Pitching depth is returning to the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system.
Each level boasts at least one bona fide major league prospect, something the Redbirds could not say even two years ago. But excellent drafts and international signings have put the Cards in a position to replenish the major league rotation in the years to come.
Alex Reyes is at the top of the list as the Cardinals’ number one prospect. The 23-year-old has enormous potential and the Cards do not want to rush him to the big leagues. He has 72 strikeouts in just 52 innings, but also has 26 walks, a factor the Cards want to eliminate before exposing him to the glare of the national spotlight. He performed very well in the Futures Game leading up to the All-Star game, but a closer look reveals he has a ways to go. While his mid-upper 90s fastball is highly rated, his off-speed pitches lag behind. Although he has thrown a jelly legs curveball on occasion, consistency has been an issue. His change-up still needs refining and control issues have ballooned his ERA at Memphis to over 5. He is 2-2 but with only 52 innings of work, it is doubtful he could contribute much this season.
Jack Flaherty, number two on the prospect list, will not a major league debut for several years, but has what scouts are calling an enormous upside. Flaherty’s change-up is his best pitch and his fastball velocity is improving as he matures physically. His record does not show his potential (2-7 at Palm Beach, high Class A) but his ERA is respectable at 3.89 and so are his 86 strikeouts in 90 innings. But he has also yielded 97 hits, meaning he doesn’t always fool hitters. He is projected as a potential middle of the rotation starter, but not before 2019.
Luke Weaver is the third-rated prospect, and at 22-years-old, appears to be moving into consideration for promotion. The Florida State product was a first round pick in the 2014 draft, a gift, according to some scouts. He fell from a projected early-to-mid first round pick because his fastball velocity fell off during his last year of collegiate ball. That velocity has returned and he routinely clocks at 94-96 mph with an out-of-your-shoes changeup that sinks. Projected as a potential number three starter, Weaver is 4-3 with a 1.31 ERA. Most encouraging is the fact that he has walked only 8 in 55 innings while striking out 65.
Jake Woodford is rated the 11th best prospect and at just 19, it is hard to calculate a ceiling for a guy 6-4 who is throwing in the low 90s. A competitive balance pick taken 39th, Woodford is working on developing four pitches with mixed results. Scouts say he has a ways to go, particularly with his off-speed pitches, but is starting to get a lot of ground ball outs. He is 4-4 at Peoria (low Class A) with a 2.83 ERA in 15 games.
Junior Fernandez is ranked #14, but scouts say he the most potential of anyone in the Redbird minor leagues, save Reyes. Just 19, he went the same route as Reyes, attending high school in the United State and moving to the Dominican Republic to avoid the baseball draft. His fastball is rated just as highly as Reyes’ but he does not yet have the control needed to advance. Tickling 100 mph on occasion, he has a decent slider that is still developing. If he is able to learn control and command an off-speed pitch, he may develop as a starter. But right now, he looks more like a reliever. He is 6-7 in time split between Peoria and Palm Beach with a 4.21 ERA. He has 72 punch-outs in 92 innings but also 42 walks.