Minor Leagues: Cardinals Youngsters Show Promise

Back before the season even started, I picked out seven players in the Cards' minor league system that I thought bore watching. Well, the minor league seasons are right about a third of the way through, and I thought the off-day would make a good opportunity to take a look at those players and see how they're progressing. Most of the statistics used here come from First Inning. For even more detailed coverage of the Cards' minor league system, check out Future Redbirds. Erik Manning and his crew over there do an outstanding job.

Chris Perez: Well, unless you've missed pretty much all of the Cardinals' games this year, you probably already know how Chris Perez's year has gone. Perez started out the year in Triple A Memphis, already carrying the tag of the Cards' closer of the future. Perez came into the season having only one real area of his game that needed improvement: his control. While he's been nearly unhittable in his minor league career, Perez has always sported elevated walk rates.

Perez has improved markedly in that area this year. After walking over 22 percent of the Triple A hitters he faced in 2007, Perez came out firing strikes in 2008. He knocked his walk rate down significantly, issuing free passes to only 12.3 percent of batters he faced. When Jason Isringhausen came unglued earlier in the Cardinals' season, Perez was called up to the big club in order to help ease the load on the bullpen. Since coming to the majors, Perez has continued to dominate hitters, striking out about two batters for every walk he issues. Perez has limited hitters to only seven hits, with no home runs, in his 11.1 innings so far.

So what does the future hold for Perez? After getting his feet wet this year in a setup role, it looks as if Perez will be in position to take the mantle of closer in the next season or two for the Cardinals. As long as he can continue to fill the strike zone with his pitches, Chris has the stuff to become an elite stopper.

Clayton Mortensen: Mortensen, the most recent draftee on my list, was a first round pick in last year's draft. After starting his minor league career at short season Batavia last season, Mortensen moved up to Low A Quad Cities and then scored himself an invite to major league spring training this year. He continued to impress, grabbing the attention of Dave Duncan and putting himself firmly into the club's future rotation plans.

After his impressive spring training stint, Mortensen began the year in Double A Springfield. He held his own there in only his first full professional season, posting an ERA just over 4.00, with solid peripheral statistics. He didn't exactly dominate, but he pitched well enough to put himself in line for a promotion to Triple A when the Cardinals had a spot open up due to injury. Mort has continued to pitch fairly well since moving up, posting an identical ERA to his Double A line, (4.22) while striking out nearly a batter per inning, (10 Ks in 10.2 innings) and continuing to pile up groundball outs.

Mort should be ready to fill in an opening in the big league rotation by next season, if not right out of Spring Training, then as one of the first pitchers called up.

Allen Craig: The big third baseman out of the University of California has done nothing but hit since he began his professional career in the Cards' system. He may be the best hitting prospect the Cardinals have outside of Colby Rasmus, the center field uber-prospect.

2008 has been a mixed bag so far for Craig. He started out the year in a horrible slump as he returned to Double A, where he finished out 2007. He has come on since, hitting well in May before leveling off a bit in June. His overall line is respectable (.268 batting average, a .331 on-base percentage and a .444 slugging average), but not quite what you hope for out of the system's second-best hitter. He has hit for some power, with eleven home runs, but just hasn't made consistent hard contact this year. He's also struggling with his plate discipline, drawing a walk in only 6.6 percent of his at bats, while striking out in almost 16 percent of them.

Before this season, Craig looked to be in competition with David Freese, the third baseman the Cards acquired from San Diego in the Jim Edmonds deal, to gain the edge as the Cardinals' top third base prospect. So far this year, though, Craig has looked less than a world beater. His defense has never been his strongest suit, so his bat will have to carry him, and his bat hasn't been nearly as good this year as it needs to be to get him to St. Louis. With the Cardinals just spending their first round pick this year on an advanced college bat who also happens to play third base in Brett Wallace, Craig's future is in doubt unless he can turn his offense up a notch.

Andres Rosales: Of all the players I profiled, Rosales has had the toughest go of it so far. He began the year in Quad Cities, but struggled with his bugaboo of two years ago, his control. After having ridiculously good control last season, with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 7.5 to 1, the wiry Venezuelan couldn't find the strike zone early this year, walking nearly six batters per nine innings. He was sent down from Quad Cities back to extended spring training in order to try and get back on track.

Rosales, still only 19 years old, will get a spot on a short season team when those clubs start playing in the coming weeks. While his struggles this season are certainly a setback, Rosales is still young enough and talented enough that he'll get all the time and opportunities he needs to try and make it. If he can get his control ironed out again, Rosales should put himself right back on the map, and quickly.

Bryan Anderson and Luis de La Cruz: A pair of highly thought-of young catchers, Anderson and de La Cruz, have gone in opposite directions so far this season. Anderson, the 2005 draftee with the sweet left-handed stroke, began the year in Double A. He continued to hit, and after working with the recently retired Mike Matheny in spring Training, Anderson's improved defense drew such high praise from coaches and front office types that he ended up promoted to Triple A at age 21. His power numbers still aren't all that impressive, with only two homers on the year, but catchers who hit well over .300 in Triple at 21 years old aren't just unusual; they literally don't exist. Of course, Yadier Molina's contract situation in St. Louis still complicates Anderson's future outlook, but you can't ask him to do any more than he already has to at least make the team's future decision tough.

De La Cruz, on the other hand, hasn't played particularly well in 2008. He started the season in Low A ball, his first exposure to full season ball, and has struggled to this point, hitting only .167 with an OPS, (on-base plus slugging) of .402. He's not striking out a ridiculous amount, with only seventeen strikeouts in 120 at bats, but just isn't making hard contact at all. Recently, De La Cruz was demoted down to a short season club, which is probably for the best. He just turned 19 on May 6, so he's still got youth on his side. He also still has some of the better defensive skills in the system, especially in the throwing arm department, and even his offensive struggles appear to be mostly the result of just not being quite ready for the level he was playing at. There's still a ton of talent to like about this young man; the Cardinals are just going to have to be patient in bringing it along.

Of the six players I profiled, Perez, Mortensen and Bryan Anderson have all had very good seasons so far, while Craig, Rosales, and De La Cruz have struggled. It's a mixed bag, but even of the players who have played poorly, there are still some positives.

The most important thing, though, is that I only profiled a small percentage of the talent the Cards have in the system. In years past, you might have had a tough time finding six players worth talking about. Nowadays, though, it's tough to narrow it down that number.

- Aaron Schafer

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