Memphis brings back experience
The lone club with a traditional five-man rotation will be Triple-A Memphis, headlined by The Cardinal Nation's No. 2 rated pitching prospect, Luke Weaver.
In his first invite to big-league camp, Weaver, 23, was unable to stay healthy before being optioned out on March 18. At his best, the lithe, athletic right-hander has mid-rotation upside with a more realistic future of settling towards the back-end, in the form of Mike Leake.
At Memphis, Weaver has to prove he can challenge hitters without getting timid with his stuff. He also reintroduced the slider to expand his arsenal to four pitches now.
The Redbirds' rotation will also include Arturo Reyes, Chris Ellis, Mike Mayers, and Josh Zeid (pronounced ZIDE) in that order.
Reyes, a former rotation mate with 2013 first-rounder Marco Gonzales, might be the most overlooked pitching prospect in the organization with a chance at becoming a rotation option or bullpen piece for St. Louis this summer. Ellis joins the Cardinals from the Braves and has the stuff to remain a starter, but his lack of strike-throwing ability plays better in the 'pen.
Known by many for his clunker against the Dodgers in his major-league debut last season, Mayers redeemed himself with an outstanding showing during his cup of coffee in September and has added weight to his frame to increase his durability as a starter. Zeid, a beneficiary of an impressive World Baseball Classic performance, will open the season in the rotation but could return to his rightful home as a reliever once Marco Gonzales shows his readiness following Tommy John surgery or John Gant returns from his spring groin injury.
Springfield has diverse, loaded set of arms
Down a level, Double-A Springfield starts 2017 with the first of the three six-man rotations in addition to a piggyback system, ensuing past the fourth starter. The Springbirds’ star-studded rotation boasts four of TCN's Top 10 prospects - Dakota Hudson (#6), Jack Flaherty (#7), Sandy Alcantara (#8), and Austin Gomber (#9).
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak did not hold back his expectations for this group.
"I would say under my tenure, it is one of the strongest rotations we have had in place," Mozeliak said last week at the Route 66 Rumble at Hammons Field.
Hudson was brought along slowly under the "Wacha Plan" last year, finishing at Springfield as a reliever in the Texas League postseason. The right-hander, who officials have said has the sharpest slider in the system, is in his first full season. Alcantara, with a 100-plus mph arm, will make the jump over High-A and as Mozeliak said, "has to get a grasp of the strike zone. He has to learn how to be a little more efficient when you think about attacking hitters."
Of the arms Mo sounded most pleased about, Flaherty was one who opened eyes in his first big-league spring training camp. "I think the big difference with Jack versus last year is just his physical maturity," Mozeliak said. "You are always wondering if someone is going to get that boy-to-man look and he did."
In addition, scouts like Flaherty for his command and feel of three average or better pitches across the board and the right-hander will be Springfield’s Opening Night starter on Thursday. Gomber returns to Springfield after finishing at the level last year. Based on his Arizona Fall League results and being one of the more refined starters on the staff, the lefty could be on track for Memphis by May or early-June.
Springfield's six-man rotation will be rounded out by returnees Daniel Poncedeleon (#36) and Matt Pearce (#34) with names like Jimmy Reed, Corey Baker, and Blake McKnight to potentially follow under the piggyback system, a process by which two pitchers alternate starts with the other following in relief.
Palm Beach features six quality rotation arms
With the other six-man rotation, high-A Palm Beach arguably has a stronger, deeper rotation than Springfield top-to-bottom with all six of the starters ranking within the Top 33 prospects by TCN.
As of now, the rotation includes Junior Fernandez (#11), Zac Gallen (#31), Derian Gonzalez (#33), Ryan Helsley (#15), Jake Woodford (#12), and Connor Jones (#24) in that order.
Fernandez will be the Beach Birds’ opening night starter against St. Lucie (NYM) and will immediately be among the youngest players in the Florida State League, having just turned 20 years of age last month. The right-hander’s focus will be honing in on his slider, a pitch that can help him work through lineups two to three times an outing. Gallen, who a Cardinals player development staffer compared to Joe Kelly because of his athleticism, has the command to flourish in the FSL.
Gonzalez, a more polished hurler than his teammate Fernandez, will diversify the rotation with his feel for pitching rather than pure stuff. Helsley had a breakout season last year at Peoria and is another overlooked prospect, not receiving an invite to STEP Camp in late-February. With a fastball that has reportedly touched 100 mph, the right-hander is looking to prove the doubters wrong.
Woodford and Jones join Gonzalez and Gallen as feel pitchers on the Palm Beach staff. Both right-handers generate a lot of ground balls with power sinkers down the in zone.
Hicks leads Peoria staff
The last of the four rotations is the Low-A Peoria pitching staff which, too, contains a combination of firepower and polish with its starters. However, the key separator from the other three is the fact the Chiefs feature two legitimate left-handed starting pitching prospects.
It all starts with TCN's #25 prospect Jordan Hicks, who will be the Opening Night starter for the Chiefs. The right-hander pitched across two short-season levels last year and obtained two championship rings in the process, lighting up the radar gun with 101 mph fastballs. That reportedly led to interest from multiple teams at the August 1 trade deadline last summer.
Hicks came into this spring having added 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason and will look to become Peoria's ace in his first full season.
Among the other starters for Peoria are returnees Ronnie Williams (#28 prospect) and John Kilichowski (#38) along with newcomers Ian Oxnevad (#32), Steven Farinaro, and Bryan Dobzanski.
Like most of his rotation mates, Williams will enter his first April in full season ball at Peoria. With good raw stuff, he will have to continue to learn how to refine it and further understand the nuances of pitching. Kilichowski, a tall 6-foot-5 lefty out of Vanderbilt, has an advanced approach with four solid pitches and will look to hit the ground running in his first full professional season.
Oxnevad is probably one of the more intriguing prospects on the staff because of his combination of projectability and strike-throwing ability. It will be interesting to see how the 20-years old first full season's workload shapes out. Farinaro had a breakthrough 2016 with State College thanks to his spike curveball and has since added a two-seamer to his arsenal to give him four pitches. Dobzanski, a strike-thrower with an ability to get ground balls as well, will need more swing-and-miss in his stuff to start in the higher levels.
So, there you have it. The Cardinals four full-season confirmed starting rotations have the potential to make for an exciting season for fans and prospect writers alike.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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