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When he decided to leave his home and family in New Jersey to see if baseball would take notice of him in the Dominican Republic, Reyes packed his dreams of being a third baseman, a glove, some cleats and a few bats. He wouldn't need the bats for long. Born and raised in Elizabeth, N.J., the righthander skipped his prom and graduation to live with his grandmother and become eligible as an international amateur, if he could draw the scouts. He did with one move--to the mound. Reyes volunteered to throw when his Dominican team ran out of pitchers one day, and after flashing a power fastball a trainer gave him advice: "Stick to pitching," Reyes recalled. As his velocity increased, scouts swarmed. The Cardinals signed him for $950,000 in December 2012 after winning a bidding war against the Astros and Royals. Reyes zoomed through the minors, but late in 2015, at the Arizona Fall League, he drew a 50-game suspension for marijuana use. That delayed his 2016 debut but not his arrival to the majors. He reached St. Louis on Aug. 9 and topped out at 101 mph. The Cardinals see Reyes as a stronger, taller, broader version of a pitcher with whom he'll share the rotation: Carlos Martinez. Reyes operates at the highest registers when it comes to velocity. He averaged 97 mph on his fastball in the majors, routinely worked from 96-100 with it, and an opposing team clocked him in the minors at 102. He can maintain that power late into his starts and spot it up in the zone. Nearly 45 percent of his outs recorded came via strikeouts in the minors. His fastball has been described as elite and a true top-of-the-scale weapon. With it, he mixes a hard, hammer curve that unnerves the first batter who sees it in every game. It too is a plus pitch, and increasingly in the majors his strikeouts came off the curve, or soon after a hitter saw it. Reyes' changeup profiles as a plus pitch, though he's had less consistency with it, and he is working on a cutter-slider hybrid that can get him access to both sides of the plate. Reyes throws across his body and his mechanics, like his command, can fluctuate. To pitch deeper into games he has to become more efficient with his pitch count (he walked 4.5 per nine innings in the majors), and a root cause coaches feel is finding a rhythm for his delivery so that he can repeat it. He has the wide shoulders and tree-trunk legs to hog innings. If other teams' interest is any measure of a prospect, then Reyes is poised for stardom. The Cardinals had difficulty finding an impact trade for an outfielder because other teams wanted Reyes. That was a non-starter for the Cardinals, who intend to make Reyes a permanent part of the big league rotation in 2017. In the years to come could emerge as that rare, power-packed, bona fide ace.
There was a time Weaver used his slight frame as a ruse. He would dial back his warmups so his stuff looked as undersized as he did, but there was no hiding his velocity from live hitters. An ace at Florida State and a member of USA Baseball's 2013 Collegiate National Team, Weaver signed for $1,843,000. He was sidelined in 2016 by a broken wrist but returned in June, emerged as a Texas League dynamo, and zoomed to majors. The elasticity and athleticism of Weaver's mechanics allow him excellent pound-for-pound velocity. His fastball sits 92-94 mph and touches 96, which he complements with an an above-average changeup. He is fearless with the pitch, throwing it to either side of the plate. In the minors, Weaver relentlessly worked the edges of the strike zone with his sinker or changeup 80 percent of the time with double-plus control. He wasn't as aggressive in the majors, groping for a precise pitch instead relying on movement. That made him less economical and prone to damage. Earmarked to be the ace of the Triple-A Memphis staff so he can sharpen his approach, a strong spring will cement Weaver as the Cardinals' next arm up when a starter is needed.
Perez was a top-10 talent entering the 2016 draft and the top shortstop available, before a report surfaced that he tested positive for an undisclosed performance-enhancing drug. Perez tumbled to 23rd overall, where the Cardinals pounced for a $2,222,500 bonus. Perez draws comparisons to fellow Puerto Ricans Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor with a lithe, quick-twitch lope that comes from high-functioning athleticism. He has 70 speed on a 20-80 scouting scale and movement in the field that match that quickness. He showed flashes of instincts, true hands, and above-average range, but also committed 17 errors because he had difficulty playing under control. Consistency will come when he syncs his raw skills. A project at the plate, Perez proved aggressive and able to drive fastballs. He was a pull hitter in his pro debut and undone by quality offspeed pitches. Scouts see strong hands and strong forearms that project for gap power, and maybe more. Encouraged by how he responded to why he dropped in the draft and how he gobbled up instruction, the Cardinals believe they may have a blue-chip stock in Perez. He'll get work in extended spring training before heading to Rookie-level Johnson City, a launch pad for prospects.
When Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former Gold Glove winner, authored the chapter on catching in 'The Cardinal Way' handbook, he listed traits any good receiver must have. Kelly memorized and tried to mimic all of them. A third baseman when the Cardinals drafted him Kelly has morphed into a Cardinals catcher straight out of central casting. He reached the majors in September and doubled off Antonio Bastardo in his first at-bat. After two seasons consumed by learning to catch, the Cardinals felt Kelly's promotion to Double-A Springfield was a chance to reveal he could hit. He took advantage. Kelly generates reasonable power with his strength and pendulum swing. He's been more selective at each level and the gap between his bat and his glove shrank. Kelly has made himself into a double-plus backstop with smooth framing, quick transitions, a strong arm and nimbleness. He is ready to be Yadier Molina's backup if needed in 2017, but the Cardinals would prefer he start every day at Memphis instead of rusting on their bench.
Part of an international signing class with Alex Reyes and Edmundo Sosa, Sierra landed a $105,000 bonus and swiftly asserted himself. . In his debut season he became the first teenager to win the Cardinals' organization player of the year award, and that invited an aggressive promotion the next season that chilled his production. Given a second crack at low Class A Peoria in 2016, the live-wire athlete got his groove back. Sierra is a superior defensive center fielder with an easy gallop and wide-open range. He shows instincts beyond his level, playing shallow to steal singles and still being able to track back without a glitch. His arm plays even better than its plus strength because of his quick release and accuracy. His glove will keep him in the lineup, allowing a polarizing bat to steady. Sierra has a swift, compact swing, and he added strength that allows him to drive the ball. Better pitch recognition will help him unlock the above-average hitter he can be. He's an above-average runner still learning how to use his speed efficiently on the bases. Sierra will begin 2017 at high Class A Palm Beach and, if he hits, could surge quickly because the glove is deft.
Longer than they've been pros, Alcantara and teammate Junior Fernandez have been linked, from their time with the same trainer (Felix Liriano) to 2016 in the same, power-packed Peoria rotation. For the first time, Alcantara surged ahead as a prospect. Signed for a $125,000 bonus at 17, the righthander always had a frame and untamed power that suggested robust talent. During an extended spring outing in 2015, he hit 102 mph with his fastball and he routinely touched 100 mph while sitting 95-96. At the time of his promotion to high Class A Palm Beach, he led the Midwest League with 119 strikeouts. There is still room on Alcantara's frame for strength gains, and that could help the lean, loose, wiry starter center his delivery and make it more consistent. The makings are there. At present, he can lose his feel for his mechanics and his fastball drifts up or out of the zone and the walks flow. Alcantara improved throughout the season and started showing an effective curve and above-average changeup. The righthander has packed on the innings as a pro and his three-pitch mix is enough for the Cardinals to project him as a starter, even ahead of sidekick Fernandez. Primed for a return to Palm Beach and its pitcher-friendly environs, Alcantara's climb is about to accelerate, especially if a need opens at higher levels for a 100-mph blowtorch in the bullpen.
