COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals are leading the National League with a 28-16 record through May 20 -- yet four prospects strutting their stuff in Triple-A Memphis could be making Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak think of more than one way to improve his club.
Entering the 2013 season, Baseball America ranked the Cardinals' farm system No. 1 in Major League Baseball. Their stock of impressive pitching prospects combined with several position players with superstar potential has media, fans and MLB front office executives salivating.
In fact, the current Cardinals are already reaping the benefits of that player-development system with outstanding contributions from individuals like Shelby Miller, Matt Carpenter and Trevor Rosenthal, just to name a few. But impressive Triple-A performances by Ryan Jackson, Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha are pushing Mozeliak to add them to an increasingly crowded roster.
Ryan Jackson: The Human Torch
The Redbirds utility infielder is simply on fire. According to MiLB.com, Jackson is flashing a batting line of .363/.427/.489 from the three-spot in the order. In his last 10 games, he's hitting .410/.439/.590 with a 1.029 OPS despite going 0-for-4 twice on back-to-back nights. He's a middle infielder that once held the No. 1 spot on the St. Louis Cardinals' organizational depth chart at shortstop, but that was before the unexpected emergence of Pete Kozma at the end of the 2012 season. Now he's splitting time between SS and second base as he continues to terrorize Pacific Coast League pitching.
Currently hitting .358 with runners on and .318 with runners in scoring position, Jackson is developing a knack for driving in runs in the middle of the order. But his most impressive offensive statistics may be his numbers against left-handed pitching.
In 47 at-bats, Jackson is hitting .383/.453/.468 against southpaws, a significant improvement over the St. Louis Cardinals' team average of .224 against left-handers through May 20 (No. 28 in MLB per MLB.com). If that trend continues, it's going to make it even more difficult for Mozeliak to resist the urge to bring Jackson up to the big club by July 31.
Oscar Taveras: The Thing
It's not every day that a team's GM compares you to perhaps the greatest hitter in a generation. That's exactly what Cardinals GM John Mozeliak did when he said Oscar Taveras has the potential to be the most prolific hitter to come out of the Cardinals' farm system since Albert Pujols. Since that statement, the number of eyes on Taveras have increased dramatically, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the young outfielder's hitting line.
Currently sitting at .317/.351/.480 with four home runs through 123 at-bats, the young slugger continues to produce at a steady, rock-solid pace as he proves himself a valuable piece in the heart of any order.
Throughout his minor-league career, Taveras has yet to play at any professional level without winning a championship. His latest came with the Double-A Springfield Cardinals in 2012 when he hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs in just 477 at-bats on his way to a Texas League Championship. A rare combination of speed and power, Oscar padded his offensive stats by stealing 10 bases in 2012. He was caught just once.
Seen as a rare combination of speed, power, and the ability to hit for a high average, the comparisons between Taveras and various MLB stars seem limitless. The latest name attached to Oscar, Vlad Guerrero, stems from Taveras' ability to seemingly center any pitch in or near the zone. As for the Cardinals, they appear to be happy calling him, simply, "Oscar."
For now, Mozeliak has been given a brief reprieve from all the constant questions about the imminent arrival of Oscar Taveras -- the Redbirds outfielder is currently day-to-day with a minor ankle sprain -- but those questions are bound to return as soon as Taveras returns to the Redbirds' lineup.
Kolten Wong: The Invisible Man
With super-prospect Oscar Taveras and streaking hitter Ryan Jackson sharing the same clubhouse, top draft pick Kolten Wong seems almost forgotten. Touted as the St. Louis Cardinals' starting second baseman of the future, Wong is quietly putting together a successful season in Triple-A Memphis.
In his last 10 games, the Redbirds' second baseman is hitting a stunning .425/.465/.725 with a 1.190 OPS and two home runs. That brings his line for the season up to .317/.345/.472 -- a performance no one seems to be noticing. Maybe it has to do with Matt Carpenter's success at second base for the Cardinals, or it could be a simple matter of sharing box scores with the likes of Taveras, Jackson, and the eye-popping Michael Wacha. Whatever the reason, Wong seems determined to force himself into consideration for a major-league call-up.
Michael Wacha: Mr. Fantastic
With the National League's best starting rotation ERA at 2.68 through May 20 (the Cincinnati Reds are a distant No. 2 with a 3.23 ERA), you would think demands to call up a Triple-A starting pitcher would be minimal. Not so among many Cardinals fans.
Just a year or so removed from throwing every seventh day for Texas A&M, Michael Wacha is leading the Triple-A Memphis rotation with a 4-0 record and a 1.89 ERA in 47 2/3 innings pitched. The result is a rabid fan base desperate to see him in the St. Louis rotation right now.
At 6 feet 6 inches and a sturdy 210 pounds, the hard-throwing right-hander with a boyish grin is already evoking images of St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. Such comparisons for a player in his first full professional season are often unwarranted and unfair but in this case, the expectations may not be too far from reality.
Through eight games started, Wacha has yet to allow more than two earned runs in a single appearance. In five of those starts, he's allowed one or fewer earned runs, including seven innings of shutout baseball on April 18. As of May 20, he has the second lowest WHIP at 0.90 of any pitcher in the hitter-happy PCL (Josh Lindblom of the Round Rock Express is No. 1 with a 0.88 WHIP).
Due to concerns about rushing a pitcher still conditioning his arm to a full season of pitching every fifth day, as well as well-documented concerns about starting the infamous arbitration clock on such an impressive player, Mozeliak hopes to keep Wacha in Triple-A as long as the big club's needs allow.
But whether it's in 2013 or 2014, Michael Wacha is destined for a highly anticipated arrival in the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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