Luke Weaver (© Logan Bowles / USA TODAY Sports Images)

What can we infer about the progress of prospects in the Cardinals system by their respective camp invitations?

Our annual in-depth breakdown of year-to-year changes in the lists of those invited to the St. Louis Cardinals’ various spring camps.

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 50 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 50 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 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 Paul DeJong, C.J. McElroy, Nick Plummer, Harrison Bader, Charlie Tilson, Josh Lucas, Arturo Reyes, Sandy Alcantara and Junior Fernandez.

Then again, we shouldn’t overlook that regular minor league campers like Luke Voit, Andrew Sohn, Bruce Caldwell and Colin Radack also appeared with St. Louis during spring camp 2016.

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.

Or maybe the organization has a more recent arrival for whom they want to get an extended look. Certainly the strength of the Cardinals’ recent draft classes and international spending also appears to be a factor. With the organization limiting the STEP camp invites to just 30 players, some difficult tradeoffs likely had to be made.

Let’s get into the details. These tables are based on where players are this spring compared to last. The red color indicates a lower level invitation this year. Yellow is equal and green is a step (or multiples) upward.


The pitchers

The first table compares pitchers’ invitations between 2016 and 2017.

2016-2017 Pitchers    
40 man-NRI Harris    
40 man-STEP      
40 man-reg camp      
40 man-gone Ja Garcia Maness Walden
40 man-gone Cooney Kiekhefer Aquino
       
NRI-40 man Weaver    
NRI-NRI R Rowland (inj) Poncedeleon Nielsen
NRI-NRI Littrell (susp) Gomber  
NRI-STEP      
NRI-reg camp      
NRI-gone McGuire Sulbaran Hefner
NRI-gone Waldron Juan Gonzalez S Garcia
       
STEP-40 man Mayers Wick  
STEP-NRI Alcantara Fernandez Flaherty
STEP-NRI Lucas Arturo Reyes Woodford
STEP-STEP D Gonzalez    
STEP-reg camp Brebbia    
STEP-gone      
       
Reg camp-40 man Alex Reyes    

While six pitchers who were on the 40-man last spring have left the organization, only one of those who dropped off the 40-man remains for 2017 – among pitchers or position players. That is reliever Mitch Harris, back in 2017 camp as a non-roster invitee.

The next block breaks down the pitching NRIs last spring. Surprisingly, just one pitcher who was an NRI last spring now holds down a 40-man roster spot – Luke Weaver. His status is surely “green.”

http://www.scout.com/player/179139-luke-weaver?s=321

Unlike the year before, when there were no repeaters, five 2016 non-roster invitee pitchers are back in the same camp in 2017. 

Well, that is not exactly the case. Last spring, relief pitcher Robby Rowland injured his elbow before he could report to MLB camp, but he is back, healthy in 2017. This time, it was reliever Corey Littrell who lost his MLB camp invitation due to a drug suspension.

http://www.scout.com/player/144531-robby-rowland?s=321

No pitchers who were NRIs last spring and remain in the organization have been reassigned to a lower-level camp for 2017.

A whopping six other 2016 NRI pitchers are no longer in the Cardinals organization – double the count from the year before - though they left under different circumstances. Juan Gonzalez was released during the season and the other five departed as minor league free agents last fall. (See 2017 signing status for all Cardinals free agents via the Roster Matrix at The Cardinal Nation Blog.)

Next, we will move down the pitching table to the changes made by the 2016 STEP camp invitees for 2017. Two pitchers’ career fortunes are clearly on the upswing, as they moved from early minor league camp last spring to spots on the 40-man roster. They are Mike Mayers and Rowan Wick.

http://www.scout.com/player/135121-mike-mayers?s=321

Six pitchers moved up from STEP camp invitations last spring to non-roster invitations to 2017 MLB camp. Four of them are top-20 prospects in the Cardinals system – Jack Flaherty, Sandy Alcantara, Junior Fernandez and Jake Woodford.

