Out of nowhere, the Cardinals have snatched a 0.5 game lead for the 1st NL Wildcard spot. After firing manager Mike Matheny and sitting at .500, the expectation was that St.Louis was going to need to retool their team in order to set themselves up for future success beyond this season. That showed when they trade center fielder Tommy Pham, an MVP candidate last year, to the Tampa Bay Rays for three prospects. What came next? A youth movement that has taken the MLB by storm and has the Cardinals sitting pretty in a postseason race. Let’s take a closer look at these five young players, and see what the future may hold for them as well as determining if their breakout seasons are legitimate.
Coming into this season, Carlos Martinez was expected to be the ace. Instead, the 22-year-old Jack Flaherty has taken over that role with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. Those numbers are backed up with a 3.76 FIP, 6.2 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, and an impressive 11.2 K/9. His .200 expected batting average against puts him in the top 2% of the league and his .331 expected slugging percentage puts him in the top 4% of the league. How has he done it? Flaherty throws a mid 90s fastball 40.1% of the time. It’s a good one, as he has a 11.7 fastball runs above average this season, which ranks 15th in the MLB. To compliment it, Flaherty throws a nasty slider 29.8% of the time, that has a 7.7 runs above average that ranks 25th. To round it out, Flaherty’s five pitch mix also includes a solid sinker (16.8%), and an average curveball (10.3%) and change-up (2.9%). His elite strikeout ability (7th in K/9) and solid command give him a chance to be a front line starter for years to come, and I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t be the Cardinals’ future ace.
In a stacked national rookie class led by Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna, one rookie who seems to get overlooked is reliever Jordan Hicks. The 21-year-old has a 3.03 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and a 3.47 FIP in 65.1 innings. He’s worked primarily as the Cards’ set up man, but has been asked to go multiple innings multiple times and also has 5 saves. His peripherals don’t suggest dominant reliever, as he has just a 7.7 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9. However, his H/9 (6.4) and BB/9 (0.1) are remarkably low. Plus, his sinker that can reach up to 105 MPH (yes, you read that correctly) helps him induce ground balls at a 3.24 GB/FB ratio. He throws that sinker 73.2% of the time, and it has a 9.6 runs above average, 12th among relievers. That remarkable sinker isn’t all he has, as he has arguably one of the nastiest sliders in the MLB. He throws it 22.8% of the time with very sharp break. With that impressive two pitch mix, Hicks should continue to get batter at missing bats, and should end up developing into one of the best relievers in the MLB. The Cardinals have their future ace in Jack Flaherty, and now they have their future shutdown closer in Hicks.
Sticking with the bullpen, the Cardinals may have found themselves another solid reliever to compliment Hicks. 23-year-old Dakota Hudson has been excellent since bieng called up late July, as he has a 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and a 3.76 FIP in 14 innings in the MLB. The reason for that is his excellent 3.9 H/9, which is due to his ability to avoid hard contact, as his 12.8% hard hit rate is incredibly low. There are some red flags with Hudson, his BB/9 and K/9 are equal at 5.1, but his 4.00 GB/FB ratio helps hide those red flags. He relies mostly on a two pitch mix, with a sinker (59.2%) and slider (31.8%). While his awful command probably keeps him from becoming a starter, that two pitch mix and ground ball rate gives Hudson a chance to be a solid reliever for the Cardinals who can work multiple innings for them. In the age of “bullpening”, the ability to work multiple quality innings as a reliever is a very valuable commodity.
When the Cardinals made the decision to trade Pham to the Rays, most people saw it as them waving the white flag. Instead, that trade may have been made to open the door for Harrison Bader. The 24-year-old is hitting .279/.350/.439 with 9 home runs and 12 stolen bases this season. He’s been able to provide a spark at the bottom of the order before turning it back over to an impressive top of the lineup led by Matt Carpenter. However, it’s Bader’s defense that gives him a chance to be an impact player for years to come. In limited action, Bader has an astonishing 22 defensive runs saved an a 3.8 WAR. That defense gives him a floor of a Billy Hamilton type, but he has chance to be much more if he continues to hit at such a high rate. Even though stat cast isn’t as fond of Bader (.230 expected batting average), that may not be completely accurate as Bader’s speed gives him a chance to reach on a lot of infield hits. Overall. Bader is a near perfect mold of a center fielder, as he is a future gold glover who should hit .250-.280 every season and with a good chance to lead the league in stolen bases multiple times.
In a stacked outfield, it has been hard for rookie Tyler O’Neil to make an impact. However, with the injury of Dexter Fowler, a spot opened up in the outfield that O’Neil has used to make a huge impact in little action. Despite appearing in only 33 games, O’Neil has a 1.0 WAR. To put that in context, that WAR is higher than Charlie Blackmon, Eric Hosmer, and Rhys Hoskins. Overall, O’Neil is hitting .289/.325/.526 with 5 home runs in 76 at bats. His 4 defensive runs saved is also very solid considering the limited playing time he’s received. There are some red flags, as O’Neil’s expected batting average is .230 and he has a very high strikeout rate (35.9%) and very low walk rate (3.8%). He also has struggled vs sliders, as he has a -3.2 runs above average vs them. However, O’Neil’s hard contact rate of 40% is a very good sign, and he should continue to improve as he continues to develop and adjust to the major league level. At the worst, his power and defense combination give him a floor of a solid everyday MLB starting outfielder. His ceiling however, is through the roof. Expect O’Neil to be a middle of the order presence for St.Louis for years to come.
While a postseason berth is the Cardinals’ ultimate goal this season, this season has already been a victory for them. In just one season, they’ve identified their future ace, their future closer, their future leadoff center fielder, their future middle of the order bat, and an additional young impact reliever. That’s amazing, and it’s safe to say that the Cardinals continue to be one step ahead of the rest of the league in player development.