The Cardinals’ Taste In Prospects Indicates Hope For A Quick Rebuild

Sem Robberse
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are officially engaging in a moderate short-term rebuild, trading Jordan Hicks to Toronto for pitching prospects Sem Robberse and Adam Kloffenstein, and Jordan Montgomery to Texas for righty Tekoah Roby, infielder Thomas Saggese, and reliever John King. Each of these players could suit up for the Cardinals in the big leagues within the next 12 months, especially King (already a big leaguer) and the two pitchers coming back from Toronto, who will likely be added to the 40-man roster after the season. Roby and Saggese have spent their 2023 seasons at Double-A Frisco and are within range of the majors even though they don’t have to be put on the 40-man until after the 2024 slate. You can see where each of the newly-acquired prospects falls on the Cardinals list over on The Board.

Let’s start by going over the Montgomery return, since the most significant prospect acquired by the Cardinals comes over in that deal. Roby, 21, moved onto the Top 100 prospects list when I updated the Rangers system a couple of weeks ago, and he would have been even higher if not for his current shoulder injury, which shelved him in early June. Before he was shut down, Roby was consistently working with four plus pitches. He was sitting 94–95 mph with riding life, bending in one of the nastier curveballs in the minors, tilting in a similarly shaped slider in the mid-80s, and turning over a tailing low-80s changeup, all of which were capable of missing bats. He looked like a contender’s four-pitch, mid-rotation starter, like a less physical Hunter Brown.

Roby’s delivery does have some violence, but he’s always thrown strikes in spite of this. He is slightly undersized (but well-built) at 6-foot-1 and has now had arm injuries in two of his three pro seasons, so there’s definitely relief risk here despite his strike-throwing track record. From a stuff and pitch execution standpoint, he is where Jack Leiter was expected to be when he was drafted. On upside, Roby is a huge get for the Cardinals and could be the big league club’s best starting pitcher within a year or two. Once healthy, he has a chance to kick down the door, though shoulder issues can be particularly scary and destabilizing to a young pitcher’s career.

There’s injury-related risk with Roby, but he is the most talented player joining the Cardinals organization in these deals. That said, some scouts would argue for Saggese, an undersized 21-year-old infielder with a very advanced feel for contact. One scout source of mine who has top-to-bottom Rangers coverage considers him one of the best five prospects in the system. Saggese is hitting .314/.380/.514 in 2023 and has performed comfortably above the league average at each minor league stop, with a wRC+ hovering around 130 at each level. His underlying TrackMan data is not as good as his surface performance has tended to be, and his 2023 data suggests there’s going to be some regression here, in large part because he is fairly chase-prone. But his ability to produce impact contact with launch is remarkably consistent, and even though he’s a smaller guy (not quite as skinny as Matt Duffy, but getting there), he seems likely to get to in-game power.

Saggese has a very old school baseball vibe about him: no batting gloves; a simple, wristy swing that sprays fastballs the other way; and sound infield defense reliant on effort and feel more than athleticism. He is best at recognizing and punishing breaking balls; a majority of his extra-base hits in 2023 have come against sliders, which he tracks and whacks with robot-like precision. Part of why he isn’t graded more highly is because of the lack of performance against fastballs. Saggese also can’t play shortstop; he’s best at third and can moonlight at second. We’re looking at something close to an average hit and power combo here, which isn’t a slam dunk everyday profile for a corner infielder but should be plenty for him to have a lengthy big league career as a righty-hitting part-time regular at second and third. And while he’s not necessarily a player the Cardinals are going to win because of, he’s definitely a player they can win with as part of a multi-player platoon across a couple of positions. He’s graded as a 40+ FV prospect, which is on par with an impactful corner role player, but not a true everyday guy. He’s a potential 2024 debutant, especially if Nolan Arenado is traded.

Also coming over from Texas is King, a four-year big league veteran and low-slot lefty changeup specialist whose strikeout rates have been on the decline for the last two seasons, though his ground ball rate has skyrocketed. King has been back and forth between Texas and Triple-A Round Rock this season, amassing 40 total innings of long relief work. His fastball has had a little bit of a velo spike, but his secondary pitches — a trademark changeup that has been his best weapon since his prospect days, and a slider — have both had substantial upticks in velocity.

King’s delivery has changed a little bit. It’s still a stiff, violent, cross-bodied operation, but his line to the plate looks a bit more direct this season. It hasn’t made his stuff so nasty that he suddenly projects as a middle-inning stalwart; he’ll likely continue to operate in an up/down capacity as long as he has option years left, and then either sink or swim as a reverse splits lefty toward the bottom of an active roster’s staff. The move clears a 40-man spot for the Rangers to make room for Montgomery and gives the Cardinals a warm body for their current bullpen.

As far as the Hicks return is concerned, the Cardinals did well to acquire two relatively mature starting pitching prospects for one inconsistent reliever. Though he’s having his best bat-missing season to date, Hicks has never been as dominant as his elite velocity would indicate, and he entered 2023 coming off of two years with ERAs close to 5.00 and FIPs north of 4.00. While I’m sure the Cardinals and their fans would much rather be contending right now, and a seemingly peaking Hicks is a great late-inning asset, they’re fortunate to be selling high on him when there have been times during the last half decade when they’d have gotten less for him — from a service time pound-for-pound standpoint — than they did here.

