Prospect #1: OF Oscar Taveras
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Signed for a low six-figure bonus in 2008, Oscar Taveras has blossomed into one of the minors' purest hitters, with offensive projections that could make him a perennial All-Star at the major-league level. With a violent, torque-heavy swing and an aggressive approach, the early word on Taveras was that the same characteristics that allowed him to hit .386 in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League would ultimately be his downfall against superior pitching, the kind that can use sequence and location to disrupt a hitter’s bat speed.

As it turns out, Taveras’s brand of violence is calculated, as he wields his weapon with a controlled fury; to the eye, his swing looks haphazard and aggressive to a fault, but his elite hand quickness and strength allow him to command his swing with more touch than is realized. He can barrel balls to all fields from all hands and has improved his pitch recognition skills, leaving him with an offensive skill set that has few weaknesses. The hit tool receives sevens and eights in reports, and some scouts have even put sevens on his future power, a tool that will continue to mature. His defensive game isn’t nearly as remarkable, but his routes and angles continue to improve, and he has logged time at all three outfield spots, which gives him some positional versatility. Taveras’s offensive potential is the truth, and if he hits his projections he will be a superstar. He isn’t a finished product, but his time in the minors is nearing its conclusion, as the 19-year-old Dominican is more than holding his own in Double-A and should compete for a job in the majors at some point in 2013.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Taveras has few weaknesses at the plate; his swing is violent and his approach aggressive, so you would assume that he could get beaten by quality sequence, but he has such remarkable bat control and zone coverage that it’s hard to beat him with secondary stuff. But as he climbs the ladder and the stuff he faces improves, his approach will need to adjust to avoid exploitation. Better pitchers will quickly realize that Taveras feasts on fastballs, owning the type of bat speed that isn’t impressed by impressive velocity, so they will force him to stay back on the softer stuff, to rollover pitches when he’s out on the front foot. The pitch recognition skills have improved, but major league lefties will give him fits, particularly when they control the sequence and force Taveras to recognize and react to secondary offerings. Even with elite hand-eye coordination and bat control, Taveras will need a more refined plan at the plate to stay in favorable hitting situations, which is a must to survive battles against major league pitching. At maturity, Oscar Taveras could be a very special hitter, the type that is always a threat to win a batting title, but he’s not a finished product and he will face setbacks on the way to his ultimate projection.  

Prospect #2: RHP Shelby Miller
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Shelby Miller somehow fell to the 19th overall pick in the first round of the 2009 draft, and has since become one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in the minors. With prototypical size and strength, Miller looks the part, and the arsenal projects to feature three above-average pitches. His bread-and-butter pitch is a plus fastball, thrown anywhere from the low 90s to the upper 90s, featuring excellent late explosion to the arm side. His secondary stuff will flash, with the hard curve showing heavy vertical movement and the changeup working well off the fastball and showing some fading action. With a clean and athletic delivery, a good command profile, an arm that works very well, a fastball that often looks like a 7 pitch, and a good set of complementary offerings, Miller projects as a number two starter at the major league level.  

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Miller’s fastball velocity has been a bit depressed in 2012, but has improved as the season has progressed and the pitch remains his go-to offering. But without the plus-plus velocity, the pitch has only been good and not great, and when he elevates it in the zone, it loses its life and has been quite hittable. The 21-year-old rides the fastball hard, often at the expense of his other pitches, which not only retards their development, but also makes his stuff one-dimensional. The curveball will come and go, still flashing above-average potential but lacking the consistency of a plus offering. The changeup will also flash its potential, but his delivery has a tendency to get mechanical and deliberate, removing the deception from the change-of-pace offering. At times, Miller will look ordinary; a pitcher with a good fastball and decent control, but average secondary stuff and shaky command.

