Last season marked a changing of the guard in the NL Central, which had been controlled by the St. Louis Cardinals for the past three seasons until they were unseated by the fully-rebuilt Cubs. Now it’s the Cardinals who find themselves looking up in the division, hoping to reclaim their former glory with an above-average farm system built through the club’s success on the international scouting front.
More than half the players on this list were signed from outside the United States, including three players from the club’s 2012 international class. The Cardinals’ most recent addition from abroad is Cuban-born Randy Arozarena, who signed with the organization this past summer and will make his U.S. debut next season.
Amateur scouting director Randy Flores oversaw his first draft in 2016 and came away with one of the better classes by most industry accounts. With the first of their three first-round picks, the Cardinals landed a consensus top-10 overall talent in Delvin Perez, who slid to No. 23 overall after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Five of their next 12 selections were college pitchers.
In compiling this list, I had an on-the-record discussion with Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development. I also relied on other industry resources as well as my own evaluations.
1. Alex Reyes, RHP
DOB: 08/29/94 Height/Weight: 6’ 3”/175 B/T: R/R Signed: 2012, Dominican Republic
Fastball: 70 Curveball: 70 Changeup: 60 Command: 45 Overall: 65
Reyes was born in New Jersey and moved to the Dominican Republic in high school, signing with the Cardinals in 2012 for $950,000 as an 18-year-old. He’s taken a quick path to the majors since then, going from full-season ball to his major league debut in the span of three years, which included a 50-game suspension for marijuana use that he served at the beginning of this year. He went straight to Triple-A Memphis when he returned, getting the call to St. Louis in August and pitching impressively across 12 appearances between the rotation and bullpen.
Equipped with special arm talent, workhorse dimensions, power stuff and the feel to harness it, Reyes has developed into the top pitching prospect in the game and put a gap between himself and the next-best guy. The 21-year-old righty has an upper-90s fastball that regularly breaks triple-digits, holding 95-97 mph deep into starts. His plus-plus power curveball is going to be one of the better finishing pitches in the majors, and he can also get empty swings with an upper-80s sinking changeup that stepped forward this year to the point where it’s a consistently above-average pitch for him.
Immense hips and thighs are the physical precursors of Reyes’ power repertoire and portend durability. The drawback of his profile is that he’s basically soft all over, and staying proportional will probably become a greater challenge as he gets older. Because he’s a big power pitcher, it’s easy to overlook his athleticism and rotational body control. The arm action is just decent and he throws across his body, but sheer size has a way of mitigating the negative impacts of delivery features that aren’t considered ideal.
The hurdle in the way of Reyes maximizing his stuff is control and command, which are made difficult by the severe movement of his secondaries but could be improved with more consistency in getting over his front side. His stuff is good enough to regularly get away with mistakes – even in the big leagues – and he’s proven he can dominate with just average control and below-average command, but another half grade in the latter department would put him on another level.
Reyes is perhaps the only pitching prospect in the game who has the ceiling of a true ace. Getting there hinges on solving a challenge that has followed him throughout his career, but even just the experience that comes with logging innings and figuring out how to attack major-league hitters is going to buoy the tools and should keep him at or near the top of a rotation.
2. Delvin Perez, SS
DOB: 11/24/98 Height/Weight: 6’ 3”/175 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2016, 1st Rd. – Int’l Baseball Academy (P.R.)
Hit: 50 Game Power: 45 Run: 60 Throw: 60 Field: 60 Overall: 55
The consensus top shortstop in the 2016 draft class and viewed by the industry as a top-10 overall talent, Perez slid to the 23rd overall pick after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He signed for a bonus north of $2 million and was sent to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he debuted with impressive results.
Perez has impact talent on both sides of the ball that could eventually make him one of the better shortstops in the game if the bat catches up to the glove. His first action step on offense will be refining a raw plate approach that’s overaggressive and predicated on hunting fastballs. There’s also a concern about his ability to track spin.
