The annual Winter Warm-Up begins Saturday, with the Cardinals and their fans reconvening for a weekend of autographs, baseball talk, photos, silent auctions, shopping, entertainment, memorabilia exhibits and fun activities for kids.
And you can count on an abundance of positive spin when team management responds to questions posed by fans and media.
I view the Warm-Up as a checkpoint for inspection. With spring training getting underway in mid-February, this is a time to make an updated assessment of the team and put more thought into the upcoming season.
That’s what I’d like to do right now.
A few notes in advance: I’ll frequently refer to WAR in this piece, which stands for Wins Above Replacement – specifically the FanGraphs version of a metric that encompasses hitting, defense and base running for position players.
For pitchers, WAR estimates the hurler’s value relative to league average and uses fielding-independent pitching performance — better known as FIP – instead of standard ERA.
I’ll also use wRC+ for hitters, which stands for park-and-league adjusted runs created by a hitter. The league average is 100. A similar way of evaluating offensive impact is to use adjusted OPS, which is OPS+, and the league average for that is 100.
The most improved position is catcher.
Last season STL catchers batted .209 with a .291 slugging percentage and finished a dismal 38 percent below the MLB average at the position. The catchers also ranked 26th in WAR, coming in at minus 0.6 runs below replacement level. How bad was this? In the 61 seasons since the National League expanded in 1962, the Cardinals’ catching WAR in 2022 ranked 60th out of 61. Brutal.
Enter Willson Contreras, the free-agent catcher that signed a five-year, $87.5 million deal to take over for the retired Yadier Molina. Since coming to the majors in 2016 to play six-plus seasons for the Cubs, Contreras ranks first with a 118 wRC+ and first in OPS (.808) among MLB catchers that have at least 1,500 plate appearances over that time. He’s also third in onbase percentage (.349), fourth in slugging (.459), fourth in WAR, and fifth in home runs (117.) Contreras has a powerful arm, gets rid of the ball quickly, and has been slightly above average in his pitch framing. With new rules going into effect that will lead to a large increase in stolen-base attempts in 2023, Contreras’ defense will be more valuable than initially believed.
The Cardinals have a set of position players that, as a group, is one of the best in the majors.
For whatever reason, this reality doesn’t get enough attention among the locals. In 2022 the STL position players ranked third overall and second in the NL in WAR. And all of the major parts are back in 2023.
Let’s look at where the Cardinals ranked at the majors in WAR at each position in 2022. I excluded the catcher position because I discussed that earlier in this column.
First Base: 1st
Second Base: 1st
Third Base: 1st
Overall Outfield: 5th
Left Field: 17th
Center Field: 10th
Right Field: 5th
In addition, the STL position players were tied for third in the majors in defensive runs saved and were fourth in Outs Above Average. And this was one of the best base-running teams in the game last season.
All of this explains why Baseball Reference ranked the St. Louis position players first in the majors in Wins Above Average at 17.5 WAA.
(Wins Above Average, or WAA, is a statistical measure that defines a team’s worth, or individual-player value, when compared to the MLB average.)
Let’s talk about the outfield. I’m not stressing out.
Last season the St. Louis outfield ranked 8th among the 30 teams in wRC+, and that was a real positive when we consider the injuries that impacted Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. And there’s Lars Nootbaar, who didn’t begin to play regularly until July. Over the final three months he had a .374 OBP, .507 slug and .881 OPS.
In 2022 The STL outfield group ranked 8th in offense, 14th in Outs Above Average, and was 10th in Wins Above Average.
Phenom Jordan Walker will enter the outfield mix in 2023.
Not a crisis, my friends. Not even an emergency.
Offensively, the Cardinals face a unique challenge: filling the booming production at designated hitter after the retirement of Albert Pujols.
Thanks in large part to the grandiose presence of the Great Pujols and his incredible display of power over the final three months of the 2022 season, the Cardinals pumped out a .450 slugging percentage, 32 home runs and 98 RBI from the DH spot. (Source: Baseball Reference.)
Having said that, Pujols made only 36 percent of the plate appearances for the Cardinals at DH last season – which of course means that 64 percent of the PA were taken by other hitters. In terms of wRC+, the Cards had four hitters (other than Pujols) turn in an above-average performance offensively when used in the DH role: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan. Rookie Nolan Gorman was slightly below average offensively at DH but did supply decent power when used there.
In his 250 plate appearances at DH, Pujols had 15 homers and 43 RBIs. In their 295 combined plate appearances at designated hitter, Goldschmidt, Arenado, Yepez, and Gorman combined for 16 homers and 46 RBIs. That tells me something: the Cardinals should be fine at DH in 2023.
A Yepez-Gorman DH platoon makes sense. The Steamer projections for 2023 are encouraging: 16 home runs and a .437 slugging percentage in 330 at-bats for Gorman, and 15 homers and a .468 slug for Yepez in 282 at-bats.
When Walker arrives to take his turn in a corner outfield spot, the Cardinals can relocate a starting outfielder to the DH slot when Walker is in the lineup. (Similar to how manager Oli Marmol utilized Goldschmidt and Arenado in the DH shuffle last season.) Walker himself can be a part of the DH system in ‘23.
