Scott leads deep outfield group in Cards' camp

March 18th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. – The Cardinals’ Top 30 ranking has a new look in 2024. Thirteen members of MLB Pipeline’s updated ranking weren’t in the organization at all at this time last year. Seven came from trades at last year’s Deadline, four were from the 2023 Draft, one was an international signing in January and one was a Rule 5 pick.

Even with prospect stalwarts Masyn Winn and Tink Hence at the top of the group, it’s a more robust St. Louis pipeline than it otherwise could have been, especially if the underperforming Cards had sat on their hands late last summer.

“Throughout the organization, it's an optimistic feeling to know we've added some depth,” said assistant general manager and director of player development Gary LaRocque. “We feel very good about our depth to be able to provide and help our Major League team.”

The good problem to have with depth is having to sort out the many options at certain position groups, and that’s especially felt in the lower-level outfields. Chase Davis, Travis Honeyman and Zach Levenson should all be High-A Peoria candidates in their first full seasons, given their collegiate backgrounds, but Won-Bin Cho and Joshua Baez – a pair of 20-year-olds with 196 combined games for Single-A Palm Beach last season – should also be banging down the door to the Midwest League.

Sorting out that group is one of the key tasks for LaRocque and his staff this spring, and even once they decide on who heads where, the Cardinals will still have to sort out playing time on the grass. All but Baez got some level of exposure to center field in 2023, but it isn’t part of the St. Louis philosophy to keep position players locked into one position at any stage of development – that is unless they’re an 80-grade runner and Gold Glove-caliber defender like Victor Scott II.

“We’ve never really done that,” LaRocque said. “We’ve done it with Victor to some degree. For everyone else, you want the versatility or you want to at least give them the opportunity to play multiple positions so we can see how they handle them. It doesn’t hurt anybody. They’ll all play.”

The poster boy for that organizational approach might be in the infield.

Thomas Saggese joined the Cardinals system from the Rangers in last year’s Jordan Montgomery Deadline swap, and he lived up to his billing as a strong hitter by slashing .331/.403/.662 with 10 homers in 33 games for Double-A Springfield after the move, eventually winning Texas League MVP honors. Following a callup to Triple-A Memphis, Saggese was an easy non-roster invite this spring, and he’s gotten looks at second base, third base and shortstop while continuing to impress at the plate with a .361/.425/.500 line in 17 games entering Monday.

Nolan Gorman, Nolan Arenado and Winn might be blocking Saggese’s avenues to those positions in the bigs right now, but after St. Louis’ run of 15 straight winning seasons came to an end in 2023, there’s one lesson the organization has truly taken to heart. Good teams have options across the board. The next step is to turn many of the new faces into said options.

“In Spring Training, we make sure as a staff that we get to know them,” LaRocque said. “We take a lot of time to make sure they get a chance to talk and speak as a collective group. So here we go. We’re ready to start.”

Spring standout: Victor Scott II

This time last year, Scott was a fifth-rounder out of West Virginia trying to find his footing in pro ball. Now in his second Spring Training, the 23-year-old center fielder is coming off a 94-steal season and is legitimately competing for a Major League starting job. Take what you will from spring results, but the former Mountaineer has put a solid foot forward in the Grapefruit League, hitting .367/.457/.433 with four walks, four strikeouts and four steals in five attempts through 11 games.

Scott’s top-of-the-line speed and elite range in center field are Major League-ready with the biggest questions coming at the plate, particularly when it comes to his power. But his wheels are so good that he can turn singles into doubles with his affinity for stealing bags, and his world-class bunting skills help him reach base in the first place too.

Injuries to Tommy Edman (right wrist) and Lars Nootbaar (ribs) have opened some lanes in the St. Louis outfield, but it’s still possible the Cardinals prefer Scott head to Triple-A Memphis – a level he still hasn’t seen – to get everyday at-bats while the more experienced Dylan Carlson gets his chance at the Major League level. Scott isn’t making that decision any easier with his play.

“He plays very hard,” LaRocque said. “He is a great student of the game, and he’s got very good tools. He helps you win. He’s a wonderful teammate, and he carries the team at times. Last year when you’d watch his performances, you’d say, ‘Wow,’ as a manager, coach or staff member. We were all so impressed, and he continues that every day.”

Breakout candidate: Won-Bin Cho

No matter where he begins his age-20 season, Cho could be a player ready to pop in 2024. The South Korea native joined St. Louis for $500,000 in January 2022 in a decision to head stateside and shun the KBO Draft. He’s been slowly building in Florida since then and got a true first full season under his belt in 2023, slashing .270/.376/.389 with seven homers and 32 stolen bases in 105 games for Palm Beach.

The left-handed slugger has shown solid raw power with a 90th-percentile exit velocity of 103.1 mph in the FSL – ninth-best in the circuit among players with at least 300 plate appearances in front of Statcast. He’s capable of pushing EVs above 110 mph at peak already, and simply getting out of the pitcher-friendly Single-A circuit might help him at least double his 2023 homer output.

“He’s very well-liked for how he goes about his work every day,” LaRocque said. “He’s competitive and doesn’t give at-bats away. We’re excited for his year.”

Something to prove: Joshua Baez

You don’t want to get too wrapped up in one performance and especially in one at-bat, but when that at-bat ends in a 455-foot moonshot that was the longest Statcast-measured homer of this year’s inaugural Spring Breakout series, that task gets all the more difficult.

Baez’s dinger Sunday in a 1-0 win over the Astros provided the perfect distillation of the immense power that has kept him in the Cardinals’ Top 30 since he was a second-rounder out of the Massachusetts prep ranks in 2021. But closing in on three years of pro ball, he still hasn’t climbed above Single-A because of contact concerns. His 34.1 percent K rate topped Cardinals Minor Leaguers (min. 350 PA) in 2023, and he’s yet to post a strikeout percentage lower than 29.5 for any St. Louis affiliate.

Baez can hit the ball hard and far, but he has to find ways of making more contact if he’s going to fulfill his potential in St. Louis down the line. In that way, 2024 could be a big proving year for the slugger.

“I think what you’ll find is he’s going to face stronger pitching on any given night,” LaRocque said. “Florida State League was good. The next level will be better. By nature, it’s going to take some time. It takes at-bats, and it takes patience.”