Those members of The Cardinal Nation who listened to our exclusive interview with St. Louis Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque posted on Wednesday learned that the organization is again planning to conduct a Spring Training Early Program (STEP) camp for selected minor leaguers in 2015.
Scheduled to open on February 28, a couple of weeks before regular minor league training, STEP Camp is designed to give individualized instruction to 22 hand-selected players, plus perhaps a few rehabbers. These are players who fall short of being invited to Major League camp as non-roster invitees (NRIs) and skew a bit younger.
A side benefit is that the STEP campers are often the first players selected to don a big-league uniform in the 90’s with no name on their back and make an appearance or two during a 1:00 Major League spring game, especially early in camp.
As you might expect, all of these roster decisions are interrelated.
The Cardinals are waiting later this year than last to announce their NRIs, perhaps until they add a veteran pitcher or two. Until the NRIs are set, the STEP campers cannot be fully locked in, either.
While we are waiting for what may be a week or two more for this information to be disclosed, I have decided to share with you my internal guessing as to which players will be among the STEP campers. Of course, to do that, I first have to forecast the NRIs to determine the remaining population.
Based on prior springs, the Cardinals may invite roughly from 18 to 22 non-roster players to big-league camp. With few obvious roster openings, my guess will be more to the low side for 2015.
For the record, I have no information as to which players will actually be invited to STEP camp, but that won’t stop me from making educated guesses. So, here we go. The Cardinal Nation 2015 top 40 prospect rankings are included along with the highest level of play reached last season.
Let’s take the discussion position by position with pitchers up first.
|NRIs (18)||2014||Top 40||STEP (22)||2014||Top 40|
|Pitchers (9)||Pitchers (10+3)|
Starting pitching - NRI
For the NRIs, the sourcing is pretty much the projected Memphis staff. Starters Tim Cooney, Mike Mayers and Zach Petrick are all top 40 prospects. Lefty John Gast is a forgotten man, but still has a chance if his health problems are truly behind him. I expect another pitcher to be added to the mix, a veteran from the outside, as well.
Starting pitching – STEP
Here we have the rest of the potential Memphis rotation in Boone Whiting plus Kurt Heyer, who should be next in line for Triple-A. Nick Petree reached Double-A at the end of the season and should be joined in STEP Camp by the organization’s two highest-drafted college pitchers last June, Luke Weaver and Andrew Morales.
Headliners include the next wave of top starters, both of whom excelled at Peoria last season in our number two-ranked prospect in Alex Reyes and TCN’s 2014 Pitcher of the Year Rob Kaminsky. These two are STEP Camp locks this year and likely NRIs in 2016.
Those I expect to be left out include first-rounder Jack Flaherty, second-rounder Ronnie Williams and big-bonused right-hander Bryan Dobzanski, all high schoolers who competed in the Gulf Coast League last season. One dark horse is 2014 ninth-rounder Daniel Poncedeleon, who should be in the middle of the mix for the Peoria season-opening six-man rotation.
Relief pitching - NRI
Newcomers Marcus Hatley and Miguel Socolovich will be given a chance to shine in their first action with the organization. Mitch Harris’ Navy back story is well-known, but the right-hander also worked his way up to Triple-A last season. Buried at a crowded position, left-handed relief, Dean Kiekhefer would receive a lot longer look in another organization.
Former St. Louis pitcher Keith Butler would be almost certainly be among this group but that is dependent on the timing of his Tommy John recovery.
Relief pitching – STEP
This is a lot trickier to call. Assuming he is healthy, Chris Perry should be here, coming off one of the strongest seasons in the system and finishing in the Arizona Fall League. Submariner Dixon Llorens continues to tantalize with his high strikeouts – and frustrate with too many walks.
I am including Rule 5 addition Tyler Waldron here because he is new, but I would not be surprised one bit to see Springfield’s Joe Donofrio or Memphis' Heath Wyatt instead. Another longer-shot possibility is lefty Lee Stoppelman, who was an NRI last spring before experiencing a very uneven 2014.
|Catchers (4)||2014||Top 40||Catchers (2)||2014||Top 40|
Catching - NRI
With all the focus on Carson Kelly, it is easy to forget that former second-rounder Steve Bean is on a parallel path. Organizational soldier Travis Tartamella should receive a big-league invitation. I expect newcomer Alberto Rosario to also get a quick look-see.
Catching – STEP
I do not mean to suggest that I necessarily think that Mason Katz will become a full-time catcher, but it seems like STEP Camp would give him more time to get reps behind the plate. He can also play second and back up the lone first baseman likely in early camp. Backstop Brian O’Keefe did nice work at State College after being drafted in the seventh round last June.
Others who could receive action include Gerwuins Velazco and well-traveled Adam Ehrlich, ready to go wherever needed in the system last season.
|Infielders (3)||2014||Top 40||Infielders (5)||2014||Top 40|
Infield - NRI
The NRI infield selections seem pretty clear to me. Returnee Scott Moore should be joined by a pair of top 15 prospects in Jacob Wilson and Breyvic Valera. With so many other 40-man infield options already coming to camp, I expect this to be it.
Infield – STEP
The Cards want to be able to field a full team, with obvious corner options being the regular Springfield pair from 2014, Jonathan Rodriguez and Patrick Wisdom. One would have hoped that Wisdom could have earned an NRI, but looks to need more time at Double-A. Shortstops Juan Herrera and Oscar Mercado are givens and I think Alex Mejia also earned a look.
Perhaps also under consideration are four short-season infielders, fifth-rounder Darren Seferina and fellow second baseman Malik Collymore as well as shortstop Edmundo Sosa and utilityman Chris Rivera. Even though there is not enough room now, their time should come soon enough.
|Outfielders (2)||2014||Top 40||Outfielders (5)||2014||Top 40|
Outfield – NRI
Stephen Piscotty is a lock. I think he will be joined by a player that may be a surprise to some, Rafael Ortega. As in the case of Gast and Butler, Ortega was removed from the 40-man, but that does not mean his career is dead. The outfielder still has supporters in the organization and finished last season with a promotion to Memphis.
Outfield – STEP
Again, many more good candidates than room to put them. Centerfielders Charlie Tilson and C.J. McElroy are a certainty. At 18 years of age, Magneuris Sierra would be the youngest and lowest-level STEP camper, having competed in the Gulf Coast League, but he was also the system-wide Player of the Year.
Among corner outfielders, Puerto Rican Winter League MVP Anthony Garcia and emerging slugger Rowan Wick would be my choices. I have to stop here as five outfielders fills our contingent of 22 players.
So there we have it! My predictions are on the books for 18 non-roster invitees and 22 STEP campers. Make sure you return for the actual announcements in the upcoming days and we’ll see how I do.
Do you think you can come closer to the pin? Feel free to stop by The Cardinal Nation’s members-only message board to offer your views.
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