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Top Ten Prospects: St. Louis Cardinals
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Will Lingo
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
After three straight years atop the National League Central and a 97-win season in 2002, the Cardinals fully expected to stay on top of their division and perhaps push into the World Series. But injuries and suspect pitching did in St. Louis, which finished third in the Central and was left with a lot of questions heading into 2004.
While the offense and defense were statistically better than in 2002, the Cardinals’ pitching was a patchwork operation again. This time, the patches didn’t hold. Closer Jason Isringhausen didn’t pitch until June because of a shoulder injury, and the bullpen blew 30 of 70 save opportunities.
The team went into the season with an $83 million payroll, slightly above what ownership had budgeted, so when the Cardinals needed a midseason deal to bolster the pitching staff they were unable to do anything major. They did get Mike DeJean and Sterling Hitchcock in August, but those two were unable to bail the team out.
St. Louis gave up four pitching prospects in the two deals: former first-round pick Justin Pope, plus Mike Crudale, Ben Julianel and John Novinsky. Though none of those arms were major parts of the franchise’s future, the moves further weakened one of the game’s thinnest minor league systems.
The system did provide a few pieces to the big league team. Last year’s top prospect, righthander Dan Haren, got called up in June and pitched well before his workload of the last two years seemed to catch up with him. Overachieving 33rd-round pick Bo Hart provided a spark at second base when Fernando Vina went down, but he’s not seen as a long-term answer. Unheralded rookie Kiki Calero, a six-year minor league free agent signee, was one of the bullpen’s most reliable arms before he blew out his knee in June.
The Cardinals have a lot of players like that in their system, guys who can contribute in the big leagues but aren’t going to be standouts who have key roles on championship teams. St. Louis has done a good job of holding onto its premium prospects while making frequent deals for major leaguers in recent years—getting such stars as Edgar Renteria—but those premium prospects are getting fewer and farther between each year.
In a nod to that trend as well as to the best-selling book “Moneyball,” the Cardinals restructured their scouting department this offseason to try to get more out of the draft. Scouting director Marty Maier was reassigned to special-assignment scout, and assistant general manager John Mozeliak took over the scouting department in addition to his duties as director of baseball operations. The Cardinals also hired Jeff Luhnow as an assistant vice president of baseball development to compile databases and try to improve the team’s efficiency with the draft.
Mozeliak said his ultimate goal is to rely more on the decisions of individual scouts when drafting players, rather than giving more credence to crosschecking. “The restructuring we’re going through will ultimately empower our scouts,” he said.
Top Prospect: Blake Hawksworth, RHP
Age: 21 Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 195 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: He pitched just 87 innings in his first full professional season because of persistent ankle problems, but Hawksworth established himself as the organization’s brightest light. He was a prominent prospect at a Washington high school but fell to St. Louis in the 28th round in 2001 because of a perceived strong commitment to Cal State Fullerton. At the last minute, though, he decided to enroll at nearby Bellevue (Wash.) CC, so the Cardinals retained his rights. They signed him the next May as a draft-and-follow for $1.475 million, making up for their lack of a first- or second-round pick that year. Hawksworth earned a promotion to high Class A Palm Beach last year after just 10 starts at low Class A Peoria, still enough to rank him as the Midwest League’s top pitching prospect. He had a small spur in his ankle that bothered him all season and limited his running. He tried to pitch through it and did for the most part, but the Cardinals finally decided to shut him down at the end of July so he could have the spur removed. He should be at full strength for spring training.
Strengths: Hawksworth has the highest ceiling of any St. Louis pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel. His fastball usually ranges from 90-92 mph, but it was clocked at 96 in the seventh inning of one start. He could pitch at 92-94 consistently as he fills out, and he has started pitching off his fastball consistently after relying too much on his offspeed stuff as an amateur. Both his curveball and changeup are potential above-average pitches. His curve has good rotation and his changeup has good fade. Hawksworth also has a good approach to pitching and admirable toughness. He makes pitches when he needs to, and when he gets ahead of hitters he puts them away.
Weaknesses: Fastball command is Hawksworth’s biggest need, as it lags behind his control of the curve and changeup. Again, that’s a function of his younger days, when he dominated hitters with his offspeed stuff and used his fastball sparingly. He can pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone but doesn’t always do so consistently. In part that’s because, while his mechanics are smooth, his release point varies. Hawksworth needs to pitch a full season, not only to prove he’s healthy but also to soak up the experience that only innings can bring.
The Future: Because the ankle injury slowed him down, Hawksworth could return to Palm Beach to start the 2004 season. But he’ll likely spend a good portion of the season in Double-A Tennessee. One Midwest League manager said Hawksworth would be in St. Louis in no more than two years, and that’s not an unreasonable prediction. He projects as a front-of-the-rotation starter in an organization that desperately needs pitching help.