One way to try to assess whether the status of a St. Louis Cardinals prospect is on an upward or downward trajectory to make a simple comparison of his top 40 prospect ranking from year to year. This information can be found in the tables listed in ”The Final Tally” article as part of The Cardinal Nation’s annual top 40 countdown series.
Perhaps an even more telling method of considering the stock of a prospect is by analyzing the behavior of the organization itself. One such approach is to review the differences in the names of players that make up those invited to major league camp and early minor league camp, called STEP Camp, from year to year.
There is an implied hierarchy in the structure of invitations. Of course, every player wants to make the 40-man roster. By default, those players are invited to big-league camp. The next best thing is to score a non-roster invitation (NRI) to major league camp. Next in the pecking order are those minor leaguers invited to early minor league camp, followed by the regular minor league camp invitees.
Especially earlier in the major league spring training schedule, the Cardinals call for extra players to be brought over from minor league camp to fill in during MLB games. These players, with no name on their back and a number in the upper 90s, are often sourced from the STEP Camp attendees. After all, they are not only among the most promising minor leaguers, but also the ones who have been in camp longest and therefore, in the best game shape.
Among the many STEP Campers who were given this opportunity, albeit limited, last spring were infielder Jonathan Rodriguez (three at-bats), outfielders Charlie Tilson (one AB in six games) and Magneuris Sierra (three ABs) plus pitcher Alex Reyes (one inning).
I should be clear that a player dropping in the hierarchy from year to year does not necessarily mean that he had a career setback. It could be that a different assignment is due to recovery from injury or perhaps the competition is simply stiffer. Certainly the strength of the Cardinals’ recent draft classes could also be a factor. With the organization limiting the early invites to just 26 players, some difficult tradeoffs likely had to be made.
Let’s get into the details. The red color indicates a lower level invitation this year compared to last. Yellow is equal and green is a step (or multiples) upward.
The first table compares the pitchers’ invitations between 2015 and 2016.
|40 man-reg camp|
While a number of players who were on the 40-man last spring have left the organization, none of those dropped off the 40-man remain for 2016 – pitchers or position players.
Next are the NRIs last spring. Four pitchers who were NRIs last spring now hold down 40-man roster spots – Tim Cooney, Mitch Harris, Dean Kiekhefer and Miguel Socolovich. Their status is surely “green.”
Unlike the year before, when there were two repeaters, no 2015 non-roster invitee pitchers are back in the same role in 2016.
Just one pitcher who was an NRI last spring who remains in the organization has been reassigned downward for 2016. Mike Mayers is coming come back from injury that prematurely ended his 2015 and will start in STEP Camp this spring.
Three other 2015 NRI pitchers are no longer in the Cardinals organization, though under different circumstances. John Gast retired, Marcus Hatley left as a free agent and Zach Petrick received his release so he can play in Japan this season.
Next, we will move down the table to the 2015 STEP camp invitees. Three pitchers’ fortunes are clearly on the upswing, all three moving from early minor league camp last spring to receiving NRIs this year. They are Silfredo Garcia, Trey Nielsen and Luke Weaver.
In yellow are two highly-touted pitchers invited to early minors camp both years – Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes. The latter is actually back in STEP Camp for the third straight year – only because of his current drug suspension.
Following are three hurlers who received an early minor league camp invitation in 2015, but will just be attending regular minor league camp in 2016. Two are relievers – Joey Donofrio and Chris Perry - along with starter Andrew Morales.
The position players
The next table is the same format as the preceding one, with the only change being its focus on the changes in position player invitations between 2015 and 2016.
|40 man-reg camp|
|STEP-40 man||A Garcia||Tilson|
Only one position player graduated from the NRI list last spring to the 40-man in 2016 – outfielder Stephen Piscotty.
On the downside, utilityman Breyvic Valera fell from being in big league camp as an NRI in 2015 to the point he did not even receive a STEP Camp invite this spring.
Three 2015 NRIs have since left the organization, two as minor league free agents – Travis Tartamella and Rafael Ortega – and third baseman Scott Moore was released.
Next in green we have five position players who have moved up since receiving early minor league camp invitations in 2015. Outfielders Anthony Garcia and Charlie Tilson are now on the 40-man, having been placed there in November for Rule 5 Draft protection. The three 2015 STEP campers who are now NRIs are catcher Luis Cruz plus infielders Jonathan Rodriguez and Patrick Wisdom. (Wisdom had been an NRI in 2014 before taking a step backward last spring.)
Six position players scored return early minor league camp invitations. As such, they are in yellow. One is a catcher – Brian O’Keefe. Three are shortstops – Edmundo Sosa, Juan Herrera and Oscar Mercado. The other two are outfielders Magneuris Sierra and C.J. McElroy. For McElroy, it is his fourth consecutive STEP Camp.
Two position players were part of the early minors camp group in 2015, but not in 2016. They are in red – infielder Mason Katz, who had been given a tryout behind the plate – and outfielder Blake Drake.
2015 draft rockets
The Cardinals organization had their first round selection and a competitive balance pick in the 2015 draft. As would be expected, Nick Plummer and Jake Woodford are both among the STEP Camp invitees as are two college hitters – Harrison Bader (third round) and Paul DeJong (fourth). 2015-drafted catchers Chris Chinea and Ryan McCarvel round out the group of six STEP Campers from last June’s class.
The six new additions from the 2015 draft to early minors camp invitations are the same as one year ago, with one major exception – a lack of NRIs. Specifically, in both 2013 and 2014, the team’s top draftee from the June before was invited to big league camp. For the second straight year, there are no Michael Wachas or Marco Gonzales’ among the litter.
Let’s not forget those prospects who joined the organization prior to 2016 who have scored invitations to big league camp. They would certainly have a lot about which to be proud. Over two-thirds of them are pitchers.
|In-system NRI||R Rowland||Waldron|
|External NRI||Juan Gonzalez||Hefner||McGuire|
It is worth giving special recognition to seven non-roster invitees who were in regular minor camp last spring, five of whom are pitchers. They followed different paths of improvement to secure an NRI in 2016.
Co-Pitcher of the Year for 2015 Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon were 2014 draftees passed over for STEP Camp last spring. Now, they will be dressing with Adam Wainwright and the other big-leaguers.
Corey Littrell struggled after the July 2014 trade with Boston, but earned an NRI with a strong 2015 at Palm Beach. Robby Rowland was a free agent signee and Tyler Waldron was a Rule 5 addition in December 2014.
Four other pitching NRIs are new to the Cardinals system - Juan Gonzalez, Deck McGuire, J.C. Sulbaran and Jeremy Hefner. All are free agent signees with the latter, a former member of the Mets rotation, having the best chance of making the major league roster out of spring training if he can show health after two years of injuries.
Outfielders David Washington and Jeremy Hazelbaker both re-signed with St. Louis after becoming free agents and received their first Cardinals big-league camp invitations as part of their new deals. Catcher Eric Fryer and outfielder Carlos Peguero will brought in as organizational depth. All four could open the season with Memphis.
Other STEP Camp invitees
|In-system STEP||Alcantara||Fernandez||D Gonzalez|
|In-system STEP||Lucas||Arturo Reyes||Wick|
Eight of the players invited to STEP Camp were already in the organization and are moving up from regular minor league camp last spring. Pitchers include four hard-throwers in Sandy Alcantara, Junior Fernandez, Derian Gonzalez and Rowan Wick. Others are starter Arturo Reyes and reliever Josh Lucas. The first-time early camp group is filled out with a pair of emerging second basemen in Eliezer Alvarez and Darren Seferina.
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