late Darryl Kile.
Thompson starts in the season in the rotation for Class AAA Memphis.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 7: Juan Yepez, 1B/DH
Acquired: Trade May 2017 (Atlanta)
In 2021: .286/.383/.586, .969 OPS, 27 HR, 77 RBIs, 29 2B (Class AA, AAA)
Scouting Report: When Atlanta, scrambling for a first baseman due to Freddie Freeman’s injury, came calling for Matt Adams almost five years ago, the Cardinals scanned the Braves’ lower minors for a suitable exchange. He spotted a righthanded-hitting corner infielder with a .697 OPS and one homer. Another number caught their eye: 19. One of the youngest players at the level, Yepez wasn’t overwhelmed by it – plus that gave the Cardinals plenty of time to see what they had. The answer: A DH, just as they were looking for one. Coming out of the lost 2020 season, Yepez added muscle, about 20 pounds of size, and increased his strength to see if it unlocked his power. The Venezuelan had 26 homers in his first five pro seasons – and more than doubled that with 27 in 2021. When Class AA could not contain him, the Cardinals promoted Yepez to Memphis, where he hit .290/.382/.589 with 22 homers in 92 games, and then kept swinging at the Arizona Fall League. In 134 games in 2021, Yepez had 37 homers, 74 extra-base hits, and an OPS greater than .950. He mashes fastballs and would be vying for a big-league job off the bench as a late-game counter to high-velocity relievers. With the expected advent of the universal DH, the Cardinals are eager to see if he can win that job (or at least the righthanded half of it) in spring training.
ETA: Opening Day 2022
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 6: Michael McGreevy, RHP
Height/Weight: 6-4, 215
Acquired: Drafted 2021 (18th overall), UC-Santa Barbara
In 2021: 0-2, 9.39 ERA, 7 games (7 starts), 7 Ks, 7 2/3 IP, 2.09 WHIP (Rookie, Class A)
Scouting Report: With their first pick in the most recent draft, the Cardinals returned to a tried-and-true selection straight from their comfort zone. Like Dakota Hudson, Lance Lynn, Zac Gallen, and Michael Wacha before him, McGreevy had the standout performance and steady delivery for a strong college program in a competitive conference. The Cardinals definitely have a type. McGreevy has the added athleticism that could accelerate his advancement – and his fastball. The pitch touches 96 mph, and as he gains experience and coaching it’s likely he’ll sit 93-95 mph and play off a curveball that Baseball America suggested is already the best in the organization. McGreevy went 9-2 with a 2.92 ERA in his junior year at UC-Santa Barbara, and he had 10 strikeouts for every one walk in 101 2/3 innings. The Cardinals rationed his workload in 2021. He got off to a fast start this season with five hitless innings for Class A Peoria in his first start. A college pitcher who commands the strike zone with multiple pitches, challenges hitters, and had two plus-pitches tends to rise fast.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 5: Ivan Herrera, C
5. Ivan Herrera, C
Height/Weight: 5-11, 220
Acquired: International signing July 2016 (Panama)
In 2021: .229/.342/.403, .745 OPS, 17 HR, 63 RBIs, 13 2B (Class AA, AAA)
Scouting Report: The rising Panamanian catcher Velcroed himself to Yadier Molina during spring training and like so many young Cardinals catchers before him even adopted some of the mannerisms of the nine-time Gold Glove Award-winner. Also like several heirs that came before him, Herrera experienced a dip in offensive production just as he got within sight of joining Molina in the majors. Midway through their minor-league climbs, Tony Cruz and Carson Kelly also experienced sags in their offense as the time commitment and defensive demands of the position increased. Herrera has shown improvement year to year, but must advance this season in his handling of pitches and consistency behind the plate. He has the agility, the arm, and the devotion of a strong catcher but must makeup for all the innings lost without a season in 2020. With the exception of a single game for Triple-A Memphis, Herrera spent the year at Springfield and beyond his .231 average he elevated his on-base percentage with 60 walks and his slugging percentage with 17 home runs. He often makes contact when he swings, has enough power, and both will growth with him toward the majors (and in them) if his defense merits the playing time. Already on the 40-man roster, he’s an injury away from being relied on. Herrera is part of the Cardinals’ post-Molina plan at catcher. He can shape how much a part with his performance this year.
