When we talk about the Cardinals of reaching another postseason but making a deeper push, there’s one group of players that will go a long way in accomplishing the mission.

Second-year Cardinals.

I’m referring to the young players going into their second big-league seasons. Or those entering their second year as starting position players. Or veterans who should play a more prominent role in 2023 after being acquired during the season in 2022, or who were injured in 2022.

Let’s review:

NOLAN GORMAN: Before the All-Star break he slugged .444, had a .765 OPS and was 20 percent above league average offensively per park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) After the break, the rookie slugged .388 with a .661 OPS and was 11 percent below league average offensively.

Questions: How much better will the 2023 Cardinals be if Gorman can reduce the number and length of his slumps? Will manager Oli Marmol get the big guy enough at-bats? Gorman is only 22 years old. The people that already have waved him off as “overrated” are daft.

BRENDAN DONOVAN: As a rookie he won a Gold Glove, batted .281, walked 13 percent of the time, and posted a high .394 to set up RBI opportunities for teammates. And now he goes into his second season with the experience of 468 MLB plate appearances with an enhanced book of knowledge on pitchers. He played six positions defensively and took some turns at DH. His value in versatility should be important again in 2023.

Questions: Can Donovan use that experience to improve against higher-caliber pitching? Let me explain by showing you these stats, and as you will see the disparities are stark:

* Last season, when facing pitchers that had an ERA over 5.25, Donovan batted .310 with an .832 OPS.

* Against pitchers with a 3.50 ERA or less Donovan batted .162 with a .440 OPS.

* He had a .604 OPS vs. pitchers with an ERA between 3.51 and 4.25.

* He had a .670 OPS vs. pitchers with an ERA between 4.26 and .525.

But there’s more to it. Donovan’s ability to coax walks gave him the ability to get on base at an above-average rate against any type of pitcher. And that’s a plus. Because even if he’s at a disadvantage, he finds ways to reach base.

LARS NOOTBAAR: After the 2022 All-Star break, Nootbaar was 40 percent above league average offensively (per wRC+) which ranked 20th among 95 MLB hitters that had at least 245 plate appearances over that time. The power was there, the onbase percentage was healthy, and the plate discipline was off the charts. If we just focus in on his plate appearances when playing the outfield (no DH work included), Nootbaar ranked 5th among MLB outfielders in wRC+, 7th in OPS, 8th in onbase percentage and 9th in slugging.

Questions: After a superb half-season as a starting outfielder, can he maintain the performance in 2023? I consider him a second-year player because he didn’t become a full-time starter until early July of last season and so this makes season No. 2 in that role. Just imagine the impact on this STL offense if Nootbaar extends his elite offense through 2023.

JUAN YEPEZ: He slugged .447 overall as a rookie. At the end among Cardinals with a minimum 100 plate appearances on the year to that point, Yepez ranked second with nine homers, performed 36 percent above league average offensively per wRC+, and only Paul Goldschmidt had a higher slugging percentage. Slumps and a forearm injury knocked him off course. But if anyone doubted that Yepez could regroup, he rebounded over the final month and walloped a huge two-run homer to give the Cardinals the lead in Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Phillies.

Questions: Was his early 2022 success a tease? Will he prove that it was for real, and can last? And where does he fit in 2023?

ALEC BURLESON: Here’s what Baseball America has to say about Burleson’s status going into 2023. He’s their sixth-rated prospect among Cardinals: “Burleson’s profile is heavily driven by his ability to hit for both average and power and he also struck out just 17% of the time (in 2022.). Burleson’s swing is geared for contact … adept at spraying a high rate of line drives to all fields … his stout build has natural strength. His ability to muscle the ball manifests in his batted-ball data, with an average Triple-A exit velocity of 89.7 mph in 2022. While Burleson gets to above-average power in games, he never gets out of his line-drive focused approach and swing … he is a potential everyday corner outfielder capable of hitting at the top half of a lineup.

Questions: Burleson got a taste of the majors in 2022, so what’s the next step? Is there a part-time spot for his hitting ability? Or perhaps a more meaningful role as a corner outfielder and DH? There’s a lot to like about him, but will he get a chance to matter?

ANDRE PALLANTE: He was one of the top rookie pitchers in the majors last season. He can start. He can relieve. He’s fearless and poised and looks like he’s been in the bigs for about five years. He’s a right-handed pitcher who can control LH batters.

Questions: After a surprisingly effective MLB debut in 2022, how much will he improve in 2023? If the Cardinals have rotation injuries and absences this coming season, will they turn to Pallante to serve as a starting pitcher? Either way his innings figure to be even more valuable in 2023.

MATTHEW LIBERATORE: He’s still only 23. In his first series of big-league trials in 2022, which spanned 36.2 innings, Liberatore had a 5.97 ERA and poor percentages in strikeouts and walks. There’s talent. Be patient.

Questions: Can someone in the organization please fix his fastball to make it less hittable by RH batters? If that can be done, his career could look a lot different a year from now.

ZACK THOMPSON: The rookie lefty was outstanding in a relief role last season (0.91 ERA) and it left us wanting to see more of him in a larger role.

Questions: Does he have the durability to stay strong as a busy, heavy-usage reliever? That was an issue last season. And if the Cardinals’ rotation struggles in 2023, can Thompson become a solution? He’s one to watch. He can make a positive difference.

Quickly, let’s go through some veteran pitchers that didn’t have anything close to a full season as a Cardinal in 2023:

STEVEN MATZ: I’m an optimist with Matz. Injuries limited him to 15 appearances (10 of which were starts) and 48 innings in a partial first season for the Cards. I throw out the negative stats and give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m more intrigued by his pop – a 26 percent strikeout rate – plus a low walk rate. If he can avoid the injuries – a legit question – Matz has the ability to upgrade the 2023 rotation.

JORDAN MONTGOMERY: He made 11 starts for the Cardinals after being acquired by the Cardinals. Despite a late-season regression, which was probably overdue, Montgomery made a positive first impression. He’s averaged 2.95 WAR over the last two seasons, and that puts him slightly above the Wainwright-Mikolas level. Montgomery was a big-time help to the Cardinals in his two months here in 2022. So if Montgomery can stay reasonably consistent, his six months and 30+ starts can provide a significant boost to the St. Louis rotation.

DREW VERHAGEN: His 2022 season was ruined by injuries. His stats were garbage, so there’s no use in reviewing the specific. I think he has pretty good stuff, and I just want to see what he can do if healthy for a long period of time. Perhaps the Cardinals will get lucky with VerHagen in 2023. That’s the best-case scenario, and it isn’t impossible.

CHRIS STRATTON: He came over with Jose Quintana from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last summer and did pretty well, pitching to a 2.78 ERA in 20 appearances that covered 22.2 innings. And his ERA over the final month – 1.74 – was even better. He walks too many, and he’ll have to clean that up. But Stratton did not allow a homer in facing 98 batters as a Cardinal, and he’s a workhorse who will take the ball and go when asked. I think we’ll have a better appreciation of his value in 2023.

With the younger Cardinals … well, you never know with second-year players. Some take a leap forward and lift their team. Some can develop into fully-illuminated stars. Others can regress and fail to deliver on their early promise. And as for the veterans who didn’t have a normal season for the Cardinals in 2022, most have genuine upside. And we’ll see how they do with it in 2023. But we can agree on this: the people mentioned in this column will have strong influence on the 2023 Cardinals — good, bad or somewhere in between.

Thanks for reading …

Pardon my typos …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.