The physical aspect of hitting comes more naturally to Perez, who has athletic movements at the plate with plus bat speed, but the swing comes with a pull orientation and some extra length when he’s trying to punish something he likes. LaRocque says that instructs helped prepare Perez for the offseason strength training program, so his wiry frame could start looking bigger as soon as next year. At maturity, there could be enough pop here for 12-15 home runs with more swing functionality and pitch selectivity.
Perez is a plus runner underway and a true shortstop who can make the flashy play with fast-twitch athleticism, an above-average arm and the instincts to match. There’s not anything standing in the way of him becoming at least an above-average defender at his position someday.
Patience is a requirement here, but Perez could pay off in a huge way as a potential five-tool shortstop with game-saving defense and a No. 2 hitter’s profile. Probably not quite ready for full-season ball, he could stay behind in extended spring training before heading off to Rookie-level Johnson City.
3. Magneuris Sierra, CF
DOB: 04/07/96 Height/Weight: 5’ 11”/160 B/T: L/L Signed: 2012, Dominican Republic
Hit: 55 Game Power: 40 Run: 60 Throw: 60 Field: 60 Overall: 55
After signing out of the Dominican Republic for $105,000, Sierra made his U.S. debut in 2014 and won the Gulf Coast League batting title. The Cardinals started him at low Class-A Peoria the following year, but he struggled there and was bumped down to Rookie-level Johnson City. When he returned to Peoria in 2016, he was prepared for the challenge and performed well as a 20-year-old.
Sierra is one of the best athletes in the system and has the potential to make an all-phases impact. He has present bat-to-ball ability but also a stiff lead arm in his left-handed swing, leading to some long cuts that are too big for his hit-first game. Even so, LaRocque notes that Sierra was able to reduce his in-zone misses this season while stepping forward with his approach.
Three plus defensive tools give Sierra the potential to be a difference-making center fielder in the bigs. He’s a fluid runner with easy range to the gaps and the wall, and he has a strong arm to boot.
Reaching the above-average regular projection here is contingent on the bat, but it looks like Sierra’s combination of pure hitting ability and speed could overshadow a low walk rate and warrant a place atop an order. He’s in line to spend 2017 at high Class-A Palm Beach.
4. Luke Weaver, RHP
DOB: 08/21/93 Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/170 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2014, 1st Round – Florida State
Fastball: 55 Curveball: 50 Changeup: 65 Command: 60 Overall: 55
Weaver’s stuff fell off a bit at the end of his draft year, though he still landed in the first round and has since zoomed through the pipeline. A broken wrist sidelined him until June this past season, but he dominated the Double-A Texas League upon his return and earned his big-league promotion in August after just 38 career minor-league starts.
As Cardinals pitching prospects have a way of doing, Weaver stands out for his changeup, a true swing-and-miss pitch with loose-armed deception and a late dive at the plate. The rest of his arsenal includes a pretty straight low-90s fastball that’s been up to 96 mph before, a cutter and an average curveball.
Normally the stuff is complemented by plus command, but he went backwards in that area during his first exposure to major-league hitters with an elevated walk rate and seven dingers allowed in his first nine appearances, learning hard lessons about how to challenge the best hitters he’s ever faced. Location is not going to be a problem for him down the road.
Weaver has the ceiling of a No. 3 starter and the floor of a long future in the rotation with his versatile pitch mix, feel to sequence and strike-throwing ability. He’s set to begin 2017 at Triple-A Memphis and should be the next man up should anyone in the big-league rotation falter or get injured.
5. Carson Kelly, C
DOB: 07/14/94 Height/Weight: 6’ 2”/220 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2012, 2nd Round – Westview HS (OR)
Hit: 45 Game Power: 50 Run: 30 Throw: 60 Field: 50 Overall: 50
Kelly’s bat got him drafted as a third baseman out of high school and netted him an overslot $1.6 million bonus as a second-rounder in 2012. He converted to catcher in 2014 and has since moved quickly, beginning this past season in Double-A and ending it in the big leagues.
Prior to last season, it was hard to imagine Kelly turning into more than a backup catcher because of his sluggish performance at the plate, but his recent offensive breakthrough has changed the outlook. His above-average raw power is now translating to games as he’s improved his plate approach and learned to make adjustments.
