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Cardinals place a premium on versatility

Rising talents such as Kelly, Piscotty, Wick continuing to adapt
November 14, 2014

This offseason, is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Today, continuing with the St. Louis Cardinals, we're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball.

With four National League Championship Series appearances and a World Series title in the last four years, the St. Louis Cardinals' big league success could overshadow the club's farm system, but the up-and-coming core aims to continue that trend by being extremely adaptable.

This offseason, though, has been far from normal. Former top prospect Oscar Taveras' death last month left the organization and the baseball world reeling. In addition to the loss of a colleague, teammate and friend, St. Louis lost its most promising young talent far too soon.

But a group of versatile and talented prospects is poised to try to keep St. Louis near the top of the National League.

Cardinals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Carson Kelly, Peoria (98 games): The highest-drafted Oregon high school product in 17 years, 2012 second-rounder Kelly could've taken the field at multiple positions as a professional. As a high school pitcher, he threw into the low 90s, but his pro debut came as a third baseman in 2012.

Following 2013, the Cardinals moved Kelly to catcher, and the 20-year-old adapted well. Kelly caught 79 games for Peoria, and in more than 98 total games, batted .248/.326/.266 with six homers and 49 RBIs. Defensively, he thrived, making just nine errors in 706 total chances and throwing out 37 of 112 potential basestealers, a 33 percent success rate.

"The grind of learning how to catch and everything that went along with it, I thought he adjusted very well," Cardinals director of player development Gary LaRocque said. "He hit in stretches, and I think he understood that he could hit to the league level.

"The big thing was that he was going through that offensively -- learning the strike zone at the next level -- and was doing it while he was learning a new position. The combination of those two things at once, I thought he handled extremely well."

First base -- Xavier Scruggs, Memphis (135 games): The 2014 season marked Scruggs' fourth straight with at least 20 home runs -- at three different levels -- and third straight of at least 130 games played.

Scruggs adjusted to Triple-A pitching after a slow April in which he batted .207. The California native didn't hit lower than .282 in any other month the rest of the year, earning a summons to St. Louis for a nine-game stint in September.

"He's worked very hard defensively, but the thing that stands out, obviously, will be the consistency at the plate," LaRocque said. "He recognizes that that's what it's going to take because that's the biggest tool he brings to the next level."

Scruggs batted .200 in his big league stay, doubling once and driving in two runs.

Second base -- Breyvic Valera, Palm Beach (73 games), Springfield (59 games): Having played every position other than pitcher and catcher in his career, Valera saw most of his time at second this year, playing a combined 110 games there between Class A Advanced Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. The switch-hitter seemed comfortable on both sides, batting .304 in games he played at second.

"He really effectively can play anywhere," Springfield manager Mike Shildt said. "He has the ability to slow the game down, and he gets it done. He makes plays regardless of the position where you play him."

"[Positional versatility] creates more value for him," LaRocque added. "Certainly, when they get to the big leagues, the opportunity to help our big league club at multiple positions is what really creates that value."

The Montalban, Venezuela, native continued to work on his defensive profile in the Arizona Fall League, where he played first, second and third while batting .333/.400/.359 for Peoria.

Third base -- Danny Diekroeger, State College (62 games): A Stanford product, Diekroeger went to the Cardinals in the 10th round in June and was assigned to the short-season Spikes. There, the former high school quarterback had an eventful first pro season. He racked up 75 hits, tied for fourth-most in the New York-Penn League, and was part of a State College team that captured the circuit's crown.

Shortstop -- Edmundo Sosa, GCL Cardinals (52 games), State College (three games): Panamanian shortstop Sosa more than held his own as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League in 2013, leading all players at his position with an .846 OPS. One year later, he fared similarly stateside.

Sosa batted .275/.341/.377 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, scoring 37 runs and driving in 23.

"One of the things we try not to do is take our youngest players that are in short-season clubs and 'rank' them, but at the same time, we recognize who comes up to the level of their respective leagues very quickly," LaRocque said. "He clearly did this year. Defensively, he did a very nice job in the GCL. Offensively, by the end of the year, he had established himself as being ahead of that league level."

Though Sosa cooled as the GCL season progressed -- batting .371 in eight June games, .264 in 23 in July and .247 in 21 in August -- he earned a promotion to State College, where he rapped his first New York-Penn League hit on Aug. 31.


Tommy Pham, Memphis (104 games), St. Louis (six games): A 16th-rounder in 2006, Pham climbed St. Louis' ladder slowly due to a lengthy list of injuries and setbacks. After dealing with an eye issue as well as wrist and shoulder ailments that limited him to just 52 combined games from 2011 to 2012, Pham finally reached "The Show" in 2014 after a sustained, healthy Triple-A season.

Playing primarily center field, Pham played in more than 100 games for the first time since 2010 and batted .324/.395/.491 for the Redbirds, finishing third in the Pacific Coast League in average and fourth in on-base percentage.

