This week, Baseball America announced their top 100 prospects, and the Cardinals listed their top three talents on the list — all of them in the top 50.
The #STLCcards according to BA, have 3 top 100 prospects, all in the top 50.
Jordan Walker – #24
Nolan Gorman – #34
Mathew Liberatore – #50
Both Gorman and Walker got 70-class power. https://t.co/H0MTPVvJTi
— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) January 19, 2022
Jordan Walker came in at #24. Gorman was ten places higher at #34. Matthew Liberatore landed right in the middle at #50.
The Cardinals have had at least three prospects on the list in recent seasons, which is about average for MLB teams. However, this is the first time in a long time that they have had three in the top 50, indicating the quality that is at the top of their system.
In addition to the rankings, a few other interesting tidbits about each of these prospects were released that are worth some attention:
Baseball America just revealed the average exit speed and fastball speed for their top 100 prospects. Hitters Jordan Walker and Nolan Gorman averaged 91.26 mph and 89.39 mph respectively and pitcher Matthew Liberatore averaged 93.51 mph on his fastball.
— Kareem (@KareemSSN) January 19, 2022
Let’s take a look at each of these prospects, their seasons, and how this information matters for their future.
#24 – Jordan Walker
Walker was the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick, #21, in the COVID-abridged 2020 amateur draft. He is very tall for a third baseman, coming in at 6’5” and 220 lbs. with room to add to his frame. If you’re interested in how that kind of height compares to other third basemen in baseball history, VEB has what you need. When he was drafted, I did a small composition piece targeting tall third basemen with similar skills. One of the things I said in that article was that Walker “either has to stick with 3b — and there’s every reason to believe he can and will — or he’s really going to have to hit.”
Well, so far so good. We had to wait a while for Walker’s debut, but all he’s done since is hit. And hit. And hit. Walker had a .516 wOBA in a ball. That’s not a typo. That translates to a 205 wRC+. He followed that up with a more human .367 wOBA with a 124 wRC+ and .292/.344/.487 slash on A+.
19-year-olds just don’t deliver that kind of performance at that level. This was not a BABIP powered hot stretch either. Scouts rave about Walker’s bat skills. He earned a 70-grade power rating from Baseball America. That equates to the 60 Game Power, 70 Raw Power futures rank at Fangraphs.
What we didn’t have until now was output speed data. Along with their rankings, BA also released minor league Statcast data for their top 100. Walker’s average exit speed came in at 91.3 mph. For context, if he took that average EV to the majors, he’d already be 28 . aree in baseball just behind guys like Bo Bichette, Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson and Joey Gallo. Walker only gets stronger!
Add all those honors, stats, and scouting, and #24 is arguably the lowest ranking Walker sees in his minor league career. Baseball America has already listed him as a strong contender for the #1 prospect in baseball next year.
#34 – Nolan Gorman
Throughout the summer months, it seemed like there was a contingent of Cardinals fans who didn’t catch on to Gorman’s season. I suspect that was based on unrealistic expectations. Gorman started the season with AA where as a 21 year old he had a .379 wOBA and 129 wRC+. That’s a great performance and earned him an AAA punch mid-season. There Gorman produced a .340 wOBA and 106 wRC+. He did that while playing in a new position – second base – and played it extremely well.
Look, folks. Anytime you reach AAA at age 21, you’ll be fine. Every time you do that while getting above the competition average you are doing all Good. Every time you do that while excelling in a new, stronger defensive position, you do awesome.
I shouldn’t be saying this, but I actually do: Nolan Gorman is a very talented prospect who has worked to put himself at the forefront of the majors with elite power and an increasing level of maturity in his game. He aspires to be a good to very good starting infielder at second or third base, with athleticism that would translate to the outfield if circumstances forced him to play there. He is, in my opinion, the second best contender the Cardinals have developed since Oscar Taveras. Carlson’s maturity when he arrived in the majors puts him on my list for Gorman. Gorman, however, likely has Carlson ahead in upside and production potential, based primarily on his defensive flexibility. (Walker should pass them both if he continues his current path.)
Like Walker, Gorman’s strength ranks as a 70 on the 80 scale. Despite the extremely tough age competition, Gorman still produced a well above average exit speed of 89.4. That’s higher than Nolan Arenado or the aforementioned Dylan Carlson. If he took that to the majors, it would put him among the frontrunners in EV at 2b.
Gorman will see time in StL this season. Either injury or performance will clear a path for him. With his level of talent it will be very difficult to get him off the field once he has seen the field.
#50 – Matthew Liberatore
Like Gorman, there seems to be a section of Cardinals fans who are convinced that Matthew Liberatore had a bad season. Maybe those fans just love Randy Arozarena. Or maybe they’re just not very good at translating a statistic by age and experience level. Or maybe their expectations are a bit confused.
Liberatore was and remains at or near the top 50 in baseball. I think somewhere down the line, fans began to interpret his top 50 status as a young pitcher as a “future ace”. That’s just not the case. Players with ‘ace’ caliber profiles in the minors are not in the 50 series in the rankings. You won’t find those arms lower than the top 25 and once they reach AAA the top 5-10.
What kind of pitcher is consistently ranked as a top 50 prospect? Exactly what Liberatore rates as: a starter perspective with a solid #3 base and #2 upside. At age 21, after skipping A+ and AA and losing a minor league season, all Liberatore did was spend the entire season at AAA, start the Futures Game, pitch for the US in to firmly cement the Olympic Qualification and its “hoped-for” status as now “almost realized”.
Liberatore will have an extremely good chance of making the Cardinals rotation sometime in early 2021, where he is expected to perform as a mid-rotation starter with #2 caliber on the head to dream of. With the news of Liberatore’s average fastball speed, those kinds of expectations seem well justified. It wasn’t that long ago that Liberatore’s fastball was in the low 90s with very little “tunneling” ability on batters. I heard reports halfway through and after the season that the speed was going up and that he was holding up later in his starts.
The result is the 93.5 avg. FB speed mentioned above. My guess – and I have no split data to back this up, just anecdotes from people watching this sort of thing – is that his average increased as the season went on. If you sampled his fastball speed for the second half of 2021, his average would be a hair higher. Regardless, a 93.5 would be enough to put Liberatore in the top 25 in avg. fast ball speed among starters in the majors, ahead of other left-wing controls like Patrick Corbin or Sean Manaea and just a hair behind Max Fried.
Now you might say to yourself, “Well, those guys aren’t that great! They’re just…” Starters in the middle of the rotation? Yes. Right. Now you get it! Take a good look at Max Fried. That is what Liberatore is looking for.
Baseball America released their best Cardinals prospects earlier this winter. They had Michael McGreevey – the Cards’ top pick in 2021 – in fourth place behind the three prospects mentioned above. Ivan Herrera came in fifth. So it’s no surprise that Herrera missed their top 100. Other publications could flip those two around and you could see the Cardinals’ talented catcher sneaking into the back of some top 100 prospect rankings. However, it’s hard to call him a snob. Herrera had a good season at AA Springfield for his age, showing more strength as the year went on, a very well-developed gauntlet and an intriguing ability for walks. It just wasn’t the complete package yet. Next season he has to start to put everything in order, showing that he is ready to take over the basic catcher from Yadier Molina in 2023. He probably doesn’t belong in the top 100 lists now, but see if he will become a solid pick. next season when he’s on the cusp of the majors.