Last week I talked about a few picks that fit the Cardinals’ drafting style with the logic that past success will lead to repetition despite the personnel changes that have occurred throughout the organization. This week (and perhaps also in the coming weeks), I take the opposite hypothesis, foreseeing a change in philosophy due not only to the aforementioned personnel differences but also to the surplus that such a consistent style has created.
The Cardinals have some of the most distinctive sets of preferences when it comes to the draft. In general principle, it is best to take the top talent left on the board rather than focusing on the specific needs of the system, as there are no guarantees in the draft and major league caliber players will find a way to contribute value by performance or by trade. However, years of following a well-defined pattern has led to a wide disparity between strengths and weaknesses, to the point where getting the full value out of everyone may prove less than trivial.
One of the most notorious weaknesses in the system of late has been the dearth of left-handed pitching prospects. I am a John Gast fan and his performance this year has been encouraging but he remains a scouting-first prospect with a number of pressing questions that need answering. Behind him there is little save for a handful of possible LOOGYs.
Perhaps the primary reason I was initially so disappointed in last year’s pick of Kolten Wong in the first round was the fact that there were so many high-upside lefties in that draft class. At the time, rumors were swirling connecting the Cardinals with guys like Daniel Norris and Henry Owens, both of which were available when the Cardinals’ turn came up.
The depth in left-handed pitchers, just as every other aspect of this year’s draft class, is not quite so strong as last year’s crop. However, the gap is not so wide as it is in other aspects, making this a prime opportunity to replenish a system which hasn’t seen a lefty in its top ten since Jaime Garcia.
Brian Johnson – University of Florida
At 6’4, 225 pounds, Brian Johnson is a big dude. He’s either a power-hitting first baseman or he’s a workhorse lefty, although he actually hasn’t thrown too many innings at the college level. He’s been a reliever mostly and never fully focused on pitching, which could end up to his advantage as he definitely has the frame of a starter and not too many innings on his arm.
Despite his inexperience, Johnson is not all that raw. He has moments of arm action inconsistency (at times he allows his elbow to fly out, creating the inverted something-or-other) but, for the most part, his mechanics look pretty smooth, especially from the stretch. I’d say he has below average injury risk if Mike Zunino doesn’t manage to kill him.
His fastball stays around 91-92, topping out at 94 with decent movement and he commands it well. Johnson is pretty much fully developed physically, so I wouldn’t expect any more velocity on top of that but it’s plenty for a lefty. He has a slurvy breaking ball which could become his best pitch but there’s not much on his offspeed stuff. The stuff wouldn’t be all that impressive on a righty but given his split concentration and left-handedness, it looks quite good indeed. He’s perceived as having a lower ceiling but I don’t see it.
All told, I’m really not sure he’s a better pitcher or hitter. The guy has some of the best raw power in the draft and has been creaming the ball with regularity with a .402 wOBA. He’s definitely not playing anything other than first, though, so if you asked me which we needed more, I think the answer is pretty clear.
Matt Smoral – Solon HS, Ohio
Playing the Henry Owens of this year’s draft, Matt Smoral is a huge high school lefty but his stuff lags a little behind. He sits in the high 80s, low 90s, topping out at 94. He could use more of his huge legs and push off the mound a little harder. His arm mechanics can get out of whack, too, causing his control to waiver. He often comes from an arm slot that is too low and doesn’t allow him to take full advantage of his vertical plane and he has a tendency to fall off the mound in a slightly awkward manner.
All that is fixable, though, and there’s tons of upside there to see past the kinks. He has a wipeout slider that destroys righties and he has the loose actions on the mound that you can’t teach. And when you’re 6’8 and you’re a southpaw, you don’t stay on the board for long. Even so, there’s a good chance that he’ll be around when the Cardinals pick as he hasn’t been as heavily scouted as, say, Max Fried, and he’s a good student committed to North Carolina who might have a higher asking price. I would be very excited with Smoral at #19.
Hunter Virant – Camarillo HS, California
Yet another tall lefty but this one has a little more room to fill out. A lanky 170 pounds with natural, fluid motions on the mound, Hunter Virant gets tagged with that praise of indeterminate value for pitchers: “athletic”. The results of his athleticism are already showing up in results, however. He’s got more fastball speed than the other two and he’s been gaining it fast. He’s been measured up to 96 as of late and has been jumping up draft boards, having started off the season with a no-hitter and hardly slowed down since.
Virant is also one of the most polished high school pitcher of the year, making him not so much a project as Smoral. His 3/4 is buttery smooth and he’s got an arsenal of secondary pitches which are rapidly improving as well. The curve ball remains his best offering and challenges Max Fried for the best in the draft. He also has a slider and a change up, both of which could be major league quality pitches.
Virant offers something of a happy medium between Brian Johnson and Matt Smoral with his advanced technique and #2 upside. His projection is starting to realize itself as we speak, however. It might be too far along for the Cardinals to get a shot at him by the time draft day comes along.