How the Cardinals keep failing to develop young stars

Other teams seem to have a plan that the Cardinals don't have.
St. Louis Cardinals v Oakland Athletics
St. Louis Cardinals v Oakland Athletics / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The St. Louis Cardinals recently sent down Victor Scott II and Jordan Walker. In the meantime, Masyn Winn emerges as one of the top hitters for the Cardinals. How does this happen?

MLB grades Victor Scott II as a 55 player. That is above average. Jordan Walker grades out at 60. Way above average. Masyn Winn is 55. So, it’s not only raw talent. What makes two players above average struggle and one excel?

The top 5 rookies as of today are Colton Cowser, Jackson Merrill, Michael Bush, Wilyer Abreu, and Masyn Winn. 

I wanted to see if there was anything that these young players shared that maybe the Cardinals missed with Walker and Scott. 

The first thing I noticed is Jackson Merrill is different. He graded out as a 60 so he had the talent. But he spent no time in college and only spent 159 games in the minor leagues. The other thing that puts him in a class all his own is he only played 5 games in the outfield. So Walker wasn’t alone in learning a new position on the fly. He ranks in the top ten in fielding as well. So he is a bit of an outlier compared to the other young players.

If you take Merrill out of the equation, then can we find anything that might tell us how some rookies succeed and some don’t?

Before being drafted, Cowser, Busch, and Abreu spent three years in college. So did Victor Scott. Winn, Walker, and Merrill had no college experience. So college doesn’t seem to be an overriding factor. Age has no bearing either. 

Everyone got experience in the A, A+, and AA leagues. One exception was that Busch skipped A+ and went straight to AA. He also had more AA games than anyone to make up for that jump. All players spend time in A and AA ball. 

Everyone except Merrill, Scott, and Walker had games at AAA. It wasn’t many, but they counted. Cowser had 114, Busch 209, Abreu 86 and Winn had 105. Again, with Merrill being an outlier, that means Scott and Walker are the only two who had zero games at AAA. 

Making a full disclosure, I wrote an article downplaying how useful AAA games were. Several talented players have made the major leagues and bypassed AAA. Paul Goldschmidt is one. I’m still not convinced that if you have skilled teachers and coaches who can work with the young players, it is as critical as the next thing I found. 

Cowser, Busch, Abreu, and Winn all got a late-season call-up during the prior year. In 2023, Cowser played 26 games, Busch 27, Abreu 28 and Winn had 37 games at the major league level. Merrill, like I said, is the outlier. Winn and the others got to see how hard it would be to face pitching in the major leagues and then spend the winter knowing what they needed to work on. Walker and Scott never got that chance. As a matter of fact, in 2023, the Cardinals didn’t bring anyone up. When rosters expanded, they activated two players from the IR. 

Before last year, the Cardinals made it pretty clear they didn’t want Walker to open the season in the majors. You can assume the same about Scott. It took three outfielders getting hurt before they gave in. They weren’t planning on either making the roster. That is the first thing to note. 

By looking at the progression the top rookies make, most teams seem to have a plan. The common thread is the teams that get it right, define their top players, and then bring their top players up in September. Need more proof? The 2023 NL Rookie of the Year was Corbin Carrol. He played 32 games in 2022. The AL Rookie of the Year, Gunner Henderson, played 34 games for the Orioles in 2022.  

We can debate whether the issue is spending time at AAA or getting the call-up in September. You cannot debate the Cardinals’ handling of their young players, whether in action or inaction, is failing. Like most things in the last couple of years, there just doesn’t seem to be much planning.