Bader shined as a three-year starter for Florida and even hit the first home run to center field at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, but faced persistent questions whether he would hit for enough power to fit a corner outfield spot. The Cardinals drafted and signed Bader for a $400,000 bonus, and he rewarded them with a .311/.368/.523 line in his debut. His 11 homers led all 2015 draft picks. That allowed the Cardinals to test him with advanced placement in Double-A, where before the end of May he had a 17-game hitting streak, one shy of affiliate record. Cast as a leadoff hitter to inspire a grinding approach, Bader, at heart, remains an eager hitter. Two evaluators called him "aggressively confident" at the plate and his ambush power has grown as a result. He is a coiled, broad-shouldered athlete that has above-average speed and a rising aptitude to take an extra base. A solid-average swing and a seasoned feel for the strike zone served him well in the Arizona Fall League to go with his average power potential. Bader showed capable range and a good arm for center, where his bat profiles as an asset. A taste of Triple-A in 2016 will become a priority starting role there in 2017. If he sticks at center, Bader will increase his imminent value to the Cardinals as a fourth outfielder or muscle his way into a trade.
The third headliner from the 2012 international class, Sosa's climb through the system has been more deliberate. Sosa received a $425,000 bonus, the largest for any Panamanian in 2012 and debuted in 2013. He's been called a bat-first infielder, the finest glove in his league, and, most recently, the club's best all-around prospect at shortstop. Sosa has above-average actions at shortstop, from his range to his arm and especially his superb hands. He plays with a natural levity that can sometimes be misread as laissez faire. He has a flair--and a knack for making plays that cannot be taught. A .300/.369/.485 hitter at short-season, Sosa's approach came undone with low class A Peoria. He lost track of his zone and as a result his ability to get on base flagged. He did not start hitting to the level until the Cardinals promoted him out of need, and then a left wrist injury (tendinitis) ended his season in late July. Sosa is likely headed back to high Class A Palm Beach, and a good showing in the challenging Florida State League should result in a promotion to Double-A Springfield.
Few college arms had as much buoyancy as Hudson, who added 25 pounds through college and via the Cape Cod League (54 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings) emerged as an intriguing, four-pitch power collegian. He threw in the upper-90s coming out of a Tennessee high school but had an uncomfortable relationship with control. Strength and experience brought command. He cut his walk rate in half as a junior and had a 9.2 strikeouts per nine rate. A balloon rising in teams' evaluations, Hudson went 34th overall to the Cardinals and became a rocket, finishing the year in the Double-A Texas League playoffs. Hudson has a fastball that rises to 96-97 mph and sits 94 mph. He offsets it with a biting 78-82 mph curveball and a slider that sizzles around 87 mph and is already the best of its ilk in the organization. An improved changeup will defy lefthanded hitters. One crosschecker called Hudson's arsenal the most-advanced blend of pitches in college this past year, and what brought it all together for was a simplification of his delivery that can be more repeatable. His velocity and feel faltered with career-high innings and stiffer SEC competition, but it snapped back as a pro. After a promotion to Double-A Springfield to get playoff experience, Hudson has the organization seeing its next quantum-leap college starter, following the jet streams of Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales, and Luke Weaver.
An Appalachian League all-star in 2015 like teammates Magneuris Sierra and Edmundo Sosa, Alvarez hardly had the name recognition or shine of his peers. Four summers spent as a short-season denizen and several injuries gave him the look of an idle infielder. Dubbed a "five-tool player" early in his career, his career took a sharp turn with his first full-season assignment. Alvarez's .879 OPS ranked behind only heralded prospect Eloy Jimenez (Cubs) in the low Class A Midwest League, his 36 steals led the league, and no other Cardinals infielder had a slash line like his .323/.404/.476. A simple swing from the left side gives Alvarez a balanced sweep through the strike zone and ability to dart pitches to all fields. He rarely lunges or gets caught with a silly swing. Alvarez inflated his slugging percentage with smart baserunning, racing for 36 doubles. That same headiness is sometimes lacking in the field. Alvarez can ease back on grounders, invite a bad hop, and that contributed to 27 errors. He has an above-average arm for second and Cardinals feel keener attention could make him an adequate fielder at several infield positions. The manifest of Alvarez's talent was so assertive that the Cardinals added him to the 40-man roster and are leaning toward pushing him straight to Double-A.