When it comes together, Miller can look like a frontline starter, pushing his lively, plus fastball down in the zone, using both the curve and the change to miss bats and force weak contact, and commanding the mound with an aggressive approach. The physical tools are there for the high-end projection, but it takes more than just promising physical characteristics to excel as a starter at the major league level. If Miller’s focus and commitment to his craft is on the same level as his stuff, he’s going to be a very good pitcher for a very long time.  

Prospect #3: 2B Kolten Wong
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: A standout at the University of Hawaii, Kolten Wong was selected with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2011 draft; he signed quickly for around the suggested slot, and began a professional record of mashing the baseball that continues a year later. Wong’s physical profile isn’t intimidating and his overall tool package doesn’t suggest an All-Star ceiling, but his ability to play the game at a high level across the board will make him a very good major leaguer for a very long time. The hit tool is the prom king of the skill set, a potential plus-plus weapon, with excellent zone coverage and bat speed. Wong has a preternatural ability to barrel a baseball, using all fields and stinging the ball with more pop than his size might suggest; he isn’t a big power threat, but he uses the gaps and will be a big doubles hitter thanks to his line-drive stroke. His glove work at second has improved as a pro, and his strong arm gives him an added weapon on the right side of the infield.

One scout told me that Wong could play any position on the diamond, with a nose for the game that could rival that of a 10-year major league veteran. He’s a gamer, but one with tools, and despite lacking size, he plays the game in a very physical manner, showing strength and athleticism on both sides of the ball. He profiles as a major league regular, one that will hit for a high average with some secondary skills, play solid-average (at least) defense at second, and play every game with a highly focused intensity.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: When you see Wong’s Double-A stat-line, you see an advanced hitter capable of a high batting average, good on base skills, and good pop, and it's natural to assume that production will follow him to the major league level. What could go wrong for Wong is that the reality of his skill set becomes more evident; an offensive force that makes a lot of contact—some of it being quite loud—but not a power threat. Wong will spread the love around, dropping the occasional bomb, ripping a respectable chunk of doubles and triples, but it’s unlikely that he will be able to match the offensive production normally delivered by first-division second basemen. Wong will hit for average, and he will find the gaps, but the sources I spoke with suggested his offensive game could be a little empty at the major league level, a good number two hitter in a lineup but not a star package. But to be honest, if the biggest knock on Wong is his limited power potential, is that really a big problem? We’ve established that he’s going to hit for a high average, show some secondary skills, and play quality defense, which might make him a first-division type or it might not, but it will make him a guy you can pencil in the lineup for 162 games a season and be satisfied with the results.  

Prospect #4: RHP Carlos Martinez
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Ever since the low six-figure Dominican signee named Carlos Matias became the low seven-figure signee named Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals organization could boast one of the highest ceiling arms in the minors. Despite a slight frame, Martinez can pump fastballs at elite velocity, with a four-seamer that can sit in the upper-90s and touch 100 mph. His arm is flat-out-stupid quick, which generates incredible movement in addition to the velocity, giving his fastball an added dimension. His curveball is a potential plus-plus offering, a hard breaker with depth, and his changeup, although often firm, can flash above-average potential as well, giving Martinez a starter’s arsenal to work with. His delivery isn’t always easy, but he shows the ability to repeat and to throw strikes, and despite the limited size and concerns about his ability to handle a heavy workload, the majority of the sources I spoke with saw him as a starter and not a reliever.

With three quality pitches—including a potential elite offering—Martinez has the stuff to pitch at the top of a major league rotation. His ultimate future will depend on his ability to maintain his pitches as the innings pile up, and if the secondary stuff can mature to potential. If everything clicks, Martinez could be a very special arm, the kind that every team covets and only a few are fortunate enough to acquire. The good news for the Cardinals is that even if Martinez falls short of his lofty projection, his fastball is so good that he could become a frontline reliever, almost as a fallback.  Either way, Martinez has the type of arm that will have impact at the major league level.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Martinez uses both a two- and four-seam fastball, the latter being a near-elite pitch, touching triple digits at times and crushing all those in its path. So far in 2012, Martinez has fallen in love with the two-seamer, a quality pitch that works in the lower 90s and features good movement, but it’s not the same type of monster and doesn’t intimidate hitters in the same manner. Given Martinez’s age, arsenal, and production level, it’s a minor nitpick to suggest he favors a weaker offering and therefore isn’t dominating the way his stuff should be dominating. After all, the 20-year-old has missed more than a bat an inning without allowing many free passes or offensive outbursts.

