The St. Louis Cardinals have developed a minor league system that has been heralded as the best in baseball, according to Baseball America before the 2013 season began. The organization produced talented players to assist the Cardinals along the way to a National League championship.
The St. Louis system continues to churn out top prospects and major league-ready players going into 2014. Fans had a glimpse of what the future holds at the end of the 2013 season. While the arrival of one of the top prospects in baseball is yet to come, the Arizona Fall League foretold the coming of yet another hitter within the organization.
Following is a look at the top five prospects who are ready to take the stage at the major league level for the St. Louis Cardinals. The quality of those five players displays just how bright the future is for one of baseball's most successful franchises.
Stephen Piscotty is a name that some ardent baseball fans recognize.
The most devoted minor league followers have certainly identified him as a player who could be of interest in the future. As the curtain closed on the Arizona Fall League in 2013, Piscotty's name was on the radar of quite a few more people.
Piscotty joined the Salt River Rafters as one of the Cardinals' representatives this season looking to get a few in more swings and some extra playing time. He played in 23 games with 89 at bats, posting a .371 batting average, .430 on base percentage, .506 slugging percentage, seven extra-base hits, seven stolen bases, 20 runs scored and 18 RBI.
Piscotty finished in the top five in the league in batting average, runs, stolen bases and RBI. Piscotty used the Arizona Fall League to prove that he is ready to take the next step in his career as a Cardinal.
Kolten Wong arrived in the big leagues in 2013, making his debut on Aug. 16 in Chicago against the Cubs. It wasn't until the Cardinals traveled to Milwaukee three days later that the young man picked up his first major league hit.
Wong makes the list as "major league ready" due to still being a rookie going into the 2014 season. His presence with the Cardinals in 2013 was rather unremarkable, as he posted a measly .153 batting average and .194 on base percentage in his late-season debut.
One thing Wong has proven in his three seasons of minor league baseball is that he can hit. He has a lifetime .301 average in the minors while compiling a career .446 slugging percentage in the farm system.
Wong's speed and defense are as important to the Cardinals as his production at the plate. He will likely open the regular season as the Cardinals' starting second baseman but may share time with utility man Daniel Descalso or Matt Carpenter if he continues to struggle.
Consistent playing time may be all that Wong needs to turn the corner and become the second baseman the Cardinals need for the immediate future. His lack of production when given the chance at the end of the 2013 season places him fourth on this list of major league-ready players.
*Statistics for Wong courtesy of Baseball-Reference
Baseball America ranks Oscar Taveras as the top prospect in the Cardinals organization entering the 2014 season. The young outfielder has produced at every level and is a highly anticipated player for next season.
Taveras held the same position in Baseball America's rankings entering 2013, primarily because of his breakout season at Double-A Springfield the previous season. He belted 23 home runs and drove in 94 runs in 2012 for the Springfield Cardinals, finishing with a .321 batting average and .380 slugging percentage.
He was slowed in 2013 by an ankle injury that eventually required surgery to repair, according to CBS Sports' Mike Axisa. The surgery brought an end to Taveras' season after just 47 games.
Still, the arrival of Taveras at the big league level does not seem to be far away. The young hitter will report to spring training looking to earn a spot on the Cardinals roster in 2014. John Mozeliak would prefer to see him in St. Louis on Opening Day, which he shared with Bernie Miklasz of StlToday.com:
I talked to Mozeliak about this, and he said the club's preference is to have Taveras on the opening-day roster — but the team can't rule out a return to the minors, at least for the start of the season.
Taveras is the Cardinals' most major league-ready hitter at this time. That still leaves him third on the list of major league-ready players.
* Statistics for Taveras from Baseball America
Hard-throwing, young Carlos Martinez showed the world what he was capable of during the 2013 postseason. The man they call "Baby Pedro," due to his similarities with Pedro Martinez, helped fellow youngster Trevor Rosenthal control the end of ballgames throughout the playoffs and World Series.
Martinez made his St. Louis debut on May 3 in Milwaukee, but it was not until an Aug. 26 call-up that he managed to stay on the roster. His lively fastball and impressive assortment of pitches have many fans excited at the possibilities.
Martinez has spent all but one of his minor league appearances as a starter. Conversely, he has only started one game in the major leagues while pitching the remainder out of the bullpen. He has proven effective in late-inning roles and helped the Cardinals provide a dominant duo out of the bullpen after Edward Mujica began to struggle.
Martinez may be given the opportunity to try and start the 2014 season as a starter with the idea that he can easily shift to the bullpen, if necessary. The fact that he could be beneficial in either role bodes well for the young man to make the major league roster and continue to provide fans with some excitement.
Due to Martinez's dominance at the end of 2013 and his flexibility entering the 2014 season, the young hurler places himself second in this countdown.
* Statistics for Martinez sourced from Baseball-Reference
Michael Wacha started turning heads last spring training. His arrival at the end of the season proved not only that he was ready for the big leagues, but also that he was almost untouchable.
Yadier Molina shared his thoughts on Wacha with Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com during spring training back in February:
I think that guy, right now, can pitch in the big leagues," Molina said of Wacha, the team's first-round selection from last year's First-Year Player Draft. "That's the way I look at it. He has great stuff. He has a great presence on the mound. He has great command, a great attitude.
Some believe that Wacha did not make the team out of spring training in 2013 in order to help limit his innings during his first full professional season. Others think that Wacha simply needed some more time in the minors. Either way, Wacha's arrival and dominance were stunning.
The ninth start of Wacha's big league career came on Sept. 24 against Washington in St. Louis. He threw 112 pitches before being pulled with one out left in the game after surrendering his first hit. He followed that up with an Oct. 7 appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs where he lasted 7.1 innings and allowed only one hit before being lifted.
Wacha was the NLCS MVP for the Cardinals to virtually solidify his place in the rotation in 2014. He ranks first on this list despite pitching more than 50 innings in 2013, eliminating him from rookie consideration in 2014. Though he is not truly a rookie, his arrival to the team in 2014 will expose his true form. More than anyone else on the list, Wacha is major league-ready and most likely to be in St. Louis when the 2014 season begins.
* Wacha's statistics from Baseball-Reference
* An error stating that Wacha's rookie status was in tact was corrected. We regret originally reporting otherwise.
The St. Louis Cardinals enter 2014 with an abundance of young talent available to them at the major league level. Manager Mike Matheny has the benefit of a strong farm system backing up a solid major league roster.
How he uses the five young men on this list, and when he uses them, will likely be significant in the success of the team in 2014.
From Michael Wacha to Stephen Piscotty, the top five major league-ready prospects for the St. Louis Cardinals are ready to contribute, whenever the team decides to come calling.
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