ST. LOUIS • These past few weeks have been some buzzy, heady times for many of the cities in the National League Central. The Brewers gave Milwaukee’s annual “On Deck” winter warm-up some added carbonation with the addition of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Pittsburgh cracked the finalist list for Google, Cincinnati rated as one of the top places to visit in 2018 according to the New York Times, and Chicago remained Chicago.
In St. Louis, it was too cloudy where I live to see the Super Blue Blood Moon.
Can’t hide from the chill in the air.
But there are bright spots on the horizon.
Or so the annual flood of organization rankings reveal. Back from a short holiday abroad – saw some soccer, visited some pubs, got to show my son where I studied abroad many years ago – and ramping up toward Jupiter Landing next week, it’s noteworthy how the temperature remains tepid on Twitter and in my inbox for the Cardinals as they move toward warmer weather.
The Cardinals will say they haven’t played a game yet. The Cardinals will say they remain opportunistic for a move that will jolt the roster, and the market has complied with available pitchers to do so. (“There will always be pitching available,” said one Cardinals exec years ago.)
The Cardinals will also say that while they leave the offseason with less certainty than imagined, they have maintained a hold on most of their young talent.
The rankings agree.
The Cardinals, despite not having a pick in the top 100 of this past year’s draft (see: Astros, Houston – hacking scandal), moved up in ESPN’s ranking by Keith Law and slipped down one spot in Baseball America’s. In each case, they have the third-best organizational talent in the division, behind Cincinnati and Milwaukee:
(Last year’s rank in parentheses)
9. Cincinnati Reds (13)
11. Milwaukee Brewers (8)
13. Cardinals (12)
16. Pittsburgh Pirates (7)
28. Chicago Cubs (16)
6. Reds (8)
8. Brewers (6)
12. Cardinals (13)
15. Pirates (4)
25. Cubs (18)
Baseball America’s org rankings, which came out this week, were updated after Milwaukee sent two of its top prospects to Miami in the four-player package that landed Yelich. Before that trade, BA had the Brewers as a Top 10 organization, and really that Nos. 8-13 range could be a pick ‘em based on preference. An evaluator that weighs depth heavily might side with the Cardinals higher; an evaluator like Law who suggests that he’d “rather have potential stars” might nudge the Cardinals down a bit.
The org rankings dovetail with BA’s Top 100 Prospects. When that list was released, the only team with more Top 100 prospects than Milwaukee was the No. 1 overall organization, Atlanta.
The Braves had eight.
The Brewers had six:
18. Lewis Brinson, OF
47. Keston Hiura, 2B
61. Brandon Woodruff, RHP
74. Corbin Burnes, RHP
75. Monte Harrison, OF
80. Brett Phillips, OF
To get Yelich, the Brewers moved Brinson (No. 16) and Harrison (No. 75). That leaves them with four Top 100 prospects, tied with the Cardinals and one behind the Reds.
7. Nick Senzel, 3B
29. Hunter Greene, RHP
48. Taylor Trammell, OF
90. Tyler Mahle, RHP
98. Jesse Winker, OF
17. Alex Reyes, RHP
53. Jack Flaherty, RHP
55. Carson Kelly, C
86. Tyler O’Neill, OF
* The same five players ranked in MLB.com’s Top 100 with Reyes 18th, Flaherty 38th, Kelly 46th, and O’Neill 94th.
The Cardinals would have had a fifth player in the Top 100 had they not traded Sandy Alcantara, who ranked 70th on the Top 100. There’s an argument to be made that Jordan Hicks should be ranked in the Top 100, and he’s rising in that direction. Could be a swift-climber by 2019 – in the system, in the rankings, in importance. All of it. The Pirates have two Top 100 prospects (Mitch Keller, RHP, and Austin Meadows, OF) and the Cubs are one of two teams without a single Top 100 prospect. Kansas City is the other.
Arguably, the Cubs would have had two ranked in the top six had they not traded Gleybar Torres (No. 6) for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Eloy Jimenez (No. 4) to Jose Quintana this past year.
That verb keeps coming up.
The Brewers traded two Top 100 prospects for five years of Yelich and, with a dash of Cain, one of the best outfields in the game. The Cubs traded two top 10 prospects in the past two years for top-shelf pitchers their organization could not provide. The Pirates traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen in recent weeks and did not get a Top 100 prospect in return. The Cardinals traded Alcantara to Miami as the centerpiece of a four-player purse for Marcell Ozuna. They then did the kind of trade that has become more commonplace.
They flipped players who are entering their money-making arb/contract years for a needed reliever (Dominic Leone) and more … prospect depth. Conner Greene was the Blue Jays’ No. 5 prospect entering the 2017 season. The Cardinals added to their depth of prospects by acquiring him with Leone from Toronto for Randal Grichuk. Just as they did for the middle infield minor-league depth with the players they got from Oakland for Stephen Piscotty. And scroll back a bit and check out how the Cardinals flipped lefty Marco Gonzales to Seattle for O’Neill, the Mariners’ No. 2 prospect entering 2017 and now one of the Cardinals’ representatives in the Top 100.
The Cardinals have turned depth or redundancy at the major-league level into prospects to fortify their organization as one of the deepest.
They’ve stocked their bunker for the future.
Baseball Prospectus 2018 thuds onto shelves next week, and this year they asked me to write the essay previewing the 2018 season. Intrigued by the tank-to-title culture baseball has developed, I grabbed a few colored pens and a yellow legal pad and took a deep dive into the draft. From 2000-2017, when the Cardinals had a pick in the top 30, they averaged 22.1 No other team in the National League was lower than 18.3. The Cubs averaged 10.0, the Brewers 11.2, the Pirates 9.4 and the Reds 12.8. The gap between the Cardinals and the next closest division rival when it comes to first-round picks is a third of the round ahead. A third. Given the odds of finding a major-leaguer shrink greatly in a gap that big and the WAR expected from the 22nd pick vs. 10th overall pick is significant you can see why the Cardinals, to maintain their prized prospects and system, have to provide through other channels. That has included the international market.
Not one of the Cardinals’ first-round picks from 2015 to 2017 ranked in the team’s Top 10 prospects for the coming season, per Baseball America.
A dozen of last year’s Top 30 were from international markets.
The trades the Cardinals have made, especially in the past six months, have fed the system, have kept it sturdy and deep and well-regarded and, we can see, highly ranked. The Cardinals have not hid how ownership wants a high organizational ranking, and their ability to win reach the postseason several years ago while maintaining a high ranking. They were No. 1 in 2013, the same year they won the NL pennant. They have not been lower than No. 15 since. And they’ve been able to hold that ground while not getting prospect-level production from their top picks and not picking all that high. These trades show how they’re doing it.
It’s like crop rotation.
O’Neill moves into Grichuk’s spot.
Greene and his 100-mph fastball replaces Alcantara and the 100-mph fastball he took with him. Diaz moves on for a lower-level outfielder, just as Piscotty goes to Oakland for a shortstop who could be a utility factor this season.
And so on.
They have replenished the system.
At some point that system has to provide for the majors, not just tickle the rankings.
The oncoming wave, based on those rankings, is strong, and it is closer to the majors now than it was when the Cardinals were ranked higher, like No. 7 in 2014. Close. Bright. Big in numbers. Maybe it they do have that Super Blue Blood Moon on the horizon, just ahead in the Cardinals’ future. It could be there. It’s just like this morning – the present is cloudier than forecasted.
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