Hello, again. Today I’m writing Part II of my Fan Anxieties series. In each piece I take a look at an area that’s causing angst among the Best Fans In Baseball.
In Part I, the topic examined the concerns over the St. Louis offense for 2022.
Part II is all about the designated hitter position for 2022, and what the Cardinals should do with it.
THE PREMISE: If as expected the MLB and the Players Association agree to the universal DH for 2022, NL teams will have a new lineup spot to fill.
From what I can tell, a percentage of STL fans want to see the Cardinals sign free-agent power source Kyle Schwarber to serve as DH. And the left-handed swinging Schwarber fits the role, given his career .532 slugging percentage and .880 OPS vs. right-handed pitching. In 2021, Schwarber socked RH pitchers for 28 homers, a .623 slug, and .889 OPS. Using park-and-league adjusted runs created, Schwarber was 57 percent above league average offensively when swinging against right-handers.
Schwarber is defensively challenged – well below average in LF and at first base – and doesn’t do a lot against left-handed pitching (.684 career OPS.) But the Cardinals have struggled against RH pitching, and Schwarber has the profile to do something about it by hitting for power and drawing plenty of walks.
Other “name” DH bats on the free-agent market are Jorge Soler and Nelson Cruz. If the Cardinals are interested in a left-handed hitter who can be used in the field and has career success against right-handed pitching, Colin Moran is intriguing. More and more fans seem to be nominating Moran for strong consideration.
Soler was having a quiet regular season until Kansas City traded him to Atlanta. He posted a .528 slugging percentage in 55 games for the Braves before going off on a postseason power show and winning the World Series MVP award. He’s more fearsome against LH pitching but has blasted RHP for a .481 slug since the start of the 2018 season. Soler isn’t known for his defense but did log 752 innings in right field last season.
Cruz, who turns 42 in July, hit 32 home runs last season for Minnesota and Tampa Bay. He has 449 career homers – 235 of which were launched from the DH spot. Other than standing at first base for seven innings last season, Cruz hasn’t played in the field since spending 26 innings in RF for Seattle in 2018.
Moran, 29, made $2.8 million for the tanking Pirates last season. In just over 1,200 career MLB plate appearances vs. RHP, Moran is a .283 hitter with a .789 OPS. Solid .344 onbase percentage with a .445 slug. He has played at first base, third base, second base, left field and a bit at shortstop. But that’s misleading. The Pirates utilized Moran at first base for 611 innings last season; he was three runs below average defensively. He hasn’t played a meaningful amount of innings at third base since 2019, hasn’t played shortstop since 2017 (and only four innings), and played a small number of innings at second and left field in 2019.
THE POTENTIAL COST: Before the lockout, Schwarber’s agent was said to be shopping for a three-year deal that would pay an average of $20 million per season. Can he get that much? I’m skeptical, but the Red Sox seem to be enthusiastic. “I think the Red Sox are a favorite here to bring him back,” MLB insider Jon Heyman said on MLB Network in late November. “They loved him, and he fit there.” Heyman also believes Philadelphia will pursue Schwarber post-lockout … Soler and Cruz were paid $8.1 million and $13 million, respectively, last season.
If the Cardinals had interest in Schwarber – and nothing suggests they’ll make a play for him – they won’t jump into a bidding contest. And a three-year (even two-year) deal is out of the question. As for Soler and Cruz, I simply don’t see the Cardinals bringing in a DH-only hitter who doesn’t fit the goal of constructing a roster that features (A) more defensively versatile players and (B) interchangeable players for matchup purposes.
SO, THEN WHAT? John Mozeliak has dropped hints, and there’s no reason to wave them off. Though bringing in a bench bat from the outside is an option the Cardinals almost certainly will fill the DH spot from within the organization.
– First of all, the DH can be used as breather for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, third baseman Nolan Arenado, and corner outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. This probably applies to catcher Yadier Molina – even though Molina has been a below-average hitter in each of his previous three seasons.
– On days when the Cardinals use Edmundo Sosa or Tommy Edman at shortstop, Paul DeJong would be an option at DH. Don’t throw darts at me; I’m not making the decisions here. But the front office is obviously determined to give DeJong a full opportunity to reverse his offensive decline in 2022. It would be foolish for me to pretend otherwise.