"He can help you win as a center fielder getting into the gaps," LaRocque said. "He can drive the ball offensively into the gaps. He can steal a base when needed. He put together a real productive year, and everybody was really happy for him."

The 26-year-old received his first Major League callup in September.

Rowan Wick, State College (35 games), Peoria (39 games): Wick moved out from behind the plate defensively following the 2013 season. After beginning 2014 in extended spring training, he turned himself into one of the most feared hitters in the New York-Penn League, homering twice on a three-hit night in his Spikes debut and batting an eye-popping .378/.475/.815 with 14 home runs in 35 games to earn a promotion.

"Within the first two weeks, he clearly had established himself as a threat," LaRocque said. "He's handled the adjustments very well, and now it's a question of developing the consistency as he moves up. He clearly plays off his bat. ... Defensively, the one thing he's got without a doubt is a great arm in right field. With that tool, along with his offense, he'll get every opportunity to play."

Wick's bat cooled in Class A Peoria, where he batted .220/.299/.433, but he finished on a high note, raising his average 30 points by going 9-for-25 in his final seven games.

Stephen Piscotty, Memphis (136 games): Piscotty took over as the organization's top prospect following Taveras' call to St. Louis, and 2014 saw the Stanford product named a midseason All-Star for the second straight year while batting .288/.355/.406 in 136 games for Memphis.

A third baseman coming out of college, Piscotty has turned himself into a quality defensive outfielder with arguably the system's best arm.

"That adjustment has not taken long," LaRocque said. "He continues to refine and get better in right field. He's got a good arm. Overall, I'd say we're very pleased with that move.

"He doesn't get beat too many times at the plate, and he's got a real good knowledge of the strike zone," LaRocque continued. "He can hit mistakes, and he can battle and get himself in good hitter's counts."

Utility player -- Oscar Mercado , Johnson City (60 games): Renowned for his defensive prowess coming out of high school, 2013 second-rounder Mercado didn't light up the stat sheet offensively in the Appalachian League -- batting .224/.303/.306 -- but showed growth in the field.

"The stories are many of infielders, especially shortstops, who took some time to develop that consistency and steady play every day," LaRocque said. "He will. He's got good hands. He's got a good arm. He's fine."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Alex Reyes, Peoria (21 games): St. Louis' No. 4 prospect, Reyes pitched the entire season in Peoria's rotation at 19 years old. LaRocque considers that a testament to the righty's aptitude.

"He ended up with 21 games started, and he's learning now how to go deeper into a game," he said. "He's learning all the things you would expect, the learning curves of developing as a complete pitcher. He's got a lot in the package and shows it in flashes. Now it's just a question of consistency."

The Elizabeth, New Jersey, native went 7-7 with a 3.62 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 109 1/3 innings for the Chiefs. Reyes finished particularly strong, fanning 38 batters over his final four starts.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Marco Gonzales, Palm Beach (six games), Springfield (seven games), Memphis (eight games), St. Louis (10 games, five starts): The first-ever first-round pick from Gonzaga University, Gonzales' 2014 was a whirlwind of ascension. The Fort Collins, Colorado, native rocketed through three levels, going 9-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 21 Minor League starts en route to his big league debut.

"He handled it all really, really well ... great demeanor, great poise, developing his stuff, listens well, loves to compete," LaRocque said. "When you add it all up, he got that opportunity to move up and showed that he could compete up there."

Shildt echoes praise of Gonzales' maturity, recalling a midseason meeting in Springfield.

"Me and Randy Niemann, our pitching coach, sat him down and had a nice conversation about where he's at, what he's working on," he said. "The meeting wrapped up and he left, and me and 'Niemo' looked at each other and were like, 'That was different.' [Gonzales is] so aware of who he is, and you could have a really pointed back-and-forth conversation about where he's going."

Gonzales was 4-2 with a 4.15 ERA over 10 big league games in the regular season. He also saw action in three playoff games for St. Louis, going 2-1 with a 4.50 mark.

Relief pitcher -- Joey Donofrio, Springfield (43 games), Memphis (10 games): In 43 Double-A games, Donofrio put up dominant numbers. The righty posted an 0.87 ERA, struck out 65 in 51 2/3 innings, walked just 17 and converted 16 of 17 save opportunities.

Donofrio had not pitched above Class A when he broke camp with Springfield for 2014. Once there, he excelled with the ability to continually repeat quality performances in increasingly difficult spots.

"As the first half went, we elevated him to some higher-leverage situations, moved him to the back of the bullpen and giving him some more opportunities there," Shildt said. "The one thing I appreciated about him is he continued to make the same quality pitches. He didn't change based on the situation."

Donofrio jumped to Triple-A for 10 appearances in June and July and developed the ability to throw the rest of his arsenal effectively and keep opposing hitters from locking on his strikeout pitch, his slider.

Over the course of his final 13 outings with Springfield, Donofrio allowed just four hits in 16 1/3 innings. He didn't allow a Texas League run after June 15.

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.