photo: Kodi Whitley (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown moves into the top 20 with a fast-rising, hard-throwing relief prospect who may make his MLB debut in 2020. FREE article.
|2019 rank||Pos.||DOB||Ht.||Wt.||Bat||Thw||Signed||Round||R5/Opt||MLB debut|
|NR||RHR||2 21 95||6-4||220||R||R||2017||27th||2020||2020|
Link to Kodi Whitley’s player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
Selected 2019 stats
TCN Scouting Grade: 4.5, Risk: medium (click here to review scales)
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (20): No player has burst onto the prospect rankings this year like Whitley, at #20 on the Community’s list as well as overall. Despite being selected by TCN as low-A Peoria’s Reliever of the Year in 2018, Whitley got little attention on last year’s prospect lists.
gscottar said, “To go from Peoria to Memphis within 12 months is very impressive. Whitley really burst onto the scene in a big way in 2019, which is a good thing considering he is 24. He might press for time in St. Louis in 2020.”
CardsFanInChiTown had more praise for Whitley. “Great bullpen arm and could be a huge add to the pen in 2020, likely one of the famous non-trade additions that Mo adds around the trade deadline. The K % was in double digits and the BB % got better as he progressed this year. There isn’t much not to like here and he should possibly be much higher.”
mudville predicted, “This kid has been lights out as a reliever through three levels all season long. He’s almost a ‘can’t miss’ MLB bullpen guy”. He could be just the reliever that the organization is looking for and we should watch to see how the Whitley saga plays out in 2020. – John Baker
Derek Shore (18): Tommy John surgery has proven to be high-risk, high-reward for some pitchers, who return with even better stuff post-surgery.
Whitley injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John during his junior year at Mount Olive in North Carolina. He came back in the spring of 2017 for a very brief senior season, but his fastball velocity was back.
He touched 95 mph and with potential for more in the tank.
That was enough for the Cardinals to select him in the 27th round of the 2017 draft and he has taken off since.
Whitley moved through the Cardinals system quickly – already reaching Triple-A Memphis in just his second full season of pro ball.
As he continued to get healthier, Whitley experienced a four-to-five mph jump in his velocity, going from 92 to hitting 96-97 routinely. He attributed the spike in velocity to fine-tuning his mechanics with his Peoria pitching coach Cale Johnson in 2018.
Whitley said he shortened up his arm and used more of his lower half in his delivery, which allowed him to be on time more often than not.
The 24-year old opened 2019 at High-A Palm Beach, and after three scoreless appearances, he was promoted to Double-A Springfield on April 12.
With the S-Cards, Whitley forged a minuscule 1.83 ERA in 31 games. He also struck out 46 batters over 39 1/3 innings and converted seven saves in nine chances.
Whitley received the promotion to Memphis on July 20 after mastering the Texas League. At Triple-A, he was terrific with a 1.52 ERA through 16 games.
Springfield manager Joe Kruzel said the biggest thing that stood out about Whitley is that he is a competitor and trusts his stuff.
“He has got two, maybe even three, really good pitches,” Kruzel said. “He has got the ability to throw three pitches for a strike at any time in any count. He has a lot of faith in all of them.”
Whitley took yet another step forward in 2019. His ERA is down nearly a full point from the year before. His strikeout rate was up and his walk rate dropped. Whitley said trusting his stuff and not giving the opposition too much credit are reasons for his increased success.
“Somebody said this to me in spring training and it really stuck with me, ‘Trust your stuff in the zone,’” Whitley said. “The more I started doing that, no matter what level, the better the results. You’re not working back behind in counts. You’re staying ahead because you are trusting your stuff in the zone early.
“Late in counts, you are putting hitters on the defense instead of you being on the defense. That makes a huge difference in terms of getting strikeouts and not giving up hits and runs. That is one of the things I have really tried to do this year is get ahead more and throw more strikes.”
His improvements have also piqued the interest of other organizations’ scouts.
“I like him and I think he is a sleeper,” one scout said. “When I saw him last year, I thought he was as an organizational type. I believe he is one of the more improved players in their system this year.”
