TCN 2024 St. Louis Cardinals Prospect #10 – Max Rajcic

photo: Max Rajcic (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

In a FREE article, The Cardinal Nation’s prospect countdown for 2024 reaches no. 10 with the organization’s Pitcher of the Year. In just his second full season, Max Rajcic should soon be testing his exceptional control and five pitches in Double-A.

Max Rajcic

Position: Starting pitcher
Age: 22 years old
Bats/Throws: R/R
Height/Weight – 6’0/210
Acquired: Selected in the sixth round of the 2022 First-Year Player Draft, 187th overall

Hometown: Fullerton, California

Opened 2023: Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A)
Primary team in 2023: Palm Beach Cardinals (Low-A)
Finished 2023: Springfield Cardinals (Double-A)

Prior Top 50 rankings – 2023 #39

Click on the above photo to be taken to Rajcic’s player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.

Link to Rajcic’s career stats

Blake Newberry’s scouting report

Blake’s ranking – no. 11

(current grade/future grade)

FB SL CB CH Command Future Value
45/50 40/45 55/60 50/55 50/60 45
IP G GS ERA WHIP K% BB% HR/9 K-BB% FIP xFIP GB% BABIP
123.1 23 23 2.48 1.01 25.2% 5.5% 0.4 19.7% 3.08 (A)

3.21 (A+)

3.50 (A)

4.02 (A+)

36.3% .242 (A)

.320 (A+)

If we strictly considered pure stuff, I would probably have Ian Bedell and Sem Robberse ahead of Max Rajcic. I don’t, though, because Rajcic is a good pitcher who knows how to deploy his arsenal whereas Robberse is still learning how to use his below average fastball and Bedell has a lengthy injury history.

I love watching Rajcic pitch because he can attack a hitter in so many ways with his deep arsenal. He works up and down with his four-seamer and hammer curveball, an effective combination that really limits hard contact.

This is the righty’s bread-and-butter combination, and he leans on it heavily. The fastball isn’t super impressive on its own as it only sits 93 mph, but it gets moderate ride (17 inches of IVB) to go with almost nine inches of running life. That’s a solid enough movement profile to give me hope for Rajcic’s fastball going forward. It’s not likely to be an above average offering without more velocity but it can be average or fringe average and play effectively because of how he uses the rest of his arsenal.

His fastball has been up to 96 mph and has ticked upward since his early college days so there is a bit of an upward trajectory here. Whether or not he has more velocity in the tank remains to be seen but a 93-mph fastball with ride and command is playable so credit to Rajcic for coaxing out an extra few ticks.

He throws the fastball frequently. While that hasn’t hurt him at the lower levels of the minors, I suspect that it might once he gets to Double-A and Triple-A, so I would like to see Rajcic lean more on his secondaries going forward. That may be one of his biggest areas for development. He can work vertically with his fastball and big downer curveball but using his slider and changeup more could add more of a lateral element to his attack.

He already uses these pitches, but I want him to lean on them more heavily to attack hitters in every direction at any time. His changeup is an effective arm side offering that can tunnel well with his curveball. That combination can eat lefties alive.

In fact, the changeup and curve are why Rajcic showed zero platoon splits in 2023. Lefties had more plate appearances against him than righties and only OPSed .572. Compare that to the.576 OPS that righties recorded and it’s clear that he’s as platoon neutral as it gets.

That’s part of the reason why I’m so high on Rajcic. Between his deep five-pitch arsenal, plus command, plus curveball, and lack of platoon splits, the righty projects as a solid backend starter.

The fourth pitch in Rajcic’s arsenal is a slider with good two-plane break and over seven inches of sweep on average. The pitch is a decent bat misser but I wonder if Rajcic would fare better with a harder gyro slider that presents more of a mid-point between his fastball and curveball. The pitch sits 82-83 mph, but he could potentially trade movement for velocity, which isn’t great for every pitcher but could be effective for him.

His slider is probably below average and flashes average but it’s a usable pitch and one with potential.

I appreciate Rajcic’s ability to generate breaking ball spin (his curveball averages almost 2700 rpm and his slider averages almost 2500 rpm). Even though I see Rajcic’s slider as a clear fourth pitch right now, there’s plenty of potential for improvement.

