Cardinals boast system full of exciting prospects
Outfielder Taveras ranked among game's top up-and-coming players
Three Cardinals starting pitchers have gone down with injuries, and three rookie pitchers have since replaced them and are doing more than just providing fill-in starts -- they're excelling.
Shelby Miller has seven wins and is tops in the National League in ERA at 1.91. Michael Wacha debuted with a two-hit, one-run performance. Tyler Lyons, the least-touted prospect of the group, won his first two starts by allowing only one run in each.
And it doesn't end with Miller, Lyons and Wacha, or the seven other rookie pitchers who made an appearance on the 40-man roster this season. In what seems like a never-ending stream of talent, the Cards' farm system is ranked No. 1 by Baseball Prospectus.
Before the 2011 season, Tony La Russa and the Cardinals put together a Player Development Manual, the guiding document for every level of the organization, and it was retooled with some minor changes when Mike Matheny took the helm in 2012. It's revised and updated before every season, but director of Minor League operations John Vuch said the manual's base foundation dates back to the 1960s, '50s and even the '40s.
"We're never going to be the Yankees, the Dodgers, the teams that can really spend a ton of money," Vuch said. "We have to kind of identify players that play the game fundamentally sound."
The philosophy is consistently implemented throughout the entire system. What is being taught in the Dominican League or at Class A Peoria is the same as what's preached at Triple-A Memphis or in St. Louis.
"Whether it's bunt plays or whether it's cutoffs and relays, everything is kind of identical throughout the system, so as a player moves up, he doesn't have to relearn a bunch of fundamentals," Vuch said. "All he has to worry about is adjusting to the next level of competition."
Near the top of every list of Minor League up-and-comers is Oscar Taveras, the third-ranked prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB.com. For the 20-year-old center fielder, the question is when, not if, he will make his big league debut, something Vuch said will be dictated more by Taveras than team need. The better the prospect, the more the movement through the system is defined by the player, he said.
"So the guys that are your better prospects, you're not going to move up just to fill a hole if there's an injury," Vuch said. "You might send a lesser player up even though the better player might be more deserving, but maybe it's not appropriate, developmentally, for him."
Despite all the hype surrounding Taveras, he just reached Triple-A this season. The Cardinals kept Taveras and fellow top prospect Kolten Wong at Double-A Springfield because the size of the eight-team Texas League would allow them to face the same teams and pitchers numerous times throughout the season.
"If Oscar had a flaw or if Kolten had a flaw, those teams would be able to exploit it," Vuch said. "We felt that seeing how they handled making adjustments was more important than challenging them at the next level. We kind of slowed their movement through the system, but we still felt like they were getting more done on a development basis."
Taveras' offensive game is big league ready, and Vuch said what's left is to continue improving his defense and obtain more game experience.
"Even though he's so proficient as a hitter, the other areas of his game are still kind of catching up to that," Vuch said.
Wong, a second baseman selected 22nd overall in 2011, has progressed through the Minor Leagues quickly, spending one year each in Class A and Double-A before making the jump to Triple-A with Taveras this season. But Wong didn't even become a second baseman until he got to college at Hawaii, so he's still relatively new to the position.
"He's come a long way in a short period of time," Vuch said. "I think he'll still get even better the more experienced he gets. He's turning the double play better now. He's a smart player. Kind of the baseball equivalent of a gym rat in basketball. He loves to work hard."
Seven pitchers have made their Major League debut with St. Louis this season, but even with the influx of callups to the big league roster, Vuch still counts pitching depth as a strength throughout the organization.
Among the top hurlers who aren't currently on the Cardinals' roster are Carlos Martinez and Tyrell Jenkins. Martinez, a right-hander, made a brief appearance with St. Louis this season, allowing four earned runs on nine hits and three walks while striking out nine in eight innings of relief. Martinez was called up out of necessity but has since been sent back down to Triple-A to get work in as a starter, the role Vuch said the Cards always projected him to fill.
"He'll gradually get built up to a normal starter's role," Vuch said. "He's got a good breaking pitch, he's got a good changeup and, obviously, he's got two different fastballs that are effective. So he's got the repertoire of a starting pitcher."
Even if Martinez is called upon to pitch out of the Cardinals' 'pen again, it's easier to insert a starter into that role than it is to stretch a Minor League reliever into a big league starter.
While Martinez is polished enough to make a big league appearance, Jenkins is still very much a raw talent. Vuch said the Midwest League All-Star is becoming more consistent with his mechanics and delivery but still has a ways to go before being a complete package.
"We get spoiled sometimes when we see guys kind of rocket through the system and then we forget that right now, he'd just be a college junior at this point in his career," Vuch said. "He's a little raw but definitely improving. We're pleased with the progress he's made this year."
In addition to Martinez and Jenkins, the hope is that the injured pitchers on the Major League disabled list return to form, allowing some of the rookies -- like John Gast or Tyler Lyons -- to make their way back to the Minors where they can refine their game for a more permanent big league stint in the future.
"Next time they go up there, they'll be able to perform even better," Vuch said.
While he isn't among the Cards' top 20 prospects, Vuch said fans should get to know the name Sam Tuivailala, a converted pitcher in Class A who Vuch expects to make an impression in the next few years.
"He's still new to pitching, but he's got as good an arm as anybody we've got," Vuch said. "Very coachable kid, wants to learn, wants to get better. I think he's kind of under the radar right now, but I think down the road, he'll be another one of those guys people are talking about."
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.