baseball

Catching Up on Minor League Signings

There was a lot of action last week for those who care to follow the minor leagues. Minor league free agents have begun signing and the St. Louis Cardinals added 5 to their organization. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of promise, but this is still an interesting group worth paying attention to.

In my minor league preview article, I highlighted a few players I wanted the Cardinals to consider. Most of them were young and still promising but that’s not the route the Cardinals took. Instead they signed veteran players to add upper level depth.

That doesn’t mean the signings were devoid of promise, though. Let me take you through them one-by-one.

OF Oscar Mercado – 27 years old

Old friend alert!

This one got me excited because Mercado was a fun player when he was in the Cardinals system and then he had a solid MLB debut season at age 24. Everything seemed like it was trending up for him and he would be playing centerfield in Cleveland for a while.

Baseball is a funny game, though, because everything went off the rails after that.

Now he’s almost 28 years old and back where he started. After his 2.2 fWAR season in 2019, he compiled -0.5 fWAR in the next three seasons.

As you would expect for a player worth -0.5 fWAR since 2020, things haven’t gone well for Mercado. His best tools have always been his speed and his glove. What’s concerning is that it’s his speed and his glove that have declined in recent years.

In 2019, Mercado ranked in the 98th percentile in sprint speed and stole 15 bases on 19 attempts. In 2022, his sprint speed ranked in just the 77th percentile and he stole only 2 bases.

Then there’s his defense. In 2019 he was a plus centerfielder worth 7 defensive runs saved and 5 outs above average. However, since that season he’s played more corner outfield than centerfield and in 2022, he was worth only 1 DRS and -3 OAA.

His two biggest strengths have really only shown as average at the major league level since the turn of the decade. This is why he’s a minor league free agent. Because if you struggle to hit and then stop being impactful on the bases and in the field, there’s not really a spot for you.

But this does make him an intriguing bounce back candidate.

As I said earlier, he’s soon to be 28 years old. That’s not particularly old. I don’t think he’s suddenly gone from an elite runner to just a good runner. Nor do I think he’s gone from a good defender to an average one.

I have less confidence with his bat, but he basically seems like a Ben DeLuzio replacement. He’s fast, plays good defense, and plays centerfield. If he can get his bat to match DeLuzio’s 109 wRC+, then he’ll be in a good spot.

Here’s the thing, though. Mercado had a 117 wRC+ in Triple-A last year. He only swiped 9 bags so he does present less base running value, but he could very well be a better hitter than DeLuzio. He is also fanned in just under 15% of his Triple-A plate appearances, meaning that his strong bat-to-ball skills are still present.

In all likelihood, Mercado will do nothing in St. Louis this year. But that was the idea with DeLzuio too and he got a cup of coffee at the major league level.

The Cardinals have plenty of promising outfielders, but most of them are corner outfielders. A good showing in Triple-A with the team that drafted him may help Mercado make it back to the majors in 2023. Again, it probably won’t happen but the Cardinals were smart to add center field insurance.

This is a solid minor league free agent signing. It adds depth with the potential for more.

UTIL Taylor Motter – 33 years old

Taylor Motter is not Oscar Mercado. He adds depth but is also more than 5 years older. This isn’t exactly a move that makes headlines.

There is something interesting about Motter, though. He’s really found his power stroke. And I mean really found it. I really can’t overemphasize what he’s done in the minors in the last 2 seasons.

That’s because in 2021 he slugged 24 homers with the Rockies Triple-A affiliate. That’s a great number but you might be wondering why it’s so significant. It’s significant because he did that in just 267 plate appearances.

That gave him a whopping .421 ISO. I’ll say that again. A.421 ISO. That’s higher than a lot of slugging percentages. And speaking of slugging percentages, his was .752.

That power output helped him to a 186 wRC+ and a promotion to the majors where he did…absolutely nothing. He did only make 22 plate appearances with the Rockies so don’t look too much into that.

He followed up his powerful 2021 season with ‘only’ 20 homers and a .268 ISO. Not exactly the kind of guy a pitcher wants to miss middle middle against.

And to top it off, he did all that while playing every position except for centerfield and catcher.

That’s the exciting part of this signing. He’s a utility slugger who has dominated Triple-A pitching the past two years.

Now here’s the negative. He’s 33 years old, debuted in 2016, and since then has compiled -1.5 fWAR. In his Major League career he has actually been a detriment to the teams he has played for.

Perhaps his power has given him new life. Perhaps it hasn’t. But I like the idea of ​​giving him a shot for a season. He may even have a path to a rooster spot. Not a great one to be fair, but if the Cardinals move Paul DeJong this offseason, they will have a backup infielder void that needs to be filled.

That’s probably a moot point if the Cardinals bring him in one of the big shortstops, but as things stand he may have a chance at earning his way onto the big league roster with an impressive spring.

He hasn’t been a great shortstop in his career, which would be the downside to him making the roster, so the Cardinals would likely need Brendan Donovan to fill in at short when Edman gets days off if Motter became the backup.