Whitley’s four-seam fastball grades out as an above-average offering by scouts. The heater touches 96-97 and the pitcher says that it is his best pitch.
“I use it to get ahead and use it late in counts – up in the zone to strike guys out,” Whitley said.
He also has a slider he creates depth with and has enough command with his changeup to set up his fastball and make it that much more effective.
Whitley said he worked diligently to refine his slider in 2018 and started to show progress in 2019.
“This year, it has gotten better,” he said. “I’m still working on it. I’m still trying to make it the best pitch that it can be. That is probably my second best pitch. I also have a changeup I will use to lefties and I’ve been trying to use to righties as well. The more I throw it to righties, the more comfortable I get.
“I feel like it is a good pitch and it can still be used. Just in different situations.”
Scouts say he has the potential to be a middle relief arm at the major league level.
Whitley should enter the Cardinals 2020 relief plans next season, but expect to see him open at Memphis initially.
Brian Walton (23): As I have mentioned before, I look at player groupings within position before finalizing my top 50. Among those prospects who are clearly relievers, Junior Fernandez is the undisputed top dog. From there, it is a considerable gap to the next two – Whitley and Seth Elledge. (Following them are Edgar Escobar and Bryan Dobzanski.)
In the site’s overall rankings, the difference between Whitley and Elledge is a significant 11 spots – no. 20 vs. no. 31. My peer voters had 14 and 15 spots, respectively, between the two. I don’t agree. I pegged the relievers just three places apart – no. 23 vs. no. 26.
The main reason I gave Whitley the slight edge is due to his recent numbers. He blew though Palm Beach, dominated at Springfield and reached Memphis on July 20, where he remained for the rest of the 2019 season. This was an impressive rise in a very short period of time.
On the other hand, Elledge has the pedigree of a former fourth-rounder, acquired from Seattle for a major league reliever, Sam Tuivailala. Just a few months after the July 2018 trade, he was promoted to Memphis, where he pitched in the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
Both are big men, with Whitley listed at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and Elledge an inch shorter, but 25 pounds heavier. Though both were drafted in 2017, Elledge is 15 months younger. Their offerings are comparable, though Whitley’s fastball is a tick better, a decided factor in his favor.
While their respective Triple-A batting average against marks were an identical .233, Whitley had a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, and a lower ERA and FIP. However, the gap between Whitley’s FIP and xFIP (Expected FIP) was very large, 2.02 vs. 5.10. Still, Elledge’s Memphis xFIP was even higher (6.11), though he was hurt by yielding five runs in his first Triple-A appearance.
Both relievers were heavily used during 2019, often going more than one frame. For the season, Whitley was asked to get an average of four outs per appearance, while Elledge averaged five. Both threw a career high in innings (including AFL) – 78 1/3 for Whitley and 76 2/3 by Elledge.
In the Arizona Fall League, they both excelled, though Whitley’s numbers were again better.
However, in 2019, Elledge was recognized with an invitation to big-league spring training camp, an honor for any player, let alone one who had been drafted less than two years before. Though Elledge returned to Springfield to open 2019, he reached Memphis a month earlier than Whitley – on June 25.
In the AFL, Elledge showed well enough across the prospect showcase to be named to the Fall Stars Game (along with catcher Ivan Herrera). Though minor perhaps, Elledge was invited to Winter Warm-Up in St. Louis and join the Cardinals Caravans that same weekend. In other words, by their actions, it is clear the organization (as well as outsiders) like what they see in him.
While I make this seem like a direct competition, in many ways it is, in the real world. They both want to join the St. Louis bullpen and are just one step away. Neither has been required to be added to the 40-man roster yet – a key gate to reaching the majors. The first one to do so is likely going to earn it via his pitching in 2020. Elledge may have the intangible edge, but Whitley has the better recent results almost across the board. If Whitley can continue his 2019 mound success, he just might get that call first, though I predict both will make it.
I currently have Whitley’s scouting grade at “4.5 medium”, between a bullpen contributor and an impact reliever, with some work yet ahead to achieve it. However, the majors are definitely nearing. Assuming Fernandez is also back, the Memphis bullpen should have a strong 1-2-3 punch from the right side to open 2020.
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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