Nootbaar, Yepez swing hot bats in AFL

October 22nd, 2021

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Fall League teams are designed to be a mish-mash. Players from five different organizations combine to form a single squad for six weeks. But the AFL also offers a chance for players from the same system to deepen their roots and show the organization why they deserve to be key pieces of the future together.

“Obviously, we have a ton of talent on this team,” said Glendale/St. Louis outfielder Lars Nootbaar. “But … when the Cardinals are doing well, it’s definitely exciting.”

Nootbaar and teammate Juan Yepez -- both on the Cards' Wild Card roster earlier this month -- gave St. Louis fans and the organization reason for elation Friday. Each homered and doubled, with Nootbaar also walking in a 2-for-4 showing with three RBIs as the Glendale leadoff hitter, and Yepez going 2-for-5 with four RBIs one spot down in the lineup. They led the Desert Dogs to a 9-2 win over Surprise at Camelback Ranch.

Nootbaar’s homer was his fourth in the AFL, breaking a tie with Red Sox prospect Jeter Downs to take sole possession of the league lead. (Downs hit his fourth of the autumn later on Friday night.) The eighth-inning, three-run shot off Surprise right-hander Spencer Mraz (Rangers) traveled 463 feet down the line in right, according to TrackMan data.

“I went to a 3-0 count, then got a fastball in that was kind of borderline, so I definitely wasn’t swinging at that,” said the left-handed-hitting Nootbaar. “I was trying to make sure I could get a good pitch to hit. With runners on first and second there, I didn’t think he was trying to walk me. So I tried to zone in on a good strike to hit. Obviously, I got a pretty good piece of it, so I’m proud of that swing.”

By reaching three times Friday, the 24-year-old outfielder improved his AFL slash line to .273/.429/.864 through 28 plate appearances over six games.

Nootbaar is the rare Fall Leaguer to have seen the Majors already. In fact, he already has 58 games of experience at the top level. But the Cardinals wanted him in Arizona to make up for at-bats he lost as a bench outfielder in St. Louis, and Nootbaar made it a specific goal to show off more power than he did homering five times in 124 plate appearances in the Majors.

So far, so good there.

“I feel like it’s something I needed to tap into,” Nootbaar said. “It’s something I wanted to improve on. So being able to see a little bit of improvement is a positive, but still some work to go for sure.”

Power hasn’t been a problem for Yepez anywhere in 2021. The 23-year-old slugger led Cardinals Minor Leaguers with 27 homers and finished with a .286/.383/.586 line in 111 games between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. His .969 OPS significantly trumped his previous career high of .789, and he hadn’t clubbed more than 10 homers in a campaign prior to this summer.

He’s had no issues carrying that performance to the Fall League. After Friday, the Cardinals' No. 27 prospect owns a six-game hitting streak and has extra-base hits in five of the seven games he’s played with Glendale. His .346/.438/.731 line is an improvement from his regular-season numbers, but it’s not completely off of expectations, given his ability to marry a decent amount of contact with above-average power this season.

“He used to be more of a free-swinger, but I think he’s more selective now than I’ve ever seen him,” Nootbaar said. “Getting good pitches to swing at definitely and when they make a mistake, executing off those, barreling balls.”

It could have been a come-down for both Nootbaar and Yepez to head from the high stakes of the NL Wild Card Game to a more relaxed atmosphere in the Fall League. That’s especially true of Yepez, who would have made his Cardinals debut had the club used him against the Dodgers that day. Instead, the duo is seizing the chance in Arizona to prove they could be options for the big club right away next spring.

“He’s definitely come a long way, I think, and he’s proven it,” Nootbaar said of Yepez. “He wasn’t on the roster for the playoffs for no reason. He was there, and he belonged. I was excited to see the season that he had.”

Dodgers No. 27 prospect James Outman also provided a homer for Glendale, and No. 1 Astros prospect Korey Lee went 2-for-4 in his first AFL game at third base.

No. 7 Rangers prospect Ezequiel Duran went 3-for-5 with a triple and a double as the Surprise leadoff hitter in the loss. It was his third straight multihit game as he improved to 8-for-18 (.444) on the young season.