After Yadier Molina walks into the sunset at the end of this season, Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera are widely expected to form the St. Louis Cardinals' catching duo of the future. With the way Pedro Pages has performed this season, though, the Double-A catcher is also starting to look like a player who could be part of the mix in 2023 and beyond.
Knizner, who is splitting time with Molina this season, and Herrera, a Molina protege who is ranked as the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect by MLB Pipeline and is getting the bulk of the starts behind the plate in Triple-A, will likely get the first opportunities to replace the future Hall of Famer. Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Pages, a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic in 2019, hasn't gotten much love from national prospect evaluators. The Cardinals clearly see something in him, however, having invited him to their alternate training site during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and to major league spring training for the last two years.
Pages (pronounced PA-hez) has backed up the front office's faith in him with a stellar start to the 2022 season. Over 78 plate appearances with the Springfield Cardinals, the Maracay, Venezuela, native has a .286/.410/.508 slash line with five doubles, three homers and 17 RBIs. He has been one of Springfield's most aggressive hitters and has 22 strikeouts, but he's also flashed a good eye and has drawn 13 walks.
Pages' hot start follows a great offensive performance down the stretch at High-A Peoria last year. Though he got off to a slow start in his first full professional season, he posted a .281/.383/.443 slash line with seven doubles, a triple and six homers over 46 games from July 1 through the end of the schedule. With this sustained run of production, it's possible that he's experiencing a legitimate breakout at the plate.
Pages, who made 12 errors and had four passed balls in 63 games last season, still has strides to make defensively, but there are reasons to be encouraged by his skills behind the plate. He has a plus arm and has thrown out a respectable 23.8% (5 of 21) of attempted base stealers this season.
We should get a good feel for exactly how much the Cardinals value Pages after this season. He must be added to the 40-man roster in December or be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, and with quality catching depth in short supply around the majors, a backstop who has experienced both offensive and defensive success in the upper minors could be an intriguing Rule 5 commodity. They may need to choose between adding Pages or Julio E. Rodriguez, who has been his backup this season in Springfield but is ranked as the No. 26 prospect in the organization by MLB Pipeline and was one of the final players cut from major league spring training this year. While Pages may not be part of a straight catching competition next spring, he looks like a player who could advance to Triple-A and serve as an alternative option if either of the Cardinals' young backstops struggles at the major league level.
Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A): There aren't a lot of at-bats to go around at the Cardinals' corner outfield positions. Tyler O'Neill was arguably the best left fielder in baseball last year, Dylan Carlson is a five-tool talent in right, Corey Dickerson has a strong major league track record, Juan Yepez has forced his way into some reps at those spots with his torrid start to his major league career, and Lars Nootbaar figures to get another major league opportunity before the season is over. Even as he's seemingly blocked on the depth chart, second-year slugger Alec Burleson is doing his best to push for a shot in the big leagues.
Burleson, ranked 10th among Cardinals prospects by MLB Pipeline, played at three levels in his first pro season, reaching Memphis in early August. After thriving to the tune of a .288/.338/.503 slash line between Peoria and Springfield, the left-handed hitter slowed down a bit after reaching the minors' highest level, slashing .234/.310/.357 in 45 games. The 2020 second-rounder has adjusted to Triple-A pitching this season, though, and he has a .283/.349/.525 slash line with four doubles, a triple, six homers and 19 RBIs in 26 games.
Burleson, who played more first base than outfield during his college career at East Carolina, is still growing as a defender, and while he doesn't strike out a lot (18 times in 109 plate appearances), he could stand to improve on his 8.3% walk rate. Those are relatively minor concerns for a hitter who is thriving at Triple-A shortly into his second pro season, though, and if the opportunity presents itself, Burleson appears very close to being major league ready.
Peoria Chiefs (High-A): Right-handed reliever Leonardo Taveras, 23, opened eyes last season with his ability to make hitters swing and miss. He struck out an incredible 64 batters in 46.1 innings and held opponents to a .207 batting average. Unfortunately for the hard-throwing righty, his command was extremely inconsistent, and he finished the season with 54 walks, seven hit batters and a 6.22 ERA in 41 appearances for Peoria.
Taveras is repeating the High-A level this year, and while he certainly could stand to be more efficient, he's harnessed his command a bit over the first five weeks of the season. Over six appearances, he's cut his walk rate to four in seven innings while hitting one batter. He's retained the same swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 11 while holding opposing hitters to a .130 average, and as a result he has a stellar 1.29 ERA. Taveras still has a long way to go, and he'll have to do a better job of commanding the zone to pitch in the big leagues. He has a special ability to miss bats, though, and he's a reliever to dream on for the Cardinals' front office.
Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A): Right-handed reliever Gianluca Dalatri has faced 29 batters this season and struck out 18 of them. That's a stat line that will get you places. Dalatri, 24, was twice selected in the 40th round of the MLB Draft, by the Rockies in 2016 and the Tigers in 2019, but didn't sign either time. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-6, 250-pound righty, the draft was temporarily shortened to five rounds in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He wasn't selected, and rather than returning to the University of North Carolina for his senior season, Dalatri chose to join the Cardinals organization as an amateur free agent.
Dalatri, exclusively a starter in college, faced a rough adjustment to the pro game last summer while pitching primarily out of the bullpen between Palm Beach and Peoria. Though he displayed a strong ability to command the strike zone, punching out 30 and walking nine in 22.1 innings, he struggled to miss bats and posted a 6.85 ERA, .292 opponent batting average and 1.57 WHIP. He suffered a season-ending injury and didn't pitch after August 11.
This season, Dalatri seems to have figured out how to miss bats while retaining his stellar command and has dominated. In eight innings spanning seven relief appearances, he has yet to allow a run while limiting opposing hitters to three hits and two walks. He faces somewhat of an uphill battle as an undrafted free agent who is old for the Low-A level, but if he continues to pound the strike zone and keep runs off the board like he's done this season, he'll put himself on the radar.