On the eve of Opening Day:
30 Cardinals, 30 Questions.
Catcher Yadier Molina: At age 38 can the revered catcher provide significant contributions offensively? In the last two seasons Molina slugged .388 with an 85 OPS+. (The league average is 100 OPS+.) If manager Mike Shildt bats Molina 5th in the lineup, those numbers wouldn’t fit.
Catcher Andrew Knizner: Will the No. 2 catcher play enough to make a difference? The Cardinals have touted his hitting ability for several years now, and for all of that he has 75 big-league plate appearances, with a 71 OPS+.
1B Paul Goldschmidt: At age 33, can Goldy halt the gradual erosion of his hitting performance? In eight seasons as a Diamondback, Goldschmidt was a model of consistency with a 145 OPS+. In two years with the Cardinals, the OPS+ is 122. A source of encouragement is his short-season 144 OPS+ in 2020. That might have been glimmer. Or it could have been a sign of renewal.
2B Tommy Edman: As leadoff hitter, can he reach base at a persistent rate? In 187 PA as a No. 1 hitter over two seasons, Edman’s onbase percentage came up short (.316.) His overall rookie-season OBP (.350) would be swell. His second-year OBP (.319) would be lacking. Here’s a trend to keep an eye on: Edman’s walk rate went up a bit last season, to 7 percent. It was 4.6% as a rookie.
SS: Paul DeJong: Can he cash in enough runners to justify Shildt’s apparent decision to use him as the cleanup hitter? In his first two seasons, DeJong performed 2% above average with runners in scoring position. In his last two seasons he performed 27% below average with RISP. But let’s end this on a positive note: According to Baseball Reference, DeJong has a career .278 average and .504 slugging percentage in “Late & Close” situations. And he’s been decent with .255 BA, .455 slug in high-leverage situations
3B Nolan Arenado: Will Busch Stadium be a comfortable fit? Look, the Coors Field narrative has largely been debunked by those who have taken the time to dig into the stats and apply the proper context. But Arenado’s fly-ball tendencies — 42.6% in his career according to FanGraphs — could encounter resistance at Busch. But I’ll serve up this small-sample treat: In his 25 games in St. Louis as a Rockie, Arenado slugged .511 and has 11 extra-base hits in 90 at-bats. Including five homers.
UT: Matt Carpenter: How much offense is left in the tank? It’s that simple. Carp can still draw walks. He’s been bitten by bad batted-ball luck and based on the quality of contact deserved a much better slugging percentage last season. (That doesn’t explain away his strikeout-rate inflation.) Clearly the Cardinals are clinging to the hope that Carpenter’s hard-contact rate increase of 2020 can translate into a respectable 2021. But Carpenter must do his part to counter the shift more often.
INF: Edmundo Sosa: When he plays, will he produce? Sosa is still only 25, plays good defense, and put up an .800 OPS at Memphis in 2019. Sosa has more talent than many assume, but now he has to show it — even with limited opportunities.
OF Tyler O’Neill: Was the big man’s spring-training performance another tease, or an exciting preview of coming attractions for 2021? One possible clue: O’Neill’s swinging-strike rate and strikeout percentage have gone down in each of the last two seasons. He’s making more contact. That shouldn’t be ignored. He seems to be figuring things out. And please keep this in mind: O’Neill was crushed by hideous batted-ball luck in 2020. His .189 average on balls in play was the third-lowest in the majors among the 203 hitters that had at least 150 plate appearances.
OF Dylan Carlson: Will Shildt move the Rookie of The Year candidate into a more meaningful and impactful lineup spot? Frankly I don’t understand how the 21-year-old Carlson was deemed worthy of batting cleanup in last year’s playoff series against the Padres, succeeded in that role, and now will be relegated to a less prominent spot at age 22. Shildt can change that at any time, so let’s see how this goes.
OF Lane Thomas: What’s happened to the phenom who produced a 1.093 OPS over 44 plate appearances in 2019? Well, injuries and Covid-19, yes. But based on his poor showing offensively and defensively in 2021 spring training the ‘19 debut could have been a mirage. But if he regains confidence and settles down, Thomas can get back to the 26-man roster and help this team.
OF Harrison Bader: He’ll be out for a few more weeks (forearm.) Will the injury lead to a disjointed, disappointing 2021 season? This was an unpleasant way to start the new year; Bader already is off track after a 113 OPS+ last season.
OF Justin Williams: Will the rookie make an immediate impact against RH pitchers in his first real shot in the majors? Or will his high-velo LH swing require additional tuning at Triple A Memphis?
OF Austin Dean: Can he break through offensively and earn a regular role? The Cardinals obviously like Dean. Even though he’s failed to hit much (.664 OPS) in 101 MLB games, Dean has been outstanding at the Triple A level of the minors: 160 games, .331 average, .398 OBP, .546 slug, 27 homers, 111 RBI.
OF-1B John Nogowski: Will the Big Nogowski receive enough at-bats to establish an expanded presence on the roster? For that to happen the Cardinals will have to trust him to play left field. Otherwise, he’ll pinch hit and give Goldschmidt a day off at 1B every now and then. There’s something intriguing about a 28-year-old rookie who had a walk rate of 13% and a strikeout rate of 8.5% over his last two minor-league seasons. And in 2018-2019 combined Nogowski performed 29 percent above league average offensively for Springfield and Memphis.
Jack Flaherty: Will he be a true ace, a Cy Young contender, and dominator in 2021? That’s the question. That’s challenge. He starts Thursday in Cincinnati.