As a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake High, Flaherty was a teammate with two first-round pitchers, Lucas Giolito (now White Sox) and Max Fried (Padres). No wonder he played third base. The Cardinals wooed the 34th overall pick in 2014 with a $2 million bonus, convinced his future was on the mound. He showed a polish beyond his age and a feel for four pitches, any or all of which could, given some nurturing, be above-average. Although he has the look of a pitcher with more velocity to reveal, Flaherty operates at 90-92 mph with his fastball and has yet to fulfill projections. He's persistent with throwing strikes. Flaherty mixes the fastball with a solid changeup that was projected to be a plus-plus pitch for him but hasn't reached that point yet. He also has a rolling curve and a slider that get muddled. With agility and reliable mechanics, he's getting good gas mileage in third gear and could reach the upper levels on reliability alone, but if he can find fourth and redline to fifth he'll move swifter. A return to high Class A Palm Beach is possible, at least to start the season, and if Flaherty's velocity continues to creep up so will he, with a chance be a front-line starter.
One of the Cuban talents the Cardinals signed later in spending spree on international talent, Arozarena could arrive sooner than any of them. The 21-year-old athlete has all of the traits of a player who could speed toward the majors and enough rawness that some think he'll need some nurturing at a lower level before, in a year or so, being unleashed upon a higher level. Arozarena (which has also been spelled "Arrozarena") starred in Cuba's junior leagues, batting .375/.510/.500 in 154 plate appearances. That earned him a spot on the Cuban 18U national team in 2013 that appeared in Taiwan, and by tournament's end he ranked second on the team in on-base percentage behind uber-prospect Yoan Moncada. The Cardinals went to Mexico to sign Arozarena, who briefly played in the Mexican League for Tijuana in April, for a $1.25 million bonus, and they are open to pushing Arozarena in 2017. He is a plus athlete with good speed and above range at either second or center field. He gets a good jolt from his bat, but is swing is built for liners not lofting. The Cardinals had him focus on center field in winter ball in Mexico, where he slumped after a fast start and hit .289/.382/.347 through 51 games. Because his experience outside of Cuba is so limited, there is an unknown about Arozarena. The Cardinals see untapped, raw talent. He has the look of a leadoff type with a vibrant style in the field, and swift move toward Double-A or Triple-A is possible.
Between the breakout of Michael Wacha and the advent of Alex Reyes, Gonzales stood out as the team's top prospect. He moved as swiftly to the majors as Wacha and had as prominent a late-season role as Reyes, making six relief appearances in the 2014 playoffs. But before Gonzales cemented himself in the majors, his elbow betrayed him. The lefty missed all of the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John and he'll return to a uncertain place, first as a starter at Triple-A Memphis. A prep star in Colorado who won four consecutive state championships, Gonzales was also a two-way star at Gonzaga. The 19th overall pick in 2013, he made his major league debut at Coors Field less than 12 months later. At his peak, he throws 88-91 mph, and he uses a precision fastball to setup his best pitch, a superior changeup that he once said he knows as well as a handshake. In 2015, the zip on some of his pitches slipped and his changeup became less effective. He pitched through some soreness and eventually surrendered to surgery in the spring. In Gonzales, the Cardinals see a reliable starter but perhaps a more effective, devilish multi-inning reliever. He'll have the first half of this season to prove his health before they determine his role.
When DeJong took the field for his first workout at the Arizona Fall League, he began taking grounders at third base before doing a quick head count. He was one of three at the corner. There was only one at shortstop. That's because, his manager Aaron Rowand later revealed, the Cardinals wanted him to play shortstop after seeing him handle it in 11 games with Double-A Springfield. DeJong played mostly third with some second base and catcher mixed in for Illinois State, and the Cardinals are intent to see if he can be an everyday shortstop at Triple-A Memphis in 2017. Power plays. Where is the only question. DeJong received a $200,000 bonus in 2015 and instantly became one of the Cardinals' top power prospects. They were intrigued by the exit velocity off his bat, the paws and forearms that generate bat speed and thus distance, and of course an eagerness to swing big. DeJong does not get cheated and will trade strikeouts for homers; he ranked fifth in the Texas League in homers (22) but second in strikeouts (144). He has improved his sense for the difference between pitches to drive and pitches to survive. DeJong has playable footwork for shortstop and a strong, true arm. He's expanding his range with positioning and experience. If he can stick at a premium position, he'll follow Allen Craig's route as a bat with a variety of gloves.
