While the St. Louis Cardinals have maintained success at the big league level, including two World Series titles since the turn of the century, their minor league system suddenly offers plenty of intrigue and promise for the future. Headlined by Shelby Miller who could work at the front of the Cardinals rotation for years, and followed by plenty of interesting prospects with big league profiles, the Cardinals appear well suited to remain competitive over the long haul.
1. Shelby Miller (RHP)
It’s almost impossible not to like Miller as a prospect. He is a big, physical right-hander with dominating stuff including a plus-plus fastball and a curveball of almost equal quality. He is more of a fly ball power pitcher that can also miss bats. He could benefit from some improvement in his change-up, which flashes as merely an average pitch now. If that improvement comes and he continues to refine his command and sequencing, Miller has the potential to be a durable number two starter that has a couple of years of ace-caliber pitching.
2. Tyrell Jenkins (RHP)
I’m a believer. It’s a lot of projection and dreaming but I’m a firm believer that Jenkins is one of the best prospects in this system and he could take the leap to being one of the best prospects in the game soon. He is a highly athletic righty that already shows a plus to plus-plus heater with early feel for locating it within the strike zone. His secondary pitches lag behind but his aptitude for location and athleticism bode well for him figuring out how to manipulate the ball as he moves up the ladder.
3. Oscar Taveras (OF)
One of the better pure hitters in the minor leagues, Taveras has a chance to contend for batting titles at the big league level. He has an uncanny knack for making hard contact on a variety of pitches, in all parts of the strike zone. He takes a healthy hack every time he attacks a pitch, but his feel for the barrel is so exceptional that he is able to adjust as the pitch moves. He has average power potential to go with his hitting ability and he could be an offensive-minded corner outfielder.
4. Carlos Martinez (RHP)
Martinez’s fastball draws rave reviews from scouts, parking in the 94-97 mph range and touching 100 mph with some regularity. He generates his elite velocity with a lot of effort in his delivery, and that effort combined with his small stature concerns some scouts. He could end up in the bullpen long term where airing out his fastball and potential plus breaking ball could allow him to dominate the eighth or ninth inning.
5. Kolten Wong (2B)
I struggle to rank little second basemen that can hit, but Wong is one of those guys that just forces his way into the upper part of this list. He has great feel for hitting with an ability to put the fat part of the bat on the ball and hit .300+ at just about any level. He has good doubles power and should poke at least ten home runs a year as well. Wong does everything else well, including base running and defense, but he doesn’t stand out in either area. He profiles as a really nice number two hitter that doesn’t hurt his team in any facet of the game.
6. Matt Adams (1B)
Adams has plus-plus raw power and plus to plus-plus natural hitting ability that should allow him to hit in the big leagues. He has the potential to be a .290 hitter with 25-30 home runs annually, making him a very viable everyday first baseman. He is a solid defender at first but he doesn’t move well to either side in part because of his mammoth size. He needs a little more minor league seasoning before he is ready for the big leagues but he could be ready to step in at first base in 2013.
7. Zach Cox (3B)
Most of Cox’s value is tied up in his natural hitting ability. He makes easy contact and has enough strength and bat speed to display average to solid-average power from the left side. He doesn’t work counts as well as some scouts would like, at least in part because he makes contact so easily. He is a fringy defender at third base though he does offer a plus arm at the position. Cox has the potential to be a solid regular at third base but some scouts believe his struggles against lefties will leave him as more of a platoon player.
8. Lance Lynn (RHP)
Though he won’t qualify for some lists because of time in the Major Leagues, Lynn did not eclipse the rookie innings limit by which I make my determination for these lists. A move to the bullpen dramatically changed Lynn’s prospect status as he was suddenly pumping 92-94 mph fastballs with the ability to touch 98 with sink. His curveball also improved in relief and he has a chance to be solid setup reliever as soon as 2012.
9. Trevor Rosenthal (RHP)
Rosenthal showed up on the prospect scene in 2011 after being an unheralded 21st round pick out of Cowley College. Far more thrower than pitcher, Rosenthal relies heavily on a 92-93 mph fastball with heavy sinking action. The pitch can touch 96 mph at times. He will throw both a curveball and change-up that show fringe-average potential now but both require significant development. Rosenthal needs to bring the rest of his game along to match his fastball and if he does, he could be a good fourth or fifth starter.
10. Ryan Jackson (SS)
Jackson’s game revolves around his defensive tools. He has a tremendous first step at shortstop thanks to his outstanding baseball instincts. He understands positioning and he moves well to both sides, giving him plus-plus range. He has soft hands and a plus arm that play well at the position. There were questions about how much Jackson would hit coming out of Miami and he showed some life in 2011. He won’t ever light the world on fire, but he could be a solid defense-first shortstop that hits at the bottom of the order.
11. Jordan Swaggerty (RHP)
Swaggerty is a dark horse to have an impact in St. Louis in 2012, similar to what Lance Lynn provided in 2011. He could succeed as a starter and would profile at the back of a big league rotation, but his stuff jumps forward and impresses even more in short bursts out of the bullpen. He has a plus fastball with good life and a 70-grade slider that can be devastating when it’s on. His delivery offers some deception that helps him when he’s airing it out in short stints and he could be a nice seventh inning piece for the Cardinals.
12. Charlie Tilson (OF)
Tilson earned a big bonus from the Cardinals in the second round last summer, as a Midwest kid with intriguing upside. He profiles at the top of the lineup with plus speed, improving instincts, solid natural hitting ability and an early idea of how to command the strike zone. He needs to get stronger and gain the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and his outfield play can be rough at times though his athleticism helps him make up for any misplays. He’s a project but the Cardinals believe Tilson could be a prototypical leadoff hitter and center fielder down the line.
13. Matt Carpenter (3B)
Carpenter can flat out hit. He has a keen understanding of the strike zone and recognizes pitches early and often. He rarely swings and misses and will draw his share of walks. He doesn’t have a power profile beyond getting the ball in the gaps and piling up doubles. His offense is the only part of his game that draws positive reviews as he is a below-average defender and runner. Scouts that like him believe he will hit enough to overcome his defensive shortcomings, while other scouts think he’s more of an up-and-down guy that could be a nice bench bat.
14. Joe Kelly (RHP)
Kelly’s velocity still draws interest from scouts as he has touched 99 mph in the past and was consistently throwing 94-95 mph throughout the 2011 season. He doesn’t have the kind of success you’d expect from a kid with that type of heat and that is largely because he is more thrower than pitcher. His fastball not only misses bats but has heavy sink that allows him to induce ground balls even when it isn’t located well. Kelly doesn’t have a reliable secondary pitch and will need one if he is to succeed as a high leverage reliever.
15. CJ McElroy, Jr. (OF)
McElroy has good bloodlines with a father that pitched in the big leagues for many years. He is a small athlete that packs surprising tools in his 5-foot-9 frame. His best tool is his 70-grade speed that plays well in game situations. He is a threat to steal every time he reaches base and though he is still developing as an outfielder, his speed allows him to make plays. He is a solid hitter that works from line to line and has the potential to charge the ball into the gaps for doubles and triples.