He was supposed to be this year's Julio Rodriguez, a 20-year-old phenom who the organization itself said was in the mix for an Opening Day job. With days to spare, they officially awarded him that job, complete with candid camera reveal, and then slotted him in right field for Opening Day and the 12 days that followed.
The messaging was consistent and clear: his time was now.
And while Rodriguez last year needed weeks to find his footing, Walker seemed to hit the ground running, beginning his career with a 12-game hit streak. He soon added outfield eligibility to his already favorable third base designation and seemed poised to take off.
But then came the sitting, first a day here and there and then several days in a row. Finally came the news Wednesday that the Cardinals were sending him down, a stunning turn of events that left everyone wondering what changed.
Official word from the team is mixed. On the one hand, he needs to work on his swing.
"We want to make sure he starts lifting the baseball in order to utilize the power he does have," manager Oliver Marmol said, referring to Walker's 60.4 percent ground-ball rate. "And the adjustments mechanically that he's having to make, at this level, it's a difficult ask, especially at his age."
Marmol also cited a playing-time crunch. As Katie Woo of The Athletic points out, the expectation was that the Cardinals would be able to rotate their five outfielders through the DH spot, ensuring that no one sits for too long. But when infielder Nolan Gorman quickly solidified the DH role, that plan went up in smoke.
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"It's mathematically impossible," Marmol said. "It's been rotating the way it has because who are you going to sit two or three days at a time? Which guy are you comfortable sitting three days at a time? That's the difficult part, because all that means is none are playing three days in a row either."
So down Walker goes, but for how long? Marmol also said the Cardinals look forward to seeing him again soon, and it goes without saying that an injury to any of the four remaining outfielders would probably be impetus enough. But it's also possible that performance -- both by Walker and those left behind -- will determine the timetable.
In any case, he immediately moves to the top of my ...
Five on the verge
(These are the prospects most worth stashing in redraft leagues.)
Jordan Walker, OF, Cardinals
2022 minors: .306 BA (461 AB), 19 HR, 22 SB, .898 OPS, 58 BB, 116 K
2023 majors: .274 BA (73 AB), 2 HR, 2 SB, .718 OPS, 3 BB, 20 K
I've basically said all I need to say about Walker already, but here are a few other scattered thoughts. Part of what makes the decision so confounding is that the Cardinals now forfeit whatever draft picks Walker might have earned them with his placement in awards voting over the next couple years. To qualify, he would have to be on the roster for his entire rookie season. Dylan Carlson still has options. Why wouldn't the Cardinals demote him, if only to ensure Walker has an uninterrupted rookie season? That's why I'm thinking Walker's demotion genuinely is more a matter of development than service time chicanery, contrary to what the most cynical among us might think. If the Cardinals were dead set on locking in an extra year of service time, why put him on the Opening Day roster in the first place?
Anyway, the upside is still enormous, and as happened with Julio Rodriguez last year, I feel like the adjustments would have come for Walker in time. The Cardinals may not have been willing to wait it out, but given your level of investment in Fantasy, you kind of have to if you at all can.
Taj Bradley, SP, Rays
2022 minors: 7-4, 2.57 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 133 1/3 IP, 33 BB, 141 K
2023 majors: 3-0, 3.52 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 15 1/3 IP, 2 BB, 23 K
It says something about my confidence in Walker that Bradley is only second here even though we know he'll be back in short order with only three starting pitchers on the roster currently. The Rays have long defied convention when it comes to pitcher roles, so it totally tracks that they'll try to muddle their way through this by piggybacking pitchers like Yonny Chirinos, Josh Fleming, Jalen Beeks and Calvin Faucher. But how long can they sustain that, really?
The official line is that Bradley is being sent down to acclimate to a five-day schedule, but why he couldn't do that in the majors I can't say. I only know that the demotion wasn't performance-related -- his first three starts couldn't have gone any better, in fact -- and that the Rays still have a pitching need. Suffice it to say Bradley will be back soon enough.
2022 minors: 11-7, 3.83 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 167 IP, 33 BB, 218 K
2023 minors: 2-1, 3.91 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 25 1/3 IP, 6 BB, 30 K
The Diamondbacks telegraphed their next move by optioning Drey Jameson to the minors Monday. They've already released Madison Bumgarner and had Tommy Henry take his place. Zach Davies is still a ways away with an oblique injury. There's basically nowhere else for them to turn but to Pfaadt, their top pitching prospect, who has at least held his own at Triple-A Reno. And given how difficult this pitching environment is, I'd say he's more than held his own. In his two road starts, he's allowed a combined one earned run, striking out 13 in 11 2/3 innings.
Pfaadt features some of the most optimal characteristics of a modern pitcher, such as a sweeping slider and a fastball that works best up in the zone, and his 218 strikeouts last year were the most for any minor-league pitcher since 2001. The Diamondbacks have enough off days ahead that they can get by with a four-man rotation for now, but in a couple weeks, Pfaadt figures to get the call.
Matt Mervis, 1B, Cubs
2022 minors: .309 BA (512 AB), 36 HR, 40 2B, .984 OPS, 50 BB, 107 K
2023 minors: .275 BA (69 AB), 5 HR, 4 2B, .953 OPS, 15 BB, 17 K
Not much has changed on the Mervis front in the past week. Some high-profile demotions have bumped him from the top spot to the fourth spot in my Five on the Verge, but he remains as attractive of a stash as ever, particularly with Eric Hosmer still sporting a .230 batting average and .616 OPS. It's only getting worse, in fact. In his past 11 games, Hosmer is 5 for 32 (.156). During that same span of time, Mervis is slashing .317/.429/.610, showing an optimal combination of power and plate discipline. With the Cubs looking competitive early, they may opt for an upgrade soon.