Another potential option is prospect Alec Burleson, a good hitter with outstanding contact skills who should be more comfortable after a brief big-league initiation in 2022. We shouldn’t exclude the possibility of minor-league slugger Moises Gomez – who bashed 39 homers last season at two levels of the St. Louis system – as a possible factor at DH this season. Point is, the Cardinals have plenty of options to construct a positive DH composite.
Manager Oli Marmol has a revised coaching staff for ’23. Is this a concern?
To an extent, yes. Only because it makes the job more difficult in transition. Marmol and his staff will have extra work to do, and there will be a breaking-in phase for the new coaches. Thursday’s news was a jolt: Matt Holliday had a change of heart and decided to remove himself as the bench-coach appointee because of the strong and understandable pull of family ties.
“When it came down to it, I just didn’t want to miss all the things with my kids,” Holliday told Post-Dispatch baseball writer Derrick Goold. “In theory, four months out it seemed like something I wanted. As it got closer, I just felt like I stopped playing (in the majors) because I didn’t want to miss all the things you miss. When you say ‘yes’ to something you say ‘no’ to something else.”
The popular former Cardinal Joe McEwing has accepted the bench-coach position and is well qualified for the job after a 15-year run as a coach for the White Sox. He’s smart, experienced, and has a personality that can mesh with anyone. McEwing has the credentials and the credibility. The late, great Cardinals Hall of Fame instructor George Kissell adored McEwing. Tony La Russa thought so highly of McEwing, he kept an autographed pair of McEwing’s cleats in his manager’s office for many years as a way to pay tribute to “Super Joe.”
One plus: McEwing has vastly more coaching experience at the big-league level.
New pitching coach Dusty Blake and previously promoted hitting coach Turner Ward already have experience as Cardinals coaches and are familiar and comfortable with Marmol and the players. Blake’s forward-thinking approach can make the Cardinal pitchers better, and Ward endeared himself to the hitters as Jeff Albert’s assistant in 2022.
Overall, I don’t think this will be a significant (or harmful) situation. Marmol has an established comfort level with most of these guys. He’s an excellent communicator who makes his objectives clear to his staff. The new coaches will know exactly what’s expected of them.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty: what are the real problems? And what are the potential problems?
— As I’ve written about multiple times, the Cardinals ranked 17th overall in total-pitching WAR in 2022. They were 17th in starting-pitching WAR, and 16th in bullpen WAR. Their pitching has been in decline for several years, and the injury hits have kept coming. There’s never enough starting pitching depth; that oversight has forced president of baseball operations John Mozeliak scrambling to make trades for starters in each of the past two seasons.
— In the Wins Above Average metric, the Cardinals’ overall pitching ranked 22nd in the majors last season at minus 4.7. Their starters were 20th at minus 1.2, and the bullpen was 26th at minus 3.5.
— The Cardinals do not have the formidable top-of-the-rotation personnel to match the most postseason-equipped teams in the National League.
— The pitching approach is behind the times … remarkably so … incomprehensibly so. Power pitching is an increasingly essential component of postseason success, and the Cardinals are still clinging to the outdated model of loading up with pitch-to-contact soft tossers. Oli Marmol is trying to change that, but he doesn’t make the trades, sign the free agents, or control roster decisions.
— Last season Cardinal pitchers were 28th in overall strikeout percentage (19.6), 27th in relief-pitcher strikeout rate (21.2%) and 24th in starting-pitching strikeout punch (18.5.) The pitching staff had similar, inadequate rankings in 2021.
I mentioned this in a column written Wednesday, but let’s hit it again: the Cardinals do not have an established, effective, imposing lefty reliever. Genesis Cabrera had been that guy until imploding in 2022.
Is there an in-house lefty that can step in and give the Cardinals a more complete bullpen?
Rookie lefty Zack Thompson impressed as a reliever last season, and he’s a ray of hope. In 29.2 innings of big-league relief in ‘22, Thompson had a 0.91 ERA and held opponents to a .190 average, .223 OBP and .190 slugging percentage. He limited LH batters to a .146 average, .226 OBP and a .146 slug.
That said, Thompson was developed as a starting pitcher in college and the minors, and his arm struggled to handle the demanding rigors of relief pitching last season. Though Thompson pitched well, he began to experience fatigue and some discomfort, and the Cardinals shut him down for a time and sent him back down to Triple A Memphis. His appearances were more spaced out to give his arm a chance to regenerate. Recalled by the Cardinals at the end of August, Thompson finished strong with a 1.42 ERA in 10 appearances in 12.2 innings of relief. But it’s too soon to declare that Thompson will be the busy shutdown lefty reliever that the Cardinals need for 2023.
Andrew Chafin, Matt Moore and other fine lefty relievers are still out there and available as free agents, the Cardinals haven’t been willing to spend the money to reinforce an obvious vulnerability … at least not yet, anyway. It was a terrific signing — and a relative bargain – to secure Contreras. But is that all there is? I have to believe there’s more to come. I believe Mozeliak is eyeing a starting-pitching upgrade, but he may hold off until he gets the chance to see how his rotation is doing during the early months of the season.
I’ll be happy to give the Cardinals credit if Mozeliak makes a big move. But it would be embarrassing for the Cardinals to stand pat.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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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. We’ll have a new Seeing Red on Monday, Jan. 16.
All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Cots Contracts, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.