Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the St. Louis Cardinals.
JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals were dealt a blow in February when it was announced that right-hander Alex Reyes needed Tommy John surgery and would miss the entire 2017 season.
Expectations were understandably high for Reyes this year after the Cardinals' top prospect (No. 14 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list) dominated during the final two months of 2016, first as a reliever and then as a starter, en route to a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 46 innings. But in his absence, the Cardinals will be forced to utilize their pitching depth.
Luke Weaver could see a bigger role this season after getting his first big league exposure in 2016. The Cardinals' first-round pick in 2014, Weaver, 23, made his big league debut on Aug. 13, just four days after Reyes', and more than held his own before scuffling in his final two outings. Altogether, the Cardinals' No. 3 prospect (No. 68 overall) pitched to a 5.70 ERA across nine appearances (eight starts) with 45 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings.
While the performance exposed Weaver's weaknesses -- particularly his struggles against left-handed hitters, who batted .377/.435/.590 against him -- Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque believes that the experience will aid the young righty in his quest to return to the big leagues.
"Luke always has had good command of his stuff and a presence on the mound, but he's at a point now where it's about continuing the performance, so that when he gets to the big leagues he steps in and he's ready," LaRocque said.
"Like most young pitchers, he needs to refine his stuff to be able to handle a complete lineup -- and he knows that. The big key for us, from a timeline standpoint, is that Luke makes the progress he needs to make in the Minor Leagues so he, once called upon, can be able to help the club."
Sandy Alcantara has yet to pitch above the Class A Advanced level, but the Cardinals' No. 6 prospect possesses electric stuff comparable to Reyes, with a fastball that touches 102 mph and the potential for two average-or-better secondary pitches. In his 2016 full-season debut, the 21-year-old righty posted a 3.96 ERA in 122 2/3 frames while making 23 starts between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues. He fanned 153 hitters in that span, good for 11.2 strikeouts-per-nine, and showed improved command despite an increased walk rate.
"When people watch him, the first thing they note is the arm strength and that he maintains it well," LaRocque said. "He's a young man who's going to gain more durability. He's more than that, though; he has a nice complement of stuff and feel for contrast."
Though already on the Cardinals 40-man roster, Alcantara stands to benefit from at least another full season in the Minor Leagues. But given the strides he's made in a short amount of time, it's not a stretch to envision the Dominican native making an impact out of the bullpen late in the season. For that reason, the team's coaching staff is giving the 6-foot-4 Alcantara an extended look this spring in big league camp. The results have been mixed so far for Alcantara -- he's allowed four earned runs on 10 hits and five walks in four relief appearances -- but that hasn't kept him from opening more eyes within the organization.
"What I've noticed so far this spring," noted LaRocque, "is that even when he has a tough inning, he's been able to bounce right back and starts to get more comfortable. It just takes some success at each level to get that confidence up, and that's a big part for him because he's so young.
"As he's come through the system, he's moved quickly," LaRocque added. "In general, for a young player, he's taken all the right steps and accelerated his development really well."
There are many new faces in the Cardinals' Minor League camp this year, but none more notable than shortstop Delvin Perez, whom the Cardinals selected with their first of three first-round picks last June.
Perez was considered by many evaluators to be one of the better prospects in his class, and he likely would have come off the board within the first 10 picks if not for a positive test for a performing-enhancing substance prior to the Draft. Concerns about Perez's makeup caused him to fall into the second half of the first round, where the Cardinals were waiting with open arms for him with the No. 23 overall pick.
Perez made an immediate impact during his pro debut, hitting .294/.352/.393 with 12 extra-base hits and 12 steals while helping lead the Gulf Coast League Cardinals to a league title. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect (No. 91 overall) has continued to open eyes this spring.
"He has good defensive tools at shortstop -- the kind that could make him a fixture there," said LaRocque. "Offensively, he has quickness to his bat and is getting a feel for his strike zone. He's doing all the things an 18-year-old who was drafted should be doing as far as the learning curve for what's new."
Also on that GCL championship squad was Dylan Carlson, who hit .251/.313/.404 with 19 extra-base hits in 50 games after going to the Cardinals with the No. 33 overall pick. While the 18-year-old outfielder doesn't project to have a plus tool at maturity, the Cardinals believe he has the skills and makeup to get the most out of his ability.
"Dylan has solid mechanics offensively, with very good focus and instincts in the outfield. We like his offensive upside quite a bit, and the plan is to keep him in center field for as long as we can," said LaRocque of the Cardinals' No. 16 prospect.
"Delvin and Dylan are talented young men, and they've both had their eyes wide open to what's new since signing," he added. "They definitely saw a new phase of the game [in the GCL] last summer, a quicker phase, and that's a good thing, because we want them to experience that as soon as possible."
Normally a player selected in the previous year's Draft wouldn't be considered a potential breakout candidate. However, when that player is still adjusting to a role like right-hander Dakota Hudson -- the last of the St. Louis' first-round picks (No. 34 overall) -- exceptions can be made.
Hudson, 22, moved into Mississippi State's rotation last spring after pitching exclusively in relief as a sophomore. The right-hander excelled as a starter, posting a 2.55 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 113 innings over 17 starts, but his lengthy college season prompted the Cardinals to limit him to mostly bullpen work during his pro debut. Hudson was still plenty dominant in the role, making the jump to the Florida State League from the GCL, and then making a pair of scoreless appearances for Double-A Springfield in the Texas League playoffs.
"We watched to make sure the innings were right for him," LaRocque said of Hudson, the club's No. 9 prospect. "We pay a lot of attention to workloads and certainly did with Dakota, though we did get him some exposure out of the bullpen at several levels to give him a feel for different leagues.
"This year we're back to starting over and building him up again. He had a good [Spring Training Early Program] camp and threw well the other day in a live batting practice session, and he's right on track with his throwing schedule. It's been a good camp for him so far."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.