He was 1-6 in the Grapefruit League this spring and opened the season at Memphis.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 4: Masyn Winn, SS/RHP
Height/Weight: 5-11, 180
Acquired: Drafted 2020 (second round), Kingwood (Texas) HS
In 2021: .242/.324/.356, .680 OPS, 5 HR, 44 RBIs, 32 SB (Class A)
Scouting Report: The fastest runner in the Cardinals’ organization might also have the swiftest fastball – he just happens to sling it from shortstop, for the time being. The Cardinals drafted Winn as a two-way player out of high school, signed him a $2.1-million bonus, and intend to give him a chance to develop simultaneously as a shortstop and pitcher, though shortstop currently has the priority and will again in 2022. They can take the pitcher off the mound, but not the velocity out of the arm. By mid-July, Winn had 15 throws from shortstop at 92 mph or harder, according to Baseball America. That was more than twice as many as all major-league infielders had – combined. Put another way: He had the most powerful infield arm in pro baseball. Offensively, Winn’s game is athletic and also raw. He stole 32 bases in 37 attempts, paired five triples with five home runs, mixed in 46 walks, and struck out 100 times in 385 at-bats. How long Winn stays at shortstop will depend on how he develops at the plate, and how fast. Ranking him as a top-four talent, right behind three of the top prospects in all of the minors, is aggressive. Sure, Winn has electric, high-ceiling potential, but he rises this high in the rankings because he has those traits at two positions. He may never get a chance to be a two-way player but his double-edged skillset gives him two paths to the majors — the expressway as a pitcher or the peak-to-peak route as a shortstop. If Winn, who turns 20 in March, sticks at shortstop, he’s a top-shelf athlete at a premium position. If he struggles to consistently go 90 feet from home to first, he’ll pivot and bring 98 mph from the mound to the plate.
He got off to a good start at Class High-A Peoria, getting four hits in a doubleheader on Sunday.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 3: Matthew Liberatore, LHP
Height/Weight: 6-4, 200
Acquired: Trade January 2020 (Tampa Bay)
In 2021: 9-9, 4.04 ERA, 22 games (18 starts), 123 K, 124 2/3 IP, 1.25 WHIP (Class AAA)
Scouting Report: From its timing to the teams and players involved, the January trade that brought Liberatore to the Cardinals was curious long before it produced the American League’s Rookie of the Year, Randy Arozarena. The Rays and Cardinals talked often but rarely completed trades because of their similar evaluations, let alone one that would swap what the Cardinals needed (offense) for what the Rays rarely dealt (young pitching). The deal had short-term payoff for the Rays with Arozarena’s record-setting postseason in October 2020. The Cardinals hope they got the long-term lefty they’ve lacked. Liberatore responded to an aggressive promotion to Class AAA with unsteady start but a strong finish. Six years younger than the average age at Triple-A, Liberatore punctuated his season with a 2.67 ERA in the second-half and 67 strikeouts, 17 walks, and only 17 earned runs in his final 57 1/3 innings pitched. With a snapping curveball, a tight slider, and fading changeup, Liberatore has the potential for three above-average off-speed pitches and the daring to use them. Arozarena became a sensation with Tampa Bay. With patience, Liberatore has the potential become a fixture for the Cardinals.
In his first outing at Memphis this season, Liberatore scuffled a bit, surrendering four runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 2: Jordan Walker, 3B
Height/Weight: 6-5, 220
Acquired: Drafted 2020 (21st overall), Decatur (Ga.) HS
In 2021: .317/.388/.548, .936 OPS, 14 HR, 48 RBIs, 14 SB (Class A)
Scouting Report: Seventeen days before his 19th birthday, Walker got quite a gift. The first pitch the first-rounder saw as a pro was a hanging curveball. He crushed it. The ball cleared the wall at Roger Dean Stadium, a ballpark that vexes big leaguers with its size every spring, and Walker had announced his arrival with authority. It got better from there. The Georgia teen who turned down a scholarship at Duke to sign with the Cardinals had arguably the most impressive pro debut of any 2020 draft pick. At Low-A Palm Beach, Walker hit six homers and 18 extra-base hits in 99 at-bats for a .687 slugging percentage and a .831 OPS. That production forced a promotion to High-A Peoria where Walker, 3 ½ years younger than the league’s average age, had an .831 OPS and 66 hits against 66 strikeouts in 226 at-bats. Baseball America vaulted Walker ahead of Gorman as its top Cardinals prospect, writing how the third baseman “has an imposing 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame and rare strength for a teenager, crushing balls at 116 mph off the bat in his first month as a professional.” Not yet 20, Walker already has the same size and height of Kris Bryant, and the comparison doesn’t stop there. With exceptional athleticism, Walker could move around the diamond – playing third for now, playing first some, and eventually seeing right or left field – and become a middle-order hitter who can manage multiple positions. He has the strength, too, needed to break the Cardinals’ dry spell without a top-10 prospect – in all the minors.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect No. 1. Nolan Gorman, 2B/3B
Height/Weight: 6-1, 210
Acquired: Drafted 2018 (19th overall), O’Connor HS (Phoenix)
In 2021: .279/.333/.481, .814OPS, 25 HR, 75 RBIs, 20 2B (Class AA, AAA)
Scouting Report: Already ahead of his peers when it came to power potential, no young hitter appeared more improved than Gorman entering 2020’s spring training. He steadied his stance and tightened his swing – becoming far more a hitter with power than just having power when he hit. If only he had games to show it. A year delayed, Gorman put on a display. In a season split between Class AA Springfield (76 games) and Class AAA Memphis (43 games), Gorman hit 25 homers, had 46 extra-base hits, and left the Texas League with a .509 slugging percentage. As impressively, he slashed his strikeout rate down from 33.3% in 2019 to 23.9% in 2021, all while facing better pitching at a level at least three years above his age. Oh, and he learned a new position: second base. Cue the Dan Uggla comps. After a spring spent at second with coach Jose Oquendo, Gorman impressed the Cardinals with his range for the position and improved footwork. His arm strength, which sizzled at third, helps compensate for the instincts he’s developing on the job. Gorman projects as a 30-homer infielder from the left side, and he’ll reach the majors when his swing carries him there. That could be ASAP. Only the position is TBD.
He's already raking this season at AAA Memphis, where he has homered in four consecutive games and is batting .351 to pair with a 1.253 OPS.
St. Louis Cardinals Prospect-Only Lineup:
SP Matthew Liberatore, LHP
RP Andre Pallante, RHP
C Ivan Herrera
1B Juan Yepez
2B Nolan Gorman
3B Jordan Walker
SS Masyn Winn
LF Alec Burleson
CF Tre Fletcher
RF Joshua Baez
DH Luken Baker
Prospect to watch for 2023’s Dispatch Dozen:
Jonathan Mejia, SS
Height/Weight: 6-0, 185
Acquired: International signing January 2022 (Dominican Republic)
In 2021: N/A
Scouting Report: One of the top shortstops available in the current international signing period, Mejia also has one of the most advanced bats of the group. A switch-hitter with an upright, direct swing from both sides, Mejia’s bat speed gives him might ahead of his age. At around $2 million, he received the largest bonus the Cardinals have given to a player as young as him. That indicates how the Cardinals evaluated his potential at the plate and the possibility his athleticism will either stay at shortstop or ease a successful transition to second or third. They think his bat will fit at those positions, too. Mejia will start his pro career at the Cardinals’ academy in the Dominican Republic and see by his 19th birthday where his bat has taken him in the system and up the rankings.
ETA: Distant future.
@dgoold on Twitter