The St. Louis Cardinals once again face the enviable problem of having too much depth in the minor leagues.
Last year it was too many young arms; this year, it’s outfielders.
The Cardinals’ Triple-A Memphis roster features the best and most exciting outfield in the minor leagues, with top-ranked prospects Oscar Taveras and Stephen Piscotty, as well as offseason acquisition Randal Grichuk. To make matters more complicated, all three players are off to great starts at Memphis.
Speaking this spring about the Cardinals’ collection of young outfielders, manager Mike Matheny acknowledged that finding playing time for each guy would be a challenge.
"It's a tough organization to be a young outfielder in right now," Matheny said, via Jennifer Langosch of MLB.com. "You have a number of guys who could play at that Triple-A level. We'll see how it all plays out and how each guy takes advantage of the time they get."
However, with the team struggling miserably to produce against left-handed pitching this season, it may be Piscotty, and not the highly touted Taveras, that debuts first.
Selected out of Stanford with the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Stephen Piscotty impressed during his professional debut in 2012 by posting an .823 OPS with 23 extra-base hits and a 25-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games for Low-A Quad Cities.
Given his age and college background, the organization promoted Piscotty to High-A Palm Beach for his first full professional season in 2013. Though he was expected to hold his own in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Piscotty actually enjoyed an uptick in his overall production, batting .292/.348/.477 with 25 extra-base hits (nine home runs) in 63 games.
Piscotty didn’t skip a beat following a promotion to Double-A Springfield in late June, as he batted .299/.364/.446 with 15 extra-base hits, seven stolen bases and a 19-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 games at the more advanced level. Between both stops, Piscotty batted .295/.355/.464 with 40 extra-base hits, 11 stolen bases and a 46-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 471 plate appearances.
Following the impressive 2013 campaign, Piscotty boosted his stock with a strong showing in the prestigious Arizona Fall League. Playing 23 games for the Salt River Rafters, the 23-year-old outfielder batted .292/.348/.477 with seven extra-base hits and 18 RBI in 100 plate appearances.
Stephen Piscotty possesses excellent instincts and a high baseball IQ, both of which helped him make a smooth transition from third base to right field last season. He reads the ball well off the bat and takes direct routes to the ball, and he has the athleticism to either lay out or scale the wall to make a highlight-reel play.
Piscotty’s overall defensive profile is a clean fit at either corner-outfield position, though his plus arm strength is probably best suited for right field long term.
Piscotty is a smart hitter with a mature approach and consistently uses whole field, stinging the ball from line to line. The right-handed batter demonstrates patience at the plate as he works deep counts and waits for specific pitches, and he rarely cheats himself by chasing secondary pitches out of the zone. Piscotty’s hit tool grades as a plus, and he should have no problem batting at least .280 in his prime.
At 6’3”, 210 pounds, Piscotty has plenty of gap power but previously lacked the pop commonly associated with a first-division corner outfielder. However, he showed more consistent power on all fronts last season, tallying 40 extra-base hits (15 home runs) at a pair of advanced levels. Plus, with only 185 professional games under his belt, Piscotty is still technically coming into his own as a hitter.
Piscotty’s hit tool and solid defense will inevitably get him to the major leagues this season, but his development of consistent in-game power will ultimately determine whether he becomes more than a fourth outfielder at the highest level.
Piscotty vs. Taveras
Piscotty and Taveras comprise two-thirds of the minors' most exciting outfield at Triple-A Memphis (the third being Grichuk), and both players are off to hot starts this season.
Piscotty is batting .353/.397/.515 with five doubles, two homers and 12 RBI through his first 18 games, and he enters Wednesday riding a six-game hitting streak in which he’s batting .409 with four extra-base hits and four RBI. Taveras, meanwhile, is batting .299/.356/.493 with four doubles, three home runs and 12 RBI.
Working in Piscotty’s favor is that he’s still fresh on the minds of the Cardinals coaching staff after a strong campaign in last year’s Arizona Fall League and even more impressive showing in spring training.
Piscotty benefited from Taveras’ slow recovery this spring after offseason ankle surgery, and he made the most of the increased playing time by batting .342/.426/.579 with six extra-base hits, eight RBI and a 3-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 games.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny spoke with Jennifer Langosch of MLB.com early in the spring:
He's done a very good job the way he goes about it. He's squaring the ball up and doing a nice job in the outfield, too. We're excited to watch him as we heard what he did through the [Arizona] Fall League and had a nice season last year. But we were anxious to see him at this level and with this group. He's making the most of it.
Taveras appeared in only two spring contests this year and was 1-for-6 with a double before suffering a hamstring strain on March 8. The outfielder was subsequently optioned to Triple-A Memphis.
The Cardinals have received minimal contributions this season from center fielders Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay in the major leagues, and Monday they indicated the direction they might be headed by starting Taveras in center field in Memphis. However, the 21-year-old’s return to center has been put on hold after he left the game with a left ankle injury, according to Langosch. Taveras was out of Memphis’ lineup on Tuesday, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports he's listed as day-to-day.
As was the case in 2013, the Cardinals have struggled mightily against left-handed pitching this season. Entering Tuesday’s game against the Mets, the team owned an MLB-worst .180 batting average and .240 slugging percentage against southpaws with only eight extra-base hits in 168 plate appearances, according to FanGraphs. Last season, the Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors with a .238 batting average and 25th in slugging at .377.
Hitting left-handed pitching has been one of Piscotty’s greatest strengths early in his career.
In his injury-shortened 2013 campaign, Taveras batted .222/.230/.306 in 75 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. Though, it is worth noting he batted .301/.371/.476 in 159 plate appearances the previous year at Double-A Springfield.
Piscotty furthered his already strong track record against southpaws in spring training by going 5-for-10 with two doubles, a home run, four RBI and two walks.
While both players are nearly ready for a crack at the major leagues, it goes without saying that Taveras is still the better prospect—and it’s not even close; the 21-year-old projects as an All-Star-caliber player capable of winning numerous batting titles in his prime. Piscotty is a no-doubt big leaguer and should enjoy a nice career as an everyday corner outfielder, but his ceiling pales in comparison to Taveras’.
The Cardinals’ specific needs at the major league level this season will determine whether Piscotty or Taveras is the first prospect called up from the minors. And considering the team’s ongoing travails with left-handed pitching has passed the breaking point, not to mention the fact Taveras can’t seem to stay healthy, it’s looking more and more like the less-heralded Piscotty will be the guy.