Adam Wainwright: Can he summon the magic for one more season? After nearly having his career ruined by injuries, Wainwright came back to go 19-13, throw 237 innings and craft a 3.91 ERA over the last two seasons. At age 37 and 38. Notching more wins than Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Trevor Bauer. Throwing more innings than Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Flaherty. And in 2020, finessing a 3.15 ERA that put him ahead of a bunch of starters including Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, Luis Castillo, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, and Flaherty. No pressure, but the Cardinals need more of that this season.
Carlos Martinez: Is he fully focused and committed to being a starter who will earn respect and cause trepidation among opposing hitters? Martinez hasn’t been the same since his terrific stretch from 2015-2017. If he wants to continue in the majors as a starting pitcher, this an excellent chance to get his career moving again
Miles Mikolas: Can he return from injury issues in a way that resembles his 18-4, 2.83 season in 2018? Mikolas doesn’t have to be quite that good, but it would be a huge boost to the rotation if he’s healthy and pitching well. I don’t know what to expect.
Kwang Hyun Kim: Can he overcome the back pain, get up to speed, and build on a positive 2020? In his first season as a Cardinal, the impressive Kim had a 1.62 ERA in 39 innings. A season of durability and sharpness from Kim only makes the rotation stronger.
John Gant: Can this very fine pitcher work with enhanced efficiency and go deeper into starts? This also applies to his work in the bullpen; too many pitches and walks wear him down. That happened to him in 2019.
Daniel Ponce de Leon: Can this talented pitcher tame his control and reach his full potential? There is much to like about “Ponce.” But over the last two seasons, among 259 pitchers that have compiled at least 80 total innings, only five have a worse walk rate than Ponce de Leon’s 13.3%.
Alex Reyes: Is this the year that it all comes together for the hard-luck pitching prodigy? I know many of you want him to be in the rotation. I get it. But Reyes has immense talent that fits any role and can neutralize any hitter. I just want to see him stay healthy and keep slinging. The rotation will have a spot for him at some point.
Jordan Hicks: Will he move into the closer’s role in a short time? My answer is “I don’t care.” The Cardinals have multiple options, and appealing options, to close games. And give Hicks time to get rolling. He hasn’t pitched in a regular season MLB game since June 22, 2019. For now it’s just great to see him back from Tommy John surgery and throwing 100 mph again.
Andrew Miller: Over a long season, will the lefty maintain the dominance the displayed in the short 2020 season? Compared to 2019, Miller was vastly better in 2020. But he had to appear in only 16 games (13 innings) during the team’s 58-game schedule. Miller dramatically improved, almost across the board: lower ERA (2.77), lower walk rate, a crazy-good groundball rate (58%), and performance against RHP. In 2019 Miller allowed a .583 OPS, .453 slugging percentage and four home runs when facing RH batters. He greatly reduced the damage by RH batters last season: 583 OPS, .250 slugging percentage, no home runs. But 2021 will be more of an endurance test for Miller, who turns 36 in May.
Giovanny Gallegos: Will this underrated reliever deliver a remarkably consistent performance for a third consecutive year? This is what I mean: in 2019 opponents batted .170 against him with a .546 OPS. In 2020, they also batted .170 against him, but with a lower (.473) OPS. He had a 33% strikeout rate in 2019; it came in at 36% last year. The OBP against him was virtually identical (near .225) in both seasons. Gallegos lowered his fielding independent ERA by a run last season, down to 3.06. He’s one of the best bullpen responders in the game.
Ryan Helsley: Can he rebound in 2021? Helsley has talent and wicked velocity. The Cardinals like him and will rely on him. But last season his strikeout rated dropped two points, down to 19%. His walk rate went from 8% in 2019 to 15.4% in 2020. His home-run rate went way up; 2.25 per nine innings. And all of this was reflected by Helsley’s fielding independent ERA of 7.02. He;ll improve on that. But how much?
Tyler Webb: Will manager Shildt limit the lefty’s matchups against RH batters? Webb does a fine job when facing LH batters. Over the last two seasons they’ve hit .144 with a .469 OPS. And he had a 3.45 fielding independent ERA vs. LH bats. But Webb was also asked to face 159 batters over the last two seasons. Not so good: .420 slugging pct, 7 homers, .715 OPS, 5.02 fielding independent ERA.
Génesis Cabrera: Can this electric lefty take a step forward in 2021? Let’s remember that he’s still only 24 and has only pitched 42.2 innings in the big leagues for the Cardinals. But this is an imposing talent. Last season Cabrera had a 33.3% strikeout rate, lowered his ERA to 2.42, and held hitters to a .509 OPS. He’s really wild, though. Cabrera had a 16.7% overall walk rate last season, and it was even worse (19.4%) vs. LH batters. In two seasons he’s actually been effective against hitters from either side of the plate … when he isn’t walking them.
Jake Woodford: Can he enter the rotation mix this season or next? Woodford, a Cards prospect for a few years, made his MLB debut last season at age 23 and there was no reason to overreact to a 5.57 ERA in 21.1 innings. But the righthander dazzled in spring training this year with his 0.79 ERA and 30% strikeout rate over 11.1 innings. This is one of the reasons why the Cardinals are comfortable with their starting-pitching depth. Woodford made the opening-day roster and presumably will work in a long-relief role. He’ll have a chance to convince his bosses that he deserves to be a part of future rotation discussions.
Thanks for reading!
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