School: Aragon High School, San Mateo, California
Selected 2014 stats
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (7): When discussing Sam Tuivailala during the community vote, SoonerinNC mentioned that Tuivailala blew through the system, excelling at each level this year. He had been very impressed with Tuivailala when he saw him pitch at Johnson City a few years ago. MagnoliaCardFan believes that Tuivailala's value as a fireman is at least in the company of a player with the perceived ceiling of a #2 starter.
Bccran noted that Tuivailala showed a lot of poise during his first time out in the big leagues and he really likes Tuivailala’s 100 mph fastball. Scadder21 posted that he thinks Tuivailala could become another Trevor Rosenthal, speaking highly of Tuivailala’s ceiling as a reliever. - Jeremy Byrd
Derek Shore: Tuivailala went from an infielder to a prominent power armed righty reliever who zoomed through the Cardinals system. In the last year, he progressed from struggling at Class-A Peoria the entire 2013 season to having things click in 2014 while eclipsing three levels and eventually making his Major League debut in September. Most deservingly, Tuivailala received a top 10 nod following his 36th rank in last winter’s rankings.
Tuivailala began a whirlwind four months, moving first from A-Advanced Palm Beach - where he pitched until Memorial Day - to Double-A Springfield, then Triple-A Memphis, then St. Louis to end the regular season. The flame-throwing righty finished in the Arizona Fall League.
Tuivailala recorded a system-high in strikeouts by relievers with an astonishing 97 in 60 innings pitched while recording a 3.15 ERA. He appeared in two games for the big club and got smacked around for four earned runs in only an inning of work.
While at the AFL, however, Tuivailala shined as he was named to the Fall Stars Game, and led the entire league in saves. He logged a 1.29 ERA while fanning 13 in 14 innings. Eight walks was the only downside of his fall performance but that could have been due to the fact he was focusing on refining his secondary stuff and learning to locate those pitches after seeing big-league hitters light up his fastball.
It is easy to say Tuivailala has the best stuff of any reliever in the Cardinals organization right now. The argument could be extended to include the big-league relievers as well, but to temper expectations, he still hasn’t exactly proven himself. I saw him plenty of times at Springfield and he brought nothing short of electricity from his arm. He could buckle hitters’ knees with a “snap-dragon” bender, as manager Mike Shildt refers to it.
He also occasionally flashed a feel for a changeup that will have to be his go-to offering against lefties. That, along with his ability to command his two secondary pitches, will be vital in determining if he can pitch late in games at the highest level. Tuivailala should be ready to contribute in St. Louis at some point in 2015 and once he gets settled down, don’t be surprised to see him at the back-end of games blowing away guys with his 100-plus mph gas.
Brian Walton (9): If Tuivailala was a starter, I would probably have him as a top-five prospect in the system. Still, his rapid ascension to the top 10 and to the status of becoming the highest-ranked bullpenner in the system has been an eye-opening accomplishment and likely would not have occurred if he was not pitching in relief.
Think about it. In the span of just 65 days this past summer, Tuivailala went from pitching in high-A ball in the Florida State League against the likes of the Bradenton Marauders to stepping onto the mound at Great American Ballpark to face the middle of the Cincinnati Reds lineup, including Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco - in the midst of a pennant chase, no less. In what may be a record, he wore five different uniforms in one season.
I asked a former Major League pitcher who also happened to be Tuivailala’s pitching coach at both Peoria of the Midwest League in 2013 and in the Arizona Fall League in 2014 what differences he has seen in the 22-year-old.
“The knowledge of the game he is starting to pick up, the mental part of it,” said Jason Simontacchi this fall. “There is no question he has a live fastball, an overpowering fastball.”
Tuivailala flashed that fastball regularly. Despite the multiple steps up in competition this season, he still ranked second among all Cardinals system minor league relievers with 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings, up from 12.7 in 2013. The right-hander also dropped his walk rate from a far-too-high 5.1 last season to 4.1 in 2014. Improvement is still needed, however.
“As we’ve seen in the post-season and World Series, guys can hit that stuff,” Simontacchi warned. “So, you’ve got to mix it up with something. I think he has seen the importance, getting a taste, a cup of coffee up there this year of how important it is to locate and command your secondary pitches.”
It was a rude awakening for Tuivailala in the Majors, as he served up as many long balls in his first inning with St. Louis, two, as he did in his entire first three seasons pitching in the minor leagues combined.
“With him coming back down here (to the AFL), what I have seen different is that he looks a little bit more confident and secure if he is going to throw his changeup of his curveball,” the coach explained. “And obviously, his fastball command has been a lot better.
“It plays well. Coming in throwing 98 with an 82-85 mile per hour curveball is a pretty nice hammer. It pays dividends, no doubt,” Simontacchi concluded.
Looking ahead, I see the early part of the 2015 season as being the most crucial juncture of Tuivailala’s still-young career. It would be a disservice to his development for him to open the season with St. Louis. Almost assuredly, that is not going to happen, with his most likely destination the closer’s role at Triple-A Memphis, where there are still lessons to be learned.
With a good mix of prospects and former Major Leaguers trying to return while playing in some smaller ballparks in the Pacific Coast League, Tuivailala is going to have to show he can do more than blow fastballs by hitters day after day. He clearly has the tools to get the job done.
Our 2015 top 40 series continues: To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the top 40 countdown and nine in-depth, follow-up articles. Most of the latter are exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation.
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