In many respects, the 2021 season has been a tough one around the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system, with all four full-season affiliates owning records under .500 and a couple of the organization's highly regarded prospects struggling to meet expectations. But as with many tough situations, there have been several silver linings, one of which has been the emergence of Triple-A outfielder Conner Capel.
Capel, a 2016 Indians fifth-round pick, was dealt to the Cardinals in the July 2018 trade that sent Oscar Mercado to Cleveland. He has been Memphis' best hitter of late, homering in his last three games and posting a .280 batting average with a 1.160 OPS, four home runs and as many walks as strikeouts (five each) through nine games this month. His .245 season batting average leaves a bit to be desired, but he's shown a good eye at the plate (19 walks and 37 strikeouts in 179 plate appearances), has a team-leading seven homers and ranks first among Redbirds hitters (minimum 100 at-bats) with a .490 slugging percentage.
The 24-year-old has also shown an ability to hold his own defensively at all three outfield positions, playing 24 games in left, 11 in center and 10 in right since his promotion to Memphis.
While the fact that he's not on the 40-man roster might work against him, Capel could be the next member of the Redbirds' outfield to get an opportunity in the big leagues — and the Cardinals haven't been shy about shuttling outfielders back and forth this year. Capel's Triple-A teammates Austin Dean, Scott Hurst, Lane Thomas and Justin Williams have already spent time in the majors this season, while current Cardinals Lars Nootbaar and José Rondón started the season in Memphis before being called up.
Here are some other players of note around the Cardinals minor league system:
LHP Matthew Liberatore (ranked No. 1 in the Cardinals organization and No. 27 in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline): This has been a weird season for Liberatore, who has left the Redbirds twice in order to take advantage of prestigious opportunities. The 21-year-old lefty helped the United States qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in late May and early June, then pitched in the All-Star Futures Game in Denver this past weekend, retiring three of the top prospects in baseball — Bobby Witt Jr., Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez — in a 1-2-3 first inning.
Due to his Futures Game appearance, Liberatore hasn't pitched for Memphis since July 6 and isn't scheduled to start again until Friday. He had his worst outing of the season in his last start for the Redbirds, allowing eight runs (six earned) on 14 hits and two walks while striking out two over 4.2 innings. While his Futures Game outing was probably a nice confidence boost, he's surely eager to get that rough start behind him with a successful appearance for the Redbirds on Friday.
Liberatore won't compete for a gold medal in Tokyo, so he's theoretically a candidate to be called up before the end of the season. But with lefty Connor Thomas emerging as the most consistent starter on Memphis' staff and the Cardinals hoping to get Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas back in August, it's increasingly difficult to see Liberatore joining St. Louis' rotation this year.
IF Nolan Gorman (No. 2 Cardinals prospect, No. 28 overall): The 21-year-old Gorman has had a variety of challenges thrown his way this season. The natural third baseman has been learning on the fly at second base, a move brought on by the Cards' acquisition of Nolan Arenado in February. He's also been faced with a couple of significant jumps in competition; he began the season at Double-A Springfield after topping out in High-A prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, then was promoted to Memphis on June 29. After tearing apart Double-A pitching to the tune of an .862 OPS and 11 homers, Gorman has had a very tough time adjusting to Triple-A. Through 10 games, he's 4 for 39 (.103) with two walks and no extra-base hits. His slow start shouldn't concern the Cardinals too much, though; he hit .156 in his first 10 games at Springfield, then caught fire quickly thereafter.
Along with Liberatore, Gorman took place in the Futures Game and impressed, going 1 for 2 with an RBI double and a leaping catch at third base.
C Iván Herrera (No. 3 Cardinals prospect, No. 80 overall): The 21-year-old Herrera's bat has largely been responsible for his quick ascension of the minor league ladder, but he hasn't been able to get in an offensive rhythm this year with Springfield. In 51 games, he has a .217 batting average and a .691 OPS, and after going on a hot streak in late May, he's hitting just .185 with a .619 OPS since June 1. He has shown impressive patience at the plate, drawing 40 walks and posting a .363 on-base percentage. But he has just 10 extra-base hits (five doubles and five homers), and his .328 slugging percentage is lower than his OBP.
Herrera has made some strides defensively, particularly as a blocker. But while his arm remains impressive, he hasn't been as effective throwing out runners. Coming into 2021, Herrera had thrown out 34.6% of runners over his three-year professional career. But he's thrown out only 14 of 53 runners (26.4%) this year. While many fans hope Herrera and Andrew Knizner will form the Cardinals' catching duo of the future, Herrera's slow 2021 season means that vision might take a little longer to materialize than initially anticipated.
LHP Zack Thompson (No. 4 Cardinals prospect): Thompson has had a rough first full professional season, posting an 8.49 ERA over 11 outings at Triple-A Memphis, and it's a bit surprising that he's remained at the minors' highest level all year after skipping Double-A entirely due to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season. Thompson rewarded the Cardinals' patience in his most recent outing, however. In what was arguably the 23-year-old lefty's best start of the season, he held the Louisville Bats to one earned run on three hits and a walk over four innings.
