Before the Chuck Finley deal, the Cardinals had only one hitting prospect. Now they have none. They tried to trade their only pitching prospect, but he had the bad manners to hit the DL at the All-Star Break. They managed to complete the Scott Rolen deal by trading two major leaguers (Bud Smith's 132 2/3 major-league innings moving him off of any prospetct lists).
The trades may help them win the NL Central in 2002, but they left the organization with a lack of mature talent. This year's pennant race will mask the ugly truth that for the foreseeable future, this is as good as it's going to be for the Cardinals. Under Branch Rickey, the Cardinals created the minor-league system. This past spring, Baseball America rated the Cardinals' farm system the worst in all of baseball.
The current Cardinal roster is largely homegrown. In 2001, the NL Rookie of the Year Award went to Albert Pujols. In recent years the Cardinals have gotten solid rookie seasons from Rick Ankiel, Alan Benes and Matt Morris. J.D. Drew is a fragile, but excellent, player. The Cardinals have had a knack for developing players to play key roles on their good teams. So far, so good.
No Cardinals prospect appeared on the Baseball Prospectus preseason Top 40 Prospects list; only the Pirates, Devil Rays and Dodgers graded as poorly in this year's Minor League Scouting Notebook; and other than Jimmy Journell, who is on the disabled list and has a Tommy John surgery in his past, no Cardinal appeared on any of BA's four Top Prospects lists. If the Cardinals are going to win the World Series any time soon, the 2002 roster is going to have to make it happen.
The Cardinals had no pick in the first or second round of this year's draft, having lost their selections for signing Jason Isringhausen and Tino Martinez. In the third round, with their first pick, they selected Calvin Hayes, a high-school shortstop. Hayes remains unsigned, as does the Cards' third pick, high-school catcher Josh Bell.
The Cards took high-school hitters with three of their first four picks, then used the next 16 picks on college players. Of the 17 college players they took on the first day of the draft, 15 were from four-year college programs. Of their last 28 selections, 18 came from four-year colleges. When they took left-handed pitchers, they took them from colleges.
Evidence that they have a plan: David Williamson from UMass. He's a lefty with a senior's experience, and he played in the north, an area not as fully covered by scouts as other regions. The Cardinals were happy to get him because they felt they might have gotten a sleeper, and someone who would be easy to sign. Signability concerns motivated the Cardinals' to choose college players, but the collateral benefit is that these players, having less upside than phenom high schoolers but more polish, are more likely to move faster through the system, supplying much needed talent to the Cards' upper minors.
Last year, St. Louis took college pitchers in the first and second rounds. Justin Pope was the first-rounder, a pitcher John Sickels described as "a classic St. Louis draft pick: a polished college pitcher." Though Sickels liked Pope, he downgraded him because he had been worked too hard in college. Pope began this season in A ball at Peoria, and lasted three games before being shut down with bone spurs in his elbow.
The Cardinals have become notorious for having a number of pitchers lost to Tommy John surgery. Blake Williams and Chris Narveson, the Cardinals' first- and second-round picks in the 2000 draft, underwent Tommy John surgery late last season. Narveson is pitching again, but Williams is not. Until Jimmy Journell hit the disabled list two weeks ago–the Redbirds shut him down when he developed pain in his shoulder, reportedly to take advantage of the extra rest the All-Star break would give him–he was their only upper-level pitching prospect, their only high-value trade bait. Journell was an injury risk even before the Cardinals signed him. He had Tommy John surgery before they drafted him in 1999. He lost two years to that injury, and now he's out again. No date has been set for his return.
Josh Pearce was drafted two slots ahead of Journell. In this year's book, we noted that he pitched 300 innings at the age of 20. He lasted 33 innings this year this year before being shut down for the year. Chance Caple, a supplemental first-rounder from the 1999 draft class, had Tommy John surgery in April of 2001, then suffered a broken hand this year when a foul ball drilled him in the dugout. There are plenty more of these stories.
By default, the Cardinals' top active pitching prospect is last year's second-round pick, Dan Haren. He throws a low-90s fastball and has good command of his change-up. After starting the year in the Midwest League, he was promoted to high-A at Potomac. His performance (unadjusted) has held up so far:
This is the kind of polished pitcher the Cardinals have been looking for and need. He's another "classic St. Louis draft pick."
The Peoria staff has become the halfway house for recuperating Cardinal pitchers. Pope has recently re-entered the rotation. He's on a pitch count of 60, but was excellent in his first start back. Narveson has been promoted from Johnson City and is in the rotation. He's on a pitch count of 75. Caple will join the rotation soon and is making simulated starts. Until he was sidelined with tendinitis in his elbow, Tyler Johnson was the Cardinals' best left-handed pitching prospect. A 34th-round draft-and-follow from the Cards' doomed 2000 class, Johnson is a useful polished collegian. He's working his way back into the rotation in relief, but his line is encouraging for someone who didn't make the organizational top 30 in BA's Prospect Handbook:
We don't often write about players below Double-A, but with this organization we need to make exceptions or there'd be no one to cover. In spite of the injuries, the Peoria staff has dominated the Midwest League, logging 17 shutouts so far. If there's hope, it's here.
When St. Louis scours its minors for healthy pitchers to trade, Rhett Parrott's name should pop up. Recently promoted to Double-A, Parrott has potential, though it's a stretch to call him a genuine prospect. When he's on, he has a low-90s fastball and a mature curve. Reportedly, some of the Cardinals' scouts think Parrott's curve is the best in the organization, which makes him a project worth watching. Another college pitcher, Parrott's pipe-dream upside is somewhere in the vicinity of Matt Morris or Brad Radke. His strikeout rate of 6.3 per nine is a little low for his level, and his walk rate of 3.3 per nine is a bit high, but he hasn't been hit hard. His time in New Haven will be a good test.
The Cardinals' few interesting hitters are below Triple-A and need a lot of work. They have low ceilings, and they're nowhere near the major leagues. That's why the Cardinals spent the first day of this year's draft focusing on position players. Luis Garcia, traded for Chuck Finley, was their best hitting prospect, and he was nothing special. So Taguchi, the Cardinals' first signing from the Far East, wasn't expected to show much offense and he hasn't, hitting .238/.277/.345, with only 12 walks in 307 plate appearances. Taguchi was a perennial Gold Glove winner in Japan, but even though the Cardinals don't expect him to hit much, he'll have to hit better than that if he's going to take playing time from Kerry Robinson, let alone Drew, Pujols or Edmonds.
The Cardinals have begun to rebuild with low-risk, low-ceiling college players. If everything breaks right, the Cardinals will stay competitive but will still lack the star power needed to be a perennial 90-win team.