At the end of his pro debut with short-season State College, Gomber headed back to school with an offseason project assigned by the Cardinals. They wanted him to get a curveball, one that he could throw with force to make movement happen, rather than the one he threw at Florida Atlantic, one he tried to force and saw nothing happen. That downward-diving pitch sent his production soaring. Gomber went 15-3, 2.67 the next summer and came to major league spring training as its youngest pitcher, 22. He reached Double-A Springfield in 2016 and finished in the Arizona Fall League as one of its most impressive and economical starters. A hulking lefty, Gomber pitches with an unusual angle, pace and guile. He doesn't have one overwhelming pitch, but the command and sequence he can use throws off top-shelf hitters. His fastball sits from 89-92 mph, and when it's on it helps set up his average changeup; quick outs follow and he flourishes. He spent most of spring observing the major league starters between their appearances, memorizing with an intent to mimic their routines so improve his own conditioning and strength. Gomber has a seasoned feel for how he intends to pitch and, thanks to the upper-70s curveball, a confidence in pitches at three different speeds. He'll advance as a starter, first to Double-A and then wherever needed.
One of the youngest players available in the draft, Carlson also had some of the deepest roots in the game. His father, Jeff, has been the coach at Elk Grove High for more than a decade, and his son was well known as a cage rat on the elite showcase circuits. He was a surprise first-round pick for the Cardinals, who convinced him to step out of a commitment to Cal State Fullerton and into a $1,350,000 bonus as the 33rd overall pick. Carlson had a .718 OPS in his first 183 at-bats, but he got better, more thunderous with each month. Carlson had 14 extra-base hits and slugged .523 in August. As he grows into his frame and balances his swing, Carlson could have above-average power from both sides. He flattened his swing during the season to be less of a flick and more of a sweep through the zone. At 17, he saw offspeed pitches at rates and proficiencies he hadn't before, so some trouble was expected. He's better from the left side now, but shows the same steady approach from both boxes. He'll play center field for as long as he can, but with a fringy arm and corner-outfield speed he'll gravitate to left or right or become a plus first baseman as he strides toward Rookie-level Johnson City.
Outshined by hitters like Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader in his draft class and overshadowed by the power arms he shared a rotation with in low Class A Peoria, Woodford still has a ceiling as high as any because of his frame and the pitches he flashes. Woodford made the most of his time in front of scouts who came to see his high school teammate and first-round pick Kyle Tucker, the 2015 High School Player of the Year. Woodford has a projectable body, a competitive poise, and he proved to be a quick study in his pro debut. Within his first 12 months, Woodford's changeup and breaking ball both improved. He has games where all his pitches are average to above, though consistency isn't always at his fingertips. Peoria's opening day starter, at 19, Woodford builds his game around a sinking two-seamer that has a steep downhill angle and hitters have difficulty elevating. He doesn't have the high-octane arm of Sandy Alcantara, but Woodford is expected to see a spike from his 90-92 mph fastball as he builds strength and stamina. He and Jack Flaherty are similar enough that they're jockeying for advancement, and either could see Double-A.
If the Cardinals could design, trait by trait, the type of player they would like to find in every draft it would be Jones. Not since Michael Wacha has there been a more Cardinal-type pitcher available to them. Billed as one of the safest pitching picks in the 2016 draft, Jones led Virginia's rotation to a national championship as a sophomore and was the Friday-night ace as a junior, when his stuff backed up across the board, dropping him in the draft. He harmonizes with all of the things the Cardinals value. His stats satisfied the analytics, his athleticism satisfied the front office, his pitches satisfied the scouts, and even his sinker satisfies the organization's groundball-greedy approach. Jones' fastball runs heavy at 90-92 mph, and he can gear up for 96 mph. Jones has toyed with a splitter grip instead of a changeup. Both his breaking balls, a curve and a slider, are viable, and the slider has flashed plus in the past. Jones has some flaws in his mechanics, typical of Virginia pitchers, that complicate his command. The Cardinals believe they're easy to correct and may vanish after Jones has a break from a long season. He could see high Class A in 2017 because safe is a synonym for predictable and predictable gets promoted.
