One year after having only two prospects dent MLB.com's Top 100, the Cardinals put four in the top 50. Right-handed pitchers Shelby Miller (No. 25), Carlos Martinez (No. 33) and Trevor Rosenthal (No. 43) round out that bunch. Landing among the next 50 are the team's top picks from its last two Draft classes: second baseman Kolten Wong (No. 79) and right-hander Michael Wacha (No. 83).
The annual ranking of baseball's biggest and brightest young talent is assembled by MLB.com's Draft and prospect expert Jonathan Mayo, who compiles input from industry sources, including scouts and scouting directors. It is based on analysis of players' skill sets, upsides, closeness to the Majors and potential immediate impact to their teams. The list, which is one of several prospect rankings on MLB.com's Prospect Watch, only includes players with rookie status in 2013.
While the Cardinals' farm system has steadily improved in recent years, it's been even longer since the club had a prospect with as high an offensive ceiling as Taveras. As John Vuch, who has been with in the Cardinals' baseball operations department for 25 seasons, said Tuesday: "He's as good a left-handed hitting prospect as any I can remember."
Taveras batted .321 and led all of St. Louis' Minor Leaguers in hits (153), home runs (23), RBIs (94), doubles (37) and slugging percentage (.572) en route to being named the Texas League Player of the Year in 2012. He made the jump to Double-A last season after spending 2011 in low-A.
He's projected to begin 2013 in Triple-A, where the Cardinals will likely have him log time at all three outfield positions. That will have him ready in case there is a need at the Major League level sometime midseason. The Cardinals also will encourage Taveras, 20, to fine-tune a few other areas of his game.
"As he's getting closer to the big leagues, it's how he carries himself and turns himself into a Major League player," Vuch said. "I think some of it is continuing to improve on the defensive and baserunning side. It's going to be more attention to detail and smoothing out the rough edges."
Miller made his Major League debut last year and will compete for a spot on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster this spring. Whether he'll find a spot in the rotation or not will depend largely upon the health of St. Louis' veteran starters. Regardless of where Miller starts, though, he appears on the verge of being a permanent fixture in the big league rotation.
"My goal this year is, obviously, to start in St. Louis," Miller said at the Cardinals' recent Winter Warm-Up event. "I know there's a lot of competition. I know there is all the talent in the world on the team. Will I be disappointed if I don't start there? Yeah. But I know if I have to go back to [Triple-A] Memphis that I'm going to try my hardest to get back up."
Martinez, 21, ascended to Double-A last summer and is likely to begin 2013 back in Springfield, Mo. He thrived in the hitter-friendly Texas League, going 4-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 15 games (14 starts) with Springfield.
Polishing his pitch repertoire and increasing his endurance will be focal points for Martinez, who has shown no hesitancy in using his off-speed pitches at a young age.
"He's never really had a full season where he's thrown a lot of innings, so it's more conditioning him to what it takes to be a starting pitcher over the long haul," Vuch said. "It's getting him ready to handle the rigors of the long season."
Rosenthal, like Miller, will report to Spring Training fighting for a big league job. Of all the young players to rise to St. Louis last season, Rosenthal was arguably the most unexpected arrival. He made the climb after entering the year having pitched no higher than the low-A level. By the time the Cardinals were in the playoffs, Rosenthal had become an integral piece in the bullpen.
If there's no rotation spot available for Rosenthal out of camp, the Cardinals could consider using him in a relief role again.
"It's really just been a whirlwind, everything that has happened," Rosenthal said of his rise over the past 12 months. "But as far as expectation goes, I personally expect the same things from myself -- I can control what I can control. I control my effort. I control my attitude. That's what I'm going to continue to do. And if it all works out, I can help the club out here."
Wong and Wacha have been rapid risers through the Cardinals' system, too.
Drafted in 2011, Wong spent last season in Double-A. He's expected to begin this year in Triple-A and could be in St. Louis before the season is over if the Cardinals continue to struggle to find a permanent answer at second base.
Wong hit .287 for Springfield in 2012 and then had a standout stint in the Arizona Fall League. "Right away had success at Double-A," general manager John Mozeliak said. "He's been pushed quickly. This year is a very important one for him, but it's critical that he gets his at-bats."
After signing for a $1.9 million bonus last summer, Wacha entered the Cardinals' system expecting to get minimal work out of the bullpen. After Wacha made three appearances in the Gulf Coast League, the Cardinals challenged him with a move to high-A. He stayed there for four appearances before being promoted to Double-A, where he helped Springfield win a championship.
In all, Wacha struck out 40, walked four and had a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings. He will be moved back into a rotation -- likely at Double-A -- to begin 2013.
"I've been working hard in the offseason and hopefully that pays off in the long run during the season," Wacha said. "Im looking forward to getting started."