In yellow is one moderately-touted pitcher invited to early minors camp both years – right-hander Derian Gonzalez - often overshadowed by Alcantara and Fernandez.

Only one hurler who received an early minor league camp invitation in 2016 will just be attending regular minor league camp in 2017. Last spring, the Cardinals probably wanted to get a look at reliever John Brebbia, who had been a minor league Rule 5 addition during the prior off-season.

No 2016 STEP camp pitchers left the organization for 2017.

Alex Reyes’ case is unique in that because he was under suspension last spring, he was not allowed to participate in MLB spring training camp, where he would assuredly have been included.

 

The position players

The next table is in the same format as the preceding one, with the only difference being its focus on the changes in position player invitations between 2016 and 2017, rather than pitchers.

2016-2017 Hitters    
40 man-NRI      
40 man-reg camp      
40 man-gone Pena Ohlman Moss
40 man-gone Anna Holliday Tilson
       
NRI-40 man Kelly    
NRI-NRI Fryer Rosario Wisdom
NRI-STEP L Cruz    
NRI-reg camp Bean J Wilson  
NRI-gone Jon Rodriguez Washington Hazelbaker
NRI-gone Peguero    
       
STEP-40 man Alvarez Sosa Sierra
STEP-NRI DeJong Bader  
STEP-STEP Chinea Godoy McCarvel
STEP-STEP O'Keefe Mercado  
STEP-reg camp Herrera Seferina McElroy
STEP-gone Jacobs    
       
Reg camp-40 man Valera    

As is well known by most, six hitters left the 40-man from last spring to this. Dean Anna and Brayan Pena were released, Michael Ohlman was dropped from the 40-man and became a minor league free agent, Charlie Tilson was traded away and Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss departed as major league free agents.

Only one position player graduated from the NRI list last spring to the 40-man in 2017, but he is an important one to the organization’s future – catcher Carson Kelly.

http://www.scout.com/player/161612-carson-kelly?s=321

Three NRIs from last spring are back in that same role this year. Infielder Patrick Wisdom plus catchers Eric Fryer and Alberto Rosario. The latter two had a winding path between springs, however. Fryer later reached the active rosters of both St. Louis and Pittsburgh, and Rosario followed with three months with St. Louis before losing his 40-man spot last fall.

Three 2016 NRI hitters have lesser assignments this spring. Catcher Luis Cruz was a late addition to STEP camp, while catcher Steve Bean and infielder Jacob Wilson will report to regular minor league camp for 2017.

Four 2016 NRI position players have since left the organization. One was claimed off waivers in Jeremy Hazelbaker, two departed as minor league free agents – Jonathan Rodriguez and David Washington - plus Carlos Peguero was released.

Next in green are five position players who have moved up since receiving early minor league camp invitations in 2016.  Edmundo Sosa, Eliezer Alvarez and Magneuris Sierra are now on the 40-man, having been placed there in November for Rule 5 draft protection. Two 2016 STEP campers who are now NRIs are infielder Paul DeJong and outfielder Harrison Bader. All are promising prospects, among TCN’s top 20 for the system.

Five position players scored return early minor league camp invitations. As such, they are in yellow. Four are catchers, with the most interesting one being Oscar Mercado, who was in STEP camp last spring as a shortstop, but is now a center fielder. 

Three position players were part of the early minors camp group in 2016, but were not asked back in 2017. They are in red – infielders Juan Herrera and Darren Seferina and outfielder C.J. McElroy. All three were hampered by injury last season.  For McElroy, his string of four consecutive STEP camps has been broken.

A new addition last spring, first baseman Chris Jacobs, was brought into STEP camp for a look-see, but was released off the Springfield roster by mid-season.

http://www.scout.com/player/143613-breyvic-valera?s=321

The last player in the above table has traveled the most interesting route by far. Utilityman Breyvic Valera has seen it all. He fell from being in big league camp as an NRI in 2015 to the point he did not even receive a STEP Camp invite in 2016. Yet by his play last season, Valera has earned his way onto the 40-man roster to open 2017. An impressive turnaround!

