#2 - Wilking Rodriguez
Wilking Rodriguez is another candidate to win a spot in the Cardinals bullpen. Taken in the 2022 Rule 5 Draft from the Yankees, Rodriguez is a 33-year-old fireballer who throws an upper-90s fastball, a mid-90s cutter, and a low-80s curveball per FanGraph's scouting report. Rodriguez’s career has been a roller coaster that includes a seven-year hiatus from MLB/MiLB where he pitched in Mexico and the Dominican. That roller coaster continued in 2023, as he battled injuries and threw just 5.2 innings for AAA Memphis. That said, Rodriguez made good of his time on the mound, not allowing a single earned run. He posted an above-average 26.1 K% and a BB% of 8.7% which comes in at right around average in AAA Memphis.
We don't have a ton of recent MLB/MiLB data to work with when it comes to Rodriguez, but he definitely has an arsenal that can play in a middle role for the major league club. He just has to stay healthy to have a chance to make good on his talent. So long as he can prove that his velocity can get back to where it was when healthy in 2023, Rodriguez will have every chance to challenge for a bullpen role with the big club. At 33 years old, the clock is also ticking on his return to the majors but I’m definitely rooting for him.
#3 - Thomas Saggese
This probably isn’t the first time most people have heard Thomas Saggese’s name. Acquired in the deadline deal that sent Jordan Montgomery to the World Series Champion Texas Rangers, Saggese now ranks as the Cardinals 9th best prospect per MLB Pipeline. Saggese was hitting well for the Rangers AA affiliate when he was acquired, slashing .313/.379/.512 which was good for a 132 wRC+. He found another gear with AA Springfield however, slashing an absurd .331/.403/.662 good for a 168 wRC+. That performance would be good enough to earn him both the Texas League MVP award and a promotion to AAA Memphis.
While he struggled in his 13 games at Memphis, a learning curve was to be expected considering that he was just 21 years old at the highest level of the minor leagues. I’ll also take this as a moment to reel some of our expectations around Saggese back in. While his 2023 was a great season, we shouldn’t expect Saggese to turn into the NL MVP. Putting that level of expectations on a 21-year-old's shoulders because he had a great season in AA is unfair. With that out of the way, we can also recognize that any player who wins an MVP at a level where he was 3 years younger than the average player deserves to be firmly on fans' radar.
Saggese’s path to an Opening Day roster spot is a little more clouded. Playing predominantly second base, names ahead of him on the depth chart include Nolan Gorman, who I covered previously here on Redbird Rants and Brendan Donovan. That said, both Gorman and Donovan have some sort of medical concerns attached to them, with back and elbow injuries respectively cutting their 2023 seasons short. Should one or both of those injuries wreak havoc this spring, Saggese will be lurking in the wings.
Even with a healthy Gorman and Donovan, it doesn’t seem too far out of line to suggest that the 2023 Texas League MVP could just hit his way into forcing the Cardinals to send him to AAA to start the year.