I enjoy and respect the analysis at FanGraphs and usually learn something every time I go to the site. FanGraphs has completed its positional rankings for the 30 teams. I wanted to share them with you. If you keep reading, you’ll see how the Cardinals ranked at catcher, first base, second base, third base and all three outfield spots. I’ll present an excerpt from the FanGraphs analysis at each spot, then add a comment of my own. Later in the column, I’ll throw in additional notes on STL’s projections, player ratings and the most important Cardinal for 2023.
CATCHER: 15th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “Willson Contreras is a fine player, though it does look absolutely bizarre to see a Cardinals depth chart without Yadier Molina on it after he spent nearly 20 years with the club. Contreras isn’t a butcher, but he’s a bit below-average in most aspects of the job, and while he’ll be a positive overall, his defense is sure to occasionally look awkward compared to what Cards fans have gotten used to over the last two decades.”
Bernie: A good-hitting catcher isn’t easy to find, and the Cardinals signed Contreras to boost their offense at the position. Over the past two seasons St. Louis catching ranked 28th in slugging and were 39 percent below league average offensively per wRC+. Since arriving to the majors in 2016, Contreras is third among active catchers with 15.5 WAR. And among catchers that have at least 1,500 plate appearances over that time he ranks first in OPS (.808), wRC+ (118), fourth in slugging (.459), and is tied for third in onbase percentage (.349.)
FIRST BASE: 2nd in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: Last season “Goldschmidt neared the end of August leading the NL in all three slash categories, with a shot at the traditional Triple Crown as well. But after a September slump, only his .578 SLG and 177 wRC+ came out on top; his .404 OBP and 115 RBI both ranked second, his .317 batting average and 7.1 WAR third, his 35 homers fifth. Still, he made a strong enough impression to win NL MVP honors. He had more success than at any other point in the Statcast era when it came to handling pitches on the inner third of the plate, hitting for a .363 AVG/.782 SLG on those offerings.”
Bernie: Goldschmidt led qualifying MLB first baseman with a 180 OPS+ last season, making him 80 percent above league average offensively. It was the best OPS+ showing of his career and the fourth-best in a season by a St. Louis first baseman during the post-expansion, which began in 1962 for NL teams. The only St. Louis first basemen to have a higher OPS+ than Goldy during the expansion era are Mark McGwire (216 in 1998), Albert Pujols (192 in 2008) and Pujols (189 in 2009.)
SECOND BASE: 15th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “After Tommy Edman took over as the primary shortstop last season, the Cardinals gave second base to Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman. It seems they’ll take the same approach in 2023, with Donovan filling a utility role around the diamond and Gorman working to further develop his bat at the big league level … Gorman and Donovan don’t make a perfect platoon (they’re both lefties), but each brings different skills to the table. If the Cardinals need power, Gorman’s their guy. If they’d rather have a table-setter, Donovan is the way to go.”
Bernie: Though Donovan bats from the left side, he performed better against lefty pitchers than he did vs. RHP in 2022 – posting a .429 OBP and a 129 wRC+ that was 29 percent above league average offensively. Until cratering over the final month last season, the rookie Gorman had a .441 slug against RHP, was 13% above league average against them, and hit a homer every 18 at–bats against righties.
THIRD BASE: 1st in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “For any third basemen out there wondering what you have to do to top this particular list, Arenado is coming off a 7.3-WAR season in which he finished third in the NL MVP voting. He took home his fifth Silver Slugger, his 10th consecutive Gold Glove, and his sixth Platinum Glove. So that’s all it takes.”
Bernie: Last season Arenado’s OPS+ came in at 54 percent above league average and was the best of his career. And after struggling somewhat at Busch Stadium in his first season with the Cardinals, Arenado adjusted and hit .282 with a .349 OBP and .509 slug at home in 2022. He was 46% above league average offensively when hitting at home. That said, I wonder if start-to-finish duty at shortstop will lead to Edman being fatigued at a more problematic level.
SHORTSTOP: 10th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “Tommy Edman has phenomenal range and excellent bat control, which leads to an empty-average style statline that nevertheless sees him on base fairly often thanks to how rarely he strikes out. That plays just fine given his defense, and we forecast him to be a great defender yet again. With a pitch-to-contact team and a huge stadium, defense is the order of the day for St. Louis, and Edman is the perfect shortstop for their groundball-inhaling infield – at least until top prospect Masyn Winn arrives and pushes him back to second.”
Bernie: Edman’s defense is indeed superb. But Edman has shown improvement offensively. He had a brutal month at the plate in July of last season, and there’s no getting around it. But if we combine Edman’s numbers from every other month, he batted .278 with a .339 OBP and .428 slug and was 21% above league average offensively per wRC+. According to Bill James Online, Edman has been the No. 1 baserunner in the majors over the last two seasons, with a net baserunning gain of +91. He had a remarkable stolen-base success rate of 88.5% over the past two years, and the enlarged bases and new pitch-clock rules should lead to even more stolen-base success in 2023.
LEFT FIELD: 15th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “While the Cards only get a middle-of-the-pack projection here, there are a few ways that this position could go very, very right for them.” FanGraphs then mentioned the possibility of strong seasons from Tyler O’Neill and Jordan Walker – though it looks like O’Neill will play a lot in center.
