BERNIE BITS: THE ALL-CARDINALS EDITION

As spring training winds down, it’s a fine time to check in on several Cardinals players to see how they’re doing and what it might mean for 2021. 

(Quick note: for hitters the wRC+ metric is park-adjusted runs created. It’s similar to OPS+. And the same standard applies: 100 is league average. You want a 184 wRC+ like Albert Pujols in 2008. You don’t want a 63 wRC+ like Dexter Fowler in 2018.)

TOMMY EDMAN: He’s having a good spring, batting .364 with an .824 OPS through Tuesday. But the Cards’ leadoff walked only twice in 35 plate appearances, and that doesn’t mean much. We’ll need to see a lot more in the regular season, but I note that Edman improved his walk rate in 2020, going from 4.6% as a rookie to 7% last year. Needless to say, getting on base at a healthy rate is high-priority stuff for Edman. If manager Mike Shildt’s lineup has Paul Goldschmidt batting second and Nolan Arenado installed at the No. 3 spot, the leadoff guy has to set them up with RBI opportunities. 

For the sake of conversation, let’s say Edman’s walk rate remains on the low side. What then? Keep an eye on his batted-ball luck. The switch-hitting Edman has been more effective against LH pitching, but he was 13 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+) vs. RH pitching in 2019. That changed in 2020, with Edman hitting .233 with a lackluster .642 OPS. But taking a closer look, I noticed that Edman had bad batted-ball luck in 2020. In 2019, his average on batted balls in play vs. RHP was a hale and hearty .346. In 2020, that batted-ball average against RHP fell to .281. And that was a factor in his drop to an 89 wRC+ — 11 percent below average — versus RHP in ‘20. 

This was also a factor: when facing RHP last season Edman’s hard-contact rate declined to 28.8 percent last year — down from his 40% in 2019. And that weaker contact impacted Edman’s average on balls in play against RH pitching last year. 

Tommy Edman is an intriguing case. And one way or another, he’ll be a very important Cardinal in 2021. 

PAUL DEJONG: I want to revisit Shildt’s idea of slotting DeJong into the No. 4 lineup spot. I was curious to see how MLB cleanup men performed as a collective since the start of the 2017 season. Why go with 2017 as a starting point? It was DeJong’s rookie season. Pauly has played four busy seasons in the big leagues but doesn’t have much experience as a cleanup hitter. Only 48 plate appearances, with a  .205 average, .634 OPS and a 73 wRC+.

Over the past four seasons MLB cleanup hitters combined for an .802 OPS, and 111 wRC+. 

DeJong (all lineup spots) has a four-season .774 OPS and 105 wRC+. Since 2018 his wRC+ is slightly below league average. 

Here are DeJong’s career numbers with runners in scoring position, 432 plate appearances:  .248 average, .384 slug,  .709 OPS and 89 wRC+. 

Unless DeJong can do much better than that — overall, and with runners in scoring position — the Cardinals could waste too many RBI opportunities. If Shildt goes with Edman, Goldy and Arenado in the first three spots, the Cards’ No. 4 hitter will be in position to put up gaudy RBI totals. But if DeJong isn’t taking advantage of the table-setting to consistently produce runs … well, the Cardinals can’t have that. 

What kind of RBI guy is DeJong? 

This is what I came up with after messing around with the sortable stats at Baseball Prospectus. (The 2020 numbers aren’t available, but it wasn’t much of a  sample anyway.) 

Question: when DeJong comes to the plate with runners on base, what’s his percentage for converting them into runs scored? 

  • 2017: DeJong drove in 13.5% of the runners on base; that ranked 116th in the majors among 174 hitters that had at least 443 total plate appearances. (DeJong had 443 PA that year.) 
  • 2018: Better; knocked in 15.07 percent of the runners on base; that ranked 57th among 139 hitters that had at least 490 PA. 
  • 2019: DeJong brought 12.5 percent of the runners home. He was one of only 40 hitters to have 650 plate appearances that season. And DeJong’s 12.5% RBI percentage ranked 39th out of 40. And when DeJong had a runner on second base that season, he got that runner in only 9.6% of the time. The percentage ranked 39th on that list of 40 hitters. 

Scenario: If Arenado, batting No. 3, comes up with runners in scoring position and first base open in a tight game, what would you do? In the last two full seasons, 2018 and ’19, Arenado ranked in the top 10 in RBI percentage among hitters with 650 plate appearances. 

Knowing that, what’s your decision? You’d probably think really hard about walking Arenado to take your chances with DeJong. Right? 

DYLAN CARLSON: Didn’t Shildt bat him fourth in the team’s playoff series against San Diego last fall? Why, yes … he did. And you may recall that in the three games Carlson batted .333 with a 1.016 OPS. It was only 14 plate appearances, but it was pretty clear that Carlson felt comfortable inside the postseason pressure. No moment was too big for him. Carlson must occupy a vital spot in the Cardinals’ lineup this season. Period. 

