International Reviews: St. Louis Cardinals
Top 2016-17 signing: OF Jonatan Machado, Cuba, $2.35 million. Total signings: 29.
The Cardinals won’t pick until No. 94 overall in the 2017 draft, a combination of sacrificing their first-round pick to sign Dexter Fowler in free agency and forfeiting the No. 56 and 75 picks to the Astros as a penalty for former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa’s repeated illegal breach of Astros databases. However, the have been able to pump a large wave of talent into the lower levels of the farm system with what they did on the international market over the past year, investing close to $20 million between signing bonuses and their upcoming overage tax payment. They went over their bonus pool in 2016-17, mixing top players from Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Panama in their signing class. Their international scouting also made an immediate impact on their major league team last year with the signing of Korean reliever Seung-Hwan Oh to bolster their bullpen.
Of the three Cuban prospects the Cardinals signed last year, the most advanced is Randy Arozarena, who signed for $1.25 million in August. He’s a potential high OBP hitter from the right side with plus speed who uses the whole field, giving him the potential to hit at or near the top of a lineup. He played both the infield and outfield in Cuba, but the Cardinals liked his defense in center field and plan to use him there. Arozarena is 22 and should be able to start at one of the Cardinals’ Class A affiliates, though with Magneuris Sierra ready for high Class A Palm Beach and new Cuban outfield addition Jose Adolis Garcia entering the system this month, his assignment is still to be determined.
Their biggest bonus went to Jonatan Machado, an 18-year-old center fielder who stands out for his speed, defense and contact skills. Though he hit just .209/.284/.299 in 74 plate appearances in the Dominican Summer League after signing, Machado is a contact-oriented hitter who doesn’t swing-and-miss much, despite an arm-bar swing. He’s only 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, so his offensive game relies more on putting the ball in play and using his 70 speed. He’s an instinctive defender who gets good reads off the bat and sharp routes in the outfield. He could be a plus defender, though his arm is below-average.
Johan Oviedo, who got $1.9 million on July 2, was the biggest riser among the Cuban players the Cardinals signed. Oviedo, 19, pitched in Cuba’s 18U league in 2014 and posted a 2.30 ERA with 22 strikeouts and 19 walks in 27 1/3 innings. When he pitched in the COPABE 18U Championship that year in Mexico, his fastball was 86-89 mph, but when he got to the Dominican Republic he threw 90-95 mph. Oviedo is huge (6-foot-6, 210 pounds) and gets great extension with slight cut on his fastball. Scouts from other clubs were more mixed on Oviedo’s secondary pitches, but the Cardinals saw a potential plus curveball that induced off-balance swings and feel for a changeup. Among more traditional July 2 signings, Venezuelan outfielder Victor Garcia was the Cardinals’ biggest acquisition. Garcia, a 17-year-old who signed for $1.5 million on July 2, is a corner outfielder with huge power and the ability to translate that power against live pitching. He has a big, strong frame (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and had arguably the biggest raw power of anyone his age from last year’s class. It’s at least 60 raw power with a chance to increase as he continues to gain strength. Garcia is more than just a pull hitter too, showing a straightaway approach with power to all fields and the strength to get base hits even when he gets jammed. Garcia separates himself from other young power hitters because he’s able to drive the ball with authority against live pitching with good hitting instincts. There is some stiffness to his stroke and his hitting suffers when he overswings and chases soft stuff off the plate, but he’s shown the ability to keep his weight back on breaking balls with a solid pitch recognition, strike-zone awareness and the ability to keep his hands inside the ball. Garcia’s value is in his potential to hit in the middle of a lineup but he won’t bring much to the table defensively. Left field is a best-case scenario, and while he does have an idea of what he’s doing there, he will have to maintain his conditioning and agility to avoid a move to first base. He’s in Jupiter, Fla. now for spring training and has a chance to stay when the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League season begins. Garcia trained with Francisco Ortiz.
Other than Garcia, the most advanced offensive player in the Cardinals’ signing class is Carlos Soto, a 17-year-old Mexican catcher from Los Mochis who hit well at the 15U World Cup in Sinaloa, Mexico in 2014. Soto had been eligible to sign the previous year and was able to play right away in the DSL, where he hit .303/.441/.394 and walked (25) more than he struck out (17) in 127 plate appearances. Soto is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with polished, pure hitting skills from the left side of the plate. With good bat speed and a quick, whippy swing, Soto is an excellent fastball hitter and has the pitch recognition skills to keep his hands back on breaking balls. He loads his swing with a leg kick and is consistently on time and in good position to hit. A high-contact hitter with an advanced understanding of the strike zone, Soto has a chance to combine high OBPs with power from his strong frame. The biggest risk factor on Soto is his defense. His arm is average and his throws are accurate, but he has to work on his mobility and agility to be able to stay behind the plate. Even if he has to move to first base, he could have enough offensive value there.