— The team wants to use the DH position to give plentiful at-bats to talented young hitters that are all set, or almost ready, to join the big club in St. Louis. The roll call would include second baseman Nolan Gorman, corner infielder-outfielder Juan Yepez, and outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Corner outfielder Alec Burleson moved up to Triple A Memphis during the 2021 season and has a chance to make a push for the majors at some point in 2022. Jordan Walker is on the move, and quickly. But a 2022 MLB arrival date is overly ambitious.
There’s a lot to like here.
> Gorman, 21, walloped right-handed pitching at the two highest levels of the minors last season. In 394 plate appearances vs. RHP, the left-handed power bat hit for a .305 average with a .355 onbase percentage and .543 slug. His damage numbers vs. RHP included 17 doubles and 23 homers. Gorman has reduced his strikeout rate but doesn’t walk a bunch, and that could keep him in Triple A early in the 2022 season. He came in at No. 17 on Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects list at The Athletic. Gorman can adequately play second base or third but his bat matters more than any of that. “There’s still 35-40 home run power in there,” Law wrote. “And given the rapid improvement in his hitting approach in 2021, there’s a greater chance than ever that he’ll get to it.”
> The Cardinals thought so highly of Yepez, 23, that they put him on their postseason roster last fall. The right-handed hitter had an eye-opening 2021. Spending most of the season at Triple A Memphis after his promotion from Double A, Yepez put up an impressive set of numbers in 434 plate appearances: .286 average, .383 OBP, .586 SLG, .969 OPS, 29 doubles, 27 homers, 77 RBI, and a 12% walk rate. And then he went to the Arizona Fall League and cranked up a 1.023 OPS in 103 plate appearances. Here’s another appealing aspect to Yepez: in 323 plate appearances vs. RH pitching last season he blasted 23 homers, slugged .614 and whipped up a .990 OPS. And he’s destroyed LHP during his time in the minors.
> Nootbaar, 24, doesn’t require an introduction. The BFIB already knows plenty about him. He’s a good player – a better player than I would have guessed before seeing him in action last season. We had a small-sample look at his improvement and increased confidence late in 2021 when Nootbaar produced at a rate of 23 percent above league average offensively in his final 96 plate appearances – and the hotness of his bat carried through to the Arizona Fall League. Nootbaar was a plus defender at both corner outfield spots last season. And though he swings from the left side, he did well against LH pitching at Triple A and MLB last season.
> Burleson, 23, motored through three levels of the Cards’ system last season. The high points were 22 homers, 76 at-bats and a .454 slug. The LH batter slugged .480 with 18 homers against right-handed pitchers. Burleson was overmatched when he reached Triple A, but that’s hardly unusual. He needs more minor-league time, and I’ll be curious to see how he does at Memphis in the first two-three months of 2022.
CAN ROOKIES HANDLE BEING A DH: I’m going to focus on Gorman and Yepez here. They will be rookies in 2022, but that shouldn’t matter. A fairly substantial number of rookies have done well as designated hitters through the years.
+ Two have won their league Rookie of the Year award as designated hitters: Eddie Murray (Orioles) in 1977, and Bob Hamelin (Royals) in 1994. Slugger Miguel Sano (Twins) finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2015. John Olerud (Blue Jays) was fourth in 1990, and Josh Phelps (Blue Jays) finished sixth in the RoY voting in 2002.
+ In 2019, Astros rookie Yordan Alvarez had 328 plate appearances at DH and smashed his way to a .637 slugging percentage, 23 homers, 23 doubles and a 1.042 OPS.
+ Fred McGriff had a .900 OPS as a rookie DH for the Blue Jays in 1987.
+ Other rookies that set up in the DH role with solid results: Jeremy Giambi (1999), Travis Hafner (2003), Jonny Gomes (2005), Billy Butler (2007.)
+ The AL Central champion White Sox used rookies for 335 plate appearances at DH last season.
+ Shohei Ohtani was used extensively as a rookie-season DH, but he’s in a different category. He’s a good starting pitcher and a great hitter and no one else is doing that in the majors. Comparisons are null and void.
