It’s difficult for me to shut off my brain. A lot of this has to do with writing. Specifically, baseball writing. What do I want to write about? What did I forget to write about? What do I need to write? Is there a fresh angle on a Cardinals-related topic? With all of these thoughts swirling in my head, it can be a challenge to fall asleep. I’m always reaching for my phone in the middle of the night to type in a few lines of observations so I won’t forget about them in the morning.
Very early on Wednesday, around 4:30 a.m., I started thinking about the Cardinals as they get ready to head to spring training. Some questions popped up on the 24-hour radar in my dome. Not the usual stuff, the familiar inquiries like, “Do the Cardinals have enough pitching?” The subject has been rehashed so many times, the topic bores me – at least for now, anyway.
Here are a few points of interest that made the journey from my mind to my “notes” app on the iPhone. Several items here are pretty common. But I hope you enjoy the randomness.
1. To this point, have the Cardinals done enough to embellish the roster for 2023?
This one’s easy: no. Their only impact move was the free-agent signing of catcher Willson Contreras. Otherwise, and unless something changes, they’re largely coming back with the team that had a 45-41 record outside of NL Central division competition … and minus the now-retired Albert Pujols.
The Cards won 93 games last season, but 41 percent of their victories were collected from the Pirates, Reds and Cubs. In the new scheduling format the Cardinals will play 52 games inside the division in 2023; that’s a drop from 76 annual NL Central contests in recent years. Did anyone let the STL front office know about this? To paraphrase the famous line from “Jaws,” the Cardinals are gonna need a bigger boat.
The Cardinals are 117-67 over the last two seasons in games against teams that finished with losing records.
How did the Cardinals do against teams that had winning records in 2021 and 2022? Not good. The Cards were 66-74 over the past two seasons in games against teams that finished above .500.
2. How will the ban of defensive shifts impact the St. Louis offense?
A fine question. I can’t know for sure, but it will be interesting to find out when the season gets underway. But, could the ban actually work against the Cardinals? Could be. Here’s why: last season the Cardinals were tied for eighth in the majors with a .293 batting average against shifts. And the Redbirds were fifth in the majors with a 90 wRC+ when opponents deployed shifts.
And take a look at the 2022 batting average against shifts among individual Cardinal hitters that are still part of the team:
These are raw numbers from FanGraphs that may not tell the entire story. That said, statcast data shows that the Cardinals’ left-handed batters had one of the lowest percentages of ground balls pulled against the shifts in 2022. That’s one of the reasons why the Cards were able to beat the shift more often than most other teams.
3. Who will play center field?
It’s unlikely to see the Cardinals rely on one player to handle most of the responsibility.
Dylan Carlson can play center, and looked good there in 2022. His six defensive runs saved — in only 530 innings — ranked 7th among center fielders last season.
Lars Nootbaar doesn’t have much experience in center field — only 80 innings in at the spot as a Cardinal, and only three games in CF during his time in the minors. But he has the athleticism, speed and arm strength to do a respectable job at the position. He was exactly league average defensively in center for STL last season.
Tyler O’Neill won two Gold Gloves in left field, but has the speed and range to shifts in center. As a Cardinal he’s played 110 inning there and provided average defense. He could improve in CF through added experience.
When Jordan Walker arrives in the majors he almost certainly will spend most of his time in right field, or left field. But we may see him make some spot appearances in center.
Alec Burleson is a corner outfielder.
Until Walker gets here, the Cardinals can lean on three outfielders that are capable of playing all positions in the grass: O’Neill, Carlson and Nootbaar. Burleson can be the backup in LF, and RF.
The choice in center field will depend on matchups and the identity of the other team’s starting pitcher. Manager Oli Marmol is big on matchups, and that will be prominent in his setting of the lineup.
— Carlson crushes left-handed pitching but is 10 percent below league average against big-league righties during his MLB career (per wRC+). Carlson labored terribly against RHP last season, coming in at 33 percent below average. But wrist and thumb injuries were a factor.
— For his career, O’Neill is 28 percent above league average offensively vs. lefties, and 12 percent above average vs. right-handers. But in 399 at-bats against RH pitching in 2021, O’Neill batted .286 with 27 homers, a .344 OBP and a .544 slugging percentage. This right-handed hitter was 38 percent above average against righties in ’21.
— Nootbaar bats left but doesn’t have a problem facing LH pitchers. This is a mini-sample size, but in 94 MLB career plate appearances vs. lefties, Nootbaar has a .372 OBP and .481 slug and is 37% above average offensively when facing them. That compares to his career 113 wRC+ (indicating he’s been 13% above average) in 377 plate appearances against RH pitchers.
