Starting pitching hasn't been the biggest strength in the St. Louis Cardinals organization this season, from the major league club all the way down to the low levels of the minor leagues. Injuries and fatigue brought on by the abbreviation of the 2020 major league season and total cancelation of the minor league schedule have made this season extremely tough for many starters.
Setbacks for some pitchers have created opportunities for others, though, and 22-year-old right-hander Wilfredo Pereira has taken advantage. After starting in rookie ball in 2017-18, Pereira was moved to a relief role in 2019, and after the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he pitched out of the bullpen again as the 2021 season began at High-A Peoria.
Pereira wasn't doing much to stand out in a short relief role and had a 5.48 ERA on June 20. But with Peoria struggling to cover innings, the Cardinals began stretching him out in late June. After he struck out nine over five perfect innings of relief on July 1, he was moved into the starting rotation. He had some tough luck in his first start, giving up five runs (four earned) on three hits and two walks over 4.2 innings, but he then proceeded to reel off a string of five straight stellar outings. Over a combined 25 innings, Pereira held opposing hitters to a .222/.286/.367 slash line, posting a 1.80 ERA with 28 strikeouts and eight walks. That impressive stretch earned him Cardinals Pitcher of the Month honors in July.
Pereira came back to earth a bit in his latest outing, allowing three earned runs on six hits and three walks over four innings, and he'll continue to face some skepticism because of his below-average velocity and lack of size (5-foot-11 and 197 pounds). But he's certainly put himself on the prospect map over the last six weeks or so, and his emergence has been a welcome development in a season where the organization has lacked effective starting pitching.
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. 24 in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline): Liberatore posted a 6.85 ERA in July and gave up four runs (two earned) over 4.1 innings in his first start of August. He bounced back with a quality start in his most recent outing for Triple-A Memphis, though, allowing three earned runs on seven hits and no walks while striking out seven over seven innings.
The 21-year-old Liberatore's elite stuff is ultimately going to give him a great chance to succeed, and it's encouraging that he has walked only 19 batters in 78.2 innings this season. But some of his other numbers — his 5.03 ERA, .268 opponent batting average and 17 home runs allowed — provide some reasons for concern. With the Cardinals acquiring Jon Lester and J.A. Happ at the trade deadline and due to get Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas back within the next week or so, it seems very likely that Liberatore will remain in the minor leagues for the rest of 2021. That in turn makes it unlikely that he'll be part of their Opening Day rotation next spring, but the 6-foot-4, 200-pound lefty has a chance to position himself as one of the club's top depth options with a strong finish to his first Triple-A season.
IF Nolan Gorman (No. 2 Cardinals prospect, No. 25 overall): Gorman has had a very solid season, and after starting slow following his promotion to Memphis on June 29, he's heated up and is hitting .306/.348/.537 with five doubles, a triple and six homers since he snapped an 0-for-10 streak on July 14.
Like virtually every 21-year-old player, Gorman still has things to work on. He hasn't drawn a walk in August and has a sub-.300 on-base percentage in Triple-A. He's also still learning the intricacies of second base, a position he didn't begin playing until the Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado. But Gorman has made significant strides toward working his way into the Cardinals' 2022 plans, and it now seems likely that he'll be a regular part of the lineup at some point next season, whether it's at second base or as a designated hitter if MLB institutes the universal DH.
C Iván Herrera (No. 3 Cardinals prospect, No. 77 overall): Herrera, considered by many to be the Cardinals' catcher of the future, has not been able to put up consistent results at the plate with Double-A Springfield this year. He's currently in the midst of his worst slump of the season, hitting .148/.258/.296 through seven games in August. His slash line has dropped down to .213/.341/.356, and though he's shown some positive signs offensively — a 15.5% walk rate and 10 homers — his struggles this year might create more questions about the Cardinals' plans behind the plate once Yadier Molina retires.
3B Jordan Walker (No. 4 Cardinals prospect, No. 99 overall): The 19-year-old Walker has arguably been the MVP of the Cardinals minor league system this year and entered MLB Pipeline's top 100 prospect rankings this week. Walker may be hitting somewhat of a "rookie wall" — he's homered just twice since the beginning of July and has a .677 OPS through eight games in August — but that's natural for a hitter who was playing at the high school level last spring and is now in High-A. His overall numbers — a .327 batting average and .956 OPS with 20 doubles, two triples and eight homers in 245 plate appearances between Low-A and High-A — are fantastic, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some publications rank him as the Cardinals' top prospect this offseason.
LHP Zack Thompson (No. 5 Cardinals prospect): Thompson has had a rough first full professional season at Memphis and still has a 6.61 ERA, but he's turned a sharp corner over his last three starts. Over a combined 17 innings, he's posted a 1.06 ERA while striking out 15, walking five and holding hitters to a .167/.231/.250 slash line while getting through the sixth inning twice. It's easy to see why Thompson struggled to adjust to the Triple-A level — he had never started a game at any level above rookie ball and hadn't pitched in any capacity above High-A. Now that he's had a few months to settle in and tweak his approach, though, Thompson looks much more like the pitcher the Cardinals drafted in the first round two summers ago.
