One of the more impressive components about the 2019 Cardinals cannot be quantified. There is no mention of it on FanGraphs. You will not find it among the ingredients used to cook up Wins Above Replacement. Some will ignore it for these reasons.
But in an era in which Bill James, who is considered to be the godfather of baseball sabermetrics, wonders if we have become too dismissive of the baseball card stats his work went a long way to discredit, I wonder if we have become too dismissive of strengths not measured by Statcast.
Increasingly, we are told that a team’s momentum is a figment of the imagination. We are told that a player’s “clubhouse presence” is overrated. We are told to resist anything measured by the outdated “eye test.” And often, this is sound advice. Nothing pushes back against poorly formed opinions or inaccurate biases better than indisputable data.
But until baseball is decided by computer simulations and played by robots, stripping the human element from the equation should go down as an error. I bring it up because it’s that time of the year when we explore reasons a baseball team will or won’t succeed. One Cardinals weapon might be overlooked.
Cardinals optimists cite the Paul Goldschmidt Effect, the addition of Andrew Miller’s talents to a needy lefthanded side of the bullpen, a healthier (they hope) Marcell Ozuna, and a full season of manager Mike Shildt, who guided the club to a 41-28 record after last season’s promotion.
Pessimists point toward the uncertainty about Ozuna’s offseason recovery and rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, the human question mark that is Dexter Fowler, the lack of a proven closer and the presence of just one starter who pitched more than 151 major league innings in 2018.
What few on either side of the debate have acknowledged is an approach adopted by some of the team’s best talents, and we are not talking about swing tips from new hitting coach Jeff Albert. Key Cardinals are going out of their way to put the team first. In Shildt they trust. Easy to say. Much harder to do. But these guys are following through.
Matt Carpenter was the Cardinals’ closest thing to an MVP candidate last season, and he jumped at the chance to move back to third base when he found out six-time All-Star first baseman Goldschmidt would take his place.
“We got Paul Goldschmidt,” Carpenter said. “I’ll play wherever to accommodate that.”
Goldschmidt, by the way, has made it clear to the Cardinals that he is comfortable hitting anywhere in the lineup. This isn’t lip service. He has more than 150 career at-bats between No. 2 and No. 5. (Don’t expect him to hit fifth.)
Then there is Miller, who has spent his career refreshing the way baseball and its fans think about relief pitching. The role-buster will take any inning(s), any time, with enthusiasm.
“Hopefully we give him (Shildt) a ton of flexibility,” Miller said. “In an ideal world, there are seven guys out there that can pitch to lefties and to righties, and can pitch early in the game, or late in the game.”
Jose Martinez has been one of the Cardinals’ top three hitters since his debut, and he will once again be looking for playing time off the bench. He could be grumbling. Instead he’s celebrating the fact he was not traded while openly cheering for Fowler to bounce back.
When proven, performing veterans set a tone like this, how can it not affect others in a positive manner? When the best players deflate their egos, who gets away with having one?
“That is exactly what I’m talking about when I said why I’m so excited for the season,” Carpenter said. “I mean, talent can only take you so far. I’ve played on some talented teams, and I’ve unfortunately played on talented teams that haven’t achieved what they could have achieved — or what they set out to achieve. But the separator from good teams and great teams is having guys like that. Having guys that put the team’s priorities before their own. And we’ve got a lot of guys like that. I mean, a lot.”
Jordan Hicks wants to be the closer, of course, but he sees Miller’s example. Tyler O’Neill and Yairo Munoz want to play every day, but they see Martinez’s approach. And so on, down to the starting pitchers who won’t crack the rotation out of spring but will be one hiccup away from leaving Class AAA Memphis for St. Louis.
“You look at our bench, potentially, it is going to be guys like Jedd Gyorko, who is an everyday major league player for almost every team, Jose Martinez, who could hit in any lineup in baseball,” Carpenter said. “There is a laundry list of guys like that, and you come in here, and they all say the same thing. They want to do what’s best for this club. And not only do they say it, but they actually believe it. And you can feel it, and everybody in that clubhouse knows it. And then you combine that with Andrew Miller and Paul Goldschmidt, and guys we’re just meeting for the first time, and we know that’s the kind of mentality they have.”
