Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camp, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the St. Louis Cardinals.
JUPITER, Fla. -- There were a lot of exciting developments in the Cardinals system in 2015, particularly in the lower levels. And much of it came courtesy of the organization's efforts in international scouting.
That's not to say domestic scouting in St. Louis has taken a break. Talent continues to come pouring in by way of the Draft, but there's a pool of high-upside talent collecting at the bottom consisting largely of players signed out of Latin America.
"At the lower levels, we feel like we have some young players coming through the system now, down in those A-ball levels and below that we really feel good about," Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. "It's going to take time, we understand that."
They were all teenagers in 2015, showing tools on the mound and at the plate that could allow them to develop into impact-type players once they are ready for St. Louis. Position players like Magneuris Sierra and Edmundo Sosa, ranked No. 4 and 5 on the team's Top 30 prospects list, had very strong seasons with Johnson City (see below). Pitchers like Junior Fernandez and Sandy Alcantara, both in the top 20, lit up radar guns and opened a lot of eyes during their United States debuts in the Gulf Coast League.
But here's the thing with players this young. They can have a successful U.S. debut or rookie-ball campaign and think they have it all figured out. A player development staff can't be sure what kind of player will come to report for camp the following spring. LaRocque was pleased to see this group take their offseasons very seriously.
"We now have the advantage of the academy they can work at throughout the course of the offseason," LaRocque said. "There are a lot of opportunities and resources to now be able to have our younger players leave the Dominican or Venezuela, go through the academy and come here more prepared."
Having the facilities or the resources is not exactly a guarantee, of course. The players have to take advantage of them. It appears that most, if not all, did, a testament to the groundwork laid out by the Cardinals' staff.
"We have to make sure they understand the message and have an appreciation for the fact that they are responsible, too," LaRocque said. "They do the work. We provide all the foundation for them. We have a great staff that helps promote it. It's almost like you're saying to them: Here's the opportunity. More than ever, players understand the window is short. As long as we allow them to mature, grow and understand that there is some urgency to it, it becomes a 12-month cycle. We're fortunate that a lot of things are in place, with a lot of good staff members to help support it."
Every year, a couple of weeks before Minor League camp begins, the Cardinals run what they call a step camp. It's a mini-camp for 25 prospects to get a head start on the spring and that group provides a stable of players for the big league staff to choose from to give opportunities to in big league Spring Training games. They aren't non-roster invitees to big league camp, but rather Minor Leaguers who get the chance to get a taste of what it's like in the main stadium.
"We're very fortunate our Major League staff embraces those young players like they do," LaRocque said. "That step camp has helped players be seen and get exposure from [manager] Mike Matheny. "
Many players at or near the bottom rung of the organizational ladder had such opportunities and have handled it well. Third baseman Paul DeJong jumped on the radar as a fourth-round pick out of Illinois State by slugging hitting .316/.394/.516 during his pro debut, which included considerable time in the full-season Midwest League. The Cards' No. 18 prospect has kept it up this spring, first in the step camp and then in big league Spring Training games, where he's gone 3-for-6 with two doubles.
LaRocque also commended Sierra, among others, for standing out. The outfielder has picked up 10 Grapefruit League at-bats. Others from the step camp to see big league time are young pitchers Jack Flaherty, Fernandez and Alcantara.
Three young position players in the system -- Sierra, Sosa and infielder Eliezer Alvarez -- were all Appalachian League postseason All-Stars in 2015. All three hit .300 or better for Short Season Johnson City. Sierra finished sixth in the league with 15 steals. Sosa, whose Spring Training was interrupted by playing shortstop for Panama in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers, was in the top 10 for OPS. All three could be poised for bigger and better things in 2016.
"They've done a very nice job," LaRocque said. "That's a real accomplishment, all being All-Stars. We feel good about their future."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow @JonathanMayo on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.