The centerpiece of the return is 21-year-old Dutch righty Robberse, a polished strike-thrower who has spent all of 2023 at Double-A New Hampshire, where he posted an ERA just a shade over 4.00 prior to the trade. He throws from a three-quarters slot with a long arm action, but he repeats the delivery very well, throwing each offering of his four-pitch arsenal from identical release points. His fastball only sat around 91 mph in 2022, but it’s been more in the 92–94 range this season, even as Robberse has stretched out later in the year. He’s still only 21, and even though he’s slight of build, it’s plausible that this early 2023 velo bump will sustain through physical maturation.

Robberse commands the heater to where it plays best, and it appears to tunnel well with his other pitches, especially his changeup. He has somewhat limited fastball utility because the pitch is vulnerable in the zone, but his advanced feel for his upper-80s cutter/slider helps remedy that, and he tends to lean on it when he needs a strike. His upper-80s changeup is arguably his nastiest pitch; it tails and dives away from lefties with uncommon depth for how hard it is, though he doesn’t use it as much as his cutter/slider. A low-80s curveball with solid-average depth and bite gives him a fourth viable weapon. He is a high-probability back-end starter on a contender, and his command makes him feel like a relatively stable prospect even though he’s the age of a college prospect. Robberse will likely be added to the Cardinals 40-man roster after the 2023 season and debut next season.

The other prospect headed to St. Louis is Kloffenstein, a gigantic 22-year-old righty and 2018 third-rounder who has had an uptick in performance this year after plateauing for several prior seasons. He looked like a potential sinker/slider workhorse when he was drafted out of high school, but he was an unexceptional strike-thrower and overall performer through the 2022 season, sliding into the honorable mentions section of the Blue Jays list as a result. But Toronto altered the pace of his delivery and lowered his arm slot this year, and he began to show superior results as a 22-year-old repeating Double-A, posting a 28% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate with a 3.24 ERA before the trade.

The change in his arm slot didn’t impact Kloffenstein’s career-long ability to get ground balls at a near-50% rate, and his slider (which he throws a ton, over half the time) still has bat-missing two-plane shape. There’s a chance that he now has two distinct breakers; the shape of his slider is pretty variable, and it’s tough to tell if that’s intentional or not. While his walks have come down this season, his command still isn’t great, and it’s possible his release is just not consistent enough, making it look like he has a sweeper and a cutter when in fact he’s just throwing one breaking ball. A sinker/slider combo enables Kloffenstein to work southeast/southwest with his stuff, and his sinking changeup is good enough to round out a starter-quality repertoire. I buy that the mechanical changes here have made a real difference; he is a likely postseason 40-man add and projects as an inning-eating backend starter, and is probably the prospect from these trades most likely to debut first.

A “stand-pat” 2024 Cardinals spring rotation mix currently looks like Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Matthew Liberatore, and a lot of prospects. Connor Thomas is already on the 40-man; Ian Bedell, Robberse and Kloffenstein will likely be added this offseason; and Michael McGreevy, Gordon Graceffo, and a host of potential quick-movers could enter the fray at some point in the middle of next season. There’s depth and youth, but no proven, top-of-the-rotation type in the fold right now; Tink Hence (whose per-outing workload has grown of late) and a healthy Roby are now the two most likely candidates to provide that from within over the next few seasons.

Before this flurry of moves, including the Genesis Cabrera trade, the 24th-ranked Cardinals lined up roughly two standard deviations below the estimated quality of the average farm system; they are now roughly one standard deviation below the average. They only moved up a couple of spots in the ordinal rankings, but the more important takeaway is that they moved up a tier into a cluster of 40-grade farm systems. I think it’s fair to include the grads and consider the Cards to have a roughly average contingent of young players, overall.

More objectively, I asked Dan to give us a ZiPS snapshot for what the 2024 NL Central looks like with the rosters as they’re currently constituted. Things look like they’ll be tight — light on talent but high on drama.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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sadtrombonemember
8 months ago

The Cardinals did very well here. The return looks a little light in FV terms because they’re a lot of pitchers and Eric typically has pitchers about a half-grade below others. That mostly makes sense because the attrition rate is so high. But ironically that same attrition rate makes teams absolutely loathe to trade pitching prospects. It’s expensive to get them in free agency and you’re nearly guaranteed to lose some of them, so most teams hoard them. So to get three pitchers who are getting outs in AA (or in Roby’s case, got outs) is not a small feat. Roby has a high ceiling, and the other two look like they can get you through the grind of the regular season. And they did it by trading only expiring deals.

I’m less excited about Saggese than Eric’s source here. Hitting a lot of homers and running a high BABIP in the Texas League isn’t exactly hard, his defense is fringy, and he strikes out a little more than I’m comfortable with. But the Cardinals have a soft spot for this type, so it’s not surprising they wanted him.

formerly matt w
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The “very old school baseball vibe” line sure made him sound Cardinalsy.