How many wins will it add to the season? Who knows? But how can this vibe not be factored into any prediction of where this team might go?
“If you’re not excited about where this team is headed, then you need to kind of change the way you’re thinking,” Carpenter said.
The Cardinals are thinking the right way. This has not always been the case. That counts for something.
PATIENCE, PLEASE: MEET THE BIRD LAND 7
When it comes to ranking the top seven prospects in the Cardinals’ organization for the annual Bird Land 7, there is one rule that sets this list apart from others. These players have yet to throw a pitch or field a ball or take an at-bat in the majors. They aren’t just rookie-eligible, they are debut-eligible, and a year ago these debuts were imminent.
The first five members of the 2018 Bird Land 7 had an ETA in the majors of 2018. The top four players ranked all did reach the majors, and No. 2 Jordan Hicks spent the entire season there. The sheer number of debuts has forced a significant overhaul of the BL7 for this season. There is only one returning player — and he’s one of a few that a debut could happen in the coming season. If last year’s BL7 was notable for the number of players on the brink of the majors, this year’s has a different feel.
The prospects require patience.
Not one of the top three players ranked are older than 20, and four of the seven are 22 or younger. The top three players all play third base — giving the Cardinals arguably their best stockpile of potential high-end position players since Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong shared the system together. And this trio has the potential for a few breakout bats.
There are, of course, two pitchers, Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera, who are likely to zoom to the majors this season as minor-league starters repurposed as hard-throwing relievers in the majors.
Helsley is one of three draft choices featured in the BL7. Cabrera is one of two ranked prospects to come to the Cardinals via trade. The other two are international signings.
The list also includes one of the top teen prospects in the majors. And he’s not even the youngest member of this year’s Bird Land 7, presented here in reverse order, and followed by a roundup of "others on the rise" and a list of the landing spots for the 2018 "BL7":
7. RYAN HELSLEY, Pitcher
Bats/throws: R/R ... Size: 6-1, 195
Acquired: Drafted in 2015, fifth round
Baseball America rank 2019: NR (in top 10)
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 4
GOOLD'S TAKE: Power righthander was poised to join Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson as the Triple-H booster shot for the Cardinals’ bullpen before shoulder trouble inhibited his season. Helsley felt persisting soreness after a start on June 9, attempted to pitch Aug. 6 and then called it a season. He finished 5-3, 3.97 in 13 starts and he struck out 82 in 70 1/3 innings.
Helsley spent this winter working on strength around the shoulder and what he called “mobility” throughout his mechanics. The idea is to alleviate the strain that he was putting on the shoulder and have that lead to durability. That and opportunity are all he needs to reach the majors. He has an upper-90s fastball that arrives with some giddy-up deception and can be located high in the zone. He draws comparisons to Trevor Rosenthal with his muscular build and bull-charging approach
6. ANDREW KNIZNER, Catcher
Bats/throws: R/R ... Size: 6-1, 200
Acquired: Drafted in 2016, seventh round
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 8
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 5
GOOLD'S TAKE: The new heir apparent. When the Cardinals traded Carson Kelly to Arizona as part of the package for Paul Goldschmidt, they also made it clear that Andrew Knizner is their future at catcher, developing right there as Kelly did behind Yadier Molina. He might remind you of Carson Kelly. The seventh-round pick from North Carolina State converted from infielder to catcher, like Kelly, and has had to learn the role as he advanced through the majors.
In the past two seasons he has advanced defensively at catcher, and a year ago then-manager Mike Matheny called him the most improved player in big-league camp. He was talking about his defense. Knizner is mobile behind the plate, has improved footwork, and he’s got the arm necessary for the position. He has also rapidly gained the trust of his pitchers and followed Kelly’s example of being a student of games.
