This has been mentioned in passing a few times but with the graduation of Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas to mainstays in the Cardinals’ bullpen and the knee injury to Adam Reifer, suddenly a farm system that looked rich in right handed relief prospects seems lacking. We’ll traverse the system looking for pitchers who could be the next prominent relief prospect.
Memphis – Francisco Samuel, Jess Todd
It wasn’t that long ago that the troika of Samuel, Sanchez and Salas were mentioned in the same breath. Samuel had the most consistent velocity on his fastball and the least consistent command. He’s been interrupted by some recurring injuries related to his arm. At 24, he’s still got some time but he seems like more of an afterthought at this point in his career.
Todd was claimed off waivers to help bolster an anemic Memphis bullpen. Drafted in 2007 by the Cardinals, Todd needed just a single season to ascend to AAA Memphis. More surprisingly was that he did so as a starter. After being traded in 2009, Todd split time between the Cleveland Indians bullpen and AAA with respectable strikeout numbers. There’s good statistical reasons to wonder why Todd was released at all and having just turned 25, it’s not to late for him to solidify a role in a bullpen.
Springfield – Blake King, Casey Mulligan
The demotion from Memphis to Springfield would seem to be the final bell tolling on King’s career. Mentioned as having, arguably, the best slider in the system, King has been undone by his awful control. After a brief improvement last year, he’s walked more batters than he’s struck out in 2011. He’s the only ‘name’ pitcher in Springfield but it is highly unlikely that he reaches the majors with the Cardinals.
Mulligan has been sidelined by injuries but remains an interesting footnote to the conversion of Jason Motte. Mulligan’s plus changeup makes him an unusual right handed reliever that can retire left handed hitters. Drafted in 2007 out of high school, Mulligan is surprisingly young at 23. His ascension through the system has been methodical and occasioned by demotions to give him further time to adjust to the opposition or bolster a faltering pen.
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Below Springfield, there are some unheralded relievers and Keith Butler would be chief among them who struck out 50 in 30 IP at Batavia in 2010. Hector Corpas is a hard throwing Panamanian in low-A who has seen improved fastball control as he transitioned from Venezuelan to American leagues. Boone Whiting posted 68 strikeouts to 5 walks across 13 appearances (9 starts) in Johnson City during 2010. He’s continued to strikeout better than a batter an inning at Quad Cities in 2011.
While the low-minors contain some potentially good relievers, they’re still far removed from being in any near term discussion of contributing to the big leagues. The prospects in the high minors, perhaps excepting Jess Todd, are thoroughly underwhelming.
It’s worth mentioning that the Cardinals now have four relievers on their major league squad still under team control after this year: Jason Motte (3 years service), Mitchell Boggs (2 years service), Fernando Salas (1+ year service), Eduardo Sanchez (1 year service). The need is not necessarily immediate but neither can they particularly afford to trade from this pool given the lack of obvious replacements in the minors.
The Cardinals do have a group of players that may be better suited to relief in the long term than starting though they are getting a chance at the latter right now. Adam Ottavino, David Kopp, Joe Kelly and Jordan Swagerty all come to mind. It’s too early to pigeonhole the latter two but scouts have often regarded Kelly as a reliever and Swagerty, despite a surprise 2011, was not generally considered a starting prospect prior to the 2010 draft. The former two may be forced to the pen in an effort to keep them healthy.
One other thing to mention is that the 2011 MLB draft (starting June 6th) is ripe with pitching prospects. I would be completely unsurprised to see the Cardinals take a college reliever with the ability to “move quickly” in the sandwich or second round much as they did in 2006 with Chris Perez. Tony Zych or Anthony Meo would be college arms that could start in the minors but project more as relievers in the majors. If the Cardinals were to draft them in the sandwich round, they could fast track them to the majors if they committed to relieving from day one. While I’m not necessarily an advocate of this approach, it’s one that the Cardinals have used before (though not recently) and it did pay some dividends.