Again, in all likelihood, Motter doesn’t sniff the majors this year. But he’s at least an interesting veteran and a good depth piece.

INF Juniel Querecuto – 30 years old

To be honest with you, this is the signing I’m least excited about. There’s not a ton of promise here. Querecuto has Triple-A depth signing written all over him. The most likely scenario is that he sluggs out a full season in Memphis with a below league average bat and fills in where he’s needed.

And that’s fine. There’s value in that. But in each of his last 6 seasons he has taken more than 125 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. He was an above league average hitter exactly one time. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

He doesn’t strike out much, he’ll steal a few bases, hit a few homers, and play all around the infield, but there’s really nothing in his profile that generates much excitement. His 5’9′, 155 pound frame (according to Fangraphs) paired with his skill set gives him the feel of a scrappy, contact-oriented, utility guy.

In the past he’s gotten more marks for his defense, makeup, and instincts which should make are all traits that likely endeared him to the Cardinals as they sought someone to fortify the Memphis infield.

LHP Kenny Hernandez – 24 years old

In my minor league free agency primer I didn’t get much right. I listed some names I was interested in, and the Cardinals didn’t sign any of them. That’s to be expected, though. There are hundreds of minor league free agents and it’s impossible to know exactly what the Cardinals are looking for.

One thing I did get right was the need for a Double-A pitcher. This is where Kenny Hernandez slots in. He made one Triple-A appearance in 2021, but he’s been struggling at the Double-A level for two seasons now.

He’s been fine in High-A but he’s never been able to get over the hump at the next level. His statistical profile doesn’t present a ton of reasons for optimism but at the very least his strikeout rate jumped from 13.7% to 19.3% at Double-A from 2021 to 2022. His walking rate and home run rate also rose and a move to the bullpen probably helped but that’s about the only positive.

He finished with an ugly 6.26 ERA and 5.91 FIP at the level, though his xFIP (4.61) was a little more friendly. He did play in the Texas League, which is absurdly hitter-friendly, but this is still a bad stat line.

Going back further in his career, Hernandez’s best year came in 2019 when he posted a 1.98 ERA in Single-A at the age of 21.

Then he lost the entire 2020 season. He was still effective-ish in 2021 with a 3.92 ERA, though his FIP (4.87) tells a different story. Players like this always make me wonder what the effect of the lost season was.

I’m not expecting much (and that’s always a good idea with minor league free agents), but I like that he’s still 24 years old. There’s a pretty good chance that the Cardinals simply want a shot at fixing him.

In some articles I was able to dig up, it appears that Hernandez has 4 offerings – fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider. Despite his 4 pitch arsenal I wouldn’t expect him to be a starter, but perhaps the Cardinals see enough in it to tinker with it and see if they can find another level.

RHP Logan Sawyer – 29 years old

Logan Sawyer has a cool story. He actually got major league teams to recruit him via Pitching Ninja on Twitter.

Curious how that went down? Let me explain.

He tweeted out the below highlight video, added his stats from Indy ball, and tagged Pitching Ninja.

Pitching Ninja then retweeted the video.

Then Logan Sawyer got blown away with interest. And I mean literally blown away. More than 23 of MLB organizations reached out to him. When asked how many teams contacted him after the video, this was his reply:

Fittingly, he then announced his decision on Twitter with a well crafted pun.

And then Pitching Ninja gave us a satisfying end to the saga.

We now live in an age where pitchers can get themselves signed simply from a video on Twitter. That’s incredible to me.

Sawyer promoted himself and it worked out in favor. But a large reason for that is absolutely nasty stuff.

In his highlight video above, the right-hander shows off a fastball that touches 100, a slider with plenty of bite, and a filthy splitter. If you skipped over the video, you should go watch it. He’s nasty.

Then look at the stats. The man didn’t allow a single earned run in 30 innings! 30 innings! Yes, it’s Indy ball, but I don’t care. That’s crazy!

What may be even crazier is that he walked just 3 batters despite throwing 100 mph. His stuff combined with that much control is a rare combination. We’ll see if he holds up in affiliated ball but he’s definitely a pitcher. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the system next year.

He left affiliated ball after the 2016 season and never made it above High-A but he may have turned his career around after finding some extra velocity and adding a splitter to his arsenal.

I hope he got an invite to Spring Training (I would assume he did), because if he did, my eyes would be glued to the TV when he first took the mound.

Conclusion

For a fun little conclusion to this piece, I’ll rank each player in order of my interest/excitement in them.

  1. Logan Sawyer
  2. Oscar Mercado
  3. Taylor Motter
  4. Kenny Hernandez
  5. Juniel Querecuto

The Cardinals may not have unearthed another Moises Gomez, but minor league free agents always have the potential to make a difference. We just may see a name on this list do that in 2022.

Sawyer is filthy, Motter has pop, Mercado is fun, and who knows with the other two. I like this crop of minor league free agents and the Cardinals will likely keep adding to it as the offseason progresses.

Thanks for reading VEB! I hope this piece gave you a few names to pay attention to next year.

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