The upper levels of the St. Louis Cardinals system experienced tremendous change in 2009 with ten rookies making their MLB debuts while five players from the first two rounds of the 2006 through 2008 amateur drafts were traded away to acquire Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday.
With the re-signing of Holliday, the everyday eight for 2010 is set with the possible exception of third base, where 26-year-old rookie David Freese has been installed as the starter, at least until play begins.
Major bench needs in St. Louis include a third baseman to play behind or instead of Freese, a right-handed hitting centerfielder and left-handed hitting corner outfielder. Unfortunately, the system’s top prospects do not align well with their immediate position player needs.
The club also is looking for a fifth starter and has a cadre of internal candidates, including Kyle McClellan, Jaime Garcia, P.J. Walters, Mitchell Boggs and Rule 5 pickup Ben Jukich. The bullpen may have one opening, but it will likely be filled with a veteran free agent.
Spring Training Contenders
Freese is getting a rare second or third chance in 2010. Last winter at this time, he was handed the same starting third base job on a platter when Troy Glaus had surprise shoulder surgery. Freese blew his chance as he severely injured his ankle when totaling his car. Two weeks into the season, he was back in Triple-A then had surgery, not to return until September. Freese was then arrested in December on a DWI charge so is on thin ice. Originally acquired from the San Diego Padres for Jim Edmonds two years ago, Freese offers solid defense and a power bat if he can keep his nose clean. Best of all for him, right now he has little competition for the starting third base job.
Allen Craig’s best position is “hitter”, only appropriate for the best power prospect in the Cardinals system. Though he came up as a third baseman, his defense was such that he was moved to the outfield in 2009. The Player of the Year in the system bats right-handed, which hurts his chances of making the team as he would back up right-handers Holliday and Ryan Ludwick. If the 25-year-old could either play center or bat left-handed, he would almost be a lock. Alas, he is neither. Still, Craig is in a strong position to make the club coming out of Florida if he hits well in March. Without an injury to one of the starters, Craig seems destined to be a reserve, however.
Left-hander Jaime Garcia made a brief MLB debut in 2008 before Tommy John surgery scuttled most of his 2009. He has a major-league quality curve and has perfected a cutter/slider as well. The 23-year-old has the most talent of the fifth-starter candidates with the only concern being his readiness to shoulder a full load coming off his rehab. Garcia would also offer the Cardinals their only left-handed starter. If he isn’t in the rotation to begin the season, he should be by the end.
Speedy Jon Jay offers what no other outfield reserve contenders offer, the ability to cover centerfield. After putting up a .281/.338/.394 line and stealing 20 bags in his first taste of Triple-A in 2009, the 24-year-old left-handed hitter continued to impress in winter ball in Venezuela (.849 OPS). Unfortunately, he may be redundant with Colby Rasmus set in center, also hitting from the left side.
Shortstop Tyler Greene was taken in the first round of the 2005 draft just two spots after Rasmus and despite Rasmus being a high schooler, he beat the collegian Greene to the majors. It finally came together for Greene in 2009 as the 26-year-old impressed in his short big league debut and had a solid Triple-A campaign, stealing 31 bases. The right-handed hitter could elbow himself onto the roster as a reserve infielder and if Brendan Ryan falters, would be ready to step in. Realistically though, Greene needs improved plate discipline if he ever hopes to be more than a stop-gap.
6-foot-5, 250-pound right-hander Lance Lynn was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in 2009, doing most of his damage at the Double-A level. He impressed in a late-season spot start in Triple-A and could put himself into the major league mix by the second half, just two years after having been drafted. Lynn throws a low-nineties sinker and can control three other pitches, yet lacks overpowering velocity.
Reliever Eduardo Sanchez has yet to appear above Double-A, but possesses upper nineties heat and best of all, can control it. He has a sharp slider to complement his fastball as an out pitch. The only rap on Sanchez is his slight build, but don’t tell Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner about that. With a bit of Triple-A seasoning, Sanchez, who turns 21 in February, could be in St. Louis this summer. Closer Ryan Franklin is far from a sure thing, so keep an eye on Sanchez’ progress.
For five years, outfielder Daryl Jones has been touted as having the best tools in the Cardinals system yet has struggled with consistency. The 22-year-old left-handed hitter broke out with a tremendous season in Double-A in 2008, but began 2009 with knee problems and then re-injured a hamstring in the Futures Game that ruined his season. Jones will likely return to Double-A to start 2010, but if finally healthy, has little to prove at the level. He is a bit smallish and lacks the power expected from a corner outfielder but doesn’t have the arm to play center, not that he would with Rasmus now established in St. Louis, anyway.
Second-baseman Daniel Descalso was so hot in the first half (.927 OPS) he seemed on his way to become the Texas League’s Most Valuable Player. The right-handed hitter’s bat cooled when introduced to Triple-A and he didn’t rediscover his mojo during his gold medal stint with Team USA and in the Arizona Fall League afterward. Still, the 23-year-old is a plus defender and has a quick, level swing ideal for gap hitting.