When MLB.com released its rankings of baseball’s top 100 prospects last week, you could just about hear the fireworks at AutoZone Park. Six players on the list are in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, including the third-ranked player (outfielder Oscar Taveras) and no fewer than four pitchers who could find their way into the Cardinal rotation by 2015. Overall, the Cardinal system is atop Baseball America’s rankings for the first time since the publication first released their list in 1985. (The St. Louis system was dead last in the rankings as recently as 2005. You can bet Cardinal farm director John Vuch has earned a raise.)
What does this mean for Memphis baseball fans in 2013? Here’s a look at the Cards’ Big Six prospects, and the likelihood of seeing each at Third and Union.
• Oscar Taveras (outfielder, age 20, #3 in MLB.com rankings) — He’s the Cardinals’ most exciting hitting prospect since, well, Colby Rasmus in 2009. Taveras was the Texas League Player of the Year in 2012, when he hit .321 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs for Double-A Springfield. Taveras’s combination of power (.572 slugging percentage) and precision (only 56 strikeouts in 477 at-bats) would make Rasmus envious. Taveras is so young, it’s hard to imagine what his ceiling might be with continued progress up the ladder. He’ll play rightfield everyday for Memphis (if not center) unless there’s a calamity in the Cardinal outfield. But with Carlos Beltran under contract for only one more season with St. Louis, this will be your first and last summer to enjoy the Redbirds’ Big O.
• Shelby Miller (pitcher, 22, #25) — After a dreadful start at the Triple-A level, Miller pitched well enough over the last two months of the Redbirds’ 2012 season to earn a spot on the Cardinals’ postseason roster. Despite his struggles last summer in Memphis, Miller set a franchise record with 160 strikeouts, then struck out 16 in 13 2/3 innings for the Cardinals. Miller may relish taking a backseat to Taveras on the prospect caravan, as he’ll be battling the three hurlers below (not to mention Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly) for consideration from the Cardinals. Look for Miller to start the season in the Redbirds rotation but with a reasonable chance for promotion (even for middle relief) around the All-Star break.
• Carlos Martinez (pitcher, 21, #33) — Martinez split time last year between Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. At the higher level, he put up a 2.90 ERA over 71 innings and held opponents to a .237 batting average. (Batters hit .260 off Miller a year ago.) His small frame (6’0”, 165 pounds) begs for time in the weight room, as he’s already been sidelined with shoulder tenderness. Best thing that could happen to Martinez and the Redbirds would be to spend an entire season together.
• Trevor Rosenthal (pitcher, 22, #43) — Longtime Cardinal followers were adjusting their jaws last October as Rosenthal introduced himself to the nation by striking out 15 in 8 2/3 combined playoff innings — without allowing a run — against Washington and San Francisco. The Missouri native essentially skipped Triple-A (only three games for Memphis) after going 8-6 with a 2.78 ERA at Springfield. As good as he looked out of the bullpen for St. Louis, he may get a chance to start a few games with the Redbirds before a midseason promotion. Based on what we saw last fall, Rosenthal could excel in either role.
• Kolten Wong (second base, 22, #79) — Second base has been a position of volatility for the Cardinals since Fernando Vina went down with a hamstring injury during the 2003 season. (Remember Bo Hart’s summer of glory?) Tony Womack, Mark Grudzielanek, Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles, and Skip Schumaker have spent time at the position, with Daniel Descalso now there to keep the spot warm until Wong’s arrival. The Hawaii native hit .287 for Springfield in 2012, stealing 21 bases and providing solid, if unspectacular, defense. Don’t be surprised if Wong leads the 2013 Redbirds in plate appearances.
• Michael Wacha (pitcher, 21, #83) — Few Cardinal pitchers in recent years have been able to look Adam Wainwright directly in the eye, but the 6’6” Wacha would come close. The question is whether or not Wacha can be the kind of workhorse Waino has become. Wacha was the 19th pick in last summer’s draft after starring in college at Texas A & M. He pitched a total of 11 games last summer (four of them at Springfield) but struck out 40 hitters in 21 innings. His pro resume may be thin, but Wacha is actually older than Martinez. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way to AutoZone Park after a month or two of Double-A seasoning.
The Redbirds open the 2013 season on April 4th at AutoZone Park against the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Mark Harrell, Springfield Cardinals