Kelly is bigger than the average backstop, but he’s got the athleticism, plus arm and receiving ability to be a quality defender. Despite his limited experience behind the plate, he earns praise from LaRocque for the way he manages the game.
Now that it looks like Kelly’s bat is going to pull through, he’s put himself in the conversation as one of the top-three catching prospects in the game and a worthy successor to Yadier Molina. If he doesn’t break camp with the big club this upcoming season, he’ll head back to Memphis to polish the rough edges of his defensive game.
6. Sandy Alcantara, RHP
DOB: 09/07/95 Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/170 B/T: R/R Signed: 2013, Dominican Republic
Fastball: 70 Curveball: 45 Changeup: 55 Command: 45 Overall: 50
Alcantara signed as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for $125,000 and made his U.S. debut in 2015. He moved up to full-season ball this past year and proved up to the challenge, maintaining a high K-rate with ground ball tendencies across two levels to finish at high Class-A Palm Beach.
A high-waisted, lithe righty, Alcantara brings the heat with a mid-to-upper-90s fastball that has peaked at 102 mph. Commanding it has proven to be a challenge and was thus his main focus area during instructs.
Alcantara’s changeup is his best secondary pitch, which gets paired with an inconsistent 11-to-5 curveball. A high back elbow is a noticeable wrinkle in his delivery, which is otherwise a starter’s motion that has some athleticism and deception on the front side.
Save Alex Reyes, Alcantara may have more upside than any other pitcher in the system, but he also comes with a bullpen floor if he can’t figure out a way to throw more strikes. The current bet is on the athleticism and the organization’s track record of developing starters. He’ll take on high Class-A in 2017.
7. Eliezer Alvarez, 2B
DOB: 10/15/94 Height/Weight: 5’ 11”/165 B/T: L/R Signed: 2011, Dominican Republic
Hit: 55 Game Power: 45 Run: 65 Throw: 50 Field: 55 Overall: 50
Alvarez signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2011 but spent the first four years of his pro career at Rookie levels, mostly on account of injuries. He finally made it to full-season ball this past season and the tools broke through in the low Class-A Midwest League as a 21-year-old, prompting the Cardinals to protect him on their 40-man roster.
A wiry infielder, Alvarez stands out for his potential as an offensive middle infielder. He has a whippy swing, combining surprising pop with exceptional speed to collect 36 doubles and finish second in the Midwest League behind only Eloy Jimenez while leading the circuit in stolen bases. A patient approach completes a top-of-the-order profile.
Alvarez played shortstop and third base earlier in his career but has been exclusively a second baseman since 2014. His athleticism enables above-average range for his position.
The offensive ceiling here can be argued as the highest in the system, with durability the biggest obstacle standing in the way of him becoming a dynamic leadoff hitter. Now that he’s on the 40-man, he could move quickly.
8. Harrison Bader, OF
DOB: 06/03/94 Height/Weight: 6’ 0”/195 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2015, 3rd Round – Florida
Hit: 55 Game Power: 50 Run: 55 Throw: 50 Field: 50 Overall: 50
One of nine Florida Gators drafted in 2015, Bader compiled a three-year track record of performance and landed in the third round. Since then, he’s ridden a jetstream through the system, earning a promotion to Triple-A Memphis midway through this past season and finishing the year with a strong Arizona Fall League campaign.
Bader is a five-tool player in a minimized sense of the designation since none of the tools are plus. He looks like a safety and plays with strength and aggression, which carries over to an effortful swing with a powerful leg drive that nearly brings his back knee to the dirt.
LaRocque credits Bader for refining his strike-zone judgment throughout the season. The action steps for him moving forward will be continued gains in that area as well as solving the problems that righties at upper levels have given him.
Everything Bader does in the outfield is in the neighborhood of average. The Cardinals have understandably played him in center field the most, and though it’s not a long-term position for him, he can hold down the fort in a pinch.
