Wheeler’s Top 20 Cardinals Prospects for 2018

I’m a prospects nerd. Have been for a really, really long time.

In fact, I’m such a prospects nerd that I used to spend a lot of time writing scouting reports and ranking prospects for The Sporting News and for a company called Diamond Library. In my 20’s and 30’s these projects took up a ridiculous percentage of my free time both in-season and in the offseason.

I don’t cover the minor leagues like I used to but I still follow it closely all across the whole sport. Some of it has to do with my fantasy baseball obsession, some of it is that I just love the game. When it comes to the Cardinals system, however, this is about my job here at 101 ESPN.

For me to cover the Cardinals properly I think it’s important that I follow every aspect of the team, from the Major League roster and coaching staff to the team’s finances and all the way down to the lowest levels of the minor leagues . I spend a lot of time reading reports from outlets like, Baseball America and I also watch a lot of video, which is readily available these days, to make sure I’ve got more to work off of than just stats and other people’s opinions. Don’t get me wrong, those things are incredibly important – statistical information and the expert opinions of people I respect absolutely matter – but I also want to make sure that I have an opinion of my own as well.

So today I present my Top 20 Cardinals prospects for 2018. It is loaded with both facts and opinions…I don’t see everything the same way other people do, so take it for what it’s worth. I’m not trying to say anyone else is wrong, I’m just adding my $0.02 to the discussion.

(Note: best cast and worst case scenarios presented are estimates about the player’s long-term career, not the 2018 season)

1. Alex Reyes, RHP

When it comes to Reyes feel free to believe the hype. He’s the real deal, a potential #1 starter. Prior to having Tommy John surgery he was rated by many as the top right handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. In my opinion his ceiling is higher than that of Carlos Martinez and he’s been one of the 10-12 best starting pitchers in the NL over the past three seasons. Once fully healthy he’ll be a force.

He throws in the mid-to-upper 90’s and touches 100 MPH with regularity, his change up is excellent and his curve has a chance to be excellent as well. That elite arm speed makes both offspeed pitches incredibly difficult for hitters. Command is the key for Reyes – if it’s even average in the coming years he’ll be a top of the rotation starter.

Best case: No. 1 starter, multiple All-Star appearances

Worst case: Closer, late inning strikeout man

2018: Big impact for the Cardinals staff either as a starter or a power reliever once he’s back in May.

2. Carson Kelly, C

I had Kelly No. 2 in the Cards system last year and he did nothing to hurt his ranking. He hit really well at Memphis (.834 OPS, 10 HR, 41 RBI in 68 games) and continued to show that he’s going to be a quality defender while at Triple-A. He spent a lot of time in St. Louis but barely played so I’m not going to hold it against him that he didn’t hit much in the big leagues. Molina took all the playing time, Kelly was an afterthought.

For the record, I’m not a fan of having Kelly work as the Major League backup this year. At least not in the first half of the season. Prospects need to play to improve (or even maintain) their skills and there will be no real playing time in St. Louis so long as Molina is healthy. Eventually he could wind up being in the top half of the league both offensively and defensively at the catcher position but that’s not going to happen for at least three more years. It might make more sense to trade him, should the need arise, and look to a couple of younger catchers in the system as potential replacements for Molina when his contract is up in three years.

Best case: Top 10 defensive catcher in MLB with above average offensive numbers

Worst case: Quality Major League backup with some power

2018: Backup catcher for the Cardinals

3. Jack Flaherty, RHP

Flaherty had slipped in the eyes of many evaluators coming into 2017 but he regained his footing and then some with a strong season. He went 14-4 with a 2.18 ERA combined at Double-A and Triple-A while averaging about 9 K/9. His command was impeccable and he earned a promotion to the big leagues late in the season. He doesn’t have the ceiling of Alex Reyes but I’m willing to say with great certainty that he will absolutely be a Major League starting pitcher for a long time. The only question to me is whether he’s a 2-3 type starter or a 4-5.

His fastball picked up a little in 2017 and that’s a good sign. He also has an outstanding slider, one that was among the best in MLB during the month of September despite his lack of significant big league success. Flaherty threw 170 total innings last year so he’s ready for a full-time starter’s workload and that’s a big deal given the questions in the rotation ahead of him. There should be no limits on him this year.

