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Jack Flaherty slides up Cardinals' list of prospects

Cardinals rookie Jack Flaherty works out in the bullpen at the team's spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida.
Cardinals rookie Jack Flaherty works out in the bullpen at the team's spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida.

On paper, Jack Flaherty's major league premiere does little to impress.

His three starts in 2017 produced zero wins for the Cardinals and 21.1 innings pitched saw him battered for 15 earned runs.

But in an article for The Athletic, technology-assisted pitching analyst Joe Schwarz went deep to explain one of the reasons Flaherty has inherited top-prospect status from rehabbing right-hander Alex Reyes.

It's his slider.

Even as big league batters delivered their rude welcome in 2017, Flaherty got them to swing and miss at 28.7 percent of the sliders he offered them. In the second half of last season, no major league pitcher threw a slider as effectively, not even Clayton Kershaw.

"One of my old pitching coaches sent me a copy, but I haven't be able to get too deep into it," said Flaherty, 22, of Schwarz's article. "I wouldn't compare anything I have to Kershaw, though, that's for sure."

The slider bites the hardest when Flaherty throws it in sequence with his four-seam fastball, Schwarz said. From the batter's perspective, the fastball and slider look identical until that point where he has to commit to either swinging at it or taking it.

Then it's a guessing game. A big break at the end of the slider yields weak contact if the batter gets any wood on it at all. No break with the fastball leaves him frozen in the box.

"I don't know anything about that. That's way over my head," Flaherty feigned. "I just throw it."

Just throw it. That may be the best approach the Cardinals' top draft pick in 2014 can take as he tries to earn a permanent spot in their rotation.

Rick Horton spent eight seasons in the majors and is a Cardinals broadcast analyst on Fox Sports Midwest. Flaherty has the raw stuff to make the team's 25-man roster, Horton said, but making the big-league leap will mean finding the confidence to use it more aggressively.

"He's got to get over that hump and say 'OK, I can dominated in the minor leagues, which means I can pitch in the big leagues,'" Horton said. "If doubt starts creeping in, that's when you see guys trying to be too fine and pick a little (at the corners of the plate).

"If something bad happens, he should still be ready to go at you with his best stuff, even if that guy at the plate is somebody he's watched on TV for five years and seen in the All-Star games. That's the next progression for Flaherty."

As expected, Flaherty has been assigned to the minor league camp for the remaining of spring training and will start the season at triple-A Memphis, where he helped the Redbirds to a Pacific Coast League championship last season. In 25 starts between Memphis and double-A Springfield, he was 14-4 with a 2.18 ERA. He averaged nearly a strikeout per inning.

In addition to the slider and fastball that consistently reaches 95 to 96 mph, Flaherty throws an above-average changeup and a curveball.

Flaherty admits that his promotion St. Louis and the self-inflicted pressure to be "too fine" set him back mechanically in 2017.

"I think there was a little bit of me just not attacking guys and me being a little bit ahead of myself, and not staying behind the baseball a little bit better," he said. "I've been able to clean some of that stuff up, I think. The more experience you get and the more innings you get under belt, the more comfortable you tend to feel, the more confident you feel.

"I feel really good right now."

Even with Alex Reyes starting the season on the disabled list until at least May 1, the Cardinals' starting rotation remains crowded with incumbents Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Flaherty's Memphis teammate Luke Weaver. The Cardinals also brought in free agent Miles Mikolas, who Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has said is a lock for a rotation spot.

Still, Mozeliak said he expects Flaherty to make an impact this season as the team uses its organizational depth to keep arms fresh.

"When you saw him last spring, he went from boy to man," Mozeliak said. "He took a big step forward in understanding how to pitch, how to prepare to pitch. Couple that with the talent he has, and there's a great balance."

Other top prospects

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Tyler O'Neill celebrates in the dugout with teammates after scorring during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Outfielder Tyler O'Neill, 23, was a third-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2013 and came to the Cardinals in a trade for pitcher Marco Gonzalez in July. In 495 triple-A at-bats in 2017, O’Neill hit 31 home runs and 26 doubles with 95 RBIs. He could make his major league debut this season.

Right-handed pitcher Jordan Hicks, 21, was the Cardinals' third-round pick out of Cypress Creek High School in Houston during the 2015 draft. He spent 2017 split between low-A Peoria and high-A Palm Beach, going 8-3 with a 2.74 ERA as a starter. Hicks can top 100 mph with his fastball and could profile as a closer, Mozeliak said.

Catcher Andrew Knizner during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Catcher Andrew Knizner, 23, joins Carson Kelly as an elite prospects at their position. In 95 games between class A Peoria and double-A Springfield, Knizner batted .302 with 12 home runs, 51 RBI and 23 doubles.

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Pitcher Ryan Helsley pitches during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Right-handed pitcher Ryan Helsley, 23, like Hicks, has a fastball routinely in the upper 90s. The Cardinals fifth-round pick of 2015 went from class A Palm Beach to triple-A Memphis last season, going 11-3 with a 2.72 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 132.1 innings pitched. He could make his major league debut in 2018.

Cardinals infielder Yairo Munoz in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Infielder Yairo Munoz, 23, came to the Cardinals in a trade that sent outfielder Stephen Piscotty to the Oakland Athletics. Munoz can play all three infield positions. He split time last year between double-A Midland, of the Texas League, and triple-A Nashville, of the Pacific Coast League, batting a combined .300 with 13 home runs with 68 RBIs. He also stole 22 bases. He could make his major league debut this year.

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Outfielder Adolis Garcia in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Outfielder Adolis Garcia, 25, a product of Cuba, made an immediate impression in his first season of professional baseball. In 445 at-bats between Memphis and Springfield, he batted a combined .290 with 15 home runs and 65 RBIs. he also hit 34 doubles, a pair of triples and stole 15 bases.

Pitcher Mike Mayers on a back field during spring training in Jupiter, Florida. Steve Nagy

Right-handed pitcher Mike Mayers, 26, a third-round pick out of Mississippi in 2013, has made a strong case for himself this spring and could be with the team on Opening Day. In his first seven innings spread across three appearances, he gave up just two hits and no earned runs while striking out nine and walking none. Previous big league appearances have not gone well. In seven games, he's 1-1 with a 19.80 ERA.

Others: RHP Dakota Hudson, 22 (10-5, 3.01 ERA in A-AA); OF Randy Arozarena, 23 (.266, 11 HR, 49 RBI in 121 games between A-AA); LHP Austin Gomber, 24 (10-7, 3.34 at AAA); OF Oscar Mercado, 23 (.287, 13 HR, 46 RBI at AA); SS Delvin Perez, 19 (.203, 17 SB in 281 at-bats at low-A)