Dominican outfielder Carlos Soler, 17, signed for $600,000 on July 2 after training with Laurentino Genao. Soler doesn’t have the hitting polish of Garcia or Soto, but his lively, lanky body and athleticism have the projection arrows pointing in the right direction. He’s 6-foot-2, 165 pounds with long limbs, good coordination and an easy running gait. He’s just a fringe-average runner right now, but with his gliding strides and running gait that makes him look like he’s floating in the outfield, he could get faster to stay in center field once he gets stronger. His best present tool is an outstanding earns that earns plus to plus-plus grades and should be a solid 70 in the future. Soler is a lefthanded hitter who looks more natural in the outfield than he doe at the plate. His long arms and deep load lead to some length in his stroke, with balance issues creating some swing-and-miss risk. Soler has a solid strike-one awareness for his age and his athleticism could help him make adjustments to get to his raw power, which is average to a tick better and could grow into plus. Even if his hitting doesn’t click, his arm and athleticism are good enough to make pitching a fallback option. Soler is expected to start in the DSL.
Dominican shortstop Franklin Soto signed with the Cardinals for $550,000 on July 2 after training with Pablo Lantigua and Amauris Nina. Soto, 17, is a skinny, athletic 5-foot-11, 165 pounds with a simple offensive approach from the right side. He has a short swing that helps him square up good fastballs on the inner third of the plate, with gap power. An average runner with an average arm, Soto is a steady defender who has a chance to stay at shortstop if he can iron out his footwork. The Cardinals signed 17-year-old Venezuelan righthander Allinson Benitez for $320,000 on July 2. He’s a strike-thrower with a big, wide-shouldered frame (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and sound, repeatable mechanics. His stuff isn’t overpowering, with a fastball touching 90 mph, feel for a change and a slow curveball, but he pounds the strike zone and has the physical projection to throw harder.
Diomedes del Rio is a 19-yar-old Venezuelan outfielder the Cardinals signed for $200,000 on July 2. Del Rio had previously been expected to sign with the Rockies but was suspended for a year due to an age issue. He was able to play right away in the DSL and hit .163/.291/.233 in 106 plate appearances. Despite his initial struggles, del Rio before signing had shown a solid offensive approach and ability to make contact from the left side of the plate. He’s a line-drive hitter without much power from his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame. Del Rio is a slightly above-average runner who plays center field. He trained with Henderson Martinez. Ivan Herrera, a 16-year-old catcher from Panama, signed for $200,000 in July. He’s an offensive-oriented catcher who has performed well while representing Panama in multiple international tournaments. A strong 6 feet, 180 pounds, Herrera has a knack for hitting from the right side with good contact skills and drives the ball with good exit velocity to his pull side. He will need to improve his blocking and agility behind the plate, but he has the tools to stick there with average arm strength.
Dominican righthander Roy Garcia, 16, signed for $200,000 in September. He’s strong with broad shoulder (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and could wind up a power reliever. He’s a fastball/slider pitcher who reaches 93 mph and could get into the mid-90s or higher in the future. He flashes an average slider that could be an out pitch as he learns when to land it for a strike and when to bury it for a putaway pitch. Garcia is still learning to control an aggressive delivery with effort to be able to throw more strikes. The Cardinals signed 16-year-old outfielder Luis Montano for $200,000 on July 2. He’s a physically projectable 6-foot-2, 170 pounds with sound hitting mechanics from the left side of the plate. It’s a sweet swing with a line-drive approach and occasional doubles power. Montano is an offensive-minded player who will play in the outfield corners. Yowelfy Rosario was the shortstop and leadoff hitter on the Dominican team that went to the COPABE 15U Championship in Mexico in 2015. He trained with Aldo Marrero and signed with the Cardinals for $175,000 on July 2. Rosario, 16, is long and lanky (6-foot-3, 165 pounds) with good athleticism and a lot of physical projection that stand out more than his present skills. He has a 55 arm and moves well at shortstop, but he’s still learning to play more under control in the field and get his long limbs in sync and on plane with the ball with his righthanded stroke.
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Nelson Prada is a 16-year-old lefthander who trained with Luis Blasini and signed for $100,000 in August. He’s 6-foot-2, 170 pounds and throws strikes with his fastball and slow curveball from an easy delivery. His fastball is 86-89 mph but his deception and angle makes the pitch get on hitters faster than they expect. Dominican corner outfielder Alexander Samuel, a 17-year-old signed for $100,000 on July 2, is a physical specimen (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) with a strong, well-proportioned build. He has the body of a power hitter but right now is more of a contact, line-drive hitter in games, with a chance for power to emerge later because of his physicality. Freddy De Jesus, 17, signed for $100,000 in September out of Wilton Guerrero’s program. He’s a Dominican first baseman with a strong, heavy build (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) whose value is all in his bat. He’s a power hitter who uses the whole field with the ability to smoke the ball to right-center field.