At the start of the 2023 season, the St. Louis Cardinals' long-term middle-infield mix was already quite crowded, with Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Nolan Gorman and Masyn Winn all seemingly worthy of being in the organization's future plans.
As the season reaches its final stages, that mix is even more crowded due to the acquisition of infielder Thomas Saggese, who has made a heck of a first impression since being acquired from the Rangers in the July 30 trade that sent Jordan Montgomery to Texas.
Saggese, who the Rangers picked out of high school in the fifth round of the 2020 draft, had a stellar .313/.379/.512 slash line with 15 homers in 93 games with Double-A Frisco prior to the trade. The 21-year-old right-handed hitter has only gotten hotter since journeying north and joining another Texas League club, the Springfield Cardinals. In 20 games with Springfield, Saggese — ranked ninth among Cardinals prospects by MLB Pipeline — is batting .347/.432/.680 with three doubles, two triples, six home runs and 13 RBIs. He hit for the cycle and collected four RBIs in Springfield's win over Wichita on August 19.
For the season, Saggese leads the Texas League with 91 RBIs and ranks second in the league in batting average (.319), fourth in slugging percentage (.541), third in OPS (.929) and fourth in homers (21).
While the term "utility player" is no longer synonymous with "backup" at the major league level, as Donovan and Edman can attest, Saggese is widely projected as a guy who will will be capable of contributing at multiple positions in the big leagues. The California native hasn't played shortstop in Springfield — he got nine starts there with Frisco before being traded and has 35 games of professional experience at the position — but he's received plenty of action at both second and third base. He also started one game at first base last season, and like Donovan, he's rangy and disciplined enough that he could become a solid defender there without a ton of reps.
Springfield is unlikely to reach the playoffs, so it'll be interesting to see if Saggese is moved up to Triple-A once the Double-A season ends on August 17 — or perhaps even before then.
Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A): At 26 years old, standing 5-foot-8 with three seasons at Double-A under his belt, infielder Nick Dunn clearly is not the most highly regarded prospect as it pertains to national acclaim — or even his reputation within the organization. But the left-handed hitter from the University of Maryland continues to force the issue, and it's going to be fascinating to see whether he hits his way to the big leagues before the end of the season.
Dunn — by a rather wide margin — led all stateside minor leaguers with a 1.50 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 2022. Even so, he was sent back to Springfield to begin 2023, where he proceeded to post dramatically better contact and power-hitting numbers — he had a .332/.420/.483 slash line and had already tied his career high with seven homers by the time he was promoted to Memphis on July 18.
He's somehow been even better in Triple-A. The 2018 fifth-rounder has a .349/.444/.481 slash line with eight doubles and two homers in 28 games with Memphis. Dunn, by the way, continues to limit strikeouts with the best of 'em — his 1.34 walk-to-strikeout ratio ranks sixth among minor leaguers at full-season levels.
Dunn, almost exclusively a second baseman until his promotion to Triple-A, has started 10 games at third base with Memphis. He's already made four errors at the hot corner, so it's still very much up in the air whether he'd actually be playable at third in the big leagues, but it's interesting to see that the Cards are making an effort to increase his versatility.
The Cardinals are set to welcome Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbaar back soon, so longtime minor leaguers like Luken Baker, José Fermín, Taylor Motter and Richie Palacios may be pushed off the roster sooner than later. But with the lack of established big league position players on the 26-man roster and the fact that the roster will expand to 28 players in September, it doesn't seem to difficult to imagine Dunn earning a major league opportunity before the end of 2023. Even if he performs well, he still might have trouble fitting into the Cardinals' long-term plans due to the aforementioned glut of infield talent. But at the very least, Dunn deserves the opportunity that the incredible numbers he's been putting up in the minors for the last two years aren't a fluke.
Peoria Chiefs (High-A): Catcher Jimmy Crooks went on a dominant late-summer run through the Florida State League after being drafted out of Oklahoma last year, but he got off to a slow start with High-A Peoria in 2023, batting .215/.342/.323 through April and May. The left-handed-hitting backstop has heated up with the weather, though, and he's turned his season around. Crooks is hitting .302/.358/.504 with 10 homers since June 1, including a ridiculous .371/.397/.600 line in August. His season slash line is up to .271/.352/.439 with 11 home runs and 62 RBIs in 100 games. His peripheral numbers have also been quite good for a slugger in his first pro season — he has a 21.7% strikeout rate and a 10.1% walk rate.
It's obviously still pretty early in his pro career to be making any bold proclamations, but Crooks — ranked 15th among Cardinals prospects by MLB Pipeline — looks to have all the ingredients to be a successful big league catcher. In addition to his disciplined, powerful offensive approach, Crooks has a strong arm and has thrown out 27.6% of attempted base stealers this year. He's widely regarded as a strong receiver, framer and blocker, and even if his offensive success doesn't translate to higher levels, he projects as a steady defensive catcher at the highest level.
Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A): This is somewhat of a sink-or-swim year for right-hander Angel Cuenca, who is in his third consecutive season at the Low-A level. The hard-throwing Venezuelan reliever didn't get off to a good start, and coming into a two-inning appearance on June 30, he had a 9.36 ERA with a .298 opponent batting average, 25 strikeouts and 14 walks over 25 frames. His command has improved as the summer has progressed, though, and he's been very good over the last couple months. Since June 30, Cuenca has a 1.66 ERA with a .232 opponent batting average, 22 strikeouts and just three walks in 21.2 innings. This August has been his best month since moving stateside, as he's allowed just two earned runs in 14 frames. Cuenca, who turned 22 last month, is still relatively young, and it's encouraging that he's starting to get results that match his impressive stuff. His next challenge will be proving that he can compete at a higher level — which surely would be a welcome change for a pitcher who has been stuck in Palm Beach since 2021.
Florida Complex League Cardinals (Rookie): Outfielder Jose Cordoba has put together a very impressive performance in his second year stateside. The 20-year-old from Venezuela started the season in extended spring training and debuted with the FCL Cardinals when the complex league season started in early June. He batted .345 in eight games before receiving a brief call-up in early July to Palm Beach, where he acquitted himself well, batting .290/.371/.419 in nine games before being returned to the FCL when a slew of 2023 draftees — including first-rounder Chase Davis — were assigned to the Low-A club. Cordoba continued to thrive — albeit without much power — after returning to rookie ball and finished the season with a .367/.414/.532 slash line, six doubles, two triples, a homer, 13 RBIs and four steals in 24 games. He ranked third in batting average and seventh in OPS (.945) among FCL players with at least 80 plate appearances.
The right-handed hitter may struggle to separate himself in an organization that has a lot of talented outfielders at the lower levels of the minors, but he really couldn't have made a better impression in the FCL this year. Now that the rookie season is over, we'll see if he gets any more action with the playoff-bound Palm Beach Cardinals before their season ends in mid-September.
Dominican Summer League Cardinals (Rookie): Right-hander Emisael Carrera was quite good in his first professional season, which concluded on Monday as the DSL regular season came to a close. The 17-year-old reliever from Venezuela made 15 appearances, posting a 2.08 ERA with a .238 opponent batting average over 21.2 innings. Carrera still has plenty of room for improvement with his command (what 17-year-old doesn't?), but he managed to record a solid 19 strikeouts while issuing 11 walks. His future is far from certain, and there's a decent possibility that he'll remain in the Dominican Republic next year, but Carrera was one of the relatively few bright spots for a DSL Cardinals club that finished 17-36 this season.