JUPITER, Fla. -- For about the last decade or so, Gary LaRocque estimates, the Cardinals have owned a particular philosophy on player development.
“You want players to understand that it's competitive,” said the St. Louis assistant general manager and director of player development. “The biggest thing is once they move to a level, they have to come up to the level of the league. They have to come up to the level of the league and then go by it. That’s what their goals are.”
In other words, the Cards always try to challenge their prospects. It’s not quite sink or swim, although it can look that way on paper. But it’s an aggressive mindset that places obstacles in the way of prospects, hoping that the lesson they learn in overcoming those will help build them into more well-rounded Major Leaguers -- with differing results along the way.
To LaRocque’s point, all four Cardinals full-season affiliates were relatively young within their leagues. Memphis was the youngest squad in Triple-A East with its pitchers averaging 25.1 years of age, making the staff nearly two years younger than the league average. Springfield hitters were the only Double-A Central sluggers with an average age younger than 23 (22.9), while Palm Beach pitchers were the only ones in Low-A Southeast younger on average than 21 (20.8).
Some Cardinals prospects took to the system of iron sharpening iron incredibly well. Jordan Walker reached High-A at just 19 and hit .292/.344/.487 in 55 games with Peoria. His 244 plate appearances were second-most by a High-A teenager behind only Mets top prospect Francisco Álvarez’s 333. Third on that list: Cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn with 154. Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore -- the Cards’ two other Top 100 prospects besides Walker -- each reached Triple-A in their age-21 seasons with solid results. Liberatore, in particular, was the only pitcher aged 21 or younger to throw more than 66 innings at the Minors’ highest level. He threw 124 2/3.
“We're not going to be in a hurry,” LaRocque said. “Yet at the same time, we have some very good young prospects who played very well last year. You know, our top-end kids played well. We're really proud of the work they did.”
But in pushing the bigger names higher and higher, it was the lower clubs left holding the bag. That was especially true in Palm Beach. The Cardinals lost two Rookie-level affiliates in Johnson City and State College during the reorganization of the Minor Leagues ahead of the 2021 season. So if the front office wanted to challenge a talent away from the backfields of the Florida Complex League, the next step was next door in the Low-A Southeast. Many couldn’t handle the jump to full-season ball so quickly, and Palm Beach finished 37-80. As a system, the Cardinals finished with a .398 winning percentage in 2021, the lowest of the 30 organizations.
Minor League wins and losses won’t define this St. Louis farm system, nor will they change everything about the Cardinals' philosophy. One can still expect Walker and Winn to climb quickly, should they produce right out of the gate in 2022 as they did in 2021. New Draft picks Joshua Baez and Michael McGreevy will surge if they appear to be above their opening levels, likely Low-A and High-A, respectively. But on the whole, fans might see familiar Cardinals faces back in the same affiliate places on Minor League Opening Night 2022, and there they’ll remain until they can prove they've moved past the talent level of their individual circuit.
“We tell them when you get there that this is going to be challenging,” LaRocque said. “Work. Keep working at it. Eventually, you want to play by that level. It's not that level you're trying to get to. It's the big leagues you're trying to get to -- and to stay there. This is just part of that process.”
Camp standout: Jordan Walker
Coming off his stellar 2021, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Walker was raring to pick up where he left off. He reported to Jupiter in early February, along with roughly 40 other Cardinals Minor Leaguers, and has been ramping up through the start of regular Minor League camp earlier this month and now Major League camp within the last week.
At this point, the 19-year-old third baseman has seen the facilities around Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium as much as anyone this calendar year, and the loud contact -- along with his size at 6-foot-5 -- make him audially and visually apparent even in his first spring as a Major League non-roster invite. The right-handed slugger has the raw power to wow alongside Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill right now, and he could put that to use starting Friday when Grapefruit League action is set to begin in Florida.
“He's really dedicated to the work in everything he does, and it’s with a purpose,” LaRocque said. “He's worked hard defensively. His work offensively in the cages and with our coaches has been absolutely outstanding. All in all, he knows how to play this game. It's fun to watch him. Yet he also knows that today's the day that matters the most. He's going put all the effort into today first.”
Something to prove: Zack Thompson
Perhaps no one was the poster child of those struggling with their particularly aggressive Cardinals assignment more than Thompson. The 2019 19th overall pick had his first full season wiped out by the pandemic cancelation, yet St. Louis decided to push him straight to Triple-A for the entire 2021 season. The statistical results were ugly: 7.06 ERA, 1.84 WHIP in 93 innings. Both stats were among the five highest for Triple-A pitchers with at least 90 frames.
But the plan wasn’t for the 24-year-old southpaw to handle the Minors’ highest level immediately, and the Cardinals were enthused that he carried the lessons he took from early thumpings into the Arizona Fall League, where he sported a 1.56 ERA over nine appearances (17 1/3 innings) last autumn. His fastball was back to the 92-94 mph range more consistently there, and his high-spin curveball remained a potential plus pitch. The ingredients are there for Thompson to return to Memphis with much more success, and according to LaRocque, the left-hander has attacked the spring with much more confidence than he was showing in the doldrums of May and June last year.
“We take it in short bursts,” LaRocque said. “In the short bursts with Zack, last year he went to Memphis and found out it was pretty tough. He challenged himself, found out he could do it in the end, went to the Fall League and found he can be even better. I thought it was a great development look for Zack.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2023: Joshua Baez
Looking for a potential Walker redux? That might be a heavy burden to place on any player, but Baez -- the Cardinals’ second-round pick last July -- has the potential to pop quickly.
Like Walker, the Massachusetts native enters pro ball with incredible raw power from the prep ranks and the ample frame to generate it at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. That said, his best grades are reserved for his plus-plus arm from the outfield. The right-handed slugger, who turns 19 in June, faces some questions about his hit tool due to the way he would previously overswing, but the Cardinals proved successful in getting Walker to marry his hit and power tools early in his career. If Baez can come close to reproducing Walker’s numbers at the plate in his first full season, the Cards could have yet another powerful Top 100 prospect on their hands.
“I'm anxious to see the games get started and see how they’ll benefit Josh because he has a lot of skill,” LaRocque said. “It's just going take some time to see a lot of pitching. All these 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, young kids, they need time. We got to put them in front of a lot of pitching, get a lot of at-bats and plate appearances, and it'll come together for a player like him. He's a very good athlete.”