Background: The St. Louis farm system is not what it once was. After several years rated as one of the best systems in the game, featuring impact talent at the top, supplemented by seemingly endless depth, most experts see the Cards’ system as having few in the way of potential stars and thin in the way of depth. Back in 2011, when the Cardinals’ A-ball affiliate was in Quad Cities, it won the Midwest League title with a roster that included Kolten Wong, Greg Garcia, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal, and the late Oscar Taveras.
Today, their affiliate is in Peoria, Illinois, and nobody currently on the roster has the kind of prospect status that Martinez, Wong, and Taveras once had. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few hidden gems. We talked to two of them earlier this month.
The players: Junior Fernandez is 6-foot-1 and thick, the rare starting pitcher with the body of a lineman. He seems to stand taller than he is, leaving anyone in close proximity easily intimidated by his demeanor. He’s often struggled with command, walking 18.8 percent of batters he faced in Peoria, but it isn’t for lack of confidence. The 2014 international signee from the Dominican Republic has a strong arm, normally sitting mid-90s with his fastball and touching 97 or 98 frequently. He doesn’t come without questions, according to the BP Prospect team:
“What might not allow Fernandez to start, is his delivery. There’s a lot of effort, and he may not have the durability to hold up over a 200-inning, or even 170-inning season. If he does move to the bullpen, he’s a future closer, but no one can blame the Cardinals for giving him every chance to start, knowing that “and best of luck to you, Mr. Hitter” reliever is there if and when they choose to go that route.”
Sandy Alcantara, in contrast with Fernandez, is extremely tall and thin. But like Fernandez, he’s made big strides on the mound in 2016, upping the strikeouts from 19 percent in 2015 to 31 in 2016. His groundball percentage has taken a dive, down from 59 percent to 45, but he’s still sitting in an average groundball range while striking out a ton of batters. Again, from the BP Prospect team:
“He’ll touch the upper 90s with his fastball (usually 92-96) and his frame suggests he’ll have a double-plus fastball as he fills out. He also shows a solid changeup, but the curveball is below average and the command has a long way to go. This is a work in progress, but he could be one of the best pitching prospects in the system someday.”
The Fernandez plan: “I felt so good—I was throwing my fastball for strikes and was commanding really well yesterday and our offense helped me a lot,” Fernandez said after his most recent start against the Clinton Lumberkings. “I’m working a lot on my mechanics and my rhythm, because sometimes I feel like I’m not really consistent with my mechanics. So that’s caused me to throw more pitches high and get more walks. But now I’m working with the pitching coach every day and it’s working out.”
Peoria manager Joe Kruzel thinks the pitching mechanics are coming along just fine for Fernandez.
“I wouldn’t call it (his pitching motion) violent,” he said. “I think it’s just there’s a lot of movement in there, but not violent. He repeats it, pretty much. He’s got good arm whip. When he locates his fastball down, he’s effective. I think he’s moving in the right direction.”
Tamping down the heat on his fastball may be part of why Fernandez has had better command, as well. For the most part, it sat at 92-93 against Clinton while touching 96 or 97 just a handful of times early. BP’s Wilson Karaman has indicated that Fernandez has a high-effort pitching motion, one that helps create the elite velocity but could make his future as a starter in the big leagues doubtful.
Decreased velocity might also be an indication that he’s tired, which wouldn’t be surprising given that he’s already tossed a career-high in innings. But Kruzel doesn’t seem to think that’s the case.
“I don’t see him getting tired,” said Kruzel. “I mean, every time you ask him to throw the ball he takes it. He isn’t showing any signs of being tired or losing his stuff.”
The Alcantara plan: “Be more focused during the game, learn what I was doing wrong in the past outing, and don’t make the same mistake over and over,” said Alcantara. “Early in the season I was working a lot behind in the count, so I wanted to be more aggressive off the plate, work ahead, and it’ll be more easy for me to get people out.”
Part of that has been the focus on cleaning up his secondary pitches, which includes a curveball that he’s finally getting a good handle on.
“I was working a little bit early in the season with a different grip, but now I have one and I’m able to be consistent with that one, using it in the game and feeling good with it. It’s getting better as the season is going, I’m working in the bullpen to get more consistent with those pitches and be more consistent during the game.”
Count Kruzel in the camp of people impressed with both Alcantara’s curveball and changeup.
“It took him a while to get his curveball when he first got here because of the cold. He’d never pitched in the cold before,” said Kruzel. “A lot of people talk about his fastball, but he’s got a really, really good changeup and a good breaking ball.”
Even though Alcantara can throw a fastball anywhere from 92 mph to 100—and he did hit 100 on his 92nd pitch in his July 7 start against Clinton—he’s becoming so much more than just heat in the eyes of his manager.
“Sometimes people don’t understand that, yeah, he throws hard. There’s no doubt about it, there’s no disguising that. But if you really watch him, he’s really starting to become a pitcher. We’re really, really happy with his progress.”
What’s next: For both Fernandez and Alcantara, Kruzel stressed the word “development” over and over. That, after all, is what the minor leagues are all about for young players, and where the Cardinals as an organization have made their riches in the past several… decades. After top prospect Alex Reyes, the Cardinals don’t have anyone in the BP midseason top-50, and few others on the radar for potential stardom. “Future star” might not be the way anyone would describe Fernandez and Alcantara, but for those who wonder how one of the premier franchises in the game consistently beats the odds in player development, well, it’s just that: development.
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