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Prospect machine continuing to churn in St. Louis

MLB Pipeline checks in from spring camp, unveils Cardinals' Top 20 Prospects

JUPITER, Fla. -- There's no question the Cardinals like to promote from within. It's been a big reason for their sustained success. And it's something every player in their farm system is well aware of, serving as motivation from the top to the bottom of their Minor League chain.

Over the past two years, 21 players have made it to the big leagues, and it's not like it was for a parent club playing out the string. These prospects contributed to a World Series team in 2013 and a National League Championship Series club the year before that.

It's bound to happen that with all of those graduations, a team's Top 20 Prospects list is going to take a hit. Half of the organization's Top 10 from a year ago made major contributions in St. Louis. There's little doubt that without Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Michael Wacha on the mound (with a smaller contribution from Carlos Martinez) and Matt Adams at the plate, the Cards would not have gone as far as they did.

"Getting there is one thing," Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. "Staying there and helping us win is what we have to develop. We recognize that you are going to come back to the mean a little bit more. The good news is we feel we have talent in the system, and because, we hope, the Major League roster stays in check, we're able to give the kind of time the next wave of prospects needs to come through the system and be ready."

While there may not be many elite-level names right now, the list is still headed by Oscar Taveras, the No. 3 overall prospect in baseball. The young outfielder is still working his way back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss most of the 2013 season, but there is every expectation that Taveras will develop into the star most have projected him to become.

"Everyone is anxious to see the kind of production Oscar will deliver coming off the injury last year," LaRocque said.

Eventually, Taveras will graduate, as will hitters like Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty, the Cards' other members of the Top 100. It all filters down. More than 60 players on the four full-season clubs last year earned promotions up a level.

"That's our lifeline," LaRocque said. "We have to do it. They have to understand that there are expectations. They do. They see their teammates; they see what they've done. They understand that if they're the next wave, they have to get there."

Three questions with Marco Gonzales

Gonzales was the Cardinals' first-round pick (No. 19 overall) in the 2013 Draft. You used to be a two-way player at Gonzaga, but now you get to focus only on pitching. How did that change your offseason workouts?

Gonzales: It was actually pretty fun. I really got to push myself. It's a lot easier when your back's not tired or weak from swings. It was fun building my legs and my core like I haven't been able to in the past. I explored some different workouts. And working with the Cardinals, with what they had for me during the offseason, was actually really interesting. I was excited to get to camp to show that I've been working hard and improving. What's it been like in big league camp with this very good -- and young -- staff?

Gonzales: It's been so easy to mesh with a lot of these guys. A lot of those guys have been on this side of the clubhouse the past two years. Guys like Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, I've been hanging out with them, seeing how they go about their business, and their work ethic has been pretty inspiring. I'm just trying to keep up with them and see how I do. It's been a blast to be with them, and I'm excited to stay here as long as I can. You're not a two-way player anymore, but at least you will get to hit in the National League. Pitchers' batting practice can be pretty competitive. How has that been?

Gonzales: Some guys know that I hit in college. There have been quite a few bets for home run derbies. Shelby wanted to bet me right on the first day. He said, "Home Run Derby right now," without even seeing me swing. People know that I hit, so people are trying to challenge me. I was trying to be a good hitter in college. Maybe if I'm trying to hit home runs, I could. Maybe I can muscle up now that the average doesn't matter so much, but we'll see.

Camp standout: Tim Cooney

Being a pitching prospect in the Cardinals' system can't be easy these days. Following up behind Miller, Martinez and Wacha is a tall order. None of the arms in the system are Top 100 type guys right now, but that doesn't mean there aren't arms who will contribute soon. After all, a guy like Joe Kelly was never a Top 100 type, either.

Cooney joined the Cards as a 2012 third-round pick out of Wake Forest. He wasn't on the Top 20 list a year ago, but after reaching Double-A in his first full season and leading the organization in strikeouts, he's now firmly on the list, at No. 10. A guy who relies on command, Cooney walked just 1.29 per nine innings in 2013.

Cooney has picked up this spring where he left off, throwing the ball extremely well in his first big league camp.

The left-hander has shown early command of three pitches: fastball, curveball and changeup. He had it all working in his first Grapefruit League outing on Sunday against the Mets, tossing two perfect innings with four strikeouts.

Cooney's composure has also stood out, and he carries himself like a guy who's close to being able to contribute in St. Louis, even if there's not an immediate need out of Spring Training.

"We've been impressed with Cooney, and how he's come into camp," LaRocque said. "We have some pitching. Overall, we feel our pitching is still strong."

Breakout candidate: Carson Kelly

The Cardinals thought highly enough of Kelly, No. 8 on the Top 20, to send him to full-season ball last year as an 18-year-old after taking him from the Oregon high school ranks in the second round of the 2012 Draft. He wasn't ready, but to his credit, he bounced back and hit very well once he was moved down to the New York-Penn League.

The Cards challenged Kelly again, this time asking him to take his strong arm behind the plate to give catching a try. He worked on it during the instructional league, and St. Louis very pleased with how he prepared himself during the offseason.

"He goes home, he's been learning everything about catching since instructional league," LaRocque said. "His conditioning is very good."

Now Kelly is getting time in big league camp with about as good a mentor as one could ask for: Yadier Molina. His bat -- most notably his power potential -- is the biggest reason the Cardinals went well above pick value to sign him away from being a two-way player at the University of Oregon. If this experiment turning him into a backstop works, Kelly could be the next of the Cards' next tier of prospects who could be making a claim to break into the Top 100 by the end of the year.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong