Harrison Bader, having a big season at Memphis, heads the list of an increasingly impressive group of young outfielders in the Cardinals' farm system. (Memphis Redbirds)

By Rob Rains

For years the strength of the Cardinals’ farm system has been the depth of starting pitching, beginning with Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty and including promising prospects at every level from Triple A down to rookie ball.

While that hasn’t changed, the group of young outfielders assembled by the Cardinals the last couple of years has closed the talent gap that existed between the pitchers and position players in the organization.

The success 21-year-old Magneuris Sierra has had in his brief exposure at the major-league level might be only the start of contributions this group of players could make in the next few years.

No doubt, the success of players such as Harrison Bader and Adolis Garcia for Triple A Memphis and Oscar Mercado, Randy Arozarena and Anthony Garcia at Double A Springfield this season has given the Cardinals more potential chips to use in trade discussions leading up to the July 31 deadline.

That group does not even include three 18-year-old players farther down in the farm system – Dylan Carlson at Peoria and Terry Fuller, selected in last month’s draft, and Jonatan Macado at the Gulf Coast League Cardinals – or Scott Hurst, the team’s top pick in this year’s draft, playing at State College.

“We’ve got some exciting guys,” said Mark DeJohn, the organization’s field coordinator.

The outfielder who might be the most ready for a promotion to the majors is Bader, who turned 23 last month and has hit 18 homers to go with a .298 average in 91 games at Memphis.

What is working against Bader’s arrival in the majors, however, is the fact that since this is only his third season in the organization, he won’t have to be protected on the team’s 40-man roster until after the 2018 season. As was the case with Sierra, the Cardinals are reluctant to promote a young player just to have him sit on the bench when he could be playing every day in the minors.

It would seem the most likely scenario for Bader to reach the majors this season would be a trade involving one of the current outfielders on the major-league roster, or another long-term injury. Sierra got his latest chance because of injuries that sent Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to the disabled list.

Bader, who also was impressive in spring training with the Cardinals, says he tries not to think about the fact he could be only one phone call away from making his major-league debut.

“When you first get drafted and get to A ball you never think about that, so if you didn’t think about it then why stress about it now?” Bader said. “You have to play where your feet are; that’s the best advice I’ve heard. All of that stuff tends to take care of itself, but it’s not going to take care of itself if you don’t perform where you are.

“Those kinds of things (promotions) are things I don’t control. What I can control on a daily basis is my attitude and effort.”

Bader believes he has benefited from a brief exposure at Triple A last season, promoted from Double A near the end of the season. He hit just .231 in 49 games and immediately realized what he needed to work on if he wanted to become successful at that level.

“I did some things OK but overall as a body of work I struggled,” Bader said. “I took that into the offseason and busted my butt. You have to prove yourself. In Triple A you get a lot of guys who have pitched in the big leagues already and their experience trumped mine when I got here last year.

“I want to pride myself on the fact that the game is always evolving and changing and I want to change with it. If pitchers are working you a certain way understand it and come up with a new plan. Even in college that was an adjustment to make and in pro ball it’s the same thing. I’m always trying to gather as much information as I can and the biggest thing I kind of live by is, ‘don’t get bitter, get better.’ If you have a bad series take it as a learning experience and bounce back.”

Perhaps no outfielder in the Cardinals’ system has had more to learn this year than Adolis Garcia, signed after he left Cuba right at the start of spring training. That education was just as much about off-the-field knowledge as it was about what was happening in the games during the first half of the season when he was playing at Springfield.

Since being promoted to Memphis, the 24-year-old Garcia has posted a .386 average in his first 17 games.

“He’s an athletic kid, he’s strong, he runs well and he throws well,” DeJohn said. “He took a little time to catch up to the league (in Springfield) which was expected and then he took off.”

The outfielder who might have made more progress this season than anybody in the farm system is Mercado, a former second-round draft pick as a shortstop coming out of high school in Florida who was converted to the outfield last season at Palm Beach.

Even though is still only 22, Mercado had kind of become an after-thought in the farm system, but his big season – 8 homers, 29 RBIs, a .307 average and 29 stolen bases in 80 games as well as playing very well defensively – has definitely elevated his status, DeJohn said.

“I think not playing shortstop is a big weight off his shoulders,” DeJohn said. “It’s a big relief to him. Some of the teams which were going to draft him out of high school thought he would end up in the outfield. He’s had a better hitting approach, he’s been more selective and he’s got some confidence.”

DeJohn actually sees a comparison between Mercado and Tommy Pham, who has been one of the best success stories of the season so far for the Cardinals.

Pham never hit higher than .231 in his first three seasons in pro ball, and he also started out as a shortstop before moving to the outfield.

“I had Tommy in Batavia and he was struggling to hit .215,” DeJohn said. “He got so mad all the time. But he worked hard and he played hard.

“When you have speed in the outfield if you work at it you can improve your instincts, your reads and jumps. Nobody had a better work ethic in the outfield than Tommy. We go around and talk about guys like Tommy with the young players.

“Oscar has been a real surprise. He’s put himself back on the map big time. He’s done a great job.”

One outfielder who is still flying under the radar, perhaps because he is a little older, is Nick Martini at Memphis. A former seventh-round draft pick who is now 27, Martini has hit .318 in 59 games for the Redbirds. His age keeps him from being listed as a top prospect, but won’t by itself keep him out of the majors.

“His career started slow but he plays solid baseball and goes unnoticed,” DeJohn said.

DeJohn also is on high on Arozarena, 22, another player the Cardinals signed out of Cuba, who has ht ,273 in Springfield since moving up from Palm Beach.

Like Mercado, Anthony Garcia – dropped from the 40-man roster earlier this season – has played his way back into prospect status. The 25-year-old Garcia hit his team-leading 15th homer on Tuesday night and is tied for third in homers in the Texas League to go with a .287 average.

“He’s done what he needed to do here,” said DeJohn, who spent the weekend in Springfield. “He’s doing the things here that he should have been doing at Memphis, using the whole field and driving the ball. He’s playing harder, and obviously he needed to do that.”

How many of those outfielders end up playing in St. Louis – or perhaps for other teams – remains to be seen.

“It’s good for the organization,” DeJohn said. “My own personal belief is that the minor leagues are there to feed your own organization and also maybe to help you acquire players you might need. It’s an opportunity, and that’s what we tell guys, to either play in St. Louis or to play someplace else.”

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