Peoria Chiefs centerfielder Mike Antico snags a fly ball in the first inning against the Great Lakes Loons during the home opener Tuesday, April 12, 2022 at Dozer Park in Peoria. Syndication: Peoria Journal Star/Imagn Image Services

Whether it's been Lou Brock in the 1960s and '70s, the Whiteyball teams of the '80s, Ray Lankford in the '90s or Harrison Bader and Tommy Edman nowadays, the St. Louis Cardinals organization has a long, proud history of making big things happen on the basepaths. Center fielder Mike Antico, who has 33 stolen bases in 36 attempts this season, has a chance to help carry on that legacy.

Antico, who has spent all of his first full professional season to date with the High-A Peoria Chiefs, leads the Midwest League in steals and ranks sixth among all minor leaguers. Like Edman and Bader, who rank second (16) and third (15), respectively, among NL stolen base leaders entering play on Thursday, he was selected out of one of college baseball's powerhouses in the middle rounds of the draft. The Cardinals took the 24-year-old from the University of Texas — which reached the College World Series in 2021 — in the eighth round last year, betting on an older draft pick with a high floor and a history of success on the big stage.

Antico, who played four seasons at St. John's before transferring to play out the fifth season of NCAA eligibility afforded to him by the COVID-19 pandemic, has contributed in all facets this year. In addition to his incredible success on the bases, Antico has posted a .257/.359/.420 slash line with 18 doubles, two triples, six homers and 30 RBIs in 64 games. He's striking out nearly 25% of the time (37 in 287 plate appearances) but has flashed a good eye, drawing 37 free passes. His defense in center field has received strong reviews, and he's made only two errors in 57 starts at the position.

He's been at his best in June and is hitting .342/.416/.646 with a perfect 10 steals in 10 tries this month. After his power mostly manifested itself through doubles over the season's first two months, he's begun to hit the ball out of the park more often. He has hit four of his six home runs this season in June, including three in three games from June 9-11. That feat helped earn him Midwest League Player of the Week honors for the week of June 6-12.

Antico is older than four hitters on the Cardinals' major league roster (Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, Iván Herrera and Juan Yepez), so he's behind the eight ball a bit in his development. But if he can continue to get on base, make a difference as a base-stealing threat and play plus defense, he shouldn't have a problem carving out a role for himself in the big leagues at some point, even if he's more of a speed and defense specialist off the bench than an everyday starter.


Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A): While he's probably no higher than ninth on the organizational outfield depth chart, Conner Capel is having a second straight strong season at the Triple-A level and looks like he has what it takes to play in the majors, whether it's for the Cardinals or another club. The 25-year-old lefty hitter has some of the best raw power in the system and is slashing .267/.352/.471 with nine doubles, three triples and nine homers in 54 games this season. He's been on fire in June and has a .264/.451/.547 slash line with four homers and nearly twice as many walks (17) as strikeouts (nine).

Capel, who stole double-digit bases in his first four pro seasons before swiping only six bags last year, is only one steal away from matching his career high of 15, reflecting a renewed commitment to affecting the game on the basepaths. He's also widely considered to be a plus defender in the outfield, and much like Lars Nootbaar, he can handle center field in a pinch even though he's seen more action at the corner positions.

Capel has cut his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate compared to what he did last year in Triple-A, and for a club that didn't have as much outfield depth as the Cardinals have, he'd probably be pretty close to receiving a major league opportunity. With rosters no longer expanding to 40 players in September, it's hard to imagine that the Cards will call up Capel this season unless there's a significant wave of injuries. If that should happen, he's an intriguing piece to have waiting in the wings at Memphis.

Springfield Cardinals (Double-A): Back in 2020, the Cardinals had four third basemen at their alternate training site who were widely believed to have starting potential in the big leagues. Malcom Nuñez hasn't enjoyed as much success in the subsequent two years as current Cardinals starting second baseman Nolan Gorman, Cards top prospect Jordan Walker and Colorado Rockies major leaguer Elehuris Montero, but he still has a lot of upside at 21 years old and seems like he's beginning to put it all together in Springfield. Both because he's teammates with Walker and because his body has filled out quite a bit, the Havana, Cuba, native has almost exclusively played first base this year, making 43 starts at the position (and only four at the hot corner).