But some observers have expressed their frustration at the fire-baller, mostly because he often lets hitters off the hook. One scout went as far to say that “With his stuff, he should be missing more bats, and yes, I know he is missing plenty of bats. If he challenged hitters with the serious smoke, he could have twice as many strikeouts and half the hits allowed.” One could argue that Martinez is learning to pitch rather than just ram his high-octane heat down the throats of the opposition for the sake of domination, which could bode well for him down the line when he can feature big stuff delivered with nuance, rather than just max-effort intensity.

Martinez has been on the shelf for several weeks with shoulder tendinitis, but is set to make his return from the disabled in Double-A, a challenge that the hurler obviously needed. If 100% healthy and willing to attack, Martinez has the raw stuff to crush the dreams of hitters at the minor league level. It’s scary to think that he already has decent feel for his craft to go along with the electric stuff, and the combination of the two could make him a frontline starter. The shoulder injury won’t silence the bullpen chorus, and the effort in the delivery and the limited size aren’t likely to make a convincing  argument for the rotation, but as I mentioned, the majority of my sources view Martinez as a future starter. Two-seam/four-seam, nitpick aside, this is the biggest debate with the pitcher: starter or reliever.

Prospect #5: RHP Tyrell Jenkins
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Selected in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft, Jenkins might have the highest ceiling of any arm in the Cardinals system, which sounds crazy when you the organization can boast pitchers like Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal. The 19-year-old Texan has a plus fastball, a pitch that can already work  in the 91-95 mph range, and has touched higher in bursts. His curveball is a bat-missing weapon, a heavy, vertical breaker with depth, and every source I spoke with projected it as either a plus pitch or a potential plus pitch. Like his changeup—which shows good action to the arm side and deception from the fastball—the curve is still more flash than fire, but both have above-average potential. Jenkins is a very gifted athlete, and his delivery isn’t complicated or mechanical despite his length, which bodes well for his command/control profile. He’s far from a finished product, as the thrower still needs to develop into the pitcher, but the ceiling is massive. Jenkins has impressive size (6’4’’) and athleticism, he has a smooth delivery and has shown a good feel for the strike zone in the past, he already shows a plus fastball and two secondary pitches that flash above-average potential, and he’s only 19. What’s not to like?

What Could go Wrong in 2012: Jenkins could end up number one on this list, as his physical talent is off-the-chart, but he’s still very raw. The low minors are the developmental breeding grounds for arm strength through four-seam repetition and the establishment of fastball command. When you are throwing a large number of any one particular pitch—especially one that you are trying to throw over the plate—exploitation is an inevitable part of the process. Jenkins has electric stuff, but he’s not immune to barrels, as he’s allowed a fair share of hard contact so far this season. His command has been shaky, losing his delivery at times and failing to repeat, which has resulted in high pitch counts and too many walks.

Physically, Jenkins still needs to add strength to his imposing 6’4’’ frame, allowing him to hold his stuff at higher workloads and limit fatigue and its mechanical repercussions. His secondary pitches are still very hot and cold, with the consistency of his delivery and release points affecting the utility, but he has plenty of time to find refinement. The projections suggest Jenkins has a high ceiling, with three plus potential pitches, prototypical size, well above-average athleticism, and a mature approach to the process. He’s a long way from reaching that ceiling,  as the transformation from thrower to pitcher isn’t an overnight event. If the work ethic is there—which I’ve been told it is—Jenkins is a good candidate to emerge as a top-tier pitching prospect in the minors. It just might take a few years to see the production catch up to the promise.