MATT CARPENTER: In 37 plate appearances through Tuesday the most-watched veteran in Camp Cardinal had one hit in 30 at-bats with 13 strikeouts. The seven walks are nice, but even with them baked in Carpenter is toting an anemic .216 onbase percentage. He’ll make the 26-man roster. The Cardinals aren’t going to eat his $18.5 million salary for 2021. (They would also owe him $2 million for declining his option for 2022. So we’re talking about $20.5 million.) 

If Carpenter can’t get anything going during the regular season, would management be willing to cut its losses on the Carpenter-contract investment at a later date? 

Maybe. Remember Jhonny Peralta? In 2017 the shortstop was in the final season of a four-year, $53 million contract. His salary for 2017 was $10 million. With Peralta batting .204 with a .462 OPS and looking 79 years old, the Cardinals released him on June 13. They were 61 games into the season. But baseball boss John Mozeliak decided it was time to make Aledmys Diaz the regular shortstop, and the Cardinals parted with Peralta, who was owed (and received) his remaining salary of $6.3 million. 

That’s the way it works in baseball. But Mozeliak made the right call. And I didn’t think they’d pay that much money to cut ties with Peralta. I was wrong. The Cardinals, however, are obligated to pay Carpenter substantially more money than they had to pay Peralta in ‘17. And don’t sit there and say “that shouldn’t matter” … because it does matter. 

This is an unfortunate situation. 

Once again:  if Carpenter hits, no problem. But if Carpenter doesn’t hit and Shildt uses him in a way that takes at-bats away from superior hitters, that’s a problem. A big problem. Anyone who knows Carpenter likes and respects the man, but the Cardinals can’t donate charity at-bats to Carpenter for an entire season. 

HARRISON BADER: The center fielder will miss four  to six weeks because of persistent right-forearm soreness that’s pained the center fielder all spring. Bader improved offensively in 2020. This fact remains perpetually ignored by Bader Haders (see what I did there?) They would have us believe Harry batted .120 or something last year. 

In reality Bader had the team’s third-best OPS behind Goldschmidt and Brad Miller last season. That OPS (.779) was the highest of Bader’s career — as was his 113 wRC+. And that OPS was better than the OPS turned in by several notable center fielders last season including Starling Marte, Whit Merrifield and Luis Robert. (Heck, Bader’s  .779 OPS was only 10 points less than Cody Bellinger’s OPS.)

This doesn’t mean Bader was Mike Trout — or Mike Yastrezemski, for that matter. And 2020 was a short season; we don’t know if Bader could have generated a .779 OPS over a full season. That’s why I was looking forward to seeing if Bader could build on the positive aspects of last year’s performance. He won’t have that opportunity for a while. It was smart to take care of this forearm problem now. Hopefully the platelet-rich plasma injection will settle everything down. 

LANE THOMAS: Until Bader was shut down, Thomas seemed destined to receive a ticket to Triple A Memphis. Through Tuesday he was batting .241 with a .592 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 29 at-bats. If the Cardinals put four outfielders on the 26-man roster, Thomas has yet another opening to prove he belongs. Tyler O’Neill (left field) and Dylan Carlson (center) are all set. 

What about right field? Justin Williams (LH bat) will make the roster; that doesn’t mean he’ll be the regular starter in right. Thomas hasn’t earned a spot in the big leagues, but things can change in a hurry. Bader’s out. And one consideration is a Williams-Thomas platoon. I guess the Cardinals could go with Austin Dean as the fourth outfielder; after all he’s hit .321 with a .500 slugging percentage. But Dean  doesn’t cover much lawn out there. He’s limited defensively. 

With Bader sidelined, Thomas is the team’s best center fielder defensively. So he could play there, with Carlson in right. Thomas and Carlson are two mobile athletes who can play any outfield spot, and the flexibility gives Shildt more options. 

Can Thomas quickly reset and give the Cardinals a reason to believe his performance can match the hype? This will sound harsh, and I’m not being mean here. But it’s amazing, the amount of media slobbering over Thomas based on 44 MLB plate appearances in 2019. And the Cardinals have pumped that hype. Let’s stop this, please. Thomas eventually has to get something done and make an impact at the big-league level; otherwise he’ll be just another dude that had his 15 minutes in The Show.

JUSTIN WILLIAMS: In a related note, Mozeliak on Wednesday informed the media that Williams did in fact receive a fourth option year in a decision finally handed down by an arbitrator. The Cardinals can send Williams to Memphis if necessary. Or if desired. And he won’t have to go through waivers. That risk is eliminated. But Williams has done more than enough to make the Cards roster out of spring training. He has a .783 OPS overall — but a .333 average, .556 slugging pct. and .924 OPS vs. RH pitching,

“It gives us a little flexibility should we need it,” Mozeliak said of the fourth option year. “Guys are still competing for positions, but it is comforting to know that we do have that should we need it.”

EDMUNDO SOSA: I’m apparently in the minority here, but I hope the Cardinals give a 26-man roster spot to infielder Edmundo Sosa. Potential utility man Jose Rondon is having himself quite the camp and that’s inspiring a lot of rah-rah-rah from the media.