Nuñez has yet to fully tap into his power potential and doesn't have the hitting profile of your typical first base prospect, posting a relatively modest .412 slugging percentage this season. He's patient beyond his years, however, and has almost as many walks (36) as strikeouts (43). That's good for a .364 on-base percentage that's 123 points higher than his .241 batting average.

Nuñez, ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the organization according to MLB Pipeline, didn't do much offensively last year following a late June promotion to Springfield, hitting .257/.330/.371. His Double-A struggles continued at the outset of this season, and he posted a .189/.340/.315 slash line over the first two months. He's certainly heated up with the weather in June, though, slashing .350/.420/.617 with five homers over 17 games this month.

The Cardinals are extremely deep at first base, with four players on the major league roster — Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols, Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez — who are well-equipped to handle the position and another talented slugger, Luken Baker, waiting at Triple-A. With that in mind, Nuñez may need to add some more versatility to make himself marketable as a major leaguer, but if he can realize more of his power potential and continue to walk nearly as much as he strikes out, he certainly still has the potential to reach The Show at some point.

Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A): Left-hander Hayes Heinecke, a 13th-round pick out of Wofford last year, has been very good over 17 appearances for Palm Beach this season. He's been a strikeout machine, punching out 43 over 32.2 innings, and he's done a solid job of limiting walks, issuing 15 free passes. Heinecke's 3.86 ERA is solid, but that number drops to a spectacular 1.30 if you eliminate a rough three-game stretch from May 13-24 that included Heinecke's first (and, to this point, only) professional start. He has a 0.84 ERA over 10.2 innings in June and has struck out 15 batters while walking four.

Heinecke, 22, pitched for three seasons at Wofford, so he may be a little overqualified for the Florida State League, and it'd probably be good for him to get some innings at Peoria before his first full professional season is complete. It's still very early, but with the performance of Heinecke, Trent Baker, Gordon Graceffo, Andre Granillo and Michael McGreevy this season, it looks like the Cardinals did very well for themselves from a pitching standpoint in the 2021 draft.

Florida Complex League Cardinals (Rookie): After a strong professional debut last year in the Dominican Summer League, shortstop Lizandro Espinoza is off to an impressive start in his first season stateside. Through 10 games, the 19-year-old infielder is batting .324/.422/.486 with a double, a triple, a homer and seven RBIs. He's flashed the same impressive on-base skills he did last year, drawing five walks compared with six strikeouts in 45 plate appearances.

Espinoza, a native of Higuerote, Venezuela, has a few things working against him: He wasn't a high-profile international signing, he's quite undersized at 5-foot-7 and 158 pounds, and he appears to have a lot of work ahead of him at shortstop (four errors already this season). His ability to get on base is very encouraging for a player of his age and experience level, though, and if he can maintain the same patient approach as he moves up the minor league ladder, he'll start to catch the eyes of more evaluators.

Dominican Summer League Cardinals (Rookie): Shortstop Maycol Justo had a fantastic first professional season in 2021, hitting .331/.423/.404 with nearly as many walks (21) as strikeouts (25) in 196 DSL plate appearances. He seemed to have done enough to earn a trip to the United States this year, but the Cardinals surprisingly kept him in his native country for his age-19 season. Justo's bat hasn't cooled off one bit through the early part of the DSL season — he's batting .353/.389/.559 with two doubles, a triple and a homer through his first eight games. He does seem to be taking more of an aggressive approach in an effort to hit for more power, as he's struck out 12 times — roughly halfway to last season's total — while walking just once in 36 plate appearances. That's still too small of a sample size for those numbers to mean much, but he may need to rein things in a bit to regain the discipline he showed last year.