Taveras provides bat in talented pitching class

Outfielder No. 1 on Cards' Top 20; young arms Martinez, Miller, Rosenthal follow

Taveras provides bat in talented pitching class

The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 Prospects to under-the-radar types.

After watching Tony La Russa retire and Albert Pujols leave St. Louis for a massive 10-year contract with the Angels last winter, the Cardinals were undeterred. They reloaded, mostly from within, and reached the National League Championship Series. Though they came up one win short of a second-straight World Series berth, the Cardinals showed they are built to last.

Homegrown players such as Yadier Molina and Allen Craig are already key parts of the Cardinals, and there is more help on the way. When MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list was released last week, the Cardinals were one of five teams to have six prospects ranked. No team had more.

Farm director John Vuch said the Cardinals can't spend too much time patting themselves on the back for their recent success with developing young talent, but he said there are some benefits to other teams being impressed with the Cardinals' farm system.

"One thing we do take away is when several different outside sources are saying one thing, that shows the industry values players you have," Vuch said. "That's beneficial because if you ever have to make a trade, your prospects are seen as assets."

The Cardinals biggest asset is outfielder Oscar Taveras, who is ranked No. 3 on the Top 100 list. Taveras has blossomed into one of the best hitters in the Minor Leagues and is on the cusp of the Major Leagues at just 20 years old.

Taveras and second baseman Kolten Wong, the Cardinals first-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, are the only position players among their six Top 100 prospects. With so many well-regarded pitching prospects and a good, young Major League staff, the Cardinals have a pitching logjam at the upper levels of their system.

"Between the big leagues and Triple-A, there are a lot of arms," Vuch said. "We have to be creative [to] find room for everybody."

Some of the young players, such as right-handers Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal -- as well as Wong -- will be competing for jobs in Spring Training.

Wong said he plans to go into Spring Training hoping to win a job, but will be happy for the opportunity to play wherever the Cardinals send him.

"You got to always have that mindset that you're coming in to try to win this position," Wong said. "But at the same time, wherever the Cardinals feel that it's comfortable for me to play, that's where I'll go."

Top 20 Prospects

Taveras is the top-ranked prospect in the Cardinals' system, but pitching dominates the list. Eleven of the Cardinals top-15 prospects are pitchers, led by hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Martinez at No. 2. He is just 21 years old and his fastball has touched 100 mph in the past. Like Miller and Rosenthal, Martinez has a chance to break into the Major Leagues this year if he can fight through the Cardinals stacked pitching staff.

With so much pitching talent, it is sometimes easy to overlook players such as eighth-ranked Tyrell Jenkins, a 20-year old right-hander in high Class A Palm Beach with frontline starter potential, or No. 15 Jordan Swagerty, who missed 2012 with Tommy John surgery but has impact potential in the bullpen or rotation.

In addition to their more established prospects, four players the Cardinals picked in the 2012 Draft made the list, including first-rounders Michael Wacha and James Ramsey.

Under-the-Radar

Second baseman Starlin Rodriguez has never been a highly regarded prospect, but Vuch expects more people to notice him this year. Rodriguez earned an invitation to Major League Spring Training after hitting .300 with eight home runs at Palm Beach in 2012. He will move up to Springfield this season, and Vuch expects big results in a hitter-friendly league.

"When he goes to Springfield, he could end up being a guy that surprises some people," Vuch said.

Robert Stock was a catcher when the Cardinals drafted him in the second round in 2009, but he hit just .241 with a .347 slugging percentage in his first three years in the Minor Leagues. The Cardinals moved him to the mound in 2012. Stock was a two-way player at USC and throws in the low- to mid-90s with a changeup and curveball. Stock is trying to follow a similar path to Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who began his professional career as a catcher.

Predictions

Hitter of the Year: Taveras

Taveras is regarded as the best pure hitter in the Minor Leagues and rocketed to the top of prospect lists. He is knocking on the door of the Major Leagues, but until he gets the call, Taveras is expected to continue his assault on Minor League pitching in Triple-A Memphis. He is an aggressive hitter that makes a lot of contact and is beginning to show good power as well. The whole package has Vuch and the rest of the Cardinals front office thrilled with his development.

"It's exciting to see guys like that come through the system," Vuch said. "He's kind of on the doorstep and we're excited to see what happens this year."

Pitcher of the Year: Michael Wacha

Miller and right-hander Michael Wacha were slated to be teammates at Texas A&M after graduating high school in 2009, but only Wacha made it to campus. The Cardinals made Miller their first-round pick in the 2009 Draft and grabbed Wacha in the first round three years later. Wacha doesn't have as much upside as Miller, but he throws in the low-90s with a plus changeup. While Martinez, Miller and Rosenthal are all likely to see time in the Major Leagues this season, Wacha will probably spend his first full professional season at Double-A where he can shine.

Teddy Cahill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.