SP Inohan Paniagua
Though there may be depth issues at the upper levels, the lower levels are full of intriguing arms. Paniagua is one of these arms. In 2022 the young righthander broke out, posting a 2.81 ERA across three levels. He racked up 145 strikeouts in 137.2 innings, putting himself firmly on the organizational radar. Unfortunately, he took. a sizable step back in 2023. His ERA jumped almost two full points and he failed to make the jump to AA. Much of the ineffectiveness can be attributed to injury. Paniagua appeared in just 14 games, pitching only 48 innings. He continued to generate strikeouts at a high level but exhibited uncharacteristically wild control. The Cardinals hadn't seen enough and assigned him to the AZFL.
Paniagua's trip through the fall league resembled his 2023 season. He treaded water but failed to distinguish himself. His strikeout rates remained strong (17 in 16.2 innings) and he managed to cut down on the walks (6 in 16.2 innings), but Paniagua still pitched to a 4.86 ERA. The Cardinals are undoubtedly pleased by the improved control, and that's the major takeaway from this stretch. However, poor run prevention may result in a less aggressive assignment for 2024. Whether Paniagua starts at AA or not, expect him to reach Springfield by the end of the 2024 season.
SP Cooper Hjerpe
Cooper Hjerpe was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2022 draft. The lefty is widely regarded as a high-ceiling talent with the potential to someday pitch near the front of a competitive rotation. The Cardinals need him to realize that potential within the next few years to continue contending. Hjerpe's first season in the minors was encouraging. He appeared in ten games (eight starts) and pitched a total of 41 innings. Across those frames, he compiled an ERA of 3.51 and struck out 51 hitters. Like Paniagua, his biggest problem was his inability to remain healthy. Hjerpe missed a large portion of the season. Thankfully, he was healthy enough for fall ball.
In the AZFL, Hjerpe held his own. Perhaps "bad" is unfair. His performance, like Paniagua's, was middling. He did some really good things (like striking out 15 hitters in 8.1 frames) and he did some bad things (like walking 6 across those same 8.1 innings). Ultimately, he posted a 4.32 ERA. The Cardinals will likely want to see him improve his control next year. Until he does so, he may remain in the lower levels. However, it must be noted that the Cardinals have chosen to aggressively promote some pitching prospects. It's difficult to say with any certainty how they'll proceed with Hjerpe, but I predict he'll reach the AA level by the midway point of 2024. He may even pitch in Memphis down the stretch.