Best case: No. 2 starter, occasional All-Star

Worst case: No. 5 starter, innings eater

2018: Should be the Cardinals “6th” starter, opening the season at Memphis but ready to contribute when the need arises.

4. Tyler O’Neill, OF

Power. That’s the one word that best summarizes what O’Neill brings to the table. Oh, he’s got other tools that work but his calling card is big-time HR power. He hit 31 HR at Triple-A last year (mostly with Tacoma before being acquired by the Cardinals from the Mariners) and that’s just the beginning of the tale. He also hit 24 HR in 2016 and 32 HR in 2015. That’s 87 HR the last three years and keep in mind that the minor league season is a full month shorter than a Major League season. Like I said, power. Many prospect evaluators believe he could hit 30 HR in the Majors this year if he got enough AB.

He’s a good athlete and a capable defender, so that’s good, though I’m not as sure he’s as good an option in CF as some suggest. I think he’s a RF. O’Neill can also draw a walk, which is something that differentiates him from now-former Cardinal Randal Grichuk. If he’s a Grichuk who can draw 50-60 walks he’d be able to avoid some of the streakiness that has plagued Grichuk and make him a Major League regular at some point. Don’t expect batting titles but do expect a solid all-around game and that power.

Best case: No. 4-5 hitter, occasional All-Star

Worst case: 4th OF that brings serious power off the bench

2018: Will compete for a reserve OF spot in Spring Training, likely a middle of the order hitter at Memphis until needed in St. Louis.

5. Delvin Perez, SS

A lot of other evaluators are falling out of love with Perez because he really struggled with the bat last year in rookie ball but I’m staying on the bandwagon. His defensive tools at SS are legit so even if he’s not going to be a big threat with the bat he’s probably going to be a Major League regular because of the glove. He just turned 19 in November so I’m willing to wait on the bat to come. He has a skill set at a premium position that the Cardinals don’t have in anyone else.

He’ll have to start hitting a bit and getting on base to put his excellent speed to use, no doubt, and I think some over-the-fence power will come. My friend Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch has reported that Perez has been hanging around Yadier Molina quite a bit down in Florida this offseason and I think that’s a very good sign. We’re probably still going to have to wait another 2-4 years before he’s knocking on the door to the big leagues but he could really be worth the wait.

Best case: High-end defensive shortstop who hits at the top of the lineup

Worst case: A glove-first defensive shortstop who ends up working as a utility man

2018: I have no clue. If he can do some positive things in full-season ball that would be excellent.

6. Jordan Hicks, RHP

Hicks has a chance to be a fast-riser this season, possibly playing at three levels. He’s a really good athlete with a big, big arm. Reports indicate he reaches the upper 90’s with his fastball and that he has a potential out-pitch in his curve. Like most young starters he needs to refine his command and improve a third pitch (a change in his case). If that third pitch and the command come along, he’s a starter. If not he’s a back of the bullpen guy.

He finished strong at High-A last year so he could make the leap to Double-A to start this season…and if that’s the case I wouldn’t be at all shocked if he arrived in St. Louis sometime this Summer, most likely to work out of the bullpen. He only threw 105 innings last year so I wouldn’t expect him to reach more than 130-140 total innings this year and working out of the bullpen at some point could help reign those innings in.

Best case: No. 2-3 starter

Worst case: Back of the bullpen power arm

2018: Barring injury I’d expect him to reach Triple-A at some point this season, possibly even the Majors.

7. Jose Adolis Garcia, OF

This guy has a ton of physical tools. Heck, he looks like he could play safety in the NFL. Garcia signed with the Cardinals last Spring after defecting from Cuba and in his first season playing in the U.S. he put up some really nice numbers at the highest levels of the minors. A lot of guys who make the cultural transition that Garcia did struggle initially but he was excellent, posting an .817 OPS to go with 34 doubles, 15 HR and 15 SB combined between Double-A and Triple-A.

Garcia could be a “helium player” in 2018, one that starts to get a lot of attention from prospects people around MLB. A strong Spring Training performance could land him the 4th OF spot with the Cardinals, though I don’t expect that to happen. He can definitely handle CF and has the power bat that would eventually play in a corner OF spot as well.

Best case: Starting OF in the Majors, top of the order bat

Worst case: 4th-5th OF in the Majors

2018: I think he’ll spend most of the season at Memphis but I do expect to see him in St. Louis at some point.

