When the Cardinals take the field in 2012, they will do so with the noticeable absence of Albert Pujols. However, despite Pujols' departure, the franchise moves forward with its goal of becoming the first National League club since the 1975-76 Reds to win back-to-back World Series titles. The goal stretches from the Major League side down into the farm system, where work continues to further bolster a talented pipeline.
The player with the brightest light on him may be first baseman Matt Adams. The 23-year-old spent all of 2011 with Double-A Springfield and put together a huge season, hitting .300 with 32 home runs and a Texas League-best 101 RBIs. Lance Berkman will assume first base duties in 2012, but Cardinals farm director John Vuch acknowledged that the opportunity is there for Adams to be the first baseman of the future.
"The one thing in the short term that [Pujols' departure] does is open up spots for our first baseman," said Cardinals farm director John Vuch. "Had we re-signed Albert to a long-term contract, a guy like Matt Adams may have had to start getting playing time somewhere else. Now he has the chance to stay at first base rather than maybe move to the outfield."
The speed of Adams' ascension toward the big leagues has conveniently correlated with Pujols' free agency. Additionally, the decision to have Adams jump from Class A Quad Cities in 2010 to Double-A -- bypassing the Florida State League -- now looks like a move that will pay off in the near future as the Cardinals get younger at the position.
"We challenged Matt, skipping him over High-A, and he had a great year last year," Vuch said. "We've done that historically with some of our better bats, so Matt can be that kind of guy and he responded by having a tremendous season. He put himself in a position in possibly a year or two to be that guy for us in the big leagues. He's probably the guy right now that has the inside track."
A career .316 hitter at the Minor League level with power that continues to come on strong (.923 OPS in '11), Adams may just have the right combination of thunder and timing to help stabilize the transition of one slugging first baseman to another, and one that could lock down the position just like his predecessor.
Top 20 Prospects:
Right-handers Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez provide the 1-2 punch atop the Cardinals Minor League system. Miller, coming off an impressive year in Double-A, may be one more year away from having a full impact in St. Louis, though some contribution in 2012 can't be ruled out if everything breaks right for him this season. Martinez is one year behind Miller, but showed further growth with Class A Palm Beach in 2011.
Rounding out the Top 10 are Oscar Taveras (No. 3), who hit .386 with eight home runs and 62 RBIs in the Quad Cities, then primarily a mix of infielders and right-handers. Pitchers Tyrell Jenkins (No. 4) and Jordan Swagerty (No. 7) bookend third baseman Zack Cox (No. 5) and second baseman Kolten Wong (No. 6). Right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, a 21st-round pick in 2009, checks in at No. 8 followed by Adams (No. 9) and southpaw John Gast (No. 10), who split 2011 between High-A and Double-A.
Right-handed hurlers account for six of the 10 spots in the latter half of the Cardinals' Top 20, led by hard-throwing Maikel Cleto (No. 12), who pitched at four levels in 2011, including the big leagues, where he made three appearances for the Redbirds. Joe Kelly (No. 13), Michael Blazek (No. 15), 2010 comp-round selection Seth Blair (No. 17), Scott Gorgen (No. 19) and the recently signed 17-year-old Dominican Andres Serrano (No. 20) are the other right-handers on the list.
Third baseman Matt Carpenter (No. 11), outfielder Charlie Tilson (No. 14), and catcher Robert Stock (No. 15) are the three position players in the second half of the list, while Justin Wright, a 47th-round pick in 2010, is No. 18. In his full-season debut, Wright dazzled, posting a 1.03 ERA, a .148 average against and 12 strikeouts per nine innings.
cardinals' top prospects
Under the Radar
Starlin Rodriguez, 2B: Rodriguez put together a solid season in his first year of full-season ball. The 22-year-old hit a combined .291 with five home runs, 36 RBIs and 16 doubles between Quad Cities and Palm Beach. A toolsy infielder who came over from the Rays system prior to the 2010 season, Rodriguez was a Midwest League All-Star in 2011.
Boone Whiting, RHP: Whiting, an 18th round pick in 2010, put together an impressive season in Quad Cities in 2011. Whiting began the season in the bullpen, but eventually made 14 starts of his 30 appearances and finished with a 5-2 record, 2.41 ERA, a 122/24 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .191 opponent's average. Whiting doesn't have the overpowering fastball, but changes speeds and relies on command for success.
Hitter of the Year -- Matt Adams, 1B
Adams may not be the highest-rated position player in the Cardinals system, but he enters 2012 on the cusp after a prodigious year in Double-A. He has demonstrated the combination of average, power and run production that is currently unmatched in the organization. If he adapts to Triple-A as well as he has at each preceding level, Adams should easily earn this distinction.
Pitcher of the Year -- Shelby Miller, RHP
The Cardinals have good pitching at the top of the system, but with Miller having already demonstrated success at the Double-A level, the upcoming season could be the year he hits the next gear on his drive toward the big leagues. Miller may not reach St. Louis in 2012, but he is MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect and he will back up that rating.