What sets Knizner apart and vaults him so high in the prospect rankings is he also hits. He’s yet to have a season without a .300 average. He makes contact. He shows flashes of increased power. In 2018, he hit .313/.368/.430 with a .798 OPS. He had seven homers and 25 extra-base hits. In 355 at-bats he struck out only 48 times and had 27 walks. He’ll head to Class AAA Memphis as the priority starter at catcher, and by this time next year he’ll be considered to be Molina’s backup first and possible replacement as early as 2021.
5. GENESIS CABRERA, Pitcher
Bats/throws: L/L ... Size: 6-1, 170
Acquired: Via trade (Tampa Bay), 2018
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 6
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 13
GOOLD'S TAKE: Let’s start with the comparison so many scouts and executives tend to make and unwind the scouting report from there. Cabrera has been called a “lefthanded Carlos Martinez.” The reason starts with so much power coming from such a similar frame. Cabrera is built like Martinez and he slings like Martinez and his sinker has both movement and velocity, like Martinez. He’s not touching triple digits like Martinez, but from the left side his fastball is well above average. The Cardinals targeted Cabrera as part of the Tommy Pham trade to Tampa Bay, and that was in part because they saw Cabrera adding to their lefthanded depth on the starter’s side. Lightning struck this winter. In search of a few innings and some offseason work, Cabrera went to the Dominican League and appeared as a reliever to control his workload. He blistered the league. Against solid competition, Cabrera pitched 14 1/3 innings and struck out 21 against two walks. He saw a jump in velocity and more aggressive ways to use his breaking pitch. So did the Cardinals.
He’ll come to spring training to compete for a spot in the bullpen — if not immediately out of need then eventually out of his performance. The Cardinals will have to weigh during spring whether his future could be as a starter — and if he could get more consistent with his off-speed pitches to make that happen. Already, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has identified Cabrera as the prospect who could emerge, and fast, like Hicks a year ago. Teammates agree.
“His fire,” said outfielder Justin Williams, who came to the Cardinals in the same trade with Tampa Bay. “When you see him on the mound, it’s like it’s his mound. Coming up with the Rays with him – he was a starter, and seeing him as a reliever for a brief period of time that I did in Memphis it was like mind-blowing. Different player. In a good way.”
4. LANE THOMAS, OUTFIELDER
Bats/throws: R/R ... Size: 6-1, 210
Acquired: Via trade (Toronto), 2017
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 7
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 21
GOOLD'S TAKE: The righthanded-hitting center fielder has gotten somewhat lost in the organization's outfield mix for a variety of reasons. First, the Cardinals have a stockpile of righthanded-hitting outfielders, and as they sped through 2018, he was in a bottleneck at the higher levels that also included Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Adolis Garcia, Oscar Mercado, and Randy Arozarena. Second, he was acquired from Toronto for international cap space. The Cardinals just sent money, so for some reason that worked against him when it came to other prospect rankings.
Everything else worked for him. Thomas had the power breakout long expected from him in the Jays’ organization, and he finished the season hitting .264/.333/.489 with an .823 OPS. His 27 homers led the organization (in part because O’Neill did some of his damage in the majors), and Thomas had 56 extra-base hits. He did strike out 134 times in 132 games and walked only 50. He can handle center well, run bases well, and could advance swiftly with greater contact at the plate.
Internally, the Cardinals are eager to see how he shines in spring training and if he takes a run at their fourth-outfielder spot at some point in 2019 or elbows his way into playing time beyond that role. This is an aggressive ranking for Thomas because he could move aggressively up the depth chart this season. Post-Dispatch sports columnist Benjamin Hochman took a deeper look at the Lane Thomas intrigue this past weekend during the Winter Warm-Up.