Rajcic toyed with a cutter a little bit in 2023. It got about one inch of cut and was thrown in the 85-86 mph range. I am interested in would look like as a full member of his arsenal. I’m still partial to the gyro slider (which has more depth than a cutter) if he can throw it at the same velocity but it’s still interesting to see Rajcic experimenting. That’s something to keep an eye on for 2024.

While we’re talking about his arsenal, I want to mention Rajcic’s sinker. It gets more depth and an extra four inches of run compared to the four-seamer. While I don’t like the sinker as much, it’s still a nice little offering that gives him another fastball shape to attack hitters. He’ll use it against both lefties and righties and commands it well to his arm side.

Command is the strongest part of Rajcic’s game. He knows how to pitch and mixes his pitches well. Although he could do it more effectively, his command is very good. He’s able to consistently put his pitches where he wants them and that’s especially true for his fastball and curveball. He can work his curveball to both sides of the plate and generally keeps it at the knees or below while he can also spot his four-seamer up and down, though it generally plays better to his arm side.

Rajcic also loves to attack the zone with his fastballs and use them to set up chases for his secondary pitches. He’ll live outside the zone but close to the edge with his secondaries and hitters tend to expand the zone against them. That’s where Rajcic gets most of his whiffs. The relative lack of in-zone strikeouts is a bit of a concern but his ability to consistently get hitters to expand the zone helps alleviate that concern.

Rajcic isn’t the most electric pitching prospect in the Cardinals system, but he does a great job of generating weak contact and should be able to maintain a low walk rate with a moderate number of whiffs going forward. That makes him a higher probability starter going forward than some of the names we’ve already discussed. It’s not hard to envision him a back-end guy who could push into a mid-rotation spot if he can find extra velocity or figure out how to balance his pitches most effectively.

That’s a great outcome for a former sixth-round pick, albeit one who was given third round money. I’ve really come to appreciate Rajcic more in 2023 and I’m excited to see how he grows his game in 2024.

Summary: Future plus command is the calling card for Rajcic but his deep five-pitch arsenal and vertically oriented fastball/curveball combination give him a solid back-end starter profile going forward.

Future Value: 45
Role: 4/5 starter
Risk: High

Brian Walton’s environmental impact report

Brian’s ranking – no. 11

Only because our overall ranking is based on the average of two scores can a player just outside the top 10 on both voters’ lists still end up no. 10 overall. I had Jimmy Crooks at 10 and Blake liked Chase Davis there, with Rajcic the more consistently scored beneficiary.

His leap from no. 39 in these rankings to no. 10 is a testament to his exceptional season as well as the fact that 2023 was his professional debut. As we look ahead, expectations are higher.

Background

As a California high schooler, Rajcic (pronounced like “magic”) first drew national attention while pitching for the U-18 National Team in 2018 and 2019. The first year, he tossed 5 2/3 no-hit innings of relief with eight strikeouts at the COPABE Pan-American Championships. In 2019, he allowed just two runs and struck out 10 in two starts totaling 13 1/3 innings in the WBSC Baseball World Cup.

An effective closer for UCLA in 2021, Rajcic earned seven saves in 24 appearances with an ERA of 1.65. He struck out 36 hitters in 32 2/3 innings pitched and allowed just one home run.

However, the Rajcic of 2022 was significantly different as he made a seamless transition into the Bruins’ rotation. Finishing with an 8-5 record and an ERA of 3.28, he struck out 92 hitters in 85 innings pitched as the Friday night starter.

Despite Rajcic being their sixth-round selection, the Cardinals ponied up and gave the junior the majority of their overslot money in 2022. In the early stage especially, the magnitude of the financial commitment spoke loudly, and his results to date suggest that the money was well spent.

Specifically, the $600,000 he received to sign is late third-round money. Today, in these rankings (reflecting his mound results), Rajcic has pulled ahead of the second and third-round picks in his class, Brycen Mautz and Pete Hansen.

After signing and through August and into September, Rajcic worked out in parallel with the Florida Complex League Cardinals in the Jupiter facility along with six other college-trained pitchers in his draft class. However, none of them were activated in 2022.

2023 recap 

From the Cardinals’ 2022 pitching draft class, only first-rounder Cooper Hjerpe opened his professional career at High-A Peoria. Rajcic was among the majority who started at Low-A Palm Beach.