Memphis Redbirds (Triple-A): Utility player Juan Yepez, 23, has done everything in his power this season to prove that he can be a versatile part of the Cardinals' future plans — perhaps as soon as September, when major league rosters expand to 28 players. While Yepez is primarily a first baseman — a position he's unlikely to get much time at in St. Louis, considering the presence of Paul Goldschmidt — he's also played 12 games between Springfield and Memphis at third base, 12 in left field and two in right. Of course, the value of a player's defensive versatility is largely dependent on how well he performs at the plate, so it's significant that Yepez has been the Redbirds' most consistent hitter since his promotion from Double-A on June 1. He has a .255/.357/.532 slash line with a team-leading 14 homers in 221 Triple-A plate appearances, and he's been particularly hot as of late. Over the last two weeks, Yepez has a 1.063 OPS with five home runs, 10 RBIs and nearly as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (nine) in 13 games.
Yepez isn't yet on the Cardinals' 40-man roster, and with the Triple-A season continuing through the end of September this year due to the delayed start, he may be better off getting as many at-bats as possible with Memphis rather than coming up to St. Louis and filling a bench role. But there are few if any players on Memphis' roster who have done as much to earn a major league opportunity as Yepez has this year, so it'll certainly be deserved if he's one of the players promoted in September. At bare minimum, he's put himself into strong consideration for a bench role in 2022.
Springfield Cardinals (Double-A): The Cardinals have developed a pair of large, impactful power-hitting first basemen over the last decade in Matt Adams and Luke Voit, and 2018 second-round pick Luken Baker appears to fit the same profile. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound slugger has 23 homers and an .853 OPS in 78 games this season, and he had an unbelievable stretch from July 24 to Aug. 4, hitting .395/.489/1.211 with four doubles, nine homers, 20 RBIs, six walks and five strikeouts in 11 games. He had a trio of two-homer games during that span, including an Aug. 3 contest in which he collected 10 total bases and drove in five runs.
Unfortunately, Baker was one of six Springfield players added to the COVID-19 injured list on Tuesday. With the way he and Yepez have emerged this year, though, the Cardinals should feel confident in their first base depth behind Goldschmidt heading into next season.
Peoria Chiefs (High-A): For undisclosed reasons, right-hander Jack Ralston did not appear in a game from July 4-29. After pitching primarily out of the rotation prior to his extended break, Ralston shifted to the bullpen upon his return and has pitched very well in his new role. Over five appearances, he's issued four singles and one earned run while striking out 12 in six innings. Most importantly, after issuing 24 walks in 43.1 innings prior to his break, he's given up just one free pass since his return.
Ralston basically has the ideal starter's build at 6-foot-6 and 231 pounds, and the Cardinals obviously hoped to some degree that he could succeed in a rotation role. While he has been solid as a starter this year, posting a 4.24 with a .190 opponent batting average in 10 starts, he seems to have an easier time harnessing his command and keeping runners off base as a reliever, so this move may very well be a permanent one.
Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A): With the Class A Short Season and Advanced Rookie levels being eliminated as part of last offseason's contraction of Minor League Baseball, more newly drafted players are beginning their professional careers with full-season clubs than at any other point in recent memory. One of those players is right-hander Gordon Graceffo, who was selected out of Villanova in the fifth round of last month's draft, reported straight to Palm Beach and has flashed impressive stuff in his first several outings.
In his pro debut, Graceffo entered with the bases loaded and struck out Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez — ranked as the No. 22 prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline — to end the fourth inning before coming back and throwing a scoreless fifth. Through four appearances with Palm Beach, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound righty has a 2.70 ERA with an incredible 14 strikeouts and two walks over 6.2 innings.
Graceffo started in college, and the Cardinals have a history of sticking college starters in the bullpen the summer they're drafted to manage their workloads, so it's unclear whether they view him as a starter or reliever for the long term. With that said, Graceffo's insanely high strikeout rate so far makes him look like the type of pitcher who could thrive in a bullpen role if asked to do so.
Florida Complex League Cardinals (Rookie): Lefty Omar Sanchez, signed last summer as an undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico, has been very good since making his pro debut for the FCL Cardinals on June 28. In nine relief appearances, the 19-year-old has a 1.29 ERA with a .152 opponent batting average, 19 strikeouts and eight walks over 14 innings. Five of his last six appearances have come in save situations, and he's converted on all five of those opportunities. It's extremely early and Sanchez still has a steep climb ahead of him, but he's made a great first impression.
Dominican Summer League Cardinals (Rookie): Switch-hitting shortstop Maycol Justo, 18, is off to a hot start in his first professional season. The Dominican native, listed at 5-foot-10 and 141 pounds, signed with the Cardinals back in July 2019, but he didn't play in any games that year and didn't have an opportunity to play in 2020 as the DSL season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Justo is hitting .306/.427/.387 with two doubles and a homer through 19 games, and his feel for the strike zone has been particularly impressive for a player of his age — he has nine walks in 75 plate appearances.
Top photo of Wilfredo Pereira courtesy of Peoria Chiefs.