Cardinals' fireballer Shelby Miller.
Without question, 2011 was one of baseball's most exciting seasons ever, especially so for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Certainly their magical run to the World Series title was unexpected, but luck, as they say, is the byproduct of preparation. Well, preparation coupled with a superb farm system.
Baseball America affirmed that view of St. Louis last December when they named the Cardinals their 2011 "Organization of the Year."
St. Louis' minor league system had a collective winning percentage of .530 last year and for the past seven years the Cards have had a top ten-rated farm system.
Not so long ago, however, St. Louis was rated among the worst, as highly touted minor league players were few and far between. And the few that were uncovered often found themselves traded for veterans to fuel Tony La Russa's NL Central conquests.
Still, even a successful organization can't be magical year after year, and 2012 looks like a "growing pains" type of season across their minors system.
Many of the Cardinals top prospects are having some of those aforementioned pains in the early going, but that does not mean there isn't plenty to be excited about for fans of the Birds on the Bat.
Here is a look at the Cardinals top 10 prospects at the first quarter mark of 2012. We will also see which MLB player they most resemble and what their best statistical season in the majors might be.
The only player on our list with real big-league time logged, Sanchez is on the verge of being a permanent weapon in manager Mike Matheny's bullpen in St. Louis already.
Sanchez was invaluable in 2011 for the big club when the Card's season was slipping away at the hands of a porous bullpen.
With a plus fastball and biting slider, Sanchez has swing-and-miss type stuff and just needs to work on harnessing his control. While St. Louis has had its share of dominating closers, fans were desperate to see a pitcher with this kind of stuff after enduring the Ryan Franklin era.
The Cardinals sent Sanchez back to Triple-A Memphis to begin the 2012 season so he could work on his control. He did not respond well to the demotion, walking 10 in 13 innings so far. Yet it became a moot point when the Cardinals released J.C. Romero and called Sanchez back up.
Sanchez's health is also a concern as he has a slight build (5'11", 170 lbs) for a fire-baller, and was shut down late last year for shoulder discomfort.
Hopefully he can emulate the major league success he showed last year (1.80 ERA, 30 innings, 14 hits against).
Similar MLB Player: Billy Wagner (only right-handed)
Best MLB Season(Projected): 2.35 ERA, 31 Saves
The Arkansas Razorback was the Cardinals' first overall pick in 2012 and considered somewhat of a steal as scouts had him graded as one of the top bats in the draft and thought to be a top-ten talent.
The infielder's rise through the ranks has been solid if unspectacular. Last year at Double-A Springfield Cox batted .293 with 10 home runs in 352 at bats for a slash line of .355/.432/.787.
Not exactly the eye-popping offense you might expect from a third baseman whose defense is a question and whose power has not yet appeared.
In 2012, Cox is Triple-A Memphis' everyday third baseman and he is struggling, batting .193 in 127 plate appearances. As mentioned, Cox has not shown much power yet as he seems content to focus on maintaining a high batting average.
If he can take his game to the next level this season, he may find a place on the every day roster in 2013 at age 24. Otherwise, he looks like a definite trade candidate.
Similar MLB Player: Adam Kennedy
Best MLB Season(Projected): .282 AVG, 12 HR, 66 RBI
For 11 years the Cardinals did not have to be too concerned about their organizational depth at first base. Not when a first-ballot Hall of Famer is in the house.
As a result, the organization has had some "career" minor leaguers and some fringe prospects manning first even at the Triple-A level (Google "Nick Stavinoha" sometime).
Chunky slugger Matt Adams may be the first home-grown first-sacker to break through to become a St. Louis regular, however.
Like Brett Wallace before him, Adams doesn't have the classic ballplayer body type, but that didn't stop him from clubbing 32 homers in 2011 at AA Springfield.
Adams continues to show encouraging peripherals at Memphis (.360 on-base percentage and .528 slugging) while carrying a .320 batting mark. He shows power and plate discipline and at age 23, and he probably has nothing left to prove at the minor league level.
He should become the big man on campus about the time Lance Berkman is calling it a career.
Similar MLB Player: Bob Hamelin (which is not a knock, necessarily)
Best MLB Season(Projected): .302 AVG, 28 HR, 105 RBI
Jordan Swagerty's development in 2012 was put on hold when he underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow. He'll resume his ascension through the system in 2013 at age 23.
The former Arizona State University closer appears to have the makings of a bullpen stalwart, but he also has shown advanced command of his secondary pitches. The slider, change and curve are all part of his arsenal to go along with a plus fastball that sits in the 92-94 mph range.
He pitched at three levels in 2011 and was impressive with a 5-3 record and 1.83 ERA. He made hitters miserable giving up only 68 hits in 93 2/3 innings. He also had an excellent K/BB ratio of 89/23.
The Cardinals would be wise to see how Swagerty's development goes post-surgery. If he continues to mature, he could become a mid-rotation starter in St. Louis.
Similar MLB Player: Matt Clement (with fewer injury issues, we hope)
Best MLB Season(Projected): 15-9, 3.28 ERA
The Missouri-born Rosenthal was drafted in the 21st round of the 2009 draft, and while not possessing a high-end pedigree, he has firmly placed himself within the top 10 talents the St. Louis farm system has to offer.
He has very advanced pitching instincts and while he works without eye-popping stuff, he has found consistent success at the single and double-A levels.
Despite a 4.11 ERA in 2011, Rosenthal allowed just 111 hits in 120 1/3 innings and boasted a stellar K/BB ratio (133/39).
