TCN 2016 Cards Prospect #11: Sam Tuivailala

Just four years into his pitching transition, the hard-thrower is knocking on St. Louis’ door.

The Cardinal Nation/ Player Profile

School: Aragon High School, San Mateo, California

2015 rank Pos. DOB Ht. Wt. Bat Thw Signed Round
8 RHR 10,19,92 6-3 195 R R 2010 3rd

Selected 2015 stats

Mem 3 1 1.60 4.20 43 0 17 45.0 28 8 2 26 43 0.176 0.87 0.228
StL 0 1 3.07 3.82 14 0 0 14.2 13 5 2 8 20 0.228 1.40 0.314

Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)

Message board community (6): Sam Tuivailala rocketed up the prospect vote last year, jumping from #27 in the 2013-2014 offseason to #7 12 months ago. This year, after a little over 14 innings in the major leagues, Tuivailala staved off most other Cardinals farmhands, finishing at #6 during the community vote.

SoonerinNC posted what I believe we all feel about Tuivailala - he has the upside to become a lights out closer, which can be just as valuable to the team as a top starter. SoonerinNC also noted that Tuivailala seems to have progressed with his off-speed stuff and his command this year. He also likes that Tuivailala works low in the zone. Desmetlax12 noted that he is hesitant to rank a reliever too high during the prospect vote, but with Tuivailala, he has no such qualms. - Jeremy Byrd

Derek Shore (15): Tuivailala was The Cardinal Nation #8 prospect last winter. After netting TCN's 2015 Memphis Redbirds Reliever of the Year honor, Tuivailala ranks as the #11 overall prospect this winter. The 2015 Pacific Coast League mid-season All-Star made his MLB debut in 2014 and received five total call-ups in 2015, making 14 relief appearances (14 2/3 IP) with a 3.07 ERA with 20 strikeouts against eight walks.

During the 2015 season with Memphis, the high-octane arm went 3-1 with a 1.60 ERA, while finishing 37 games, third-most in the PCL. He held opposing batters to a .117 average overall and a .176 average in late-inning situations. In 45 Triple-A innings, he fanned 43, but also issued 26 free passes.

Thanks to nascent cutter pitch, Tuvailala had a more effective big-league cameo in his second trial with St. Louis this past season. The book was out early in his big-league career as highest level hitters feasted on his blistering fastball early in counts and exposed a few of his weaknesses - consistency of command and lack of reliable complimentary pitch to keep them honest against his fastball and power curve.

So, in the spring, Tuivailala experimented occasionally with a cutter, a pitch that he had never thrown in a game at any level. He continued working with the pitch at Memphis before showcasing this new weapon in the majors. Mike Matheny said it will “redefine him as a pitcher”.

“I think he has already demonstrated that it can be (a weapon)," Memphis Redbirds manager Mike Shildt told me in October. “That cutter is a pitch that will be needed for him. It's a very effective pitch for him, and he is still in the process of repeating the best versions of that pitch more consistently, but it has been a real weapon, and he has been able to demonstrate that in St. Louis.

“I'm hopeful he can continue to move forward and be successful."

Given his athleticism, there is good reason to assume Tuivailala can find a consistent release point in his delivery to couple with sharper fastball command. That would then set up everything else in his repertoire to play in high-leverage situations, especially now that he has an offering to combat lefty hitters.

For a young man who has advanced so rapidly in his short time as a pitcher, he should only get better with more experience in late-inning situations because of the freshness of his arm. If so, he would follow in the line of Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal as converted power arms to pitch in the back-end of games for the Cardinals.

Brian Walton (10): I am not as sure as the community that Tuivailala is a future major league closer – at least with the Cardinals in the foreseeable future. I do think he could grow into that role, but he needs more time. Further, the reality is that Trevor Rosenthal is still three more seasons away from potential free agency and shows no signs of yielding his job.

Generally, I do not rank relievers unless that ninth-inning role ahead seems a realistic target. Tuivailala’s closer ability and mentality are the reasons I ultimately placed him in my top ten of Cardinals prospects for the second consecutive year. In fact, the 23-year-old is the only relief pitcher in my entire 2016 top 40 because of that potential.

The California native earned that placement by going a perfect 17-for-17 in save opportunities for Memphis, wrapped around his various stints with St. Louis.

Concerning to me, however, is his pitch inefficiency and continued struggle with walks.

I had hoped to see late-season progress in that area, but it does not yet seem under control. Over his final nine appearances, ten innings, with the Redbirds, Tuivailala issued nine free passes, including four outings in which he walked two. It should probably go without saying that walking a pair of opposing batters in the ninth inning is not a good recipe for success, especially when the next man up is going to be looking for a 95 mph heater.

As a result of his inability to put hitters away quickly, Tuivailala has needed to fire a lot of bullets to get through his outings. Specifically, he averaged 21 pitches per inning over those final 10 frames in August and September, with his most efficient inning being 15 and worst 27. It seems obvious to me that additional Triple-A seasoning could be beneficial.

Still, it is important to keep all of this in context. Remember that Tuivailala the professional pitcher is just four years old. Everyone is different, but after four years on the mound, other Cardinals mentioned above who made the shift from position player to pitching had advanced as follows. Rosenthal was getting ready to make the leap from Class-A to Double-A. Jason Motte had reached the majors, spending his entire fourth season with St. Louis, however he was knocked around for a 4.76 ERA in 2009 after his brief MLB introduction the year before.

Tuivailala seems to be where Motte was in 2009 – on the cusp of making his first full-time step into the bullpen. But the timing of that could depend less on how he pitches in the spring and more on how many relievers the Cardinals sign this winter - and there almost certainly should be another journeyman addition or two. For reasons mentioned above, that may be better for Tuivailala over the long haul.

Yet the inevitable injuries that always occur over the long 162-game schedule should mean that even if Tuivailala does not make the 25-man roster out of spring camp, he will be back with St. Louis sooner than later. He still has work to do in the interim.

Our 2016 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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