As the Cardinals geared up for a record spending spree on international talent, one of the youngest and littlest players they intended to sign was also one of the hardest to scout and set to receive one of the highest bonuses they have ever offered. Machado (whose first name is sometimes spelled "Jonatan") received a $2.35 million deal from the Cardinals, the largest international bonus in club history. Machado's bonus alone eclipsed the Cardinals' cap, something they knew in 2016-17 they'd blown past--by a lot. Machado is a contact-oriented hitter who rarely struck out and showed a keen ability to barrel all kinds of pitches. For Havana in Cuba's 15-and-under league, Machado hit .336/.387/.451 and had as many steals (five) as strikeouts (five). He's a fleet-footed runner and that gives him excellent range in center. While he's deft enough to drop a bunt for a hit, he also has ambush power. He's described as a prototypical leadoff-type with potential for gap-to-gap power and 70 speed to invent doubles, plus he can handle a premium position. He'll get a run in those roles in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2017.
Seijas had a good showing when he reached the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League for his first domestic innings since turning pro. Only 17, Seijas displayed a three-pitch mix, and scouts saw flashes of above-average from each for his level and age. Despite his 5-foot-8 stature, one GCL manager said he looks like a basketball player on the mound-- and his father was a superb basketball player--and then the leg lifts, the torso rotates, and the velocity flows. Seijas threw 91-95 mph and that is expected to skyrocket as he matures. His composure is expected to settle at the same time, as familiarity and confidence replace the agitation of youth that came with tricky situations. Seijas has strong start to a changeup and a curveball with natural, tight spin that has the trappings of a plus pitch. He'll start at-bats with it, showing his precociousness. He could earn time at Rookie-level Johnson City in 2017.
Fernandez played for Miami's Varela High before his family moved back to the Dominican in April 2013, freeing him from the amateur draft and allowing him to land a $400,000 bonus from the Cardinals. Fernandez blazed into the top 10 a year ago with a fastball that delighted radar guns, chugging at 94-99 mph and touching 100 mph. He complemented it with a sinker, an advanced and tumbling changeup, and a peripheral slider with improved tilt. The pitches alone did equal success at high Class A. While carved from the same athletic mold as other Cardinals power pitchers, Fernandez has a violent delivery that rattles loose. Scouts see a pitcher who would respond to trouble by throwing harder, then hardest, and rarely more accurately. He can overpower hitters, but must improve on doing so with pitches in the zone. Fernandez pitches with a reliever's assertiveness, a reliever's speed-slider combo, and he could see late-inning work at Double-A this summer.
Eight months before bidding could truly begin, Garcia was a one-man jubilee at Major League Baseball's national showcase in Venezuela. That show of force had scouts convinced he had the most raw power of his class, and BA ranked him 10th in the 2016 international class. The Cardinals had favorable evaluations before Garcia's power went public and signed him to a $1.5 million bonus. Garcia has the bat and body type built for power. He can hit with it to all fields and gets good carry on his hits without the need of loft. True to his age, he needs more time in the box to develop pitch recognition and better offspeed understanding so that his power translates more consistently into games. When he connects against live pitching, it's loud, and that has the Cardinals believing he has a tool that cannot be taught but will benefit from an approach that can be. Garcia hasn't show much arm strength and has limited range. He'll start as a corner outfielder, but the possibility of adding on strength and weight as he grows could lead him to first base. His position is hitter. As he moves toward the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, how he bats is more essential than where he plays.
