After a disappointing end to the 2016 season, the Cardinals organization has no time to rest. Specifically, Monday marked the start of the 2016 Arizona Fall League, as top Cardinals prospects work to close in on their Big League dreams.
Why should we care about the Arizona Fall League?
As most fans would admit, the Cardinals consistent commitment to a healthy Minor League system makes them one of the most consistent franchises in the game today. Keeping constant identity and purpose across all levels, it seems that St. Louis always has a promising future, developing their young talent in an efficient and lasting matter. Put simply, for the Cardinals, the farm system is vital. It is their backbone, their saving grace.
With that being said, however the minor leagues are incredibly hard to keep up with as an everyday fan. With numerous levels, constant promotions and demotions, and a seemingly countless players, it is understandably hard to stay up to date with farm league results.
Enter the Arizona Fall League. As a fan coming off a bitter end to a tumultuous season, this is a phenomenal opportunity to catch a glimpse into the Cardinals future. Whereas the Minor League season gives fans hundreds of players to sift through, the AFL features 7 of the most promising young prospects in the entire Cardinals system.
According to MLB.com, 60% of players who participate in the Arizona Fall League go on to play Big League ball. Notably, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Chris Carpenter are all members of the AFL Hall of Fame. Put simply, the AFL gives fans a unique opportunity to focus on 7 top prospects, players who would usually take a back seat to a St. Louis playoff run. While we all wish the Cards were still playing, this October lull offers a great opportunity to gain some hope, a better understanding of the future of Cardinals baseball.
Now that the importance and appeal of the AFL has been established, it becomes vital to recognize the players involved. As the article moves forward, I will briefly overview each of the 7 prospects, noting strengths and, most importantly, possible areas of improvement during their Fall campaign.
While Bader is the first prospect alphabetically, it is fitting that he be the first player mentioned in this overview. Perhaps the most exciting prospect the Cardinals have to offer, all eyes will be on Bader as the AFL unfolds. Having slumped to end his 2016 campaign, it will be important for him to establish a level of consistency throughout his stint for the Desert Dogs. Excitingly, Bader has started off red-hot, going 3-5 with 3 singles in his first game. While Bader’s talent is simply undeniable, developing a consistency and confidence will be imperative heading into the 2017 season.
Paul DeJong is, and always has been, a solid hitter. Hitting .260 in 2016 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs, DeJong shows the pop and timely hitting of a traditional third-baseman. Although he must continue to work on his offensive polish and strikeout rate, DeJong seems to be following a healthy offensive development. In the Arizona Fall League, then, look for DeJong to improve his range and consistency as a defender. With a solid arm, DeJong could could really raise his stock with some solid improvements in the hot corner.
A solid left-handed pitcher out of Florida Atlantic University, Austin Gomber is coming off a 2016 season that exceeded expectations. With a 2.69 ERA in 21 starts this year, Gomber established himself as a top-tier prospect within the Cardinals system. Moving forward, Gomber will need to pitch well in the AFL, hopefully increasing his chances to spend solid time at the AAA level in 2017. Already proving himself against some of the best talent the league has to offer, Gomber was sharp in his first start, going 3 innings, allowing 0 runs. Within those three innings, Gomber allowed only 1 hit, while fanning 5 batters. If Gomber continues to produce at this level, look for him to start climbing the ladder in the St. Louis ranks come 2017.
— Rob Rains (@RobRains) October 12, 2016
To me, Kelly is the most intriguing prospect in the entire Arizona Fall League. Looking to replace the legendary Yadier Molina, more games behind the dish for Kelly are just what he needs. Continuing in the effort to master his position, Kelly could face no better challenge than to handle different styles of pitchers from different organizations across the league. Being forced to adjust and constantly focus on his handling as a catcher, Gomber should, if all goes well, come out a much better player come the end of the AFL. If he improves significantly over the course of his stay in Glendale, he could really pressure the organization to give him serious innings come 2017.
Acquired in the 2014 trade with the Boston Red Sox, Littrell made 53 appearances across AA and AAA during the 2016 season. Projecting as a middle relief pitcher at the next level, Littrell will look to improve his consistency in the middle of games, particularly with his control. In 2016, for example, Littrell had a BB/9 ratio of 5.08, which, according to Fangraphs, is “awful.” If Littrell can improve with his tendency to walk batters, he could be a stellar left-handed reliever. In his first appearance in the AFL, Littrell took a step in the right direction, pitching two scoreless innings, striking out one batter.
— Memphis Redbirds (@memphisredbirds) October 12, 2016
Originally signed with the Nationals, Sherriff is not your typical member of the AFL. As a true Minor League veteran, Sherriff will look to take his opportunity against countless up-and-coming stars to finally make a legitimate push for the bigs. After dropping his arm angle to start the 2016 season, Sherriff posted his best season to date, earning honors as a AAA all-star. Notably, Sherriff posted a ground ball percentage of 61%, which is incredibly impressive. Essentially, he re-invented himself in 2016, becoming a groundball machine with serious MLB potential. Going forward into the AFL, the goal for Sherriff should be simple: after a rejuvenating 2016, he needs to continue his stellar performance, proving to the organization that, after 6 seasons in the minors, he finally deserves his shot.
A converted outfielder, Rowan Wick as a LIVE arm out of the bullpen. The most promising reliever currently in the Cardinals farm system, Wick posted a 2.44 ERA in 44 appearances across A and AA. During his time with the Glendale Desert Dogs, Wick will benefit greatly from the extra innings on the bump. With an impressive fastball that has touched 97-98 MPH, Wick will continue to polish himself as a pitcher, developing his secondary pitches and locating with more consistency. To start the AFL season, Wick struggled, walking 2 batters and allowing 1 run over two innings. Perhaps jittery in his first relief appearance, Wick will need to adjust, as he will be facing talent that is more highly concentrated than that which he has previously seen. In a positive sense, however, Wick can use this as a learning experience, becoming accustomed to the adjustments needed for consistent success.
As you can see above, the Cardinals have many reasons for excitement in the 2016 Arizona Fall League season. As a true fan, take advantage of this, seizing the opportunity to peer into the bright future of the organization.
Photo Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports