Stacked '20 Draft paying dividends for Cardinals

March 23rd, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- There never has been a more difficult Draft than the 2020 edition. The pandemic not only severely limited looks at players, but it also led to a reduction from 40 rounds to five.

In that context, what the Cardinals accomplished looks remarkable. Their first four picks have become four of their five best prospects, all ranked on MLB Pipeline's Top 100: outfielder Jordan Walker (first round), shortstop Masyn Winn (second), right-hander Tink Hence (supplemental second) and outfielder Alec Burleson (supplemental second). Burleson already made his big league debut in September, and Walker is on the verge of doing the same after becoming the talk of the Arizona Fall League last offseason and the Grapefruit League this spring.

Walker came with high expectations as the 21st overall pick and has exceeded them. That he has grown into a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder with massive power is no surprise, but he's a much more advanced hitter than expected. He lets his pop come naturally, has batted .310/.388/.525 in two pro seasons despite being younger than most of his opponents, and he excelled in Double-A last year at age 20.

Drafted as a third baseman, Walker wasn't going to dislodge Nolan Arenado from the hot corner in St. Louis. He began making what has been an easy transition to the outfield corners last August and uncorked a 99.5-mph throw in the AFL. Walker is pushing for a spot in the Opening Day lineup by batting .295/.306/.525 with a team-best eight extra-base hits as a non-roster invitee in big league camp.

"Jordan has been absolutely tremendous," assistant GM and farm director Gary LaRocque said. "When he goes out and plays the game at any level, right away he catches up to the level of the league and quickly rises above it. With his maturity and understanding of the game, he has confidence. He's just ahead every step of the way, he focuses on being a hitter first and he has the wonderful quality to be able to make in-game adjustments."

Though Winn was a legitimate two-way star with the potential for three plus pitches in high school, the Cardinals made him a full-time shortstop. He's a decent hitter with a bit of power, but he stands out most with his well-above-average speed, top-of-the-scale arm and quality defense. He also handled Double-A and the AFL well at age 20 before impressing this spring by batting .298/.358/.511 with a team-high three steals in Grapefruit League action.

"Masyn has made a very big impression this spring," LaRocque said. "He's maturing offensively and really settling in defensively. He does things with great intent and continues to learn when and how to slow the game down. He wants to impact the game."

St. Louis hasn't truly turned Hence loose yet after making him the highest-drafted Arkansas prepster in 15 years when it selected him 63rd overall. He packed just 175 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame when he turned pro, so he has focused on adding strength while working just 60 1/3 innings in his first two seasons.

Hence dominated in 2022, logging a 1.38 ERA, a .174 opponent average and an 81/15 K/BB ratio in 52 1/3 frames in Single-A. He has an explosive mid-90s fastball that reaches 99 mph and an at-times devastating curveball, while both his slider and changeup can be solid offerings as well.

The lone collegian in the bunch, Burleson was a two-way star at East Carolina before becoming solely an outfielder as a pro. He hit .331/.372/.532 to win the Triple-A International League batting title last year, making consistent contact with a smooth left-handed swing and advanced feel for the barrel. He's not a slugger, but his hitting ability and strength have translated into 42 homers in two pro seasons.

Camp standout: Matthew Liberatore

In addition to Walker and Winn, Liberatore also has performed well in big league camp. The 16th overall pick in the 2018 Draft by the Rays, the left-hander came to the Cardinals two years later as part of the Randy Arozarena trade. He got knocked around for a 5.17 ERA when he repeated Triple-A in '22 and fared worse with a 5.97 ERA in his big league debut.

Liberatore is known for a plus mid-70s curveball that works against both lefties and righties, but none of his other three pitches graded as better than average last season, and he ran into trouble with his fastball command. He worked with more velocity and assertiveness this spring, allowing just three runs (two earned) while striking out nine and walking only one in 10 Grapefruit League innings.

"Matthew is still just 23 years old," LaRocque said. "He's still young and he's getting there. His combination of his curveball and slider is effective, and he's always had that gift of two quality breaking balls. He's still learning how to use them in the right situations, and I think his fastball command will be better if he gets in more pitcher's counts. He clearly has an out pitch."

Breakout potential: Jonathan Mejia

The top prospect in St. Louis' 2022 international class, Mejia signed for $2 million out of the Dominican Republic. A switch-hitting shortstop with plenty of bat speed, he batted .267/.418/.479 during his introduction to pro ball in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. He has the tools to hit for average and power, while his defense is more a work in progress as he prepares to make his U.S. debut.

"Jonathan is a young man who has made an impression in Minor League camp," LaRocque said. "Right up front, you notice the bat. He has a lot of real good qualities and now we want to make sure he understand the importance of working on his defensive game."

Something to prove: Guillermo Zuñiga

Zuñiga's fastball made him a coveted commodity when he hit the Minor League free-agent market this offseason, and the Cardinals enticed him to sign with a big league contract. The right-hander raised his profile by hitting 102 mph with his heater while pitching for Colombia at the World Baseball Classic.

Zuñiga can work at 96-99 mph and back up his fastball with a promising an upper-80s slider, but he needs to deliver more consistent results. Pitching at Double-A in the Dodgers' system last year, he got tagged for a 4.77 ERA and 12 homers while fanning 66 in 54 2/3 innings. Lefties raked against him at a .282/.380/.682 clip, and he'll have to figure out how to solve them in order to earn a bullpen role in the Majors.