But here’s Rondon’s actual major-league hitting record: 290 plate appearances, .201 average, .595 OPS, and a 38 percent strikeout rate. 

Sosa, 25, is two years younger than Rondon.

Sosa is also on the 40-man roster; Rondon is not.

Sosa is out of minor-league options, so the Cardinals could lose him through waivers if they try to put him back in Memphis. 

Yes, Sosa has put himself in a vulnerable position with his weak hitting in exhibition games. He was 2 for 19 through Tuesday. 

But here’s the thing … 

Sosa had a breakout at Triple A Memphis in 2019. In 118 games he batted .291 with a .335 OBP, .466 slug and .801 OPS. These are not thunderous statistics, but they were next-level for Sosa and a sign of legitimate progress.

Cardinals’ brass was delighted at the time. After all, the Cardinals signed Sosa at age 17 and have invested seven or eight years in his development. And in ‘19, just as the Cardinals envisioned, Sosa matured as a hitter. All parties were happy! 

Sosa is a plus defender at shortstop who can be used at second base and third. 

Would the Cardinals toss out all of those years of developing the young Sosa just because of 19 crummy at-bats in the Grapefruit League? Really?

JOHN NOGOWSKI: You can’t stop the big guy! Can the Cardinals petition MLB for a 27th roster spot in order to put Nogowski on the opening day squad? Doesn’t strike out much, walks a bunch, works counts, puts the ball in play, has some power, and definitely has a smart hitting approach. I realize the Cardinals are in a roster jam because of Carpenter’s contract and assorted complexities. But it’s still a shame that a team that needs hitting can’t or won’t make room for a good, polished hitter.

Nogowski homered against the Mets on Wednesday. He’s batting .423 with a 1.229 OPS, two homers and 11 RBIs. Nogowski is a first baseman by trade, but the Cardinals have been giving him time in left field.

“He’s had an impressive camp,”  Mozeliak said. “He knows how to put the ball in play, definitely showing some power too, so it’s been great to see. Not really overly surprised. We felt he was someone who could contribute.”

MOVING ON … 

–In ESPN’s countdown of the Top 100 players in baseball for 2021, three Cardinals made the list: Arenado at No. 11, pitcher Jack Flaherty at 38, and Goldschmidt at No. 45 … several ex-Cardinals made the cut: outfielder Marcel Ozuna at No. 40, outfielder Randy Arozarena at No. 71, first baseman Luke Voit at 82, and pitcher Zac Gallen at 83. 

–Also at ESPN, Kiley McDaniel put Dylan Carlson at No. 5 on his Fantasy Baseball rookie rankings. Arozarena topped the list at No. 1. “To put this in context,” McDaniel wrote, “Carlson could pretty easily be better than Arozarena, with comparable scouting grades on his relevant skills, and he also closed 2020 in the big leagues on a strong note. There’s a little less expected at the plate and on the basepaths, but the margin from one to five on this list isn’t that big; it could easily flip after a month of games.” 

–The Brewers will attempt to limit Josh Hader to a closer-only role this season and move away from the tactic of using him for frequent multiple-inning relief stints. I bring this up for a reason. If the Cardinals are thinking about using Alex Reyes in a multi-inning relief role, Hader can offer some testimony. 

“It’s definitely taxing for a full season,” Hader said of the mult-inning outings. You work with the whole (training) staff to continue to get your body primed and ready. The up and downs (between innings) are what’s more taxing than anything, especially the amount of pitches. That’s something that wears and tears on you over the course of the season. There’s a lot of thought, a lot of preparation that goes into a season like that.”

A VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE: 

As a lead-in to the start of the 2021 season, the sharp crew at FanGraphs is doing positional Power Rankings. In evaluating each team’s stock at catcher, analyst Jay Jaffe put the Cardinals at No. 21. 

“Yadier Molina may or may not be a future Hall of Famer, but at 38 years old, he’s clearly in decline on both sides of the ball. Last year’s .262/.303/.359 line represented his lowest OBP since 2006, while his SLG and 82 wRC+ were his lowest since 2015, and his 84.7 mph average exit velo his lowest of the Statcast era. His framing has gone downhill, though it’s still a couple runs above average annually; he works well getting the inside and outside strikes, less so when working up and down.

“Andrew Knizner, a 26-year-old former seventh-round pick, is a latecomer to catching and rates as a poor receiver in terms of both scouting grades (30 present, 35 future) and framing stats (-4.5 runs in 156 major league innings). The Cardinals can hope that Molina’s experience rubs off on him, because he profiles as an above-average hitter for the position, even if he has yet to get there in his brief career.”

Analysts at FanGraphs have covered three other positions so far: first base, second base, and third base. Surprisingly the Cardinals are rated 7th at 3B (wait, what?), 17th at 2B, and 9th at 1B. Interestingly Luke Voit and the Yankees are ranked No. 7 at first base. 

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.