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With a Chance to Power Up, the Cardinals Took Two Big Swings in the Draft

To understand my excitement over the Cardinals’ decision to use two of their first three draft selections on a couple of big boppers, we must first understand the realities that brought them to this point.

But first …

Hello to 18-year-old Nolan Gorman, the high school third baseman from Arizona who was drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals. He swings from the left side. He swings for the fences. Actually, he swings for the utility company’s flagstaff beyond the fences. “His light-tower power is on display in every batting practice and home run derby he takes part in,” said Jeff Baumgartner, Gorman’s HS coach.

Greetings to Luken Baker, a hulking first baseman of 21 who homered every 12.6 at-bats during his junior season at TCU. As a 6-4, 240-pound high school senior Baker  won the Junior Home Run Derby at Target Field in Minneapolis, staged the day before the 2014 MLB All-Star Game. “The nerves went away after the first one,” Baker told MLB.com after his HR conquest. “Just going out there in front of all the people, it was a little nerve-wracking. But once you get the first one out of the way, it’s just like any other BP in front of 55,000 people.” Baker, who bats right-handed, is about a half-inch taller and weighs. 265 now.

In choosing these two Baby Boogs — or Baby Killebrews if you prefer — the Cardinals sought to remedy a longtime draft deficit.

No Major League Baseball organization does a more astute  job of analyzing, scouting, drafting and developing pitching like the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the 16 seasons covering 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals made the postseason 12 times. No MLB team competed in more postseason games (125) or won more of them (65) than the Cardinals. During the most remarkable run of enduring success in franchise history, the Cardinals added four National League Championships and two World Series titles to their collection of grand prizes.

Pitchers that were drafted or signed as international amateurs by the Cardinals and/or developed by the Cardinals started 43 percent of the the team’s postseason games between 2000-2015 and worked 48 percent of the innings. Pitchers raised by the Cardinals were credited with 38.4 percent of the postseason wins, and 67 percent of the saves during a glorious era.

In 2018, the force of starting pitching has pushed the Cardinals to seven games above .500 (32-25) despite an epidemic of injuries, a combustible bullpen, and an offense that starves without home runs. Going into Tuesday’s game against Miami at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals’ 2.94 rotation ERA ranks third in the majors, behind Houston (2.69) and Washington (2.90.)

And the 2018 St. Louis rotation is filled with three St. Louis draft choices — Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty and Luke Weaver and an international amateur (Carlos Martinez) signed by the team. Of the current five-man rotation, only Miles Mikolas came to the Cardinals from the outside.

If the best of the Cardinals’ draft is a bountiful pitching harvest that sustains winning, the most disappointing part of their draft record are the swings and misses on position players chosen early on.

On the 2018 roster, second baseman Kolten Wong is the only starting position player drafted in the first round by the Cardinals. And Wong isn’t an everyday player. Part-time outfielder Harrison Bader was a third-round pick in 2015. Shortstop Paul DeJong was a fourth-round choice in ‘15. The fourth round of the 2000 draft was the entry point of catcher Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals have had many late-round gambles pay off through the years — the most prominent being Albert Pujols, a lucky-13 (as in 13th round) number in 1999.As for present-day Cardinals, infielder Matt Carpenter came from the 13th round in 2009, and outfielder Tommy Pham was a 16th-round pick in 2006.

The Cards didn’t get much bang — or general offense — from a series of early-round picks from the start of the 2000 draft until they did very well in tabbing DeJong at No. 131 overall in 2015.

Here’s a list of position players selected by the organization in the first three rounds: Shaun Boyd, Joe Mather, Calvin Hayes, Daric Barton, Mike Ferris, Colby Rasmus, Tyler Greene, Jon Jay, Mark Hamilton, Pete Kozma, Brett Wallace, Shane Peterson, Niko Vasquez, Robert Stock (who also pitched), Zack Cox, Wong, Charlie Tilson, James Ramsey, Stephen Piscotty, Patrick Wisdom, Steve Bean, Carson Kelly and Oscar Mercado.

