Cards' Walker, Winn showcasing elite talents in AFL

October 20th, 2022

Look back on last year’s Cardinals contingent in the Arizona Fall League, and there should be plenty of familiar names: Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, Zack Thompson, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante and Jake Walsh. All eight appeared for the NL Central champions to some degree in 2022, ranging from Donovan's 4.1 bWAR to three relief appearances for Walsh -- a rare success rate even by the AFL’s high standards.

Don’t think for a second that this year’s group, highlighted by two bonafide Top 100 prospects in and , didn’t pay attention to that fact.

“If you look at the guys that were here last year, what they've done this year, the strides they've taken just over that year, I think they're in a really good place,” Winn said. “A lot of them are in The Show already, and one of them is pushing [to stay]. So I think this puts us in a really good spot for sure.”

The pair of 20-year-olds aren’t just heading to the Salt River roster for prospect graduate school. For Walker, who proved plenty with the bat with a .306 average and .898 OPS in 119 games at Double-A Springfield, it’s to continue his work toward a full-time outfield spot, one that will help get him out of Nolan Arenado’s shadow at third base. He’s already gotten exposure to all three spots on the grass, in part to see where he could fit best and in part because his strong arm plays anywhere.
“Probably the hardest part is getting used to being far away from the plate and then tracking the ball from that far away,” Walker said. “Third base is obviously a lot different. Up closer, I can get a pretty good read off the bat. But out there, I'm not all too confident at the beginning, but now I'm getting more and more confident the more I play out there.”

For Winn, his defense is already the stuff of legend, having fired off a Statcast-record 100.5 mph throw from shortstop at the All-Star Futures Game in July. But he locked in his place as a Top 100 prospect with steady offensive growth in his second full season, first at High-A Peoria (.349/.404/.566 in 33 games) and then Springfield with (.258/.349/.432 in 86 games).

Winn’s arm strength, 65-grade speed and impressive range at the premium position of short already give him a solid floor, and if he can keep hitting at a decent clip in the Fall League, he isn’t far from being a useful everyday player in the bigs.

“I think having that first year under my belt, having that experience and those ABs, made me lock in on a lot of stuff I needed to work on over the offseason,” Winn said. “I really just tried to simplify my swing, and it actually translated to a little bit more barrels, a little bit more power.”

Pairing Walker and Winn together with the Rafters is no coincidence. The two are as close off the field as they are on it, and even if they don’t share the same dirt anymore, they could still be joined at the hip for a long time in St. Louis, as soon as next year if Donovan, Pallante and Yepez’s paths are any indication.
“It’s a crazy one-two combo,” Winn said. “I liked it a little bit more when he was at third base, so I could talk to him more. But it's been a lot of fun playing with him.”

Cardinals hitters in the Fall League

Mike Antico, OF: Antico’s plus-plus speed has never been in doubt, and the 2021 eighth-rounder put it to good use by swiping an organization-best 67 bags in 131 games between High-A and Double-A. (Winn placed second, well back with 43 steals.) The former Texas Longhorn may have had to get going, however, as a 24-year-old in his first full season. Antico will likely settle in with below-average power and finished with a .233/.327/.383 line in 60 games with Springfield.

Pedro Pages, C: A 2019 sixth-rounder out of Florida Atlantic, Pages is a solid receiver and thrower behind the plate -- attributes that helped him reach the upper levels for the first time in 2022. He was a league-average bat with Springfield, hitting .232/.341/.413 with six homers in 42 games, but struggled to make a similar impact at Triple-A Memphis (.222/.282/.353, 67 wRC+). Pages served as Ivan Herrera’s backup during his time with the Redbirds, so his time in the Fall League should offer him more at-bats and work on improving his impact at the plate.

Cardinals pitchers in the Fall League

Tink Hence, RHP (No. 6, MLB No. 91): Hence may be one of the most closely followed pitchers in Arizona after he threw only 52 1/3 innings under the Cardinals’ close watch at Single-A Palm Beach. The numbers he put up in that time were spectacular: 1.38 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 81 strikeouts. The 20-year-old right-hander’s mid-90s fastball, 79-81 mph curve and mid-80s changeup are all at least above-average pitches, and he doesn’t struggle to throw strikes.

Connor Thomas, LHP (No. 24): While the AFL is known primarily as a hitter’s league, Thomas may be uniquely qualified to succeed as a pitcher there. The 24-year-old southpaw thrives on the ground and once again generated the majority of the batted balls against him onto the grass and dirt at Memphis, where he had a 51 percent GB rate over 135 innings this season. Thomas’ 88-90 mph sinker certainly helps that cause, but a mid-80s slider and the addition of a cutter keep hitters off and get whiffs too.

Ryan Loutos, RHP (No. 26): Loutos was one of the feel-good stories of the year in the Cards system. St. Louis signed the right-hander as a non-drafted free agent out of nearby Washington University in July 2021, and a year later, he climbed three levels from High-A to Triple-A to knock on the big club’s door. He’s capable of sitting in the mid-90s out of an over-the-top delivery and will show a 79-81 mph knuckle curve and low-80s slider to keep hitters off.

Kyle Leahy, RHP: Leahy has already flashed good velocity in the Fall League, sitting around 94-96 and touching as high as 97. His low-80s curveball, which can feature around 4 ½ feet of vertical break, and mid-80s slider give him two solid breaking pitches that can get whiffs, but if he hangs either, he can be punished quickly. Leahy sported a 5.29 ERA with 146 strikeouts and 72 walks in 144 2/3 innings at Double-A and Triple-A during the regular season.