When the Cardinals returned Tuivailala to Triple-A in 2016 and a late-inning role for the highest affiliate, they did so with a clear assignment: Master the cutter. Manager Mike Matheny was one of the loudest advocates of the pitch, which he believed would turn Tuivailala into a power arm that could be counted on for the seventh inning, or later. The pitch was relatively new for Tuivailala, who was only in his fourth season as a pitcher. Back in 2011, as an infielder, Tuivailala homered and his coaches already knew what awaited him later that day. A team official had come to Johnson City to tell Tuivailala he was moving to the mound. With little idea how to actually deliver a pitch, Tuivailala threw a bullpen--and touched high-90s mph. That power has been good enough to get him to the majors, but he'll need more to stick there. The intriguing cutter works at 87 mph, a needed tick down from his 97 mph heater. He has toyed with a power curve and a loopier curve, but lefthanded hitters at Triple-A torched him for a .939 OPS. Quality strikes is what he must get with the fastball and either secondary if he's to seize anything more than a recurring cameo in St. Louis.
Before the teen's first full professional year could begin, it was over. In June, Plummer had a second surgery on his hand to address an injury that had twice kept him from playing. During spring he had the hamate bone removed, and later a tear within the hand had to be repaired. Those surgeries meant he would spend all of 2016 rehabbing and building strength so that he could start back at the same spot for 2017. The Cardinals hope the injury is just a delay, not a sidetrack. Plummer became the first Michigan prep player drafted in the first round since 1997 (Ryan Anderson) and only the second since Derek Jeter (1992). He signed for a $2,124,000 bonus, one of the top six in club history, and the Cardinals realized he would also require an investment of time. Plummer had 39 walks in his pro debut, carrying over a studious, patient reputation he earned in a high school league that started hitters with a 1-1 count. He's got a short swing and solid pitch recognition that does well against even the velocity monsters he faced in Rookie ball. Set for a short-season club, he's got the build and bat to fit at center and will get a run there; it's just getting a slower start.
The Cardinals selected six consecutive pitchers to open the 2014 draft. They grabbed the surefire college righthander (Luke Weaver), the upside high schooler (Jack Flaherty), and even the high-performance college lefty (Austin Gomber). In the middle of all that polish, the Cardinals also picked a project. Small, athletic and gifted with a spring-loaded right arm, Williams had far less experience as a pitcher than his contemporaries. An eager student of the position, Williams proved to be as quick to learn as he was quick to throw. The righthander builds his game around a fastball that sits in the low 90s mph and touches 97. He sometimes loses velocity to gain command and needs more consistency with the fastball to use his secondary pitches. Williams has a changeup that will play at higher levels and a wipeout breaking ball that will play if he can throw it for a strike. His stuff has been described as "electric," but it's not always efficient. He got better later in the season--no surprise because he's also getting stronger--earning a promotion from short-season State College to low Class A Peoria. The ingredients are all there awaiting the catalyst that only comes from experience, which he's set to get as a priority starter at Peoria in 2017.
Whatever frustrations Denton had offensively in his early games as a pro a coach said he never let on, never wore them on his sleeve. The success he had in his final games of 2016 means he can wear them on his finger. Denton slugged a three-run homer and had a career-best five RBIs in the clinching game as Rookie-level Johnson City swept its way to the Appalachian League title. Denton muscled the JC-Cards into the playoffs with a .287/.362/.404 August and 19 RBIs in 25 games. It was the punctuation on a learning-curve season. Denton landed a $1.2 million bonus from the team for his power potential, which some evaluators peg as average. The Cardinals believe there's more locked within a projectable frame and quick, belting swing. As he matures--he was only 17 when drafted--and sees more higher-level pitching, the belief is his power will perk. Denton has a liveliness on the field, especially in the field, where whatever rough edges he has at third base he smooths with high energy. He has the arm and range to remain at third base as he reaches a full-season club, but he could move to a corner outfield spot or first base, depending on how the bat plays at low Class A Peoria in 2017.
