Winn, Walker maintaining bond after role reversal

June 6th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- The nightly conversations and video game trash talk has remained mostly the same between close friends and , but in an odd twist, their locations and situations have dramatically flip-flopped.

This time last year, Walker was with the Cardinals and crafting a 17-game hitting streak in the Majors, while Winn was thriving with Triple-A Memphis and pushing to join his good buddy in St. Louis -- which he did when he made his MLB debut on Aug. 18.

This season, their roles have reversed. Winn, 22, leads the Cardinals in hitting at .309. He has reminded longtime Cards fans of Ozzie Smith with his dazzling play at shortstop and he’s been a driving force behind the team’s recent surge into contention. As for Walker, the 22-year-old outfielder was optioned to Triple-A on April 24 following a start that saw him hit just .155 with three times as many strikeouts (18) as walks (six).

At Memphis, Walker has been working to lift the ball more in hopes of hitting more home runs and line drives instead of grounders. At long last, Walker’s first home run of 2024 -- a 370-foot shot that left the bat at 101 mph -- came on Saturday for the Redbirds.

Just like last season, when it was Walker offering nightly encouragement to Winn at Triple-A, the flashy shortstop is the one now the one giving out pep talks to someone he considers to be his “brother.”

“We talk pretty much every day,” said Winn, who recently passed Albert Pujols and Walker for the second-longest hitting streak by a Cardinals rookie at 18 games. “I’ll usually shoot him a text when we get to the field, and then afterwards, we’ll hop in a [video] game. He’s in high spirits and he’s trying to get right and get back up here. Jordan can be a big contributor to any offense that he’s in. You could plug him in here [in the big leagues] right now and it would change a lot.”

Walker, who hit .276 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs in 117 games with the Cardinals as a rookie in 2023, will be back with St. Louis when his pitch selection improves and he is consistently lifting balls out of the park, manager Oliver Marmol said last week.

Eventually, Walker and Winn are confident that they will be reunited at the big league level. If they both find ways to maximize their enormous potentials, they could form the foundation of the Cardinals for years to come.

“Baseball is a tough sport and there’s a lot that goes on from day to day, but we want to play together for a long time, and we want to be great for a long time,” Winn said. “That starts with him getting right, me getting right and us both staying up here and competing at a high level.”

Here is a look at some of the top performers in the Cardinals' Minor League system:

Triple-A Memphis
César Prieto, MLB Pipeline’s No. 17 prospect in the Cardinals' system and one of the key pieces St. Louis got in the trade with the Orioles for Jack Flaherty last August, was named the Minor League Player of the Month after hitting five home runs and eight doubles in May. Prieto, 25, reached base in 20 of 24 games. For the season, the infielder is hitting .300 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs.

“César Prieto’s productive month produced seven multihit games with an .880 OPS, helping Memphis to their 17-12 record in May,” Cardinals assistant GM and director of player development Gary LaRocque said.

Double-A Springfield
Tink Hence (No. 1 Cardinals prospect) left Wednesday’s otherwise stellar start after just two innings with an unknown medical diagnosis. Hence, 21, threw 20 of his 35 pitches for strikes and racked up three strikeouts in two innings.

Hence, who aspires to pitch for the Cards this season, is 4-2 with a 3.19 ERA in 2024. The hard-throwing right-hander has 71 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings.

High-A Peoria
The Chiefs’ last-place 18-35 record in the Midwest League’s West Division has taken a toll on the season marks for No. 6 prospect Cooper Hjerpe (0-3, 3.74 ERA), No. 19 prospect Brycen Mautz (0-6, 5.21) and No. 25 prospect Pete Hansen (0-4, 4.98). Hjerpe, the No. 22 overall pick from the 2022 MLB Draft, has used his herky-jerky pitching motion to register 51 strikeouts in just 33 2/3 innings over 10 starts.

Quinn Mathews (No. 20 prospect), the Stanford product who earned a promotion to High-A following a dominant start to the season in Palm Beach, has already racked up 32 strikeouts in 25 innings for Peoria.

Single-A Palm Beach
Darlin Saladin, 21, was named the Cardinals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month after going 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA and 37 strikeouts in five May starts. He opened the month with 15 straight scoreless innings, and he matched his career high of nine strikeouts on May 1 against Daytona. An international free-agent signee in 2019, Saladin has a 2.06 ERA on the season, which ranks second in the Florida State League.