Minor League Outfielders to Monitor

As the schedule finally moves away from May showers, all four of the St. Louis affiliates approach this week searching for momentum. Memphis needs to stabilize the rotation but two straight weeks of solid play have the Redbirds inching ever closer to a winning record. Peoria seemingly has not been able to outlast injuries to multiple pitchers, but Palm Beach reinforcements are just a flight away. Even before the games started, the biggest issue anywhere for the Cardinals was just down I-44 in what will forever be known as the Texas League.

Springfield for the past 10-15 years has held promise as well as failure in probably not the right ratio. From the wide-ranging ballparks to the number of top prospects littering the rosters, the Birds on the Bat have put plenty of stock into their Double-A franchise. Sometimes that is aggressively skipping a level or two or even using the SCards as the springboard right to throwing under the Arch. This year more than any other in recent memory finds the club on an island, currently deciding whether or not to try and swim or hold out hope that help is on the way.

Much of the unknown falls on the pitching side, but that was to be expected after every team missed out on 2020 game action. The new schedule limits travel but also has teams needing at minimum six starters which already put Springfield in a tough situation. Let’s follow the math here and look at how things could have been different. Once Thompson and Liberatore were ticketed for the Memphis rotation, that was a pretty big blow. Then factor in a taxi squad element plus injuries to Hudson, Mikolas, and Kim that started the dominos and left the depth pretty much exhausted. Nearly a month into the season and help for the SCards doesn’t appear any closer on the horizon at least as far as from the mound.

Enough with the less than positive talk and time to get into the exciting part of 2021! Not only are promotions fun, but the future on the position side certainly seems much better than previously thought. Everyone knows about the big two at Springfield (Gorman and Herrera) but check out this article about another pair or former first round picks. Rob Rains does an amazing job looking at how the missed year helped Plummer and Perez announce to St. Louis that they should not be forgotten. It would be easy to piggyback on that and with good reason (Springfield has been pretty miserable overall) but instead, it is time to give a different pair of players some love.

Starting pitching wasn’t the only position tested early and often in April so allow Lars Nootbaar and Alec Burleson to do the rest as an outfield introduction. Both are tied together more than you would think, especially given the uncertain nature of playing time balanced against production. Nootbaar has been the break-out position player who was already established in the system. The 8th round pick from 2018 has had an eventful beginning to his professional career to put it mildly and hasn’t cracked any prospect rankings. Nootbaar flashed minimal power coming out of USC and produced only nine home runs across four levels his first two seasons.

With only 30 games at Springfield and a boatload of names ahead of him, Nootbaar’s climb up the charts has been swift to say the least. Easily ticketed for a return to Double-A, the lefty took advantage of the playing time Memphis had to offer and now has St. Louis instead of Springfield in his sights. Nootbaar has always displayed patience at the plate while the power the team hoped would come certainly isn’t lacking any longer. Already sitting on four home runs (all in the last five games) and sporting an OBP of .426, Nootbaar can be overlooked no longer while the 40-man roster just happens to be the last obstacle in his way.

The very same things can be said for another lefty outfielder, although more saw this train coming but not nearly this fast. Burleson started hot for Peoria and has only fanned the flames since his promotion to Springfield last week. The East Carolina product was a successful two-way player in college who only has to worry about hitting now, and that move has the Cardinals looking very smart. He is absolutely raking for the SCards which couldn’t have come at a better time. If your pitching staff is still trying to catch their breath, you might as well try and turn every game into a smash fest. Burleson started the year inside the Top 20 but would shock no one to see his name right there with Gorman and Herrera by the end of the summer.

If not for the injuries as well as Nootbaar pacing Memphis, it is much more likely Burleson spends his summer in Peoria playing everyday. Now both outfielders are essentially back-filling for each other, hoping the next promotion gets them closer to their dream. The only question remaining will be which happens first, the call-up or the trade call. Given the lack of production at the upper levels across the entire sport, that’s too tough a bet to make for St. Louis at this point. And before the small sample squad begins to make waves, expect plenty of roster movement before the trade deadline. This summer more owners will go for broke trying to get as many fans back in as possible, setting the stage for all kinds of fireworks.

Leave it to the Cardinals to produce the biggest move before the season started with even more needs still to be filled. Is this the year they go all-in? Hope you are ready for the roller coaster to start, as the ride is just beginning!

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