Bader is basically the definition of an average big-league outfielder. If he turns out to be something less, it will probably because he hit a wall with his ambitious approach. He’ll return to Memphis to begin next season, though his path forward is uncertain with none of the Cardinals’ projected starting outfielders scheduled to hit free agency until 2021.
9. Dakota Hudson, RHP
DOB: 09/15/94 Height/Weight: 6’ 5”/215 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2016, 1st Round – Mississippi State
Fastball: 60 Slider: 60 Changeup: 50 Command: 50 Overall: 50
Mostly a reliever during his first two years at Mississippi State, Hudson transitioned to the rotation in his draft year, emerging as a potential first-round pick after an eye-opening summer in the Cape Cod League. The fatigue of a long season set in toward the end of his junior season and caused his stuff to flag before the draft, though he still landed inside the first round at No. 34 overall. The Cardinals limited him to 13.1 innings in his debut as he finished the year at high Class-A Palm Beach.
Hudson checks off boxes with size, plus velocity and a four-pitch mix. He runs his sinking mid-90s fastball up to 97 mph, pairing it with an upper-80s slider/cutter that he can challenge hitters with or sneak through the back door. His changeup should be good enough to occasionally solve lefties at upper levels.
Some scouts express concern about Hudson’s delivery holding up in a rotation with some effort through his shoulder at release. The Cardinals think otherwise, and they’ll continue developing him as a starter until he proves he’s not one.
10. Randy Arozarena, UTIL
DOB: 02/28/95 Height/Weight: 5’ 11”/170 B/T: R/R Signed: 2016, Cuba
Hit: 50 Game Power: 40 Run: 60 Throw: 50 Field: 50 Overall: 45
Arozarena impressed as an 18-year-old in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, then defected from his home country in the summer of 2015 before being declared a free agent by Major League Baseball last January. The Cardinals signed him last July for a $1.25 million bonus.
A live athlete, Arozarena has on-base skills and the defensive tools to play somewhere up the middle. It’s a loose, right-handed swing with the ability to go with pitches the other way and a shot at fringe game power. The approach is at least sufficient if it’s not a strength.
Arozarena has played a combination of center field, second base, third base and shortstop to this point in his career but hasn’t established himself anywhere. The first two are the likeliest long-term positions for him, though his plus speed and average arm strength give the Cardinals room to experiment with him as a super-utility player.
Arozarena’s overall grade depends on how far he slides up the defensive spectrum, but the bat might turn out good enough to warrant a regular role wherever he winds up. He’ll make his U.S. debut next season.
11. Junior Fernandez, RHP
DOB: 03/02/97 Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/180 B/T: R/R Signed: 2014, Dominican Republic
Fastball: 60 Slider: 50 Changeup: 55 Command: 40 Overall: 45
Dominican-born Fernandez played high school baseball in Florida before moving back to his home country, signing with the Cardinals in 2014 for $400,000. He pitched effectively in his full-season debut at low Class-A Peoria this past season, but the 19-year-old righty found the going more difficult after he received a July promotion to high Class-A Palm Beach and saw his strikeout rate regress.
Fernandez is being developed as a starter but is tracking toward the bullpen with premium stuff that he’s not yet harnessed. The heater sits in the mid-to-upper-90s and can register triple-digits, but it comes from a high-tempo motion that he struggles to repeat and leads to erratic control.
His best secondary pitch is a changeup that fades and sinks with the requisite arm speed for a future above-average grade. He has a limited feel for his slider, but every now and then he’ll snap off a good one.
LaRocque says Fernandez spent instructs working on fastball command and pitch efficiency, as well as developing confidence in working ahead early. That will be the continued focus for him when he returns to high Class-A.
12. Edmundo Sosa, SS
DOB: 03/06/96 Height/Weight: 5’ 11”/170 B/T: R/R Signed: 2012, Panama
Hit: 50 Game Power: 40 Run: 50 Throw: 50 Field: 55 Overall: 45
Part of the Cardinals’ 2012 international signing class that included Alex Reyes and Magneuris Sierra, Sosa signed out of the Dominican Republic for $425,000. A solid performance in the Midwest League earned him a July promotion to high Class-A Palm Beach before wrist tendinitis forced him out of action for the final two months of the year.
