6 players to watch at Cards' Minor League Spring Training

March 6th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- When Spring Training opens Monday for the St. Louis Cardinals, it will be their strong core of prospects in the spotlight instead of their familiar Major League regulars.

Instead of superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado, Nolan Gorman will take center stage, and his glove at second base will command much of the attention. Matthew Liberatore’s stuff and composure on the mound will be closely examined much the same way Jack Flaherty’s would be if he were present. And young slugger Jordan Walker will likely take the place of Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill when it comes to hitting moonshot home runs in batting practice.

The Cardinals’ massive 153-man Minor League Spring Training roster reported to camp for testing over the weekend. On Monday, much of the army of players -- 82 pitchers, 28 outfielders, 26 infielders and 17 catchers -- will take the fields at Roger Dean Stadium, and they very well could be on the main fields usually reserved for the Major League regulars because of baseball’s ongoing labor negotiations.

With that thought in mind, here are six Cardinals to watch who are currently in camp with the club. Keep in mind that some top prospects, such as outfielder Juan Yepez and third baseman Brendan Donovan, aren’t in camp because they are on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster, and they fall under the MLB Players Association umbrella.

Nolan Gorman (Cardinals' No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline)
Gorman is a no-brainer on this list because of the lofty expectations placed upon his capable shoulders this offseason by the Cardinals. A third baseman much of his baseball life, Gorman spent much of the offseason working with Cardinals Minor League infield coordinator Jose Oquendo to master the art of playing second base. St. Louis is eager to try to get Gorman’s prodigious left-handed bat into the lineup, and second base figures to be the best slot for his future so he isn’t blocked by that other “Nolan.” Gorman hit 11 home runs and drove in 27 runs in 43 games at Double-A Springfield last year and then belted another 14 home runs and drove in 48 runs upon being promoted to Triple-A Memphis.

The No. 1 second base prospect and the 24th-ranked prospect overall per MLB Pipeline, Gorman could very well start the season in St. Louis if his glove and footwork in the field are up to par. Still only 21 years old after being the 19th overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, Gorman will be watched closely in camp to see how he handles the weight of the expectations hoisted upon him this spring.

Matthew Liberatore (No. 2)
Could this be the season when Cardinals fans get to see the immense promise the 6-foot-4 left-handed pitcher possesses at the big league level? After all, baseball diehards in St. Louis are eager to see the Cardinals’ return from the trade where they surrendered Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay in January of 2020. All Arozarena has done in two seasons with the Rays is win the ALCS MVP in '20 and the AL Rookie of the Year Award in '21 -- accomplishments that only add to the pressure that Liberatore is facing.

Liberatore, 22, has both the stuff and mindset to potentially be a front-line ace somewhere down the line. At 6-foot-4 and a slim 200 pounds, the belief is that he can still add more bulk and muscle that could take his fastball up a couple of ticks over the 95-96 mph where it presently sits. Already, he has command of a four-pitch arsenal, with his curveball and changeup rating as major plusses.

Oddly, Liberatore’s performance last season didn’t match up to his talent level, something that suggests that he might need more development time in the Minors. On the plus side, he pitched well in an Olympic qualifier and in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. Conversely, he was just 9-9 with a 4.04 ERA at Memphis while surrendering as many hits as he had strikeouts (123) in 124 2/3 innings.

The Cardinals signed Steven Matz prior to the lockout to shore up their need for left-handed pitching, but they could still need help at the back end of the rotation and out of the bullpen. If Liberatore proves himself ready to step into one of those roles, the franchise could spend its free-agent dollars on a DH bopper instead of relief pitching when baseball resumes in full.

Jordan Walker (No. 3)
The 19-year-old slugger from Georgia is likely still a year or more away from reaching the Major League level, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have plenty of eyeballs on him this spring. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Walker possesses the kind of raw power and athleticism that already have MLB scouts salivating. His undeniable talent and uncommon "it" factor already have him ranked as the No. 3 third base prospect and the 57th overall prospect per MLB Pipeline.

Walker, the 21st overall pick of the 2020 MLB Draft, certainly didn’t disappoint in his first season of pro ball. In 27 games at Low-A Palm Beach, Walker hit .374 with six home runs, 11 doubles and 21 RBIs. He followed that up by hitting .292, slugging .487 and smashing another eight home runs in 226 at-bats at High-A Peoria.

Where Walker starts this season -- in Springfield, Memphis or even with the big league club in St. Louis -- will likely depend on how much development he shows this spring. Opinion varies on what his long-term defensive position will be as his body matures and develops, but he might be best served to learn to play the outfield because Arenado and Goldschmidt have the two corner infield spots locked down for the next few years.

Alec Burleson (No. 11) and Luken Baker (No. 13)
One of these two power-hitting big men could emerge as a candidate to fill a DH role that could become universal throughout Major League Baseball once a labor agreement is reached between the owners and the Players Association. Burleson, the 70th pick of the 2020 MLB Draft, displayed so much growth in his first pro season that he matriculated through three levels of the Cardinals' farm system in '21. In 119 games at Peoria, Springfield and Memphis, Burleson swatted 22 home runs, drove in 76 runs and slugged .454.

Burleson, 23, has been in Jupiter for several weeks already while working with Oquendo to become a more fluid and adept outfielder. Burleson is also a capable first baseman and says he shifted his focus this offseason to taking better care of his body so that he can withstand the rigors of a long season.

Baker, a hulking 6-foot-4, 280-pound first baseman, swatted 26 home runs and drove in 68 runs in 91 games at Springfield -- work that ultimately earned him a two-game audition at Memphis. Injuries have been a major problem for Baker, who was the 75th overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft. If Baker’s production starts to meet his potential this spring, he will likely start the season in Memphis or in St. Louis as a bat off the bench.

Felix Taveras
What would a “players to watch” article be without at least one total wildcard player who could emerge as a surprise of the organization? After all, one of the greatest players in franchise history -- Albert Pujols -- came to training camp in Jupiter as a total wild card in 2001 and played his way onto the Major League Opening Day roster. The rest, of course, lives in Cardinals’ lore and record books.

Taveras, who doesn’t turn 19 years old until Tuesday, torched the Dominican Summer League after playing little to no baseball over the two previous seasons. The 6-foot-1, 186-pound Taveras hit .301, slugged .549 and had a .918 OPS over 39 games in the Dominican. He hit six home runs -- two of them coming in the same game -- and drove in 30 runs, and he also smacked nine doubles and three triples.

Adding more intrigue to Taveras as a prospect, he stole seven of nine bases. The talent and do-everything skills of the power-hitting Taveras bear watching for a Cardinals franchise that is still starved for left-handed hitting.

Could he become another wild card like Pujols? Who knows, and that’s why Cardinals fans would be wise to keep their eyes on Taveras in the coming weeks.