Bernie: It’s difficult to rank each outfield spot. The Cardinals have multiple outfielders who are interchangeable and can play any of the three positions: O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar. As for Walker he can handle left or right and has a powerful throwing arm. There will be plenty of mixing and matching in 2023.
CENTER FIELD: 8th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “Both O’Neill and Carlson have shown the potential for plus power; actually, O’Neill did more than that in 2021, when he hit 34 home runs and slugged .560. But 2022 was a major disappointment, as both Carlson and O’Neill saw their batting averages drop into the low .200s and their slugging percentages dip under .400. The outlook in center for the Cardinals is probably fine, but not so sunny that we shouldn’t talk about Jordan Walker.
Bernie: Walker won’t play much (if at all) in center field. The center-field defense will be important, and I don’t know what to expect. Carlson had an above-average defensive performance in center last season, ranking seventh in the majors with six defensive runs saved there. But was that an outlier? Carlson was a minus five in defensive runs saved in RF last season. O’Neill has played only 211 innings at center field in the majors. O’Neill has abundant speed, which should go a long way in center. That said, he won two Gold Gloves as a left fielder, but is largely unproven as a center fielder.
Here’s what FanGraphs wrote about Walker: “The No. 12 prospect in baseball – all of 20 years old and not even on the 40-man roster yet – has set the Grapefruit League on fire. Now that the door is open, Walker is in the process of breaking it down. If he does head north with the big league club, Walker could enter a four-man rotation in which he shares time in the outfield and DH with O’Neill, Nootbaar, and Carlson.”
That was written before Walker suffered a shoulder strain on March 11. Since returning on March 14, Walker through Thursday had batted .142 with a 32% strikeout rate and .214 slug. And he hadn’t homered in his last 12 games.
RIGHT FIELD: 9th in the FanGraphs ranking.
FanGraphs: “Mechanical adjustments turned Nootbar from a forgotten fringe prospect lacking in power – he didn’t reach double digits in home runs until ’21 — to a regular on a playoff team and an international sensation with Japan’s World Baseball Classic squad. Though he spent most of the first quarter of the season at Triple-A Memphis, Harrison Bader’s plantar fasciitis opened up playing time … and Nootbar took advantage. His 125 wRC+ showing was impressive for his combination of plate discipline and loud contact. His chase rate was under 25%, his walk rate nearly 15%, and his exit velocity, barrel and hard-hit rates all placed in the 80th-to-90th percentile range.”
Bernie: Over the final three months of the 2022 season Nootbaar had a .374 OBP and .507 slug and performed 49 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. Over that time Noot had 12 homers as part of his 29 extra-base hits. In the three months 52 percent of Nootbaar’s hits went for extra bases, and he delivered an XBH every 7.6 at-bats. Plate discipline? For sure. Over the final three months he posted a 16.3 percent walk rate and a 17.4% strikeout rate. And over that time he had an impressive average exit velocity of 92 mph.
1) FanGraphs projects 86 wins for the 2023 Cardinals. Thats’ ninth overall and fifth in the NL behind the Braves, Padres, Mets and Dodgers. The forecast has St. Louis winning the NL Central by two games over Milwaukee.
2) FanGraphs put the St. Louis starting rotation at No. 20 in the majors and that was before Adam Wainwright went on the Injured List with a strained groin muscle. Among NL teams the Cardinals were ahead of only the Reds (21), Cubs (22), Pirates (23), Diamondbacks (24), Rockies (29) and Nationals (30.)
3) The Cardinals bullpen was rated at No. 9 among the 30 teams overall, and fifth among NL teams.
4) The FanGraphs projections have the Cardinals offense ranking eighth overall and fourth in the NL in runs per game (4.5).
5) Run prevention: 13th overall and sixth in the NL with an average of 4.21 runs allowed per game.
MLB’S TOP 100 PLAYERS
The Cardinals have three players on ESPN’s Top 100. Nolan Arenado is 10th, Paul Goldschmidt is 12th, and Willson Contreras is 94th. Here’s an ESPN excerpt for each of the three:
Arenado: “Arenado is arguably the best combination of offense and defense in the entire game — easily placing him in the top 20 players in MLB,” Jesse Rogers wrote.
Goldschmidt: “Now a first-time reigning MVP, Goldschmidt will have his own tough act to follow,” Bradford Doolittle wrote. “Goldschmidt turned 35 late last season and eventually, his game will start to fray. There was no sign of that last season, but expecting a repeat of those numbers is probably unrealistic. Expect more of an ‘average’ Goldschmidt season — 140-145 OPS+ — which is still awfully good.”
Contreras: ESPN noted that Contreras is succeeding the retired Yader Molina and has the pressure of living up to a five-year, $87.5 million contract. “It’s a lot,” Doolittle wrote. “But if any player has the make-up to fill all of those shoes, it’s the hyper-competitive Contreras. It won’t take long for Cardinals fans to realize they now have their best everyday offensive catcher since Ted Simmons.”
KEY CARDINAL FOR 2023?
ESPN’s Jeff Passan explained why the season hinges on starting pitcher Jack Flaherty: “One of the most talented pitchers in baseball, the 27-year-old has thrown only 114⅓ innings the past two years. He’s set to hit free agency after this year and could not only pitch himself into a nine-figure deal but could make the Cardinals an extremely dangerous team come October.”
Thanks for reading …
Have a swell weekend …
Bernie invites you to listen to his 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
Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead and Bill James Online.
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.