Sosa is an athletic player with some feel to hit and enough tools to hold down shortstop. He’ll cut his swing loose in batting practice and then pull the reins back in games, staying short to the ball and producing a lot of ground ball contact. LaRocque says that Sosa’s focus moving forward will be improving his strike-zone discipline.
Advanced shortstop instincts elevate a collection of average to above-average tools that should keep Sosa at the position long-term. The defense is where the value is, but there’s enough bat to surprise and carve out a part-time role. He’ll return to Palm Beach for 2017.
13. Paul DeJong, 3B
DOB: 08/02/93 Height/Weight: 6’ 1”/195 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2015, 4th Round – Illinois State
Hit: 45 Game Power: 55 Run: 40 Throw: 55 Field: 50 Overall: 45
First drafted as a redshirt sophomore in 2014 by the Pirates, DeJong returned to Illinois State and was popped in the fourth round a year later. He played 56 games in the low Class-A Midwest League after he signed, and the Cardinals believed his bat was advanced enough to skip him a level and send him to Double-A Springfield, where his 22 home runs ranked fifth in the hitting-friendly Texas League.
DeJong has a chance to be an average regular who can fulfill the offensive obligations of his position. He takes a right-handed power cut with the best hand path on this list, though it’s accompanied by suspect bat control. Some natural swing-and-miss can overshadow his generally-good idea of the strike zone.
The defensive tools don’t stand out, though they’re enough to make the routine plays at third base. It’s a bat-dependent profile, but the power looks translatable enough that it would conceal the other blemishes of his game and warrant consideration in the everyday lineup. With Jhonny Peralta’s contract expiring at the end of next season, the hot corner in St. Louis will be ready for DeJong’s taking if he can first pass muster at Triple-A Memphis.
14. Jack Flaherty, RHP
DOB: 10/15/95 Height/Weight: 6’ 4”/205 B/T: R/R Drafted: 2014, 1st Round – Harvard-Westlake HS (CA)
Fastball: 50 Slider: 55 Curveball: 45 Changeup: 60 Command: 55 Overall: 45
A high school teammate of 2012 first-rounders Lucas Giolito and Max Fried, Flaherty followed in their footsteps and landed in the first round of the draft two years later. His full-season debut in 2015 at low Class-A Peoria went off without a hitch, and he followed that up with a solid campaign in the high Class-A Florida State League this past season.
Flaherty has the look and feel of a starter with a four-pitch mix that could work in the back of a rotation. He likes to challenge hitters early in counts with his fastball, which features solid life and plane in the low-90s.
His best pitch is a plus changeup that he mixes with a slider in addition to a curveball that LaRocque says is being thrown with more confidence now. There’s enough fluidity in his motion that average command should be the expectation. Double-A Springfield will be his next stop.
15. Nick Plummer, OF
DOB: 07/31/96 Height/Weight: 5’ 10”/200 B/T: L/L Drafted: 2015, 1st Round – Brother Rice HS (MI)
Hit: 50 Game Power: 50 Run: 55 Throw: 45 Field: 50 Overall: 45
A standout East Coast Pro showcase lifted Plummer’s draft stock heading into his senior season of high school, but he became an uncertain evaluation in the spring because of the poor competition he faced in Michigan. His pro career has gotten off to a slow start since he landed inside the first round, beginning with an underwhelming debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and a 2016 season completely lost to a broken hamate.
Plummer is a hit-first player who has something beyond a puncher’s chance to play center field. He has above-average raw power to go with natural timing in a short, albeit somewhat stiff, swing. At the time of the draft, his approach was considered one of the more advanced ones among the available high school hitters.
A solid-average runner with a fringy arm, Plummer pushes the boundaries of acceptable center field defense. The only alternative is left field, but a move there would require him to hit for more power than he’s expected to. With strong Rookie-level performance next season, he could be pushed to low Class-A by the end of the year.