Fast forward and Rajcic put together the most decorated season of any pitcher in the Cardinals system. In my view, he is the early leader to be labeled “the steal of his draft”.

He got off to a fast start, receiving The Cardinal Nation’s Pitcher of Month honors in April (1.25 ERA in four starts). Next was the Florida State League Pitcher of the Week award for the period of May 30-June 4.

After posting a 1.89 ERA with 68 strikeouts to just nine walks in 62 innings across 12 starts at Palm Beach, Rajcic was promoted to Peoria on June 26. In those 12 FSL starts, he allowed zero or one run eight times, including four scoreless starts of at least five innings. When promoted, Rajcic ranked among all Low-A pitching leaders (50 or more innings) in wins (six, tied for first), WHIP (0.81, first), and ERA (second).

Rajcic was named the Cardinals Minor League co-Pitcher of the Month for June, the first to be recognized during his first professional season since 2011.

Max Rajcic (Peoria Chiefs)

With the Chiefs in August, he registered a 1.55 ERA across five starts, earning both the organization’s and TCN’s Pitcher of the Month for a second time in 2023. In Cardinals history, Rick Ankiel in 1998 is the only other two-time, first-year monthly award winner.

Rajcic finished his time with Peoria with a 3.08 ERA over 11 starts, allowing two or fewer runs in nine outings. He helped power his club into the Midwest League playoffs for the first time since 2018.

At the conclusion of the season, he was recognized as a Florida State League Post-Season All-Star and the FSL Pitcher of the Year. He was also named a Cardinals organizational All-Star by MiLB.com and Baseball America designated him as a Low-A All-Star and having the Best Control of any pitcher in the system.

Across the two levels, Rajcic finished his first professional season with a 9-6 record and a 2.48 ERA with 123 strikeouts and a 1.01 WHIP across 23 starts (123 1/3 IP). He was among all Cardinals minor league pitching leaders (25 or more innings) in wins (fourth), strikeouts (tied for second), ERA, FIP and WHIP (both second), games started (tied for third), innings (seventh), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.56, fourth) and opponents average (.217, 10th).

So, it should not be a surprise that Rajcic was The Cardinal Nation’s Palm Beach Starting Pitcher of the Year, and the Pitcher of the Year for the entire system according to both the Cardinals and TCN.

In Cardinals history, he is just the third to be named the organization’s Pitcher of the Year in his first professional season, following Ankiel (1998) and Anthony Reyes (2004).

Rajcic closed 2023 with his second promotion, this time to Double-A Springfield. He made one relief appearance in the Texas League playoffs.

2024 outlook

I am being somewhat repetitive in noting the influx of starting pitchers acquired by the Cardinals at the 2023 deadline and since has made rotation spots at Double-A and Triple-A very competitive.

Having said that, Rajcic accomplished everything expected of him and more in his first year. That end-of-season preview with Springfield is indicative of where he should be reporting at the end of spring training 2024.

However, even if he is held back with Peoria, Rajcic shouldn’t have to be there long. 2024 will be his year to shine in the Texas League.

Future outlook

A year ago, before he even threw an official pitch as a professional, we wondered if a lack of clear plus pitch could limit Rajcic to a reliever role at some point in his advancement through the Cardinals’ system. While it could still happen down the road, his progress during 2023 strengthened his starting case.

Even though he will probably continue to be utilized as a starter to give his arsenal the longest possible window to develop, the Cardinals might be tempted at some point to alter his course. Given his fast movement though the system and his experience closing at UCLA, if they think he can contribute more quickly from the big-league pen, they might test that route.

A conservative schedule would have Rajcic finish Double-A in 2024 and master Triple-A in 2025. At that point, a 40-man roster decision will be required, and he should have shown enough by then to make that call easy. A 2026 St. Louis debut feels quite possible, though as noted, an earlier move to relief could accelerate this estimate, perhaps substantially.

MLB debut: 2026
Rule 5 eligible: 2025


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TCN 2024 St. Louis Cardinals Prospect #11 – Jimmy Crooks


Our 2024 Top 50 series continues

To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects, grading scales and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the Top 50 countdown and 12 in-depth, follow-up articles breaking down the list.

50 Days, 50 Nights, 50 St. Louis Cardinals Prospects for 2024


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