photo: Harrison Bader (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
The 2018 St. Louis Cardinals clearly benefited from the fruits of their farm system, including bringing up nine players who made their MLB debuts and deploying 16 rookies overall.
However, selecting the top first-year player from among the ranks was relatively straight forward. The focus is on four rookies who were with the club the longest and appeared most often as the seasons turned from summer to fall.
Let’s review the four finalists in inverse order, with our winner last.
Newcomer Yairo Muñoz made the club out of spring training after joining the organization in the Stephen Piscotty trade last with Oakland December. Playing all over the field, the 23-year old amassed 293 at-bats over 108 games.
The right-handed hitter spent just over one month with Memphis – from mid-April to mid-May, but otherwise was with St. Louis all season. Though Muñoz drew come criticism for his defense, he was asked to play six different positions, including second, short, third and all three outfield spots.
Jordan Hicks was a surprise to make the team out of spring training and went on to be the only rookie to stay with St. Louis from beginning to end. Despite having no regular season playing experience above high-A and a very limited time as a reliever, the right-hander’s 100-plus mile per hour fastball proved too valuable for the Cardinals to pass up.
It was an amazing rebound, as Hicks had been the first player cut from camp, reportedly due to punctuality issues, only to be recalled from the minors during the final week of March.
As was the case for fellow rookie Harrison Bader, Hicks’ performance with St. Louis earned him more and more responsibility to the point the now-22-year old became the top set-up man for closer Bud Norris, then late in the season, behind Carlos Martinez.
The top pitching prospect in the system not named Alex Reyes, Jack Flaherty, was the organization’s reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2017 and made his MLB debut that September, appearing in six games, including five starts.
As Adam Wainwright’s 2018 turned into a year of injury and misfortune, Flaherty was the primary beneficiary.
Midway through 2018 spring training, there seemed no room for the right-hander in St. Louis, so Flaherty was sent to minor league camp. However, as Wainwright headed for what would be his first of three disabled list stops, Flaherty was recalled from the back fields and given the start in St. Louis’ fifth game of the season. Following his five-inning, one run outing, he was optioned out as Wainwright was activated.
Flaherty returned from Memphis to make another spot start on April 28 at Pittsburgh, again filling in for Wainwright, who went back on the DL. Though he was returned to Triple-A afterward, Flaherty returned to St. Louis for good on May 15, when – you guessed it – Wainwright went on the shelf for a third time.
Flaherty had logged a 2.21 ERA in five starts while fanning 41 in 31 2/3 innings for the Redbirds, results which are not considered for this award.
With the former ace out for an extended period, Flaherty was able to start every fifth day and soon solidified his rotation spot. He went on to make a total of 28 starts for St. Louis in his rookie season.
Outfielder Harrison Bader was the organization’s minor league Player of the Year in 2017. That season, the now-24-year old played in 32 games for the St. Louis, retaining his rookie eligibility. Though the right-handed hitter did not make the big-league roster out of spring camp, an injury to Jedd Gyorko in the first series of the regular season enabled Bader to join St. Louis before Memphis played its first game. He remained the rest of the way.
As Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham struggled, Bader earned more time and performed aggressively well – in the field, at the plate and on the bases – becoming a spark the Cardinals lineup had lacked for a long time. As Pham was traded in July and Fowler injured for the season, Bader took over in center field and did not look back. He appeared in 138 games, taking 379 at-bats.
Bader led both the Cardinals team and all National League rookies with 17 stolen bases despite usually hitting seventh or eighth in the order. According to Statcast, Bader tied for the MLB lead (not just rookies) in recording 21 Outs Above Average and was tops in five-star catches, those with less than 25 percent probability, with seven.
Bader topped all Cardinals rookies with his 3.5 fWAR, cementing his selection as The Cardinal Nation Rookie of the Year for 2018.
In fact, in any other year – without Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña – Bader or Flaherty might win the NL Rookie of the Year award. As it is, the two of them, along with Hicks, should still receive votes in a process in which just three rookies can be named per ballot.
Here are some of the key stats of our four finalists.
You may note that offensively, Bader and Muñoz had a comparable season, with Bader’s huge edge entirely due to his defense.
Reliever Hicks’ fWAR was considerably lower than starter Flaherty’s. Hicks’ ground ball rate is impressive, but the free pass rate is not.
Other Cardinals rookies
A number of other rookies contributed to the 2018 Cardinals, specifically the following dozen – six pitchers and six position players.
Here are their comparable numbers.
Along with O’Neill’s credible debut, take note of Wisdom’s good performance, albeit in limited action.
Sometime-starters Gomber and Poncedeleon delivered a higher fWAR than reliever Hicks. All of the first-year hurlers need to focus on reducing walks, especially Hudson. As good as the latter’s ground ball rate was, Hicks’ was almost identical.
Prior years’ winners
Our honorees over the recent years follow.
|TCN Rookie of the Year|
These winners are also permanently recorded under “SEASON RECAPS/TOP PLAYERS,” located on the left red menu bar here at The Cardinal Nation.
Link to master article with all 2018 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Next up will be our St. Louis Pitchers and Players of the Year.
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