Many times, before I sit down to write these articles - which announce The Cardinal Nation’s major annual player awards across the St. Louis Cardinals system - I already have a good idea who the winner is going to be.
That is not the case for our Rookie Player of the Year for 2014.
It is not that there are not a number of worthy candidates, but as has been the norm in several recent years, the organization’s highest-drafted players were mostly pitchers. Of course, no matter where players are taken in the draft – or whether signed as free agents instead – the bottom line is not top prospect status, but instead production.
That is the case here, as we will look at comparative stats from the 2014 regular season. Applying our standard minimum at-bat total of 150 - the same one used in our team awards - and looking at hitters with at least a .700 OPS, 10 names reach our finalist list.
Not surprisingly, they include seven of the top nine position players signed by the Cardinals this June, each taken between the fifth and 24th round. The only exceptions are injured shortstop Andrew Sohn (sixth) and outfielder Collin Radack (20th). The latter would have expanded the group to 11, but missed out on the at-bat qualification.
All seven draftees were college players, including community college fifth-rounder Darren Seferina. So are two of the three others, all free agents, with the exception being 24-year-old Aledmys Diaz. Despite numerous injuries, the Cuban native still managed to take 161 at-bats between Springfield and Palm Beach.
Diaz is the only full-season player among the group, with the rest having suited up primarily with State College (four), Johnson City (three) or the Gulf Coast League (two). The top rookie hitter on the Dominican Summer League Cardinals, Jonathan Rivera, just missed the cut with his .697 OPS.
In the tables below, the 10 are ranked in OPS order.
Generally, I am comfortable comparing players across levels, since the assumption is that the organization is placing them at an appropriate level of competition for their skill. Though the award selection criteria does not take into account how the players were acquired, I did include it in the above table for reference.
I will come back to that point shortly.
First, let’s drill down into the OPS totals. Only four logged an .800 or better mark, with just two finishing above .875.
Those with OPSes between .700 and .800, while eliminated from consideration, still performed well.
Starting at the bottom, catcher Brian O’Keefe added 127 points to a low batting average by demonstrating a very good eye at the plate. His State College teammate Seferina swiped 19 bags in 24 attempts, but also fanned almost 25 percent of the time. Steady Spikes third baseman Danny Diekroeger had a strikeout rate of just 13 percent.
Outfielder Blake Drake, a name I have yet to be able to type correctly the first time, is not a physical specimen, but the 18th-rounder impressed organization officials enough to score an invitation to fall instructional league camp.
Eighth-rounder Nick Thompson was the deserving winner of our State College Player of the Year award. Casey Grayson earned the same honor at Johnson City. You can read more about their successes in those respective articles.
Grayson’s teammate Casey Turgeon, despite being the latest drafted among the seven, put up the best on-base percentage, and second-highest slugging and OPS of our 10 finalists.
Now, let’s consider the two US collegians signed as free agents. Both Derek Gibson and Michael Pritchard were undrafted in June. They were assigned to the lowest level of competition in the US, the Gulf Coast League. There, the two performed very admirably against mostly younger, less experienced pitchers.
Though the 22-year-old did not show much power, Pritchard demonstrated his proficiency by batting a rookie-best .330, walking 2 ½ times more often than he struck out and stealing 10 bases in 11 tries.
Gibson, a year older than Pritchard at 23, stands 6-foot-3 and is a sturdy 225 pounds. He tops our rookie list in both slugging and OPS, is second in batting average and third in on-base percentage. 30 percent of the left-handed batter’s hits went for extra bases and he drew more walks than strikeouts. Gibson plated 25 in just 44 games.
But how would the two have performed at a higher level?
The Cardinals must have wondered the same thing.
As the GCL season came to a close, the Cardinals promoted Pritchard to Johnson City, where he went 1-for-6 in the Appalachian League post-season.
Gibson received an aggressive promotion in terms of levels, but short in physical distance - over to the Palm Beach clubhouse. The big jump was not made for show. With the Class-A Advanced Cardinals in a fight for a playoff spot, manager Dann Bilardello inserted the former Southeast Missouri State star into his lineup.
Gibson showed he was not out of place in the Florida State League. In fact, he was nothing short of sensational. Gibson reached base in seven of 10 plate appearances, going 5-for-8, including a pair of doubles and a home run. He showed patience by drawing two walks, scored three runs and plated three.
With that final kick, I am comfortable with the selection of Derek Gibson as The Cardinal Nation’s Rookie Player of the Year for 2014.
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Link to master article with all 2014 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. That will include our selection as the system-wide Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year, coming this week.
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