JUPITER, Fla. -- Over the years, thoughts about the Cardinals’ farm system success often tend to lean toward pitching. The Jack Flahertys and Carlos Martinezes of the world come to mind most recently. And while there have been some bats -- particularly college ones often drafted shrewdly later in the
JUPITER, Fla. -- Over the years, thoughts about the Cardinals’ farm system success often tend to lean toward pitching. The Jack Flahertys and Carlos Martinezes of the world come to mind most recently. And while there have been some bats -- particularly college ones often drafted shrewdly later in the Draft, like a Paul DeJong -- that was an area that was lagging a little bit more.
“What we have done over the years is provided a lot of pitching organizationally,” Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. “We’ve had a few small gaps in pitching, gave opportunities for some kids to move through the system quicker to get there. Our gaps have been subtle, but that’s OK, that’s what farm systems do.”
LaRocque and the rest of the front office also recognized the gaps in young impact hitters. Any farm director will always see holes to fill when assessing a system, but the Cardinals have worked to address that particular void. And several of those young hitters acquired over the last few years are making some noise in big league camp this spring.
“Your system always has smaller gaps where as a farm director you wish you were stronger here or there, that’s the nature of the business,” LaRocque said. “We’ve closed some of those gaps in ways that have impacted us positively. We have some young good hitters. You see Dylan Carlson battling for a spot, you see Nolan Gorman right behind him. You see Ivan Herrera, who’s working his way up. You see that natural churn of position players.”
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Being able to shepherd these players up the ladder gets a whole lot easier when the big league coaches understand the process. The Cardinals have tremendous continuity on that front, starting with manager Mike Shildt, who had managed in the organization’s farm system for years before being hired. Most of the coaches under Shildt also served time with various Cardinals affiliates as well.
“We work very hard at that continuity, it’s a philosophy,” LaRocque said. “It’s a family. What’s better than having a Major League staff that, for the most part, all came from the Minor Leagues as coaches. When they stood in front of our recent instructional camp, they all stood there and said, ‘Here we are. We’ve all been in those seats.’ It helps.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2021
It’s hard to miss right-hander Johan Oviedo, the organization’s No. 11 prospect. He is 6-foot-6 after all. And he’s always had really good raw stuff, headlined by a fastball that can touch 98 mph and a slider he can really spin that has the chance to be a true out pitch. He hasn’t always known where it’s going, as evidenced by his career 4.9 walk rate.
But he was creating some serious buzz in big league camp in the early going. And it went beyond his work in Grapefruit League action (4 2/3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K); it’s had more to do with him acting like he belongs at this level.
“The biggest thing is the natural maturity,” LaRocque said. “He’s looked great. He’s worked very hard on his English. It’s giving him a confidence. He’s really pushing the envelope and making a big impression on a lot of people with how he goes about his work and his drive to get there. It’s going to be fun to watch his progress.”
Oviedo isn’t the only pitching prospect opening some eyes this spring. A couple of relievers coming off of breakout seasons are making it clear they’re ready to contribute.
“There’s some pitching up here in camp making positive impressions,” LaRocque said. “Kodi Whitley’s making a really positive impression. So is Junior Fernandez.”
Fernandez, the Cardinals’ No. 10 prospect, made it up to the big leagues thanks to a move to the bullpen, pitching across three levels of the Minors and up to St. Louis. Whitley, No. 14 on the Top 30, did the same thing, without the call to the Major Leagues. But he did cap it all off with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League. So far this spring, the two relievers have combined for seven scoreless innings with three hits allowed, just one walk and 14 strikeouts. Whether they’re a part of the bullpen right away or start the year in Triple-A, Cardinals prospects at all positions know that they have to be at the ready to contribute.
“We have to get those 8-10 guys up there who can help us when guys get hurt,” LaRocque said. “Last year, look at Tommy Edman. He doesn’t just fill a role, he goes up there and helps us win. Our players feel that responsibility and that accountability.”
Something to prove
Last year it was Edman. Who might it be this year? There are some potential roster spots, both in the infield and outfield, with various players trying to prove they’re ready to step up. Lane Thomas did get called up last year to help out in the outfield and had a nice debut. But Cardinals No. 17 prospect Justin Williams, who’s competing for the same outfield gig, played in just 53 games in 2019 because of a broken hand and a hamstring injury. On the dirt, shortstop Edmundo Sosa (No. 20) is trying to show he’s the guy to handle a backup infielder role.
“Who wants to overachieve?” LaRocque asked. “It might be some guys battling for spots. Whether it be a Lane Thomas or Justin Williams, players who are trying to make their mark this year. I look at the progress of Edmundo Sosa. We’ve always been impressed with the way he goes about playing the game, what he can contribute to the big league team. He’s made a good impression.
“They’ll get opportunities because that’s how we do it here. They get them right now in camp.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.