For years now, the words “Cardinals” and “promising prospects” have seemed as incongruous and unrelated as “concept album” and “enjoyable listening experience.” On a system-wide level, that’s still the case; the Cards remain saddled with one of the weaker stables of minor league talent in baseball. That said, they are cobbling together a promising corps of young starters. In no particular order, let’s take a look at a few of them:

  • Dan Haren, Age: 23

    Haren, a second-rounder in 2001 out of Pepperdine, made a disappointing 14 starts for St. Louis last season, but early struggles for young starters are almost a historical imperative (and he had been somewhat rushed along through the high minors). Haren throws three pitches for strikes–a fastball, slider and splitter–but none of those overwhelms scouts. At this point, the knocks on him are that he doesn’t change speeds well enough or often enough and that he has some trouble repeating his delivery. A number of great starters have gotten by without change-ups, but Haren would probably help himself if he were able to craft that splitter into more of an off-speed offering.

    On the upside, his record of performance in the minors is uniformly strong. Coming into the 2004 season, Haren, in 346.2 minor league innings (including 90.2 at Double- and Triple-A, had fanned 312 and posted a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.9. His 0.73 homers-per-nine, while not exceptional, is decent. But it’s his command that’s most praiseworthy. Pitchers who make it through the minors with almost six times as many strikeouts as walks are indeed rarities. This season, he’s back in Triple-A-Memphis for further seasoning, and he’s pitching well for the most part. In 52.2 innings, he’s struck out 69, issued 14 unintentional walks and allowed 3.76 runs-per-nine. The problem is that he’s also given up 10 homers in those 52.2 innings, which is troubling considering that Memphis isn’t a hitter’s haven in PCL terms. Even so, his tremendous command gives me high hopes that he’ll be a valuable front-end starter at the highest level.

  • Brad Thompson, Age: 22

    If you’re reading this column (and you’re not my Mom…Hi, Mom) you probably know about Thompson’s scoreless innings streak. Said streak ended on Wednesday night, but not until he’d set a Southern League record with 57.2 consecutive scoreless frames. To hear some tell it, this mark also shattered the 97-year-old minor league record; to hear others tell it, Irv Wilhelm still holds the record with his 59 straight scoreless innings in 1907. Irrespective of record-book haggling, it’s a jaw-dropping feat, but Thompson is more than just a young arm on a lucky streak.

    The Cards drafted him in the 16th round of the 2002 out of Dixie State in Utah (a college in Utah called “Dixie State” is almost as much of a non-sequitur as an NBA team in Utah called the “Jazz”). He signed too late to pitch that season, but he was quite good in 2003. In 71 combined innings between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues (65 of which were logged at Peoria and most in relief), Thompson whiffed 46 and walked only eight unintentionally. Overall his K/BB ratio was an excellent 4.7, and he coughed up only a pair of homers. He followed that up with 11.1 strong innings in the Arizona Fall League.

    This year in Double-A Thompson has been working exclusively as a starter, and he’s been something else altogether. At last update, he’d pitched 50 innings at Tennessee, struck out 38 and walked only six without allowing a home run. As you can see, he’s a control artist with a knack for keeping the ball in the park.

    Thompson throws a sinker-slider combo, and he’s working to develop an effective change. His strikeout numbers aren’t quite what you’d want from an elite prospect, but exacting control in tandem with groundball tendencies can be a recipe for much success.

  • Adam Wainwright, Age: 22

    Wainwright was part of the Cards’ haul from the J.D. Drew deal with Atlanta. At 6-8, 205, he cuts an imposing figure on the mound, and he’s been a solid performer since being selected as the Braves’ top pick (29th overall) of the 2000 draft. Wainwright’s fastball reaches the low 90s, and he works off it with a sharp curve and plus change. His mind for pitching and work ethic also earn him praise from those inside the game.

    On a performance level, he’s just as strong. He made a splash after being drafted by striking out 39 and walking only two in the rookie-level Appy League, and he continued pitching well as he advanced through the Braves’ system. It was after his strong performance in the Florida State League in 2002 that he started ascending the various and sundry prospect lists that pepper the industry. However, as you may know, Myrtle Beach is probably the best pitcher’s park in pro baseball, and many a young Braves arm has gone on to abject mediocrity after a seemingly strong season there. Not so with Wainwright. In Double-A in 2003, he posted a 3.5 K/BB ratio in 149.2 innings and allowed only nine homers for the season. He also finished 10th in the Southern League in ERA despite toiling in a modest hitter’s park at Greenville, and he pitched particularly well in his final seven starts of the season.

    This season, he’s had some fits and starts in Triple-A-Memphis (40.2 IP, 37 K, 19 BB, 4 HR, 6.42 R/G), but it’s early. His history of poise and performance suggests he’ll be fine in the long-term. He’s big-bodied and has easy arm action and a strong downward angle to the plate, so he may add velocity as he matures (he hit 96 on the gun at the 2002 Futures Game). He may never reach the ace status that was once projected for him, but there’s no reason he can’t be a highly capable third starter in the bigs.

  • Blake Hawksworth, Age: 21

    Well, he’s got the name part down. A 28th-round draft-and-follow in 2001, Hawksworth has been highly impressive since signing days before the 2002 draft. Coming into ’04, Hawksworth had whiffed 158 batters and walked 43 in 162.1 career innings, with the FSL being his highest level. That comes to a 3.7 K/BB ratio, and in previous seasons he allowed only 10 total homers. He began this season on the DL with a strained shoulder muscle, but he was recently activated. Back at Palm Beach, he’s thrown only 10.2 innings, so it’s too early to make any judgments about his health or skills growth.

    What can be said definitively is that scouts love his stuff. He fell to the 28th round mostly because of signability concerns, and he was widely hailed as having first- or second-round chops. Once he fills out, he may be able to consistently hit the mid-90s with his fastball, and he also throws a plus curve and a nice, fading change. Hawksworth has mostly clean mechanics, but he unwittingly drops his release point from time to time. Besides the shoulder malady, he also has a serious ankle injury in his recent history, so his ability to stay healthy is something he must prove. If he can bounce back and have a strong month or so in the FSL, he’ll be back on the fast track.

Those are the best arms in the system. There’s some depth, too. Pitchers like Tyler Johnson, Chris Narveson and Rhett Parrott also have some promise. Heck, even TINSTAAPP promotional model Rick Ankiel might still salvage some consequence from the tatters of his career.

The Cardinals need to drastically re-evaluate their methods of identifying positional talent at the amateur level, but at this moment in time it’s a growth economy for arms within the system.

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