Gant and Rob Whalen joined the Braves when Atlanta sent journeymen Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson to New York near the trading deadline in 2015. Less than a year later he was on the move again, this time as part of a three-player package, St. Louis-bound for lefty Jaime Garcia. After pitching well at the end of 2015 at Double-A Mississippi, the righthander spent most of 2016 bouncing between the big leagues and Triple-A Gwinnett while missing nearly a month at midseason due to a left oblique strain. Gant averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings with Atlanta. His funky delivery begins with him scraping his left foot on the ground, pausing and then pitching. Gant can repeat the two-tap mechanics and has solid command, generating lots of grounders by throwing on a downhill plane with his 6-foot-5 frame. Gant's strength is his ability to set up hitters. He throws his low-90s fastball about 58 percent of the time and splits his remaining offerings between an above-average changeup and a tight curveball with a sharp break. Gant has the toolset to be a No. 4 or 5 starter or a situational reliever, and is likely to pitch for multiple teams before his career concludes. He'll provide the Cardinals a long reliever or sub-starter when needed in 2017.
If there is one true referendum on a club's farm system and the talent inside, it's what other teams ask for in trades. As the Cardinals sought a reliever around the non-waiver trade deadline in 2016, one of the players deep in the system that clubs coveted was Hicks, an otherwise unheralded and quietly intriguing talent who had a delayed debut. Hicks did not pitch in a game until 2016 because of shoulder inflammation, and the Cardinals played ultra-conservative with his workload. When they unleashed him on the Rookie-level Appalachian League and later the short-season New York-Penn League, he rated as one of the best pitching prospects in each. Hicks, a Tulane commit who received a $600,000 bonus, is a standout athlete with the stuff that inspires dreams. His fastball has sink and zips at 92-97 mph. His changeup is firm and effective against lefthanded batters. He's got a tightly-wound, biting 78-83 mph curve that earns plus grades, with one scout giving it a future 70. "It's sick," was a report. His delivery adds some deception and some concern. It has been difficult for him to repeat or maintain deep into games; as it goes so does command. His pitches will get him to low Class Peoria's rotation; command will accelerate his rise.
Perhaps because he's spent parts of four seasons at Double-A Springfield and seemed to bump his head against a ceiling there, some prospect fatigue set in for Valera. He moved around the infield as much as he didn't move up in the system, all despite a steady, switch-hitting bat that in 2,524 minor-league at-bats has a .302/.358/.375 slash line. When the Cardinals faced the prospect of losing him as a six-year free agent they rushed to add him to the 40-man roster. General manager John Mozeliak said the team saw "a maturing curve" with Valera in 2016 and became convinced that no other player on the open market was "an elite performer" like him. Valera isn't flashy or toolsy. What he is is baseball smart and compellingly average at everything. He's a patient singles hitter who is savvy running the bases if not stealing them. Primarily a second baseman as he advanced, Valera has sneaky range, good hands and excellent instincts. He can play third, handle shortstop, and doesn't look out of place in the outfield. Bumped to Triple-A for the first time in 2016, Valera thrived with a .832 OPS in half a season and had more walks (31) than strikeouts (22). He was thriving in winter ball in Venezuela, even hitting six homers in his first 185 at-bats. That has the Cardinals thinking that Valera, after years of seasoning, is poised to contribute to the majors as a utility infielder.
The two headliners for the Cardinals' first significant lunge into the market for Cuban teens couldn't be more different. One is nearly a foot taller than the other, who was far more heralded as a prospect entering the signing period. What Jonathan Machado and Oviedo share however is important: $1 million bonuses and a game built for speed. Oviedo wowed scouts with a hulking frame for an 18-year-old and a heavy 94-96 mph fastball that touched 98. Described as "physically impressive" by one evaluator, Oviedo has a fluidity to his movements, an athleticism that guides his mechanics. The Cardinals' scouts harmonized their early reports on him and the club insisted on being aggressive, signing him for a $1.9 million bonus. In seven starts at the Dominican Summer League he struck out 29 in 21.2 innings. His fastball is overpowering and he has a wipeout curve that will have to be tightened and used for a strike as he advances. He'll get some scrutinized innings in extended, a turn in the GCL, and be a "jump the fence" candidate at high Class A Palm Beach as the Cardinals attempt to nurture an arm with impact-starter potential.