 

2016 draft rockets

The Cardinals organization had five picks in the first three rounds of the 2016 draft due to the free agent departures of John Lackey and Jason Heyward. As would be expected, top draft pick pitchers Dakota Hudson, Connor Jones and Zac Gallen are among the STEP camp invitees.

2016 Draft-2017 Pitchers    
Draft-STEP Gallen Hudson Jones
       
2016 Draft-2017 Hitters    
Draft-NRI Je Martinez    
Draft-STEP Edman Perez Carlson
Draft-STEP Jackson    

They are joined by four hitters from the 2016 draft class – high schoolers and first-rounders Delvin Perez and Dylan Carlson plus collegians Tommy Edman and Vince Jackson.

The most impressive jump is made by former USC catcher Jeremy Martinez. The Cardinals’ fourth-rounder last June scored a non-roster invitation in his first spring camp with the organization.

http://www.scout.com/player/190432-jeremy-martinez?s=321

Though no 2015 draftees had made this step last year, Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales did it in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Martinez’ position behind the plate makes such an invitation easier, but TCN’s 29th-ranked prospect is clearly one to watch in 2017.

 

Other NRIs

Let’s not forget those prospects who joined the organization prior to 2017 who have worked their way up from being in regular minors camp last spring to score an invitation to big league camp. They would certainly have a lot about which to be proud. Two are pitchers and two are catchers.

2017 NRIs Pitchers    
In-system-NRI Sherriff Baker  
Free agent-NRI Phillips Schafer  
       
2017 NRIs Hitters    
In-system-NRI Knizner Ortega  
Free agent-NRI Lino Huffman Cunningham
Free agent-NRI Tovar    

Ryan Sherriff and Corey Baker earned NRIs, as did backstops Andrew Knizner and Dennis Ortega. Their experience levels are very different, however. The two hurlers have spent time with Memphis, while the catchers have yet to graduate from short-season ball. Sherriff and Baker may miss significant camp time, however, due to their commitment to pitch for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.

http://www.scout.com/player/158032-ryan-sherriff?s=321

Six other NRIs are new to the Cardinals system – pitcher Zach Phillips, pitcher/outfielder Jordan Schafer, catcher Gabriel Lino, infielder Wilfredo Tovar and outfielders Chad Huffman and Todd Cunningham. All are free agent signees with the most likely destination out of camp to be Memphis for each, where they can provide a veteran boost.

 

Other STEP camp invitees

A whopping 15 players – representing exactly half of the STEP camp roster - were either in regular minor league camp last spring or are new to the organization.

2017 STEP  Pitchers    
Int'l free agent-STEP Oviedo    
In-system-STEP Hicks Morales Williams
Trade-STEP Ellis    
       
2017 STEP  Hitters    
Int'l free agent-STEP Arozarena    
In-system-STEP Mejia Voit Denton
In-system-STEP Drake Martini Plummer
Free agent-STEP Thon    
Trade-STEP Dykstra    
Rule 5-STEP A Wilson    

This group is headlined by a pair of potentially-exciting Cuban signees, pitcher Johan Oviedo and center fielder Randy Arozarena. Both are part of the record-breaking July 2nd signing class of the Cardinals. At 21 years of age and a veteran of international competition, Arozarena’s initial assignment this season will be one to watch.

http://www.scout.com/player/210771-randy-arozarena?s=321

Nine players are moving up from regular minor league camp last spring to STEP camp. Pitchers include Andrew Morales, Ronnie Williams and Jordan Hicks. The first-time early camp group is filled out with infielders Alex Mejia and Luke Voit and outfielders Blake Drake, Nick Martini, Bryce Denton and Nick Plummer. All except Hicks, Denton and Plummer have full-season experience.

Four other new STEP campers came from the outside. Outfielder Austin Wilson was picked up in the Rule 5 Draft and second baseman Dickie Joe Thon was signed as a free agent. Pitcher Chris Ellis and second baseman Luke Dykstra were acquired from Atlanta in the Jaime Garcia trade.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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