3. MALCOM NUNEZ, Third baseman
Bats/throws: R/R ... Size: 5-11, 205
Acquired: International amateur signing from Cuba, 2018
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 9
MLB.com rank 2018: NR
GOOLD'S TAKE: The first of the trio of prospects at the hot corner is also one of the youngest leading prospects in the organization — and soon will be in the game. When the Cardinals signed Nunez to a $300,000 bonus — the largest they could offer — he was described by a scout as a “professional hitter.” He immediately became a propulsive force. On one of the Cardinals’ Dominican Summer League teams, Nunez hit .415/.497/.774 for a 1.272 OPS. In the final nine games of his season, he hit five home runs to give him 13 and win the DSL’s Triple Crown. The third jewel was 59 RBIs.
The Cardinals had scouted Nunez as a young teen with Cuba’s national team, and he stood out for his size, strength, and thunder-packed ability at the plate for his age group. The showcase circuit in the States has concerned some scouts because it focuses so much on power and home-run derbies and launch angles, and Nunez’s workouts stood apart because his power was not lofting over the fences but puncturing gaps and showing carry.
“He’s not a one-dimensional player who has the raw power,” said Luis Morales, the Cardinals’ director of international operations. “He has strength. He’ll hit for power. But he always understands the strike zone. Especially for a hitter that young to see that recognition. … Keep in mind that he’s 17. What he did in the DSL is unbelievable.”
Nunez traveled to the Cardinals’ instructional workouts this month and also impressed. They see him as a raw, maturing talent who may have to move positions from third to first as he reaches his 20s. The bat projects to play at either position. He’ll get a look with a domestic team this season, and a repeat performance will put him on the list of best hitting talents around.
2. ELEHURIS MONTERO, Third baseman
Bats/throws: R/R ... Size: 6-3, 195
Acquired: International amateur signing from Dominican Republic, 2014
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 5
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 7
GOOLD'S TAKE: The most advanced of the trio of prospects at the hot corner, Montero put his name alongside Albert Pujols this past season. As a force in the middle of Low-A Peoria’s lineup, he became the first Cardinals’ prospect for that affiliate to win the Midwest League’s MVP award since Pujols did – the year before he reached the majors. Montero hit .315/.371/.504 for a .875 OPS for the season, and he showed the consistent power that had come in bursts before. In addition to his 16 home runs, Montero hit 37 doubles. He had 28 of those doubles at Low-A, where he also hit .322/.381/.529 before advancing to High-A and the wide-open, pitcher-friendly fields of the Florida State League. He still hit .286/.330/.408 there with 10 extra-base hits in 98 at-bats.
The Cardinals signed Montero for $300,000 out of the Dominican and, like Nunez, he powered through the DSL before debuting in 2017 with the GCL Cardinals. He has a feel for the strike zone that stands out, takes his walks, and generated more power, more consistently throughout this past season. He has the arm for third but his range and reaction at the position could mean a move to first base. So could another prospect. He’ll be advancing in the coming years a step ahead or right beside the lefthanded complement to his righthanded upside. And that player is No. 1.
1. NOLAN GORMAN, Third baseman
Bats/throws: L/R ... Size: 6-1, 210
Acquired: 2018 draft, first round
Baseball America rank 2019: No. 4
MLB.com rank 2018: No. 2
GOOLD'S TAKE: The highest ceiling, at this point, of the prospect trio at the hot corner belongs to one of the newest additions to the Cardinals’ organization, Nolan Gorman. Imagine the scene described by an agent this past summer: The Cardinals’ brass, draft director Randy Flores, and their armada of scouts and the analytics department are gathered in the draft room at Busch Stadium, and there, reclined in a chair, hand on his chin is Mozeliak. A grin is slowly sneaking across his face. He’s seen the first 16 picks come off the board, and still available is a hitter highly regarded and unlike the Cardinals usually get to take — one who is still available. “I can see the look in Mozeliak’s eyes as this is happening, and you know it,” said the agent.
At No. 19, the Cardinals took Gorman, a lefthanded hitter who was considered one of the best high school power prospects available in this past year’s draft.
Baseball America had him ranked 15th in their pre-draft rankings. MLB Pipeline ranked him 17th, FanGraphs.com had him 11th, and ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranked him 15th. Each ranking boasted his power, which was rated as high as 70 on the scout scale (20-80).
