ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals’ big league club captured the attention of the baseball world this season, their Minor League affiliates had stellar seasons. Unheralded prospects turned in career years, players with higher expectations put together revival campaigns and some youngsters stormed onto the scene in almost unprecedented manners.
Remember when Low-A Palm Beach faced off against Jacob deGrom and went viral? How about when top prospect Nolan Gorman hit three homers in a game as part of an insane stretch, and was then rewarded by joining his close friend and fellow top prospect Matthew Liberatore at Triple-A Memphis? Or what about when Jordan Walker mercilessly punished a baseball time and time again?
It was an eventful season up and down the organization. Here are some of the head-turning takeaways from the 2021 Minor League season, back in full force after a one-year hiatus:
3 players who forced their way onto the radar this year
• OF Juan Yepez (Cardinals’ No. 27 prospect per MLB Pipeline) No one turned as many heads and invited as much big league speculation this season more than Yepez. The slugging corner infielder/outfielder made his first cameo in the Majors roster when he was called up for the National League Wild Card Game, during which he sat on the bench as a potential pinch-hitter.
How did that come to be so? Yepez hit 22 homers for Triple-A Memphis as part of a .589 slugging percentage and .971 OPS at that level. All came after just 19 games at Double-A to open the year. And then, MLB Pipeline’s top Cardinals positional prospect of the year never looked back.
• OF Nick Plummer (No. 10 prospect)
Plummer’s season was one of redemption. The 2015 first-round pick had anemic seasons since he made his professional debut, amassing an OPS above .700 just once. But in 2021, results turned around in a big way. Plummer appeared in 117 games, earning a callup to Triple-A along the way. His knack for getting on base was profound, with a .415 mark as part of an .894 OPS on the year. In doing so, he surpassed Tommy Edman to set Double-A Springfield’s on-base record of 34 straight games.
It’s never that Plummer was fully off the radar, but he’s forced his way back towards the center of it.
• OF Alec Burleson (No. 12)
The only 2020 draftee on the list, that distinction is well-suited for Burleson, who rocketed up all the way to Triple-A Memphis in his first year of professional baseball after the pandemic washed away the ’20 season. Though his production took a hit across 45 games for Memphis, he was a stellar RBI threat throughout the year and resembled the only '20 Cardinals draftee to finish the year at the highest Minor League level, let alone the only one to play above the High-A level. Set to turn 23 by Opening Day, he could be on the radar for a callup at some point in 2022.
Honorable mention: No. 18 prospect Brendan Donovan, who was on the taxi squad for the postseason.
2 possible breakout players to watch in 2022
• 3B Jordan Walker (No. 57 prospect overall and club’s No. 3) Truthfully, Walker was more than suitable for the last category, as he made himself one of the youngest players in High-A this season at just 19 years old. But such impressions are a bit expected when you’re the 21st overall Draft pick. The numbers he put up at Peoria this season (.292/.34/.487 with an .831 OPS) were just fine … when you compare them to his numbers at Low-A Palm Beach (.374/.475/.687 with a gaudy 1.162 OPS).
Such a season drew him comparisons from within the organization to Albert Pujols and Oscar Taveras to how much he lit up the lower levels of the Minors at such a young age. He’ll look to merely build upon that in 2022.
• OF Joshua Baez (No. 5)
Baez has lofty goals, saying he wants to be the face of baseball and wants to be better than Mike Trout. That demeanor is part of why the Cardinals swung high in selecting him No. 54 overall in the 2021 Draft, doling out a signing bonus almost as high as their top pick, Michael McGreevy, and one well over his slot value.
Baez only got a handful of games with the Cards’ rookie-level Florida Coast League in 2021, with a couple of home runs and a triple but not much else to show wholesale. He’ll get that chance in ’22 as one of the youngest prospects in the club’s pipeline with as high a ceiling as any.
1 big question for next season
Can the pitching depth -- and results -- be elevated? Minor League victories, obviously, are not a make-or-break way of life. But only one of the Cardinals’ four affiliates (Triple-A Memphis) finished better than last place in their respective division; none finished with a winning record. The other three affiliates finished at least 24 four games out of first place; Low-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield finished at least 18 games back of the team in second-to-last place.
But more important is the manner in which such inauspicious marks were hit, especially so on the pitching side. Memphis was the only Cardinals affiliate to not end up either at or just safe of the worst ERA in their league, finishing 13th of 20 teams with a staff mark at 4.82, alongside anemic strikeout-to-walk ratios to boot. The other three:
• Low-A Palm Beach -- 5.67 ERA (last)
• High-A Peoria -- 5.04 ERA (second to last)
• Double-A Springfield -- 5.98 ERA (last)
For what it’s worth, the system finished with much higher marks in home runs and OPS across the levels, signs that a pipeline heavier on position players is finding positive results.