8. Harrison Bader, OF

It may seem strange that I have Bader behind Garcia and I acknowledge that I could very well be wrong for doing that. I just think Garcia has more upside. Bader is a heck of a player but I think he’s darn near a Grichuk clone and I think the high strikeout, low walk profile is a problem. Garcia has that same profile but I’m giving him a little benefit of the doubt compared to Bader because of his defection.

Bader has power, he runs well and is comfortable in all three OF spots. That’s great…and I think he’s going to be a good player for the Cardinals in 2018. I’m just not sure he’s an everyday player in the Majors. There is disagreement over this in the scouting world and I’ll be happy if I’m wrong because I like how Bader plays. He’s easy to root for.

Best case: Starting OF in the Majors, top of the order bat

Worst case: 4th-5th OF in the Majors

2018: Would surprise me if he’s not the Cardinals 4th OF on Opening Day, injuries could lead to him getting regular playing time at some point.

9. Ryan Helsley, RHP

Helsley climbed three levels in 2017, eventually getting a start at Memphis late in the season, and he could be someone that impacts the Cardinals in 2018. There are plenty of people who compared him to Trevor Rosenthal – a lot of effort in his delivery, similar frame, high 90’s heat – and if that’s accurate that would be great for the Cardinals.

His long-term role is probably undecided at this point but if he’s going to help the Cardinals at the Major League level in 2018 it’ll be as a reliever.

Best case: No. 3-4 starter or closer in the Majors

Worst case: Long or middle reliever in the Majors

2018: Could be an in-season injection of velocity for the Cardinals bullpen

10. Austin Gomber, LHP

I’m struck by how overlooked Gomber is in the prospect world. I know he’s not the kind of high-octane velocity guy that people like but he’s a 6’5″ lefty who has posted a 3.10 ERA in 30 Double-A starts while averaging nearly a strikeout per inning. He’s a three-pitch guy who is just a step away from the Majors. Has a really nice curve ball. Seems like he should be getting more love than he does.

There’s a chance he could be in the mix for the Cardinals at some point during the 2018 season but it’s hard to say right now whether that would be as a starter or as late-season relief help when rosters expand.

Best case: #4 starter in the Majors

Worst case: Left handed reliever in the Majors

2018: Starting at Memphis, waiting for a call

11. Dakota Hudson, RHP

I know, I know…this seems too low. Other prospect evaluators will have him much higher than this and they may well be right but there are things about Hudson that worry me. His fastball reaches the upper 90’s with movement and he has a plus slider…but he doesn’t miss many bats. That’s weird. He makes up for that by getting a ton of ground balls but the Major League game for pitchers right now is about missing bats. A high draft pick with his stuff seems like he’d get more than 96 strikeouts in 152 2/3 innings of work.

I admit I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am because he could help this year.

Best case: No. 3-4 starter in the Majors

Worst case: Middle reliever in the Majors

2018: If he doesn’t win a bullpen job at the Major League level, which seems unlikely given the roster make up, he’ll be in the rotation at Memphis.

12. Oscar Mercado, OF

He had a breakout season at Double-A in 2017 and finally started to hit after moving from SS to CF. He’s got some pop, including a little HR power, and he’s got really good speed (38 SB last year). If he hits for a high average as he continues moving toward the Majors his on base percentage might be workable. Has to prove that last year was real but at the very least he’s likely just a phone call away from the Majors this year.

Best case: Starting OF in the Majors

Worst case: Triple-A OF who has trouble when facing MLB pitching

2018: Playing regularly at Memphis, seems like a long shot for MLB time with OF depth around him.

13. Andrew Knizner, C

The next catching prospect in line behind Kelly. Isn’t quite the defender Kelly is, though he’s reportedly solid behind the plate, but he can hit. Hit .302 overall on the season last year (combined between Low-A and Double-A) while showing a bit of power and a good overall approach. Walked a bit, didn’t strike out a whole lot. Definitely a guy to watch.

Best case: Starting catcher in the Majors

Worst case: Offensive minded backup catcher in the Majors

2018: Would be a surprise if he made it to the Majors this year.

14. Junior Fernandez, RHP

His minor league numbers are okay but they’re not spectacular. His fastball touches 100 MPH and he’s still really young, turns 21 in March and appears headed to Double-A, so there’s a chance he could make a big leap. Needs something to keep hitters off the fastball at this point. An interesting guy to keep an eye on.

