Oscar Taveras heads a talented group of Cardinals prospects as the minor league season begins. (Mark Harrell)

By Rob Rains

The Cardinals will open the regular season Monday night in Phoenix with 17 of the 25 players on their roster having been drafted or signed as international free agents and developed in the St. Louis farm system.

This total will include six of the eight projected position player starters, with only Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran not original Cardinals. So too is starter pitcher Adam Wainwright, but he was acquired in a minor-league deal and admits he would never have had the chance to sign the contract he did this week without the instruction he received in the St. Louis organization.

The only three players on the roster signed as free agents were Beltran and two added this winter, left-handed reliever Randy Choate and backup infielder Ty Wigginton. The other three players acquired in trades were Jake Westbrook, Marc Rzepczynski and Edward Mujica. The rest are all original Cardinals.

Three of the team’s most-hyped prospects in recent years, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal, will be in uniform on Monday and likely for some time to come.
The good news for the Cardinals is that the pipeline does not appear to be in danger of running dry anytime soon.

The publication which studies the minor leagues and prospects the most, Baseball America, recently ranked the Cardinals as the best farm system in baseball.
With Miller, Rosenthal and Adams now in the majors, it is time, following spring training, to re-stack the list of the Cardinals top 10 prospects who will start this season in the minor leagues. These rankings are only for players, other than Carlos Martinez, who played in at least one game with the major-league team this spring:

1. Oscar Taveras. All the hype is legitimate and when Taveras does get to St. Louis it will be as a starting outfielder, not a bench player. It is important to remember he will not celebrate his 21st birthday until June. The Cardinals want him to play left field some in Memphis, which they consider his weakest of the three outfield spots, to improve his versatility when he does get to the major leagues – which will be this September at the latest, earlier if there is an injury to one of the three current starting outfielders.

2. Michael Wacha. Easily the story of the spring, the Cardinals knew from last season that they had a potential top of the rotation starter in Wacha, but that feeling was reinforced watching the 21-year-old right-hander repeatedly dazzle major-league hitters this spring, not allowing an earned run. He will open the year in Memphis, a level higher than expected, and probably will join Taveras as a September call-up if not needed sooner.

3. Carlos Martinez. Even though he never threw a pitch in spring training, at either the major-league or minor-league level because of visa issues, it is hard to rank Martinez any lower than third. He will work out in extended spring training, then join Double A Springfield, where he made 14 starts last year. He will not be 22 years old until September.

4. Kolten Wong. The first-round draft pick from 2011 will be the starting second baseman at Memphis and figures to make the competition at second base next spring even more competitive. In his year and a half in the minors, Wong already has won two league championships and posted a combined .300 average. He will turn 23 in October and probably will be a September call-up as well.

5. Seth Maness. The organization’s minor-league pitcher of the year for 2012 opened a lot of eyes this spring, convincing the Cardinals he is more than just a finesse, control pitcher as his career totals of 15 walks in 222 innings might indicate. He will start the year in Memphis, and the 24-year-old right-hander, the Cardinals’ 11th round pick in the 2011 draft, will be right behind Wacha in the starting rotation.

6. Carson Kelly. He will not turn 19 until this summer and begins April in extended spring training, but the Cardinals were very impressed this spring with their second-round pick from last year’s draft. The third baseman was called over from the minors to play in several major-league games, giving him greater exposure to manager Mike Matheny and the coaching staff. He likely will play in short-season State College but could be moved to a full season Class A team before the end of the year.

7. Greg Garcia. For all of the talk this spring about the lack of shortstop prospects in the organization, Garcia played like a prospect this spring. Wong’s former double play partner at Hawaii and last year, Garcia will play at Memphis and already has convinced the Cardinals he can play the position defensively in the majors. Now 23, the seventh-round pick in 2010 hit just .214 this spring but hit .284 at Springfield last year and produced offensive numbers very similar to Wong.

8. Patrick Wisdom. Another third baseman selected high last year from a small college in California (the 52nd overall pick in the draft), the Cardinals have been impressed by his performance thus far, especially defensively. Like Kelly he was called over from the minors to play in several major-league games. He will turn 22 in August and will begin this year at Class A Peoria.

9. Tyler Lyons. A third member of the Memphis rotation this season to make this list, Lyons has a little shorter leash to see if he can pitch in the majors. Now 25, the former Oklahoma State pitcher did show some skills to the Cardinals this spring, and with the shortage of left-hander pitchers in the organization, his progress will be closely monitored this season.

10. C.J. McElroy. The Cardinals have been impressed by how much progress the 19-year-old outfielder has made in a year’s time after hitting .271 with 24 stolen bases at Johnson City last year. He is learning to switch hit so he can bat left-handed and will be working on that in extended spring training. He is probably headed to either State College or Johnson City when those teams begin play in June.

Cardinals payroll increases

The Cardinals will open this season with a payroll of about $116 million, a record for the franchise and about $5 million more than in 2012.

Included in that total is $20 million being paid to Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal, neither of whom is expected to play this year because of injuries. The Cardinals will get some financial relief from those contracts through insurance, recovering probably about half of what they will pay out, not only in salary but the added cost of having to purchase the insurance.

Going forward, however, it is possible the Cardinals’ payroll could decline for next season with those two contracts coming off the books, plus the $13 million for Beltran and perhaps the $8.75 million due to Westbrook if the team declines to pick up his option, which would cost them a $1 million buyout.

Around the majors

The Brewers signing of Kyle Lohse means that they will not pick until the 54th spot in the June amateur draft, making them the last team to get a selection. The Cardinals’ first three picks will be the 19th, 28th (the compensation pick for Lohse) and 57th overall selections … Bryce Harper of the Nationals finished the spring with a .478 average, beating out Shane Robinson of the Cardinals (.438) for the Grapefruit League batting title … Justin Upton of the Braves led all Florida players with 19 RBIs (Matt Adams had 17 to lead the Cardinals) and Ryan Howard of the Phillies was one of four players who hit seven home runs … In another example that spring training stats do not mean a whole lot, however, Yuniesky Betancourt was released by the Phillies after hitting .446 … The best pitchers in Florida this spring were Julio Teheran of the Braves, who allowed only seven hits in 26 innings, and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox. Lester had a 0.75 ERA, allowing just eight hits and four walks in 24 innings, and Buchholz had a 0.79 ERA … The Cleveland Indians will open the regular season with a new manager, Terry Francona, and 16 players who were not on the Indians’ opening day roster last year. Eleven of those players are new to the organization … The Yankees paid a $100,000 roster bonus to outfielder Juan Rivera for being on the roster at the end of spring training, then cut him two days later … It will be interesting to see how many additional home runs are hit at Safeco Field in Seattle this year, where the outfield fences have been moved in. The wall in the left center power alley was moved the most, 17 feet, from 390 to 373 feet.