TCN 2013 Cardinals Minors Reliever of Year

Left-hander Lee Stoppelman is The Cardinal Nation's selection as the top relief pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system in 2013.

To select The Cardinal Nation's top relief pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system for 2013, I began with a list of 43 names.

Those individuals are non-first year pitchers who were primarily used out of the bullpen and threw at least 20 innings during the regular season. I went down to 20 innings to ensure I did not automatically remove short-season players from consideration.

While selecting the top rookie reliever, I did not consider the candidates' roles. In other words, saves were not a factor, nor were wins-losses or the length of outings, for that matter.

A careful review of the stats was very helpful in narrowing down the candidates. With the large population of pitchers in this group, it was especially important.

The bar was set high - those having an ERA under 2.00 and WHIP under 1.10. Still, there were a number of worthy competitors.

Earned run average Team Rate
Fernando Baez JC 0.82
Kender Villegas GCL 1.27
Lee Stoppelman PB-Spr-Mem 1.50
Jacob Booden JC-SC 1.51
Ronnie Shaban PB 1.73
Walks+hits per inning Team Rate
Kender Villegas GCL 0.96
Keith Butler Spr-Mem 0.98
Thomas Lee Peo-PB 1.00
Lee Stoppelman PB-Spr-Mem 1.00
Ramon Delgado Spr-Mem 1.06
Joey Donofrio Peo 1.07

As you can see above, there are 11 names on the two lists, with two appearing on both – Lee Stoppelman and Kender Villegas.

Villegas was our top reliever on the entry-level US club, in the Gulf Coast League. The 20-year-old Venezuelan averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and logged a very solid 32/7 strikeout to walk count in 29 1/3 innings. The right-hander's fastball touches 91 mph and he is making progress to refine his curve, but his changeup is his bread and butter, a swing-and-miss pitch.

Though he pitched at three levels, earning two in-season promotions, Stoppelman was our Reliever of the Year at Double-A Springfield after winning the Cardinals organization's Pitcher of the Month award for August. Reaching Triple-A in one's first full season of professional ball is quite an accomplishment, which the 23-year-old left-hander achieved.

His ERA of 1.50 with a 1.00 WHIP across the three stops is both symmetrically-pleasing and more importantly, exceptionally low. Opposing batters managed just a .174 collective average against the former Central Missouri State hurler. Stoppelman had been taken in by the Cardinals the 24th round of the June 2012 draft.

In an organization that features a number of young guns with blazing fastballs, Stoppelman's low 90's velocity does not stand out. Yet, his low ¾ delivery is deceptive and increases the effectiveness of all his offerings – including his changeup and curve.

His 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings just missed cracking the system's top 10. Stoppelman's walk rate of 3.5 per nine could improve. His 2013 mark is in the middle of the pack, slightly better than the 3.8 average among qualifying relievers system-wide.

Currently competing in the Arizona Fall League, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has a thin and wiry frame with room to fill out further. Stoppelman, who appeared in just three games following his season-ending promotion to Triple-A, should return to the Pacific Coast Redbirds to start the 2014 season.

2013 has been a meteoric rise from the man who was our short-season Class-A and Rookie Reliever of the Year just 12 months ago. His continued success at higher levels while being promoted twice helps tip the scales of the award competition in Stoppelman's favor.

If he has another year in 2014 like this one, he could pitch his way into the MLB picture. Even before then, Stoppelman's name should begin to appear on Cardinals top prospect lists this winter.

Congratulations to The Cardinal Nation 2013 Minor League Reliever of the Year, Lee Stoppelman.

Honorable mentions

Looking at strikeout and walk leaders across the system surfaces a number of other standouts, though neither Stoppelman nor Villegas appear among them.

Strikeouts per nine innings Team Rate
Dixon Llorens Peo 13.5
Fernando Baez JC 12.8
Sam Tuivailala Peo 12.7
Steve Sabatino Peo 12.7
Stalyn Lopez JC-GCL 11.5
Jonathan Escudero DSL 11.5
Walks per nine innings Team Rate
Thomas Lee Peo-PB 1.0
Dean Kiekhefer PB-Spr 1.3
Ramon Delgado Spr-Mem 1.4
Danny Miranda PB-Spr 1.8
Logan Billbrough PB 1.8
Anderson Gerdel JC 1.9
Strikeout to walk ratio Team Rate
Thomas Lee Peo-PB 7.8/1
Logan Billbrough PB 6.2/1
Ramon Delgado Spr-Mem 5.4/1
Joey Donofrio Peo  5.0/1
Keith Butler Spr-Mem 4.5/1
Ismael Brito JC 4.5/1

Four relievers fanned more than 12 batters per nine innings, including three from Peoria. Submariner Dixon Llorens, converted infielder Sam Tuivailala and lefty Steve Sabatino were joined by Johnson City's Fernando Baez.

The three Peoria hurlers were not among the low walk rate pitchers, nor did they place among the ERA and WHIP leaders. Baez had a superb ERA, best in the system, in fact. However, he was near the bottom of another important list. Baez' walk rate of 6.3 per nine innings was the second-worst among the 43 pitchers.

The low walk rate pitchers, led by Thomas Lee, primarily with Peoria, also dominated the strikeout to walk ratio list. Another Chiefs hurler, Joey Donofrio, should take a bow for having the fourth-best strikeout to walk ratio and 6th-best WHIP.

Note: For more information on all The Cardinal Nation minor league award winners for 2013, subscribers should click on this link. You will be taken to an index page with links to all articles about previous winners across the system club by club, schedule for upcoming award announcements as well as 2013 team recaps.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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