(A word on Mercado: He’s at Triple A Memphis and has a chance to be a very good big-league hitter. So far this season Mercado is batting .314, with a .369 OBP, and .446 slugging percentage. He has speed (13 steals, 42 runs scored) and solid power (six homers, nine doubles) and “plus” range defensively in center field. )

Yes, the Cardinals netted some home runs from those draft choices. Rasmus had 50 homers from 2009 until getting traded to Toronto for pitching assistance in July 2011. Piscotty homered 38 times in parts of three seasons before being dealt to Oakland last offseason. Wong has 36 homers during his Cards’ career. Jay had 29. The other early-round St. Louis draft picks that chipped in a few homers for the Cardinals were Greene, Mather and Kozma.

In combining the individual totals culled from the aforementioned collection of 23 early-round draft choices, we come up with 85 homers in 2,632 games and or the Cardinals.

The guys who hit the 85 homers had a combined 7,920 at-bats for the Cards.

That’s a HR ratio of one big fly every 92.3 at-bats.

Oh, my.

This is why the Cardinals have made trades for the likes of Randal Grichuk, Tyler O’Neill, Brandon Moss,  Jason Heyward, Jedd Gyorko and Marcell Ozuna. And this is why they’ve spent free-agent dollars on Juan Encarnacion, Jhonny Peralta, Dexter Fowler and short-term plug-ins such as Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman.

I realize it doesn’t matter where a hitter is drafted. Unbelievably, 401 players went off the board before the Cardinals submitted the name “Albert Pujols” at pick No. 402 in 1999. He did just fine (ahem) clubbing 445 homers and knocking in 1,329 runs in 11 seasons here.

I also realize the Cardinals haven’t had the luxury of making their selection from a Top 10 overall draft slot since taking J.D. Drew in 1998. And this is definitely true: Prime draft position matters.

From the 2010 draft through 2015, these power bats entered MLB as Top 5 picks: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Alex Bregman and Clint Frazier.

And in the same drafts, these hitters were taken  no later than 13th overall: George Springer, Javier Baez, Anthony Rendon, Austin Meadows, Trea Turner, Michael Conforto, Ian Happ and Andrew Benintendi.

By picking later in the first round, the Cardinals have been at a disadvantage. I assumed that a bunch of proven power hitters slammed their way into the majors after being drafted anywhere from the late first round through the third.  There weren’t many, though the names of Aaron Judge and Mac Williamson jump out.

If the Cardinals had swings and misses  in their search for power, truth is they haven’t had much to swing at.  That’s why I liked the early strategy in the 2018 draft. Because the Cardinals haven’t had many openings to draft hitters with substantial power-bat potential, it made sense to go for it when the opportunity surfaced on Monday night.

At MLB.com, Jim Callis rated Gorman as the No. 9 overall prospect, and Jonathan Mayo valued Gorman at No. 11.  ESPN’s Keith Law had Gorman at No. 12 on his big board of The Top 100 prospects.

Here’s Callis on the Cardinals’ choice of Gorman: “Another tremendous value in the late teens, Gorman is the best power hitter in this Draft — which he showed off by winning the Home Run Derby at the Under Armour All-American Game last summer. Some clubs had some swing-and-miss concerns and worried about his ability to stay at third base, but I think Gorman will make enough contact and believe he’s an underrated defender.”

This analysis from Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report: “Gorman has the best raw power in the class, and it vaulted him to the top tier among high school bats. There is some swing-and-miss to his game but not enough that he won’t be able to tap into his over-the-fence pop. Improved defense has also boosted his stock, as he should be able to stick at third base. This pick is a bit out of character for the Cardinals, who generally scour the college ranks early in the draft in a concerted effort to minimize risk, but the upside here must have been too good to pass up.”

As for Luken Baker, his draft stock dropped after having each of his last two seasons end prematurely because of injuries: A muscle tear and ligament damage in his left arm after a collision at first base in 2017, and a broken leg (during an an awkward slide into second base) in 2018. But these were freak injuries, and as Callis wrote at MLB.com,  “few players in this draft can match Baker’s power.”

And that’s what the Cardinals wanted. They finally had a chance to swing away early in the draft.  I can’t say that Gorman and Baker will turn out just as everyone hopes … as big home-run draft picks … but the Cardinals stepped into the box and took a mighty cut. They were aiming for Big Mac Land.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More – Video: A Closer Look at the Cardinals’ Day 1 MLB Draft Picks