St. Louis Cardinals’ System Receives Validation with MLB Pipeline Rankings

Sep 29, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes (61) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Alex Reyes (61) pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during the fifth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Obviously, any prospect ranking is totally subjective, but MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list for this season is a good sign that the Cardinals’ system is respected around the league.

Major League Baseball’s in-house prospect evaluation department, MLB Pipeline, released its annual preseason Top 100 prospects list on Saturday night, and in a bit of a surprise, four St. Louis Cardinals prospects made the cut. It was a given that rising star Alex Reyes would be included on the list, though it was a nice cherry on top that Reyes was the top-ranked pitcher on the list at sixth overall.

The more surprising rankings came outside of the Top 10. Catcher Carson Kelly–who ranked 11th in the Cardinals’ system, sixth on Pipeline’s Top 10 catcher list, and wasn’t included in the collective Top 100 at the conclusion of the 2016 season–skyrocketed up the list, coming in at 39th after being named as Pipeline’s top catching prospect earlier in the week.

That’s a major surge in value for the the 22-year-old catcher, who hit .289/.343/.395 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016 and then came up and showed strong composure behind the plate during a big-league cameo in September. He proceeded to thrive in the Arizona Fall League during October and November, and he established himself as the clear leader in the clubhouse to be Yadier Molina‘s heir apparent–a major accomplishment considering that the Cardinals went into 2016 without any real idea of who would eventually take over for their 34-year-old catcher.

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While it’s his second year on the Top 100 list, it was almost equally impressive to see starter Luke Weaver make such a strong jump up the list, ascending from 81st on the final 2016 list to 68th on the first 2017 edition. Weaver isn’t exactly a prototypical starting pitching prospect; he’s a modest 6-foot-2 and listed at a seemingly generous 170 pounds. He averaged 91.9 MPH on his fastball as a major-leaguer in 2016, and he doesn’t have nearly the same explosiveness on his heater that Reyes or other Cardinals prospect like Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara do.

With that said, Weaver’s got major poise, which allowed him to speed to the majors, making his big-league debut on August 13 after making his first-ever appearance in the upper minors on June 5, 2015. He exercised superior control in the minors last year, striking out 192 batters while walking just 35 in 197 2/3 innings, and even as he encountered the natural jitters that come with a burgeoning MLB career, he struck out 45 and walked just 12 in 36 1/3 major-league innings. Seeing as he experienced obvious burnout during September and should naturally develop more confidence as he spends time in the majors, it’s safe to assume that Weaver will be able to survive as a control specialist at the big-league level.

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With shortstop Delvin Perez, the Cardinals’ 2016 first-rounder, ranked at 91st and a few more guys like Alcantara and Fernandez seemingly right on the cusp of cracking the list, it’s clear that the Cardinals’ system is recovering nicely after dealing with a couple years of emptiness at its upper levels. Reyes is likely to crack the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster this year, but Weaver and Kelly will probably shift back and forth between Triple-A and the majors as the season goes on. The Cardinals could begin 2017 with as many as eight or nine of their most highly-regarded prospects in the upper minors, which is a stark contrast from how things have gone the past two seasons.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the Cardinals’ presence on lists like this is their indication that people in the know respect the Cards’ farm system. If independent prospect evaluators are high on the organization’s prospects, that probably means that a decent number of front office personnel are intrigued by those players as well.

Of course, that won’t be of any relevance if the Cardinals continue to avoid trading top prospects as they have ever since trading Rob Kaminsky for Brandon Moss in July of 2015. It was curious to see how frequently the Cardinals were connected to possible trade targets–including Charlie Blackmon, Adam Eaton, Jarrod Dyson, and Brian Dozier, among others–this offseason without actually making any trades that brought back proven major-league talent.

At the very least, though, the Cardinals will have a much better stash of depth in the coming years than they had during 2015 and 2016. While they’ve got a young core with guys like Carlos Martinez, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, and Kolten Wong, they’ll be more comfortable relying on prospects such as Weaver, Kelly, Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, and Austin Gomber if necessary over the next year.

Next: Baseball America Announces Top Cardinals Prospects

Trade chips are great, but superior organizational depth is arguably better with as many players as MLB teams tend to run through these days. However the Cardinals decide to utilize their surplus of talent, their recovering system is an increasingly strong asset.