Juan Yepez and Burleson are part of the corner-outfield cast but won’t see much outfield time after Walker’s graduation.
Brendan Donovan will be a part of the corner-outfield work force.
Marmol has a lot of ways to go here — and more choices become available to him when Walker joins the big club. This will all be sorted out over time, and we can expect Marmol to look for platoon-split advantages in his outfield delegation when the other side makes pitching changes.
4. Offensively, can Brendan Donovan repeat his rookie-season performance, or will he regress?
This has become a point of anxiety. But if we take the time to understand who Donovan is as a hitter, there aren’t many reasons to fret. There’s one negative: he doesn’t hit the ball hard, so his power will be limited. But statcast data isn’t necessarily applicable to all players. Donovan has excellent plate discipline, and impressive bat control, and he hits to all fields. He doesn’t go up there looking to hit the ball over walls. His approach is to make the pitchers work and avoid predictable patterns in how and where he hits the ball.
Donovan bats from the left side but don’t expect him to be pulling everything to right field. Last season he had 39 hits to left and batted .411. He had 37 hits to center and batted .333. He had 33 hits to right and batted .289 when he went in that direction.
Last season 167 MLB hitters had 450 plate appearances or more. Donovan ranked 19th in contact rate, 13th in contact rate on strikes, had the eighth–lowest swinging-strike rate, the 10th-lowest chase rate, the 14th-best walk rate, and the 26th lowest strikeout rate. His walk-strikeout ratio ranked No. 8 among the 167 hitters.
So other than the lower power, what’s the problem? If Donovan maintains his disciplined, targeted approach he should draw plenty of walks, hug the plate and get hit by a dozen pitches or more, and post another juicy onbase percentage The ZiPS forecast projects a .346 OBP. The Steamer forecast projects a .362 OBP. Both systems have him finishing above league average offensively in wRC+ … but down from last season. Not in an alarming way. But Donovan’s hitting style wasn’t made for these times. That’s why the forecasts are confused by him. That’s why some fans and media are bothered by his shortage of power. Donovan isn’t a see-the-ball, hit-ball-far guy. That should be appreciated. Aren’t there too many grip-it, rip-it hitters in baseball?
5. With the ban on shifts going into place for 2023, what does that mean for Nolan Gorman?
Gorman is still inexperienced at second base, and that was an obvious factor in his substandard defense as a rookie in 2022. Gorman was the worst second baseman in the majors last season ranking 38th and last with a minus 12 in Outs Above Average (per statcast.) Fielding Bible had him at minus five Defensive Runs Saved which ranked 26th at the position. The Cardinals were in denial about all of this, and plan to use Gorman extensively at second base in 2023.
But it’s important to understand something here: the Cardinals aren’t like most teams. They weren’t shift-crazy in 2022. With left-handed batters at the plate, the Cardinals went to the shift at a lower percentage (44.3) than all but three of the 30 teams. So with the ban in place, the Cardinals won’t be affected as much as most teams.
According to Fielding Bible, Gorman was a minus fielder when set up in a shift … and a minus fielder when he wasn’t set in a shift. And there wasn’t much of a difference in the ratings. Gorman’s range (minus 2) was below average in a non-shift, but it wasn’t glaringly weak. A bigger issue was his throwing in non-shift situations. How much of this was due to inexperience? Or was this all about his flawed defensive talent at second base – and the Cardinals refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant reality?
When Tommy Edman played second base last season, he was a plus 5 in defensive runs saved in non-shift situations. Gorman was a minus 5 in the same setup, so the Cardinals were 10 runs better defensively (in runs saved) when Edman patrolled second with no shift in place. That matters.
Brendan Donovan was league average defensively at second base, both in shifts and non-shifts. So he provides superior fielding (obviously) than Gorman.
The Cardinals could have made all of this better by adding a high-caliber shortstop but ownership had no stomach for the free-agent cost. And the exciting prospect Masyn Winn should be an option at shortstop in 2024, so that had to be at the front of the organization’s thinking about the team’s near future at the position. For 2023, the front-office dream scenario is an offensive revival by shortstop Paul DeJong; he can’t hit but he’s been credited with 11 defensive runs saved as a part-time player over the past two seasons.
I suppose we will see a combination of Gorman, Donovan and Edman at second base in 2023. But don’t ask me who will play the most there. I don’t know. Gorman can be – should be? – a DH against right-handed pitchers. But at least so far Cardinals management hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for that move, and Gorman took only 22 percent of his rookie plate appearances in the DH spot. The bosses are hoping that Gorman’s defense will improve, and he’ll turn 23 years old in May. So it’s possible … unlikely but possible.
