photo: Luken Baker (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
FREE article. The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown for 2019 continues into the top 15 with an early 2018 draftee who may be St. Louis’ best first base prospect since Matt Adams.
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Link to Luken Baker’s player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
Selected 2018 stats
TCN Scouting Grade: 6, Risk: medium (click here to review scales)
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (17): Luken Baker was St. Louis’ second round draft pick, awarded to them as compensation for Lance Lynn. Baker was rated slightly lower during the community vote than the other votes cast here, ultimately landing at #17. 14NyquisT was the first to put Baker on the ballot, picking him at #8.
SoonerinNC compared Baker to former Cardinals’ first base prospect, Luke Voit, saying that Baker could be the better hitter, but he will have to watch his weight. 14NyquisT said that Baker has a high ceiling of potential as a prospect and could make his way to Double-A Springfield in 2019. Bw52 liked that Baker hit over .300 coming off serious injury in which he fractured his left fibula and tore a ligament in his ankle sliding during an April game with his former collegiate team, TCU. Wiley stated that the last behemoth of a player the Cardinals had like Baker was Matt Adams, but Baker can hit for a better average. Stlcard25 believes that Baker has 30+ home run potential. – Jeremy Byrd
Derek Shore (17): The Cardinals selected Baker with their remaining second round pick on Day 1 of their thunderous 2018 draft class that also included precocious high school power-hitting phenom Nolan Gorman.
A two-way star in high school, Baker lived up to expectations at TCU, when healthy. However, his career has been marred by a number of freak injuries.
Baker’s sophomore season ended early when he injured his arm and elbow in a collision at first base and he needed surgery to repair his elbow. As a junior, he missed a couple of games after he took a bad hop off his eye, then had his season end prematurely when he broke his left fibula sliding into second base.
Baker began his TCU career as a two-way player, but he gave up pitching as a sophomore for good reason.
The 6-foot-4 first baseman, who hit .347 in 145 career games for the Horned Frogs, slugged 28 home runs and drove in 129 runs in his three years with the program. A prolific home run hitter, Baker hit a home run every 12.6 at-bats his junior year and once every 18 at-bats throughout his college career.
Baker officially signed with the Cardinals on June 13, inking a $800,000 signing bonus.
“Baker is an impressive player, and we didn’t think we would have the chance to draft a high-caliber player like him at that spot,” Cardinals scouting director Randy Flores said. “He’s proven himself at a high level and we admire his resiliency.”
Once he was deemed healthy and ready to play, Baker started his pro career with the GCL Cardinals, where he hit .500 (12-for-24) in eight games. He was then promoted to Low-A Peoria on July 21 and was a key component in the Chiefs’ playoff push, batting .288/.359/.417 with 12 extra-base hits and 15 RBI in 37 games down the stretch.
His performance caught the eye of his new skipper.
“I saw a guy that had outstanding attributes,” Peoria manager Chris Swauger said. “How hard he hits the ball. He is a guy with a very advanced approach coming out of a major college program. I think we saw an improvement in his athleticism around the bases and at first coming off that injury he suffered in college.
“He was productive and he helped us out a lot. More importantly for his own development, we were able to identify some things that he can work on and become a true asset for our organization.”
From a scouting perspective, Baker has a long track record of performing when healthy. He walked more than he struck out at TCU and tapped into much of his top-of-the-scale power potential.
Some scouts feel his best position is as a designated hitter in the American League, but he has shown he has the physical abilities needed to profile at first base.
“I was actually impressed with his athleticism, his general agility,” Swauger said. “Most guys that are that size are kind of lumbering.”
Baker should open next year at either High-A Palm Beach or Double-A Springfield.
Brian Walton (15): Baker is a very large man and may offer the Cardinals their best home-grown power threat at first base since Matt Adams, who was drafted almost a decade ago. My most-optimistic vote of no. 15 among our voters reflects this.
However, while Adams was a long-shot 23rd-rounder, Baker was taken 75th overall. That pick was St. Louis’ compensation for the loss of free agent Lance Lynn, a decision that backfired on the right-hander when he could not find a multi-year contract, but one that looks to have come out just fine for St. Louis. The Cardinals had forfeited their regular second-rounder, 59th overall, when signing free agent closer Greg Holland.
While Baker’s injury history at Texas Christian is of concern, it is a two-edged sword. Had his slate been clean, he would have been off the board much sooner than no. 75 and likely with another organization instead.
Baker knew his background affected his perceived value, but still decided to sign rather than return to school for his senior year.
“There were some teams that had lost a little bit of interest after I broke my leg, especially early on the draft,” Baker said. “So I am really thankful that the Cardinals weren’t one of those teams and I am happy to be here.”
Despite having leverage in the negotiations as a junior, it was not a difficult negotiation. Baker was among the Cardinals’ first wave of signings, receiving $400 over slot, making his bonus an even $800,000.
“They said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a Cardinal?’, Baker recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, sign me up. That was it.’”
Though clearly a power threat, Baker is different in that he walked as often as he struck out in college. In his initial professional season, the split was not quite as good, with 19 free passes against 35 strikeouts.
I asked Baker if pitchers were pitching around him or it is an indicator of a superior batting eye.
“It was a little bit of both,” he replied. “Every once in a while, I would not get much to hit. A lot of the time, pitchers try to make pitchers’ pitches and try to get you to chase pitches just off the plate. I’ve always done a pretty good job of not chasing after those and getting into favorable counts.”
Baker’s general approach as a hitter is not complicated.
“The goal for me as a hitter is to hit the ball hard and hit it where they’re not,” he said.
In the past, the Cardinals’ philosophy about first base seemed to be to not draft players there, and fill the position with hitters who could not make it defensively at their prior position. A prime candidate from which to source them is third base, though some outfielders have moved in, as well.
Just to illustrate how rare it is for the Cardinals to take a first baseman this early, the last time it occurred was in 2004, when St. Louis drafted Mike Ferris of Miami of Ohio in the second round, 60th overall. Ferris eventually topped out at Triple-A, never reaching the majors.
Of course, expectations are greater for Baker. Without being blatant about it, he understands the end goal is St. Louis.
“I feel like the ability I have will help me move up in this organization and ultimately help it out,” Baker said.
His scouting grade of “6 medium” indicates a ceiling as an above-average MLB starter with moderate work required to get there
Given there is no real competition ahead of Baker at first, a jump to Springfield seems quite possible. Examples of recent early-drafted players to do that include Harrison Bader and Paul DeJong. Even if Baker starts at Palm Beach, I would not expect him to be in the Florida State League too long.
Our 2019 top 50 series continues
To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the top 50 countdown and 10 in-depth, follow-up articles coming up next. Most of them are exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation. If you are not a member, join today so you do not miss out!
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