Best case: Starting pitcher or late inning reliever in the Majors

Worst case: Gets stuck in the upper levels of the minors if his secondary pitches don’t come along

2018: Gets tested in a tough hitters league (Texas League) starting off at Springfield.

15. Max Schrock, 2B

This dude can flat out hit. In 281 minor league games he’s a .324 hitter and he’s posted a .372 on-base percentage. At 5’8″ he’s not viewed as a power hitter but he does have extra base pop and can occasionally hit the ball out of the park. Played all of last season at Double-A so he’s not that far off. He is a true second baseman, probably isn’t suited to moving around to other IF spots.

Best case: Starting 2B in the Majors

Worst case: Utility player and nice left handed bat off the bench in the Majors

2018: Regular starter at Memphis

16. Randy Arozarena, 2B

Some might rank Arozarena ahead of Schrock but I like Schrock’s bat more. Arozarena, however, brings really good speed to the mix. Split last season between High-A and Double-A and showed some extra base pop to go along with a top-of-the-order approach. Also has OF experience.

Best case: Starting 2B in the Majors

Worst case: Speed guy at Triple-A who doesn’t hit enough to stick in the Majors

2018: Should spend the season at Double-A or Triple-A.

17. Conner Greene, RHP

His minor league numbers stunk last year because he has significant control problems but he brings 100 MPH heat so he’s a guy to watch. If he throws more strikes and his secondary stuff comes along he could be a big league starter but even if those things don’t happen you can bet he’ll get his shot in the Majors because of the heater.

Best case: Late inning reliever in the Majors

Worst case: Gets stuck in Triple-A because he doesn’t figure out how to throw strikes

2018: Should be at Memphis where the team will try to figure out what his long-term role will be.

18. Dylan Carlson, OF

He was the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft and I’m a big fan of this kid. He’s a 6’3″ switch hitter who currently plays CF and he’s got a really good idea about how to work a count and draw a walk. He played all last season as an 18 year-old in the Low-A Midwest League and I think he’s going to explode in either 2018 or 2019. At this point I’d be shocked if he wasn’t a Top 10 prospect in the Cards system by next Spring. Big athletes who can work a count typically develop power and I’m betting on Carlos to do that.

Best case: Middle of the order bat in the Majors

Worst case: Power never comes and he ends up a 4-A player or bench player in the Majors

2018: Figures to play at High-A this season though the Cardinals sometimes have high-end hitting prospects skip Palm Beach and jump to Double-A.

19. Alvaro Seijas, RHP

Seijas is the pitching version of Carlson…very young but accomplished for his age. Perhaps ready to take a big step. He’s a small right hander (5’8″) but has a mid 90’s fastball already and he’ll play the entire 2018 season as a 19 year-old. Lots of projection needed here but he’s interesting.

Best case: Major League starter

Worst case: Gets stuck in the minors if arm problems limit his upside

2018: Might get a crack at Low-A this season.

20. Jonathan Machado, OF

Think Mags Sierra. A small CF who can really hit for average and can flat out fly. Machado might be the fastest player in the Cardinals system. He’s really young (turned 19 in January) so he has a long way to go. If he develops some on-base skill or power to go with his contact skill and elite speed then he’ll be a Major Leaguer, maybe even the Cardinals future leadoff man.

Best case: CF and leadoff man

Worst case: Power and patience don’t come, gets stuck in the minors

2018: Hard to tell, could be Rookie Ball again or perhaps a shot at Low-A.

Others to keep an eye on:

21. Yairo Munoz, IF (Can hit a bit but may profile best as a utility man)
22. Jake Woodford, RHP (The next Jack Flaherty?)
23. Johan Ovideo, RHP (6’6″ starter who was touching mid 90’s as a teenager in 2017)
24. Victor Garcia, OF (Just 18 years-old and a long way off but reportedly has big power)
25. Edmundo Sosa, SS (Good glove man at SS, needs the bat to come along)
26. Connor Jones, RHP (Might be a power reliever if progress as SP stalls)
27. Nick Plummer, OF (2015 1st rounder trying to get healthy, has potential with the bat)
28. Rowan Wick, RHP (Former slugger, now big-armed reliever)
29. Zach Jackson, C (Catcher with power potential)
30. Derian Gonzalez, RHP (Sneaky arm to watch out for)

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