Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
The collective performance of the Cardinals' five domestic affiliates in 2021 was, in a word, disappointing. It's important to note that a win-loss record is but one piece of the developmental pie, but St. Louis' farm system finished with the worst cumulative record in baseball at 212-326 (.394). None of their five domestic teams finished with a winning record and only two -- Triple-A Memphis and their Florida Complex League squad -- produced a winning percentage greater than .450.
While that proverbial piece of the pie may be paltry, one thing the Cardinals have proven is an ability to consistently produce a winning culture. St. Louis has endured exactly one losing season (2007) since 2000, thanks in large part to an ability to hit on top Draft picks while unearthing diamonds in the rough in the lower rounds.
The Cardinals have three of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects, headlined by No. 22 Nolan Gorman, who is on the cusp of the Major Leagues after an All-Star campaign in 2021. No. 47 Matthew Liberatore found his footing after a rocky start, and No. 57 Jordan Walker proved himself worthy of being the team's first-round pick in 2020.
Cardinals Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Iván Herrera, Double-A Springfield (98 games), Memphis (one game): Would St. Louis consider promoting Herrera to the Majors in 2022 to serve as Yadier Molina's backup and understudy? With only one Triple-A game under his belt, the odds of that are slim, but a reasonable argument can be made that the club's No. 7 prospect could learn just as much under the tutelage of the future Hall of Famer. As it stands, Herrera will almost certainly start this season in Memphis after an up-and-down 2021.
While he set personal highs in RBIs (63), walks (60), extra-base hits (30) and homers (17), the 21-year-old hit a career-low .229 with a .746 OPS. Despite his struggles throughout much of the summer, Herrera has shown a willingness to take a walk and will enter 2022 with a career .278/.375/.420 slash line.
First baseman -- Juan Yepez, Springfield (19 games), Memphis (92 games): Whatever adjustments Yepez made between 2019 and last season paid off. Putting together arguably the best offensive campaign by a Cardinals prospect in 2021, the 23-year-old erupted for a .286/.383/.586 batting line with a career-high 77 RBIs, 54 extra-base hits and 27 home runs in 367 at-bats. Yepez's long-ball total was one more than he had in his first five seasons combined.
“He had just such a productive season,” Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals' director of player development, told MLB.com in November. “Clearly did a great job at the Triple-A level, continued on and [did] great job in the Fall League. Overall, successful season and well deserved. He works extremely hard.”
With a walk rate of nearly 12 percent while striking out less than 20 percent of the time, the 26th-ranked Cardinals prospect looks to be the real deal. Yepez proved as much in the Arizona Fall League when he batted over .300 with 15 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs in 23 games for Glendale, earning the circuit's co-Hitter of the Year Award.
Second baseman -- Nolan Gorman, Springfield (43 games), Memphis (76 games): The crown jewel of the farm system shined bright in 2021. A strong spring could conceivably end with the organization's top prospect opening the regular season in the Majors. Gorman celebrated his 21st birthday barely a week into the Minor League campaign but played like a seasoned veteran.
The Phoenix native had no issues making the move from third base to second while establishing personal highs with 25 homers and 75 RBIs. Gorman's average jumped 31 points to .279 and his OPS improved from .765 to .814. His 134 hits led the organization, and coupled with his extra-base and run-producing prowess, he's done exactly what the Cardinals expected of him.
“To start, [the jump to Triple-A] was a little slow,” Gorman told MLB.com in October. “Just going through a little swing change and had to dial down the approach and keep it more simple and get good pitches to hit. But once that happened, it was all good.”
Gorman found his path at the hot corner blocked with the Cardinals' acquisition of six-time All-Star Nolan Arenado, hastening his transition to second. Working extensively with infield instructor and former big leaguer José Oquendo, the switch has been relatively smooth. Gorman's strong arm and developing first step has St. Louis optimistic he will be fully capable of manning the position as a Major Leaguer.
Third baseman -- Jordan Walker, Low-A Palm Beach (27 games), High-A Peoria (55 games): There's little Walker could have done to have a better professional debut. The 19-year-old batted .300 or better in three of the season's five months, including a scorching .407/.477/.759 in June. Walker never batted lower than .278 in any month and ended his debut with a .317 average, a .936 OPS, 43 extra-base hits, 14 homers and 48 RBIs in 325 at-bats.
“My main strength is power. I’m a power hitter," Walker told MLB.com after he was selected 21st in the 2020 Draft. "I can truly be a power hitter in MLB, if I progress like I want to progress."
Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 220 pounds, the No. 3 Cardinals prospect has shown surprising quickness and an athletic bent on defense, giving the club hope he can remain at third where his offense would truly stand out -- though a position switch could be in the offing.
Shortstop -- Delvin Perez, Springfield (96 games): After struggling mightily in his first few years as a pro, Perez enjoyed a solid 2019 and put together an adequate 2021 campaign in his Double-A debut. Although his status as a 12th-ranked prospect is more reliant on his reputation as a first-round Draft pick (2016) and his defensive prowess, Perez has shown flashes of promise at the plate. His lack of extra-base ability limits his potential, but the 23-year-old has swiped 46 bases over the last two seasons.
Defensively, the Puerto Rico native has an above-average arm, excellent range and soft hands that lend themselves to making all the plays, albeit with bouts of inconsistency.
Alec Burleson, Peoria (11 games), Springfield (63 games), Memphis (45 games): A crowded outfield at Busch Stadium might make it difficult for Burleson to crack the rotation in 2022, but his time is near. The 70th overall pick in the 2020 Draft and No. 11 St. Louis prospect was a model of consistency in his pro debut, which ended in Triple-A. A September slump dropped his final average to .270, but it did nothing to damper his overall offensive output. Burleson finished with a .783 OPS, 40 extra-base hits and a modest 101 strikeouts in 456 at-bats.
The Cards hoped his gap-to-gap power and high exit velocity would lend itself to power, and they weren't disappointed. The 23-year-old's 123 hits and 76 RBIs ranked second in the organization while his 22 home runs were fourth.
“For me, the thing I really take pride in as a hitter is not striking out,” Burleson told MLB.com after being drafted. “That’s been something I’ve carried ever since I started playing baseball. It’s not so much the fear of striking out but not letting the pitcher beat you where you weren’t able to put the ball in play. That’s something I’ve always taken pride in, and when you get to college, you’re facing higher-up arms.”
Nick Plummer, Springfield (90 games), Memphis (27 games): Were there a Minor League comeback player of the year honor, Plummer would have been an obvious choice. A former first-round pick, Plummer found himself at a career crossroads last season. The 25-year-old entered 2021 with a .199 average over his first four professional seasons with limited power and a strikeout rate hovering around 30 percent.
The Michigan native batted .280/.415/.479 with 41 extra-base hits, 15 homers, 54 RBIs and 13 stolen bases while walking at a career-high 15.2 percent clip. Granted free agency after being left off the Cardinals' 40-man roster, Plummer parlayed his breakout year into a Major League deal with the Mets.
Matt Koperniak, Palm Beach (58 games), Peoria (four games), Springfield (33 games): Less heralded than fellow first-year outfielder Burleson, Koperniak was arguably just as productive, perhaps more so, considering his standing. The United Kingdom-born outfielder went undrafted out of Trinity College in Connecticut but signed with St. Louis as a free agent following the 2020 Draft. He rewarded their faith with a .306 average, .851 OPS and 32 extra-base hits in 330 at-bats. His 25 doubles were tied for third in the organization, and his 55-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio portends a strong approach at the plate.
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Connor Lunn, Peoria (24 appearances, 23 starts): It's still too early to say, but St. Louis might have found a gem in the 11th round of the 2019 Draft. Lunn's first full season was a success as the University of Southern California product posted a 3.96 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He averaged more than a strikeout per inning, fanning 121 in 120 1/3 frames, while limiting batters to a .254 average. His 23 starts led all Cardinals Minor Leaguers and his 121 whiffs were second.
Perhaps more impressive was the way the 23-year-old adjusted after a rough start to his season. Lunn carried a 5.70 ERA into his second outing in July but ended the season surrendering two or fewer runs in nine of his final 12 starts.
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Matthew Liberatore, Memphis (22 appearances, 18 starts): While some of the shine wore off Liberatore in 2021, he still figures prominently in the Cardinals' future plans. Just 22 years old, the southpaw endured a poor May and a horrific July that skewed his otherwise solid numbers in his first crack at Triple-A. Overall, Liberatore compiled a 4.04 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP while leading the organization with 123 strikeouts in 124 2/3 innings.
The Cards' No. 2 prospect was strong down the stretch, posting a 2.67 ERA and 57-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54 1/3 frames from August through the end of the year. A strong Grapefruit League showing would give Liberatore a solid chance of breaking camp with the Cardinals, who have been known to introduce their starting pitchers to the bigs through the bullpen.
Relief pitcher -- Freddy Pacheco, Peoria (24 appearances), Springfield (15 appearances), Memphis (two appearances): Don't let Pacheco's solid-but-unspectacular 3.67 ERA deceive. Pacheco did stumble out of the gate, surrendering nine runs in 10 1/3 innings in May while racking up 22 strikeouts. But the Venezuela native got back on track in June and after another brief hiccup in July, kicked things into overdrive down the stretch. Pacheco was unscored upon in his final eight appearances and allowed four runs over his last 21 1/3 frames from July 24 onward.
At the conclusion of the year, the 5-foot-11 hurler posted a 1.06 WHIP and saved 11 games while racking up 95 strikeouts in 54 innings, an average of 15.8 per nine. St. Louis rewarded Pacheco by adding him to its 40-man roster in November.
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.