“Gorman has 80-grade raw power but might not stay on the dirt,” Law said, referring to the position he’d play in the field. “He has raised some questions about his future contact rate with an excessive focus on hitting homers.”
When you do something well …
Gorman, who won’t turn 20 until May 2020, hit .291/.380/.570 in his first 63 games as a pro. He socked 11 home runs in his first 38 games and that merited a promotion to Low-A Peoria. There he hit .202 and had 39 strikeouts in 94 at-bats. That’s the contrast scouts see in Gorman’s game. He’ll thunder away at one level, have to adjust and find contact at the next, and then surge forward. The Cardinals have him earmarked for a return to Peoria, where he’ll be the priority third baseman and replacement for Montero. If he thrives, a midseason promotion is possible – and it would not be a surprise if the Cardinals’ Class AA Springfield affiliate heads toward the postseason that Gorman gets a look there by season’s end.
The Cardinals think he’ll be able to advance at third with a feel for the position and that he’ll be the next position player they have scaling the overall prospect rankings in the game. He’s arguably the first middle-order hitter prospect they’ve had since Stephen Piscotty and has the most upside of any middle-order hitter since Oscar Taveras. That’s heady company at 18. He could take out a lease on this top spot.
TAKE 5: OTHERS ON THE RISE
• RAMON URIAS, Infielder
GOOLD: Regardless of where he’s played, he’s hit. Has yet to have a turn in Mexico’s league where he didn’t dominate offensively, and the Cardinals are intrigued to see how that bat plays at Class AAA Memphis and where his glove can put him on the field. Urias, 24, could be a plus-offensive player at second. He hit .300/.356/.516 this past season with an .872 OPS and 41 extra-base hits.
• DYLAN CARLSON, Outfielder
GOOLD: There’s a case to be made that switch-hitting Carlson, 20, belongs in the Bird Land 7. He will once again be one of the youngest players at his level, regardless of whether he heads back to High-A or starts the year at Class AA. He hit .246/.348/.390 this past season with 88 strikeouts and 62 walks. Has a keen feel for the strike zone and power could come as he matures.
• RANDY AROZARENA, Outfielder
GOOLD: Speedy outfielder has all the makings of a spring training standout. He’s likely to get some playing time. He can move all over the outfield late in games. And he’ll see time as a pinch-runner. This past season, the 23-year-old outfielder hit .274/.359/.433 with 12 homers. Bound to see a rise toward the majors in the coming year like Adolis Garcia did in 2018.
• CONNER CAPEL, Outfielder
GOOLD: Outfielder acquired from Cleveland moved right to Class A, and overall this past season hit .257/.341/.376 with 34 extra-base hits. The 21-year-old led all Cleveland minor-leaguers with 73 runs in 2018, and the son of former big-leaguer Mike Capel has the speed and savvy to stick at center and be a solid baserunner. He’s also sharpened his lefthanded swing and in an organization hungry for depth on that side of the plate this could be the season he pulls a Lane Thomas.
• GRIFFIN ROBERTS, Pitcher
GOOLD: The 43rd overall pick in the most recent draft, Roberts had the hype of being the pitcher in the draft most likely to move swiftly toward the majors. He has a classic fastball-slider mix, and his breaking ball is considered one of the best in the organization, already. He had limited work as a pro with 13 strikeouts and four walks in 9 2/3 innings. Now, he’ll be even more limited. A positive drug test netted him a suspension to start the year and will slow the ascent his talent was supposed to accelerate.
WHERE THE 2018 BIRD LAND 7 LANDED
1. TYLER O’NEILL, OF: Reached the major leagues
2. JORDAN HICKS, RHP : Reached the major leagues
3. DAKOTA HUDSON, RHP: Reached the major leagues
4. ADOLIS GARCIA, OF: Reached the major leagues
5. RYAN HELSLEY, RHP: Pitched for Class AAA Memphis
6. OSCAR MERCADO, OF: Traded to Cleveland
7. DELVIN PEREZ, SS: Played at Rookie League level