Colton Cowser, OF, Orioles
2022 minors: .278 BA (510 AB), 19 HR, 18 SB, .875 OPS, 94 BB, 174 K
2023 minors: .293 BA (82 AB), 4 HR, 2 SB, .920 OPS, 17 BB, 23 K
Speaking of looking competitive early, the Orioles enter Thursday with a 16-8 record and may well be legitimate contenders. It's all the more reason why they can't go too long without Austin Hays, who took a Corey Kluber pitch off the hand Tuesday. He's expected to avoid an IL stint, but we'll see. Truth is the Orioles could use Cowser regardless. Anthony Santander is doing nothing offensively, and even if they still have faith in him, the DH spot is just waiting to be occupied.
Cowser, the Orioles first-round pick in 2021, has caught fire at Triple-A Norfolk, batting .404 (21 for 52) with four homers and one steal in his past 14 games. He's just a great all-around hitter, profiling for average and power with some speed and a high walk rate. Even if this Hays injury isn't Cowser's ticket to the majors, it's coming soon.
Five on the periphery
(Here are some other prospects doing something of note.)
Jordan Westburg, SS, Orioles
2022 minors: .265 BA (544 AB), 27 HR, 12 SB, .851 OPS, 70 BB, 147 K
2023 minors: .323 BA (65 AB), 5 HR, 3 SB, .982 OPS, 7 BB, 14 K
The Orioles have reinforcements beyond just Cowser. Depending how long they stick it out with Adam Frazier and Ramon Urias, they'll eventually turn to Westburg for infield help. The natural shortstop has also been playing at second and third base (and even some outfield) just to make sure he's the solution when the time comes. Though his tools are modest, he makes the most of what he has, both with regard to base-stealing and especially power. He's up to five home runs this year after going deep 27 times last year. Though he probably won't be of great help in batting average, he has seen his strikeout rate improve since arriving at Triple-A last year.
2022 minors: .289 BA (478 AB), 17 HR, .862 OPS, 97 BB, 138 K
2023 minors: .364 BA (77 AB), 3 HR, 1.037 OPS, 20 BB, 21 K
A breakout prospect in the Braves system last year, Malloy looks like he may be taking another step forward in his first year with the Tigers. One thing he certainly knows how to do is take a walk, reaching base at a .408 clip last year and a .505 clip so far this year, and he's also hit safely in all but two games for Triple-A Toledo. He doesn't produce big exit velocities, which calls his home run upside into question, particularly at a venue like Comerica Park. But he's adept at driving the ball to his pull side, as you can see here:
No team is hurting for offense more than the Tigers, and while Malloy isn't the sort of prospect whose promotion would reverberate throughout the Fantasy-playing world, he could turn out to be pretty useful.
Drew Gilbert, OF, Astros
2022 minors: .313 BA (32 AB), 2 HR, 6 SB, .936 OPS, 4 BB, 2 K
2023 minors: .352 BA (54 AB), 3 HR, 3 SB, 1.065 OPS, 5 BB, 12 K
The Astros' first-round pick last year is looking too good for High-A already, collecting multiple hits in eight of the team's first 13 games and going deep twice Tuesday. Standing only 5-feet-9, Gilbert doesn't have huge power upside, but he has a knack for barreling up the ball and plays at an energy level that just seems to make things happen. Corbin Carroll would be a dream comp. Ozzie Albies might be a more realistic one, though it's possible Gilbert turns out to be a better source of batting average than Albies.
Nick Frasso, SP, Dodgers
2022 minors: 0-0, 1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 54 IP, 17 BB, 76 K
2023 minors: 1-1, 1.50 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 18 IP, 3 BB, 26 K
Needing Tommy John surgery right after he was drafted, Frasso was handled with kid gloves last year. But he was so impressive in his three- and four-inning stints that the Dodgers -- as win-now of a team as there is -- saw fit to acquire him from the Blue Jays. Now, they're letting him go five innings at a time, and the results are just as impressive. His tall and lanky build gives him the sort of reach that allows his high-90s fastball to appear even faster, and his changeup seems to have improved as well, creating a nightmare pairing for hitters. Best of all, the Dodgers seem to have cleaned up his delivery, and its consistency has so far yielded an incredible 72 percent strike rate, up from 65 percent last year.
Patrick Monteverde, SP, Marlins
2022 minors: 4-4, 3.20 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 109 2/3 IP, 32 BB, 122 K
2023 minors: 2-0, 0.47 ERA, 0.37 WHIP, 19 IP, 2 BB, 29 K
You won't find a minor-league pitcher with better numbers so far than Monteverde, and you won't find a more atypical pitching prospect either. In fact, Baseball America didn't see fit to include him in the Marlins top 30 at the start of the year, and MLB Pipeline had him exactly 30th. The issue is he's a genuine soft-tosser, his fastball hovering around 90 mph, which just isn't going to get the scouts excited. It's a similar profile to Alex Wood, who has gone on to have a fine major-league career after a similarly dominant minor-league career, and maybe Monteverde, also a lefty, can do something similar. Or maybe he's just a 25-year-old picking on kids four years his junior.