Consider this: if Gorman develops into a huge-impact power hitter, how much does this really matter? I don’t have all of the defensive metrics for Jeff Kent, who has the most home runs by a second baseman in MLB history. But over his final six MLB seasons Kent was a minus 31 in defensive runs saved … which means he cost his team about five runs per year defensively at second base. That’s how many runs (5) Gorman cost the Cardinals at second base in 2022. Plenty of teams have sacrificed defense for offense.
6. What’s fair to expect from Adam Wainwright in his age-41 season?
I’ve talked plenty about the age-related aspects of Waino’s performance – while also noting his meaningful value in supplying reliable innings.
But if Wainwright’s 2023 performance falls in line with his recent trajectory, then we’ll likely see another drop in strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate, a higher contact rate against him on pitches in the strike zone. Plus ERA, fielding independent ERA, and expected ERA.
Here are some metrics markers to monitor: Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Win Probability Added (WPA) and expected ERA.
In 2021 Wainwright had a 3.8 WAR, a 3.03 WPA, and 3.84 expected ERA.
In 2022 he had 2.8 WAR, a 0.28 WPA, and a 4.53 expected ERA.
For 2023, Steamer projects a 1.3 WAR for Wainwright, and ZiPS forecasts a 1.0 WAR.
Those two systems are probably underestimating Wainwright. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I prefer to be pragmatic, and it’s hardly a personal attack to suggest that Waino will find it more difficult to reach his own high standards in 2023.
7. How will the Cardinals replace Albert Pujols?
Well, they can’t. Not in an across-the-board way, when Pujols lifted the entire franchise and the mood of the fans in his farewell 2022 season. As you can see, I actually have a problem with the question. As a concept, you don’t replace the elite offense provided by Pujols. But let’s just say that Pujols had decided to play another season. Do you really think he’d come close to matching what he did in 2022? That was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon for many reasons. The emotional power of his return to St. Louis, the pursuit of 700 career home runs, the feverish desire to prove that he could summon his past greatness. These same dynamics wouldn’t be in play for 2023.
Here’s the other thing: Per Baseball Reference, Pujols hit 15 home runs and knocked home 43 runs when used as a designated hitter in 2022. But manager Oli Marmol did a superb job of using a variety of players in the DH role last season, and they combined for 17 homers and 55 RBIs. That tells me the Cardinals have plenty of options for DH productivity in ‘23. We tend to forget that Pujols took only 36 percent of the team’s total plate appearances at DH last year. But if you want to talk about how the Cardinals can replace the eight home runs he hit in 73 at-bats when starting in place of Goldschmidt at first base last season … OK, that’s a more legitimate question.
8. Fears, Concerns, Anxieties?
* I wonder if the bullpen is as good and deep as the front office believes.
* We all wonder about the quality, durability and depth in the starting rotation.
* I wonder about Paul Goldschmidt, if even just a little. Age is just a part of it; he’ll be 36 in September. But what bugs me is thinking about his late-season fade in 2022. In his final 33 regular-season games Goldy batted .235 with a .348 slugging percentage and .689 OPS. He hit only two homers in 115 at-bats and had a 25% strikeout rate over that time. And then Goldschmidt went 0 for 7 with four strikeouts when the Phillies swept the Cardinals in the two-game NL wild-card series.
* Goldschmidt won the league MVP award, and his complete season numbers were fantastic: .317 average, .404 OBP, .578 slug, .981 OPS, and an OPS+ that put him 80 percent above league average offensively … not to mention his 41 doubles, 35 homers and 115 RBI. The swoon could have been nothing. It could have meant something. I guess we’ll find out when the real games begin.
* We could expand this to include third baseman Nolan Arenado. Goldy and Arenado were two of the very best players in the majors last season, combing for 14.7 WAR, 65 homers, 83 doubles and 218 runs batted in. All of that and impeccable defense to go with it. I just wonder if it’s fair to expect them to do it again 2023. Or will there be a decrease in their performances?
* Given the likely and significant hit in local-TV revenue because of severe financial issues that threaten the viability of the regional sports networks, I wonder if chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. will hold the line on a payroll increase during the season. I’m assuming that the Big TV Trouble is the No. 1 reason why Cardinals ownership-management took such a conservative approach to spending this offseason, disappointing fans that were led to expect a much larger rise in payroll.
9. Anything else, before the laptop is locked for the day?
Why, yes. Thanks for asking. I have anxiety over the World Baseball Classic. The Cardinals could have as many as 12 of their players competing in the upcoming WBC. The intensity level is high for this tournament, and I hope the Cardinal participants can avoid injury.
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.
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.
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.