photo: Justin Williams (Frank Ramirez/The Cardinal Nation)
The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown moves into the top 15 with a left-handed hitting outfielder who struggled through an injury-plagued 2019 before posting strong results in August. FREE article.
|2019 rank||Pos.||DOB||Ht.||Wt.||Bat||Thw||Signed||Round||R5/Opt||MLB debut|
|24||OF||8 20 95||6-2||215||L||R||2013||2nd (Ari)||1||2018|
Link to Justin Williams’ player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
Selected 2019 stats
TCN Scouting Grade: 5, Risk: medium (click here to review scales)
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (14): Williams made great strides on the field during the 2019 season and also in the community rankings, from #24 last season to his present #14 spot. He made the same stride on the TCN aggregate ranking, improving from #24 to #15.
Bicyclemike wrote, “I am not a prospect list-maker, as I do not follow these guys close enough to know. But I love reading the bios on here and learning about the guys coming through the system. (It is) good to see people impressed with Williams. I liked his potential when the Cards got him. Williams could factor into a spot on the 2020 big league roster.”
stlcard25 has a mixed view. “He was excellent at the end of the season, but the injury that caused him to miss the start of the year is a bit concerning. All Triple-A stats come with a grain of salt this year, so it is possible he is more the guy we saw in 2018 than this year. If that’s the case he may have a niche as a lefty 4th outfielder type.”
Grenadier1 wrote, “Has been well above average at every level with the exception of 2019. Showed glimpses at the end of the year of returning to that form by punishing Triple-A pitching. It would be handy to have another capable left handed option in the lineup or even on the bench. Still a lot of upside as he was three years younger than the league average for Triple-A.”
NigelT is frustrated. “It is amusing how the wealth of set starters and depth make this whole process so frustrating. I can’t think of a single outfielder signed or traded so far that I would rather have than Justin Williams, and he is little more than an afterthought.” – John Baker
Derek Shore (14): Williams had an injury-plagued first full season with the Cardinals, but when he was healthy, he was surprisingly productive.
Acquired in the Tommy Pham trade in July 2018, Williams had three different stints on the injured list this past season, missing nearly three months. He missed the first month of the season recovering from a fractured hand after he punched a television in the offseason and also missed a month due to an unspecified lower-body injury.
It’s unknown if he went on the IL for a third time because of the same leg injury. Through 53 games overall in 2019, the 24-year-old slashed .296/.372/.484 with eight homers and 29 RBIs between Triple-A Memphis and Double-A Springfield, but it is the finish to his season that caught the organization’s attention.
Despite all the injuries, Williams came back to Memphis and hit .353 with nine extra-base hits (four doubles and five homers) while driving in 21 runs in August. He finished with a 1.011 OPS in that month.
From a scouting standpoint, Williams’ left-handed power and athleticism intrigues, but he is still raw. He takes defensive, segmented swings and the Cardinals see him as a swing-change candidate. He flashes plus raw power, and the hope is a swing change can unlock that in games.
Williams’ jumps and instincts come and go in right field, but he works hard and has the plus arm for the position. He’s a fringe-average runner so he’s mostly limited to the corners, although he can cover center in a pinch.
The Cardinals likely have a fourth outfielder in Williams with left-handed power and ability to move around the outfield. If he continues to work on his swing, he may be more.
Williams certainly belongs in the conversation of outfielders competing in spring training with Harrison Bader, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena and Dylan Carlson.
Expect to see Williams back at Memphis to open 2020, but if he performs like he did in the final month of 2019, he may not be long for Triple-A.
Brian Walton (19): From among our three voters, I am the least optimistic about Williams as a prospect – and I am ok with that. Through this capsule, I will explain why we really don’t know all that much more about Williams than we did 12 months ago.
Going back to July 2018, Williams appeared to be the top get of the three prospects the Cardinals received from Tampa Bay for a full-time MLB starter, Tommy Pham. Just days before, Williams had been a Triple-A All-Star for Durham and made his MLB debut with the Rays (albeit brief). He offered tantalizing power potential while swinging from the left side, with the latter a stated desire of the Cardinals.
It looked like a great fit, but hasn’t turned out that way – at least yet.
Now, with 2020 upon us, the team is still searching for left-handed hitting externally as Williams essentially ruined his 2019 opportunity to make an impact for a Cardinals team that needed outfield help. The big league club gave chances to Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena and even infielder Tommy Edman in the outfield, while Williams was either on the injured list, rehabbing or trying to get his mojo back in the minors.
There is no need to dwell on his unfortunate winter of 2018-2019 injury other than it added new questions about his maturity and commitment to the game. The on-field impact was the loss of his important first big-league camp as a Cardinal and a delay to the start of his season until May.
Williams had to backtrack to Springfield, playing less than three weeks while looking very rusty (.196 BA, .529 OPS) before going back on the shelf for another month. As the calendar flipped to July, Williams was finally promoted back to Memphis, where just a week later, he returned to the injured list for the remainder of the month.
Finally able to play every day in August, Williams delivered, with the stats noted above plus a system-best (tied) 21 RBI in his 27 games. Then again, we all know about the impact of the lower-seam MLB baseballs, both at the big-league level and at Triple-A.
In fact, pretty much everyone wearing a Memphis uniform in August hit with authority, as the club made its late-season run that fell just short of a miraculous comeback in the standings.
Here are nine Redbirds OPSes from that same period during which Williams excelled.
Harrison Bader 1.165
Adolis Garcia 1.160
Dylan Carlson 1.098
Randy Arozarena 1.053
Andrew Knizner 1.005
John Nogowski .954
Ramon Urias .912
Edmundo Sosa .894
So, as good as Williams’ August OPS was, it was still just the fifth-highest among Memphis outfielders during that time.
To help make up for lost at-bats, Williams continued his 2019 by playing in winter ball in Mexico. Against pitching that is not of Triple-A caliber, in my opinion, Williams had a so-so .747 OPS and 17 RBI in 31 games.
The comments about Williams still being “raw” and relatively young concern me. After all, he is heading into his eighth season of professional ball, including what should be his third year at Triple-A. In my opinion, it is time to stop talking about potential and adjustments and time to deliver results.
Another indication that time is running out on Williams is his minor league option status. He has just one remaining, meaning that he is going to have to stake out an MLB job no later than spring 2021 or lose his 40-man roster spot. From there, the downside could be the less-than-glamorous life of a Triple-A vagabond.
While quotes from organization officials are always interesting, it can be very difficult to get candid opinions, especially when a player’s situation is uncertain. So, I tend to look more closely at their actions.
In this case, the indications are not so positive. Despite that great August and his left-handedness, Williams was one of just three healthy 40-man roster players passed over for promotion to St. Louis last September. Further, remember that Lane Thomas was out for the year, at least theoretically creating more opportunity.
Looking ahead to spring 2020, I fear that both Williams and Adolis Garcia may find it quite difficult to get enough game at-bats to prove anything, especially given the sheer quantity of outfielders ahead of them in the pecking order to sort through.
For me, the situation was aptly summarized by a scout’s reaction when I asked him this fall about Williams. “From what I see, I want to like him, but was his August real?” the evaluator wondered.
For the second consecutive year, I have Williams’ scouting grade at “4.5 medium”, between a bench contributor and an average starter, with some work yet ahead to achieve it. Based on his mostly lost 2019, that may be optimistic, but again, “Was his August real?” We certainly cannot rule it out.
Our 2020 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 11 in-depth, follow-up articles coming up at the rate of one article per day into January.
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