Why Juan Yepez should be a breakout star in 2022 for the Cardinals


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Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Being able to hit a baseball extremely well can take you far in the professional circuit. Whether or not you have a defensive position, there will be a lineup spot waiting for you if the lumber in your hands does more damage than the next guy waiting behind you. For young St. Louis Cardinals prospect Juan Yepez, he’s exactly what the big-league club should be looking for.

The 23-year-old has played all over the field for the Springfield and Memphis Cardinals, with the most action happening at first base and third base. While there are a couple placeholders named Paul and Nolan currently holding those positions in place for the next several years, Yepez will find additional playing avenues–and it all revolves around his power.

After opening 2021 in Springfield, Yepez has settled in at the Triple-A affiliate in Memphis, bashing 21 of his 26 home runs there, along with 36 walks and 20 doubles in just 80 games. Not bad work for a guy ranked #27 in the organization’s prospect rankings. But it’s the adaptation that he has shown at the plate over the past three seasons that has changed his outlook for the big-league club. For a minor league slugger in his age group, Yepez may bump up against other Redbird prospects, but the wait shouldn’t be that long, especially when he’s making adjustments like this:

First, if you’re not following Mr. Reis’ Twitter handle for all things Cardinals minor league baseball, do that because he’s one of the best–but then watch the video again. After getting down in the count, the pitcher tries to throw the hitter’s point of view off by buzzing a pitch in high and tight. As Reis points out, this is a tactic most young hitters fall for and end with three strikes instead of the 1-2 count Yepez carried into the last pitch, which sailed way over the wall. When he’s doing things like that-making key adjustments on the fly at the end of a long, odd season, it’s hard to miss.

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Every fan can concur that this 2021 team needs more firepower. With this season slowly coming to a disappointing yet not dead close, next year will begin to be studied for roster spots. It would be wise for President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak, and General Manager Michael Girsch, to think about engaging the young Yepez in a role that helps this team win. With about three weeks left in the regular season, the Cardinals rank 22nd in team OPS (slugging and on-base percentage, combined), a spectrum they’ve held consistently all season.

The Yepez breakout could have happened elsewhere. Signed by the Atlanta Braves out of Venezuela in 2014 with his MLB debut coming two years later, he suffered a serious injury that put him out for three months. In 2017, he was traded to St. Louis for Matt Adams, and that’s when things started to change. His approach at the plate was sound but shedding some extra weight and adding muscle contributed to his recent offensive launch in production. After hitting a total of 36 home runs between 2015-20, Yepez has smashed 26 this summer alone. But for some reason, the Cardinals couldn’t find any September at-bats for him, at least not yet.

That won’t last… not for a guy making quick adjustments and supplying the organization with hitting talent that doesn’t stop by every season. It’s not just the power on display that should be giving Cardinal Nation goosebumps, it’s the patience and approach. Reis, who watches more minor league games than most players, had this to say about Yepez’s chances to be named Cardinals Organizational Player of the Year.

During the pressure cooker portion of the season, Yepez has lowered his strikeout rate while raising his walk rate. The two are nearly similar, but it’s the 205 wRC+ that should open your eyes. That’s a league and ballpark adjusted stat that gives readers an idea of how he handles different cities, stadiums, and pitching staffs. The average wRC+ is 100. Since Aug. 1, Yepez’s wRC+ is 205. That’s flat-out ridiculous. If Mike Shildt would bat this guy fifth in the lineup instead of a severely slumping Matt Carpenter, a few outcomes at Busch Stadium could have played out differently. MLB pitchers don’t know Yepez, and that’s an advantage for the young man at the moment.

But Yepez won’t be crashing just one party next year. While fans and many baseball writers (including myself) clamor for a farewell tour with Albert Pujols taking at-bats in the presumed universal DH spot, the younger and cheaper Yepez presents an intriguing Plan B. If you gave each player, Pujols and Yepez, the equal amount of at-bats… who produces more? That answer isn’t as easy to come by but in this case, age may finish after beauty. As much nostalgia can be packed into a Waino-Yadi-Pujols trio sendoff, Yepez presents a potential greater reward, at least in OPS and home runs. The only mutual satisfaction would come with Pujols returning and Yepez on the roster as well. Imagine making your debut, and The Machine is sitting next to you on the bench.

No matter what happens in the free agency period this winter, as well as an uncertain future with a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) required, Yepez should be in the plans. The kind of plans that involve many at-bats and exposure. At 24 years old and smoking many pitchers that other MLB teams will be calling on in the near future, expect this lethal weapon to stick around. After seeing so many young Redbird talents go elsewhere in a trade and prosper, seeing one who acquired in a trade actually blossoms in St. Louis would be a welcome change.

Ladies and gentlemen, keep a close eye on Juan Yepez. In the world of professional baseball, if you can hit well, the sky’s the limit.