With alternate camps coming to an end, MLB Pipeline is recapping the development highlights for the prospects involved for each organization.
Top position prospect: Nolan Gorman, 3B (No. 2/MLB No. 43)
Gorman stood out as the best prep slugger available the 2018 Draft before the Cardinals selected him with the No. 19 overall pick. He lived up to that reputation in his pro debut, hitting 17 home runs and reaching Class A Peoria -- a rarity for a recently drafted high school hitter. That immediate success Gorman had in his first taste of pro ball prompted St. Louis to challenge the then-19-year-old third baseman again in ‘19, and while the results were mixed, Gorman still had a productive first full season, the second half of which he spent at Class A Advanced Palm Beach. Overall, he batted .248 with a .765 OPS and 15 home runs across two levels and 125 games, striking out nearly 30 percent of the time.
Gorman received glowing reviews from Cardinals officials for his progress on both sides of the ball this summer at the team’s alternate training site in Springfield, Mo., which also is the home of the organization’s Double-A Texas League affiliate. His improvement at the hot corner was particularly notable after recording back-to-back 21-error seasons at the position.
“Nolan worked a lot with José Oquendo on the defensive side,” said Cardinals director of development Gary LaRocque. “He did a lot of work defensively and was very productive, and José was very pleased with how he went about it.”
LaRocque was also quick to praise Gorman for the work he put in off the field, noting the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder made the most of every resource offered to him at the Springfield site.
“He’s a student of the game, which is just one of his many wonderful qualities,” said LaRocque. “He obviously has a lot of skill, a lot of talent, a lot of offensive upside, but he also loves to study the game on the offensive side. He’s just that type of player, very intense and focused. He was able to do an awful lot to help his own development.”
Top pitching prospect: Matthew Liberatore, LHP (No. 3/MLB No. 52)
The Cardinals had hoped to get Liberatore in the 2018 Draft before the Rays selected the highly regarded prep left-hander with the No. 16 overall pick, three spots before St. Louis made its first pick. So it wasn’t a total surprise that the club jumped at the chance to get Liberatore last offseason, acquiring him and catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez for José Martínez and Randy Arozarena in early January.
A non-roster invitee to big league camp this past spring after posting a 3.10 ERA over 78 1/3 innings at Class A Bowing Green in ’19, Liberatore pitched to mixed results but still opened plenty of eyes across his new organization, showing an uptick in fastball velocity to go along with his usual plus curveball. The 20-year-old southpaw continued to make strides over the summer at the Cardinals’ alternate site -- so much so that club officials pegged him as the most improved and exciting player in camp.
“Matt really took advantage of the instructional time and spent a lot of time with the analytics staff,” said LaRocque. “He applied it, worked at it and just had a very positive two-plus months of instruction. Our staff did a great job with his development, and we’re very pleased with the progress he made.
“It was a very productive stretch for him -- I couldn’t emphasize that more,” he continued, “and in Matt’s case, with the younger players behind him that were also there, they all feed on it together. They see how he goes about his work and then they start to apply it.”
Youngest prospect: Jordan Walker, 3B (No. 6)
Two years removed from taking Gorman in the first round, the Cardinals once again used their top pick on the best corner-infield prospect from the high school ranks in Walker, whom the club signed for $2.9 million after selecting him 21st overall. As was the case with Gorman back in ’18, Walker’s calling card is the prodigious power he generates through a combination of bat speed and physical strength, as well as the leverage he’s able to create with his 6-foot-5 frame. He, too, faces some questions about his natural hitting ability, though the Cardinals feel that he’s already made progress on that front after spending the summer in Springfield.
“Jordan is an extremely competitive young man with great athleticism,” LaRocque said about the 18-year-old third baseman. “The kind of planning that went into our alternate site camp really benefitted him and our other young players, because they got to see how to go about their way. And when a lot of our guys eventually went to St. Louis, the ones who we still had in Springfield knew that they had to continue to work hard and did.”
2020 Draft picks
In addition to Walker, the Cardinals also had second-round pick Masyn Winn (No. 7) at the alternate site, which marked the beginning of his career as a two-way player after signing for $2.1 million. With his explosive arm and stuff on the mound and across-the-board tools as a potential power-speed shortstop, Winn has the potential to make an impact in either of the two roles. The Cardinals, knowing they had such a uniquely talented player, focused on acclimating him to their system in his first taste of pro ball. That included devising a summer schedule for his development as a two-way player.
“We wanted to him to be comfortable,” said LaRocque, “so we let him do his work offensively, defensively for the first two months and then we moved that into him working off the mound. He weighed in on that, too. We not only want the players to buy into our thinking, but we want to talk to them and get their input. In this case we waited until the backend of those two months.”
No. 4 prospect Ivan Herrera, 20, is quietly developing into one of the better young catching prospects. After slashing .284/.374/.405 between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Palm Beach during the 2019 regular season and then standing out as a 19-year-old against older competition in the Arizona Fall League, Herrera continued to surge forward with his development at the Cardinals’ alternate site. His ongoing progress behind the plate stands out most, as it wasn’t that long ago that there were concerns regarding his potential to remain at the position long term.
“Three years ago, we put Ivan on a throwing plan, which he did very well with, and his arm strength has continued to improve,” said LaRocque. “Our pitchers love throwing to him. The defense just continues to improve.
“But just as important is what he does with his time. He’s a young man who works very hard in all parts of the game. He’s really learning how to manage and set up a game. He’s bilingual, too, and if you add up all of that with his work ethic, you realize just how impressive he’s been and will be.”
The Cardinals made Zack Thompson (No. 5) the highest-drafted player in University of Kentucky history in 2019, taking the left-hander with the No. 19 pick after he posted a 2.40 ERA with 130 strikeouts as a junior. His stuff was ticking up late in his pro debut working out of Palm Beach’s bullpen, and he made his mark during big league camp by tossing three hitless innings with three strikeouts in his only appearance. And while the Cardinals certainly would have preferred it if Thompson had been able to have a normal first full season, they feel that the 22-year-old southpaw made the most of his time in Springfield.
“He got planned innings and faced a number of hitters, where he was able to work on certain things that we wanted him to work on,” said LaRocque. “Zack clearly got his work in. He’s got a great upside, and I don’t think this stopped any of that. It helped him.”
No. 16 prospect Malcom Nunez was one of four teenage prospects invited to Springfield this summer, and much like his peers, the 19-year-old third baseman benefitted from the experience. Nunez won the Dominican Summer League triple crown at age 17 in his first full season and was identified by the Cardinals as someone who could make the jump to Class A Peoria in 2019. He struggled in the Midwest League, batting .183 in 21 games, but fared much better after a move down to the more age-appropriate Rookie-level Appalachian League.
“We told him last year that we weren’t concerned with his performance coming out of extended Spring Training,” LaRocque said. “We wanted him to do his work, keep his eyes open and get a feel for how the Midwest League looks, then envision not just playing there, but going beyond that.”
The Cardinals believe Nunez did exactly that this summer in Springfield, where he devoted much of his time to improving defensively at third base.
“For him to be in camp when we had José Oquendo there working with our guys on defense was a huge plus ... it helped him immensely,” said LaRocque.
“Malcom’s a guy whose bat will carry him, and we’ve been working with him on everything else that goes into being a complete player. At his age, right now, you just give him the time needed and keep developing that. So, while he’s doing well defensively -- and there’s no concern with that -- it’ll just take time.”