The hurler is doing more of the same so far in 2012 (3.86, 35 innings, 28 hits allowed). He sports a solid frame, high baseball IQ, and better stuff than many pitchers in the big leagues already.
Similar MLB Player: Phil Hughes
Best MLB Season(Projected): 14-10, 2.97 ERA
The Cardinals were wise to begin developing players from the Dominican Republic and Carlos Martinez could end up being their Exhibit A in terms of what kind of talent will be injected into their system pipeline in the future.
Martinez simply has electric stuff—most notably, a fastball that can touch 100 mph.
Just 20 years old, he has plenty of time to fill into his 6'0" frame. After a tough season last year in high-A ball, Martinez started 2012 at the same level and has acclimated well (3.00 ERA, 33.0 innings, 34/10 K/BB).
He has a smooth throwing motion coming from a three-quarters arm slot that is tough on right-handers and knee-buckling to lefties.
The Cardinals project Martinez for the rotation and if his secondary pitches continue to progress, he could be a possible ace starter. With Shelby Miller on a similar time line, the outlook is very bright for the Cardinals starting rotation.
Similar MLB Player: Ramon Martinez (must be the bloodlines)
Best MLB Season(Projected): 18-6, 2.51 ERA
There is very little reason that Kolten Wong can't be the Cardinals' starting second baseman tomorrow aside from Skip Schumaker's pricey contract.
Wong was the Cardinals' first-round pick last year (22nd overall) and he's been everything they could have hoped for when they sought to address their lack of depth at the middle infield position.
Wong has a major-league ready skill set in many ways—high average, good defense, speed, and some pop in his bat.
He batted .335 at the A-level last year and boasted a .401 on-base percentage with 21 walks in 194 at bats. He displayed a well-developed batting eye striking out just 24 times. He'll fit in well in St. Louis as a player who gives tough at bats.
Wong has continued that trend in 2012 for Double-A Springfield (.305/.381/.441/.821) and has continued to show that excellent sense of the strike zone (13 walks against 15 Ks).
Once he makes the jump, St. Louis will be set at second base and in the two-slot of the batting order for years to come with Wong.
While the Phillies have Shane Victorino, he may be passing the torch to Kolten Wong someday as the next All-Star from the Islands.
Similar MLB Player: Jimmy Rollins
Best MLB Season(Projected): .318 AVG, 17 HR, 77 RBI, 29 SB
Shelby Miller has been the de facto number-one prospect in the Cardinals' system since he was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft (notice a theme here as well—the Cards have been hitting on their first-round picks a lot the past seven years).
Considering he's been on our radar for three years now and he is struggling at the Triple-A level so far this year, Miller is now less exciting than the two players above him on our list.
That said, Miller continues to project as a future ace in the Cardinals rotation. However, he is one of the "can't-miss" studs that has run into some adversity in 2012.
Thus far in Memphis, Miller has a 3-2 record with a high ERA of 4.46. He has been getting hit often as he works on incorporating secondary pitches into his repertoire (43 hits allowed in 34 1/3 innings), however he has also struck out 43 opposing batters.
It's easy to forget that Miller is still just 21 years old and will most likely get his first call-up with the parent club late this year.
He has a great frame, smooth mechanics and an effortless fastball that sets up everything else in his bag of tricks. He should be an anchor in the Cardinals' rotation by 2014.
Similar MLB Player: Josh Beckett (with no disclaimers—which is kind of a disclaimer)
Best MLB Season(Projected): 17-11, 3.04 ERA
Tyrell Jenkins was a supplemental first-round pick for the Cardinals in 2010 and it can be argued he is now the best pitching prospect in their system.
Pitching in A-ball so far in 2012 at a tender 19 years of age, Jenkins has a 2.17 ERA in 29 innings pitched, allowing just 17 hits and striking out 29 batters.
He has a plus fastball and already-decent feel for locating his pitches. His secondary offerings will need to progress as well, but he is extremely athletic and comes with a sky-high ceiling.
If there is a secondary theme among these Cardinals prospects, it is the classic pitching mechanics the hurlers display that should minimize wear and tear and hopefully keep them healthy and effective for years.
Jenkins has a long journey ahead of him, but he may be knocking on the Cardinals' door in 2015.
Similar MLB Player: Dwight Gooden
Best MLB Season(Projected): 19-9, 2.70 ERA
If there was any doubt as to who the Cardinals' top prospect is in 2012, Oscar Taveras has perhaps already erased any remnant of that.
The 6'2" 185-pounder hit .386 in a full season at A-level Quad Cities in 2011 and so far this year he's destroying Double-A pitching to the tune of a .324 average, 10 home runs, 11 doubles, and 32 runs batted in.
It's an understatement to say his peripheral stats are good—.369/.662/1.031.
Not just good. They're downright "Pujolsian."
Now, is it too much, too early to get excited about a Double-A outfielder? Not at all.
Not when the Cardinals, as an organization, were generally ripped by baseball analysts and scouts for trading away their best position prospect (Colby Rasmus) last season.
So it bodes well for their future that a position player has climbed past a number of outstanding pitching prospects to claim the title of No. 1 yet again.
It's been eleven years since a rookie hit his way into the Cardinals roster. Perhaps Oscar Taveras will be the next.
Similar MLB Player: Vlad Guerrero (left-hand version!)
Best MLB Season(Projected): .330 AVG, 35 HR, 123 RBI