The Cardinals took a chance when they decided to take Puerto Rican high school shortstop Delvin Perez with their first pick in the 2016 Draft, No. 23 overall. Yes, he was a top-notch talent, one who could have been a top 10 pick. But the news that came out pre-Draft about a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs put a huge question mark next to his name.
The Cardinals obviously answered that question enough to feel good about taking Perez and they've felt even better about the decision based on how he's handled things since joining the organization.
"Once a player comes here, we work with everybody, regarding what our expectations are," Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. "They're professionals now, we want to treat them that way. They also have the expectaions and responsibilities that go along with it. He got to sit down several times in our evaluation process. He was extremely positive about it."
CARDINALS TOP 30 PROSPECTS AT INSTRUCTS
Perez also performed well on the field during his pro debut, hitting .294/.352/.393 with 12 steals on a club that won the Gulf Coast League title. There had been some concern about how a lack of strength might impact him as he made the transition to the pro game, especially since he's still just 17, but that's not what the Cardinals saw at all.
"He didn't have any problem handling the pitching here," LaRocque said of the GCL. "He has very strong hands, strong through the zone. As for general strength, we fully expect them to need that at their age. He's a good athlete. He wants the big at-bats, he wants the plays at shortstop, all great qualities. He needs time and at-bats and that's exactly what he's going to get."
Perez also got a lot of individual instruction during the Cardinals' instructional league camp, which concluded last week. It was set to run to the end of the week, but the decision was made to cut things short a few days early in advance of Hurricane Matthew. Still, Perez got in some invaluable work, not just with instructor Jose Oquendo, but with the exciting stable of young shortstops in the system, including Edmundo Sosa, who was rehabbing his hand, and Allen Cordoba.
"He handled it very well, the changes, the adjustments," LaRocque said. "He was very open-minded to all the work being done. It was very encouraging to see all the shortstops we have that were here. That's a good group for him to see, watch and work with, not to mention with Oquendo there working with them. I think it was a really good instructional league for Delvin."
2015 first-rounder Plummer working way back
The start of Nick Plummer's career hasn't exactly gone as planned.
The 2015 first-round pick, taken No. 23 overall, was going to be a bit of a project. After all, he came from a cold-weather state (Michigan) and had limited exposure to top-level competition. His pro debut was uneven in the Gulf Coast League, then his first full season never got off the ground as a broken hamate in his right hand required surgery. As a result, he didn't play a single game in 2016.
While the left-handed-hitting outfielder wasn't quite ready to participate full-tilt in instructional league play, the Cardinals' No. 12 prospect was part of the larger group in Palm Beach getting extra work in. While others were working on specific on-field skills, Plummer's focus continued to be his return from injury.
"Instructs ran into the rehab part of that for him," LaRocque said. "That's a positive. He's back at it, but wasn't quite ready for the day-to-day rigors of it. We wanted to make sure he was strong enough. He's doing well and continues to get ready for 2017."
Given that Plummer was in extended spring camp to start the season after Spring Training, then never left for an assignment because of the injury, it'd be easy to think the 20-year-old had grown weary of still being at the Cardinals' facility. That has been far from the case, however. LaRocque saw Plummer often during extended spring training, the GCL season and instructs, never saw his work ethic waver.
"We have to get him healthy first and he's a hard worker at it," LaRocque said. "We're excited about getting him back for 2017. The effort he has put in is remarkable. He had a great attitude every day I saw him. I give him credit."
Young arms continue to impress
During the 2015 season, two hard-throwing right-handers jumped on the prospect map with how they threw in the Gulf Coast League. Both Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara were international signs, though Fernandez went the Alex Reyes route -- growing up in the United States and then moving to the Dominican Republic to sign as an international free agent. They were both very far away, but with electric stuff and a better feel for pitching than you might expect, there was excitement for their collective future.
Fast-forward to the end of 2016 and that future now seems like it might be a lot closer than anticipated. Not only did both pitchers make the Peoria Opening Day roster in the full-season Midwest League, both pitched well enough to earn promotions up a level.
"Sandy was 20, Junior was 20 and they went to the Midwest League in April," LaRocque said. "They competed. They both got in their innings before they moved on."
The Florida State League provided stiffer competition and they faced adversity for the first time. The Cardinals like how they responded and see a difference in who the pair are compared to when they were at instructs a year ago.
"You really see the changes over the course of the year," LaRocque said. "After all of the experiences they've been through. The good thing is they are talented and like any talented players, they wanted to be challenged. When they got to the Florida State League, they were challenged. They're going to hit some speedbumps. They need to learn about that. They handled it well."
Both Fernandez and Alcantara topped the 120-innings mark in their first full season, so there wasn't a need for them to log a lot of innings during instructs. Instead, they could focus on little things, like improving their all-important fastball command.
"Once we headed into August and we knew they were heading to instructs, we could see what they had to give us vs. what they have to work on," LaRocque said. "They are both right on track. If we keep them healthy, we're in really good shape. That's perfect in terms of their workload. You're looking at two young pitchers who will at least be in the Florida State League next year.
"How many college sophomores go there if they were drafted? College juniors don't always go. They have earned getting to that level and are competing to get ahead of it."