Thompson appears to be making adjustments to improve his command. Though his strikeout rate has dropped — he's punched out only three batters in seven innings this month after striking out 32 in 34.1 innings over the season's first two months — he's significantly cut down his walks, issuing just one free pass this month after walking 25 prior to July 1.
SS/RHP Masyn Winn (No. 5 Cardinals prospect): After his first month of professional baseball, the 19-year-old Winn had a .190 batting average and .585 OPS and looked like a player who might have been placed too aggressively when the Cardinals assigned him to make his pro debut with a full-season club. Now in the midst of his third month at Low-A Palm Beach, Winn looks like he might just be the best all-around position player in the Cardinals system -- and it wouldn't be surprising to see him climb the prospect rankings as MLB Pipeline and Baseball America re-rank at midseason. Since June 1, he's hitting .333 with a .939 OPS, 11 doubles, two triples, three homers, 25 RBIs, 18 walks and four stolen bases. Though he hasn't been as active on the basepaths since May, he still leads Palm Beach with 15 steals in 17 opportunities.
While he's made 16 errors at shortstop and needs to make routine plays more routinely, Winn has flashed fantastic range and arm strength and looks like a player who will stick at short at the major league level. The Cardinals drafted Winn as a two-way player and left open the possibility of getting him some innings on the mound when the minor league season began. But given how he's thrived at shortstop, the pitching thing is looking less likely.
Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A): Left-handed starter Connor Thomas has had an incredible ascension through the Cardinals' system since being drafted in 2019 and looks to be on the cusp of the big leagues at just 23 years old. The fifth-round pick out of Georgia Tech was called up from Springfield to Memphis on May 25, and since his promotion he's posted a 2.52 ERA with a .233 opponent batting average with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks over 39.1 innings. Thomas hasn't allowed a run over 10 innings in July and has given up just one run over his last 20.2 frames. His most recent outing for Memphis was a three-inning relief appearance July 11, perhaps signifying that the front office is keeping him under consideration to join the major league club, which will need to fill two rotation vacancies coming out of the All-Star break.
Springfield Cardinals (Double-A): The emergence of Nick Plummer, the Cardinals' first pick in the 2015 draft, continues to be one of the most inspiring stories of the minor league season. After battling injuries and inconsistency through his first six professional seasons, Plummer — a .199 career hitter coming into 2021 — has a .302 batting average with an .894 OPS, eight homers and 28 RBIs for Springfield in 2021. The 24-year-old has continued to flash the strong plate discipline that piqued the Cardinals' interest six years ago, walking 28 times and posting a .402 on-base percentage. He had perhaps the best game of his professional career July 8, going 3 for 5 with three homers, including a walk-off blast in the 10th inning. Plummer went 9 for 26 with a double, four homers, 10 RBIs and two walks over six games from July 5-11 and earned Double-A Central Player of the Week honors.
The Memphis outfield is crowded, but with the way Plummer is tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, it wouldn't be surprising to see him earn a promotion to the minors' top level before the season is over.
Peoria Chiefs (High-A): If he reaches his full potential, 23-year-old Freddy Pacheco could be something like the 2018-19 version of Carlos Martínez — an undersized right-handed reliever with an electric fastball. Pacheco, who stands 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, has struggled with run prevention at times this year, and he has a 4.44 ERA to show for it. But he's done a great job of missing bats, striking out 48 in 26.1 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .176 average. Pacheco seems to have put it all together in recent weeks and hasn't allowed a run over his last eight outings (10.2 innings). If he can improve his command — which is a major "if" since he's walked 17 batters this season — Pacheco looks like he has the profile to make an impact in a major league bullpen one day.
Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A): Utility player Jacob Buchberger, a Davenport University product who was signed as an amateur free agent following last summer's five-round draft, has quietly been one of the most consistent hitters in the Cardinals system this year. The right-handed hitter has a .302 batting average with a .783 OPS, six doubles, two homers, 27 RBIs and 26 walks in 209 plate appearances. He's on a torrid pace in July, hitting .407 with a 1.111 OPS and more walks (eight) than strikeouts (five) in eight games. Buchberger, 23, has played all around the diamond, seeing action in 17 games at first base, one at second, 21 at third and six in left field. While the odds are stacked against him as an undrafted free agent, his on-base skills and defensive versatility make him a very intriguing player to have in the organization.
Florida Complex League Cardinals (Rookie): Right-hander Yordy Richard, 18, struggled with an aggressive assignment to Palm Beach at the outset of this season, and he posted an 8.59 ERA in nine relief appearances for the Cardinals before being sent to extended spring training June 10. Richard reemerged when the Florida Complex League season began late last month, and he's been outstanding while pitching against more players of a similar age and experience level. Richard has a 0.69 ERA over three games (two starts) for the FCL Cardinals, striking out 12 and walking two while holding opponents to a .188 average in 13 innings.