Coming into the 2015 First-Year Player Draft, the St. Louis Cardinals had built quite the reputation for themselves. Namely, the Cardinals became famous for their ability to draft and develop pitching, especially college pitching.
Starting with 2014 and working backward, observers can see just how successful St. Louis has been at finding pitchers through the draft. From 2014, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Ronnie Williams, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Austin Gomber are in the middle of impressive seasons.
From 2013, first selection Marco Gonzales made his Major League debut roughly one year after being drafted from Gonzaga. In addition, Rob Kaminsky, Jimmy Reed, Ian McKinney, Nick Petree, Mike Mayers and Arturo Reyes have displayed intriguing potential. In 2012, the Cardinals selected Michael Wacha, who has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League, and left-hander Tim Cooney, who has shown this year that he belongs in a big-league rotation.
Reviewing the Cardinals’ first selections over the last 10 years, it is obvious they have shown a preference toward the college ranks. Since 2005, seven of the ten first choices for the Cardinals were college players. The only three who weren’t are Colby Rasmus (2005), Pete Kozma (2007) and Shelby Miller (2009).
When the Cardinals’ turn came at the 23rd selection this June, many fully expected the Cardinals to call the name of yet another college player, most likely a pitcher. As they approached the podium, players such as D.J. Stewart, Walker Buehler, Jon Harris, Taylor Ward and Chris Shaw had all the earmarks of the kind of player they would put in their system.
Instead, for the first time since 2007, the Cardinals took a high school position player with their first choice, outfielder Nick Plummer. And, as the draft kept going, they didn’t take a college player until the third round when they chose another bat, Harrison Bader. In fact, four of the Cardinals’ first five picks came from high school, an obvious departure from the past.
Furthermore, the organization focused in on three difficult signings in the first ten rounds: third baseman Bryce Denton (2nd round), left-handed pitcher Ian Oxnevad (8th round) and outfielder Kep Brown (10th round). The Cardinals even locked up a pair of signability concerns after the 10th round in pitchers Paul Salazar and Jacob Schlesener.
So, why the change in focus? Well, there are actually a couple of likely reasons the Cardinals went this way in the draft.
As I talked about in my previous draft recap, the big bats the Cardinals took were valued for their impressive bat speed. Scout.com’s National Draft Analyst Jeff Ellis, who called the Cardinals’ draft the best in all of baseball, noted that Plummer has 60-grade power with an advanced plate approach. Denton has some of the best bat speed of any prep player in the draft. Bader is plus bat speed college outfielder. Fourth-rounder Paul DeJong, an underrated bat from Illinois State, generates plus bat speed. Brown, who did not sign, was noted for his bat speed. Even senior sign Andrew Brodbeck from tiny Flagler College, who hasn’t shown a great deal of power, caught the front office’s eye due to his short, compact swing.
This focus on bat speed isn’t just from this draft, though. As fastball velocities have steadily climbed over the past ten years, it has become more apparent that its counter is bat speed. Case in point, consider the Cardinals’ best hitter so far this year, Randal Grichuk. At 92.98 miles per hour, Grichuk has the 13th fastest recorded average exit velocity in the major leagues this year. Even more, Grichuk’s average flyball and line drive exit velocity of 97.32 miles per hour is ninth best in baseball.
Possibly even more interesting, recently-promoted Stephen Piscotty has a higher average exit velocity at 89.47 miles per hour than the much-heralded Kris Bryant, who clocks in with an 89.3 miles per hour exit velocity.
By loading up on bats that excel in generating velocity, the Cardinals have set themselves up for a potentially dangerous lineup adapted to today’s game in which pitching rules.
Depth at Higher Levels
As noted, the Cardinals focused on the high school side with their first five picks with only Bader coming out of the college ranks. The reason behind this could be in part due to the depth the Cardinals currently possess.
While a college pitcher such as Buehler or Harris was certainly intriguing, it may have actually been tough to find innings for them by the time they are ready for the majors. As it stands, the Cardinals have sent off four young pitchers in the last year (Joe Kelly, Miller, Tyrell Jenkins and Kaminsky), and they still have five starters under team control through at least 2017 at the big league level.
Additionally, the Cardinals have 5-10 prospects currently in minor league rotations who should be able to contribute by the 2018 season. Taking guys like Jake Woodford and Jordan Hicks along with Oxnevad, Schelesener, and Salazar allows the Cardinals to have a group of arms with exciting upside who can take their time developing.
On the position side, Bader and DeJong should be ready for big league duty come 2018, and the current contracts for superstars Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Jhonny Peralta will expire after 2017. Matt Carpenter will be entering his age-32 season, and his natural decline should begin at that point.
As Piscotty and Grichuk enter into their arbitration years, Plummer and Denton could be big league ready and provide options for the Cardinals to employ. Along with Latin American signee Magneuris Sierra, the Cardinals could have three outstanding bats ready for the majors at approximately the same time in a similar fashion to the 2014 Memphis outfield of Grichuk, Oscar Taveras and Tommy Pham.
In a day when pitching is king, the Cardinals added arguably the best stable of hitters of any team in the 2015 draft, potentially rivaled only by the Houston Astros, and the Astros had two top-five selections and the largest bonus pool of any team - more than double the size of the Cardinals’ bonus pool.
When the 2016 draft rolls around, based on early rankings, the Cardinals will likely add a stable of arms, but we’ll have to wait another 10 months to see.
Follow Scott Schook on Twitter @scottschook.
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