+ Being a rookie DH didn’t hinder the defensive development of Eddie Murray and John Olreud; each went onto win three gold glove awards at first base. Many others (such as McGriff) became respected for their defense. That said, most DH types are viewed as defensive liabilities. That’s why eventual Hall of Famers David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez were moved to DH early in their careers.
+ The DH position hasn’t produced as much offense as you’d probably expect. Over the past five seasons MLB designated hitters batted .243 with a mediocre OBP (.321) and a plus slugging percentage (.436) that’s 16 points better than the overall major-league slug since 2017.
+ Since 2017 MLB designated hitters have performed at only two percent above average offensively overall based on adjusted runs created. With that in mind, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that the Cardinal DH congregation would perform above the league average in 2022. It isn’t a high bar to clear.
HERE’S MY OPINION: Schwarber would be a welcome presence in the STL lineup. I’m not an anti-Schwarber dissident. But let’s be pragmatic here, OK? Last January the Cardinals had a much greater need for Schwarber because left fielder Tyler O’Neill wasn’t established, center fielder Harrison Bader was still a minus against RH pitching, Dylan Carlson was a rookie, and Nolan Arenado was still a Rockie.
A year later, there’s less reason for the Cardinals to buy a DH. It doesn’t mesh with their desire to have a flexible lineup and bench with multi-position players and more of a Left-Right swinging balance … and do this without harming a defense that MUST be a team strength given the composition of the pitching staff.
At the end of the 2019 season the Cardinals traded outfield prospect Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay for two reasons: (A) manager Mike Shildt inexplicably declined to play Arozarena, so the Cards weren’t entirely sure of what they had in him; and (B) the Cardinals were staring at logjam in the outfield.
If you draft or acquire legitimate prospects and develop them to become fixtures on your major-league team – they have to play. They must play. You have to let them eat, in part to see if they’re as good as you believe. And if you don’t give them a clear opportunity – what the heck is the point?
Keeping MLB–ready prospects taped to the bench or stored in the minors does nothing to help the Cardinals or the young players. And if you trade them to ease a roster jam without knowing what they can do for your club, … well, that’s why Arozarena is an award-winning member of the Tampa Bay Rays.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t vote in favor of denying at-bats for Gorman and Yepez to sign a one-dimensional DH – and then holler in anger when a Gorman or a Yepez is traded away and becomes a star for another team.
If getting Gorman’s bat in the lineup more regularly means using him a lot more at DH than second base – then do it. There’s still plenty of time for Gorman to improve his defense, and if he’s the primary DH against RH pitching then the Cardinals can sustain their excellent defensive performance and upgrade the offense. Why undermine the defense if you don’t have to?
Other young DHs have evolved into decent (or better) fielders. Yepez is probably more limited defensively, but that’s even more of a reason to tap into his potential value as a hitter.
Gorman vs. RHP and Yepez vs. lefties is a damn appealing one-two punch. Nootbar can slide in there as well. And the DH can also be used as the occasional rest-stop day for older veterans.
The Cardinals will return their seven-best hitters from the second half of last season. An eighth, Tommy Edman, was average offensively after the All-Star break but more than made up for that with his defense and base running.
So if you have just about every veteran hitter back with exciting young hitters waiting on the runway … there is no point in overcrowding the place when all logic points to using a combination of mostly young-and-upcoming hitters at DH. And this gives you a chance to avoid a risky multi-year contract.
THE CONCLUSION: There is no reason to shy away from using young hitters in the DH role. Because if you don’t, then they could be relegated to much lesser roles which will slow their roll into becoming a fixture. And what’s the point of tying up money on a DH when you already have people who can do the job? I
If the Cardinals pursue Moran, it makes sense.
An alternative lefthanded bat is Michael Conforto; he has a career .371 OBP and .502 slug against RH pitching.
And part of the front-office thinking could be centered around the preference to have Gorman and Yepez spend more time at Memphis, just to refine their swings, their defense. That’s a reasonable approach, especially if the labor strife leads to a shortened spring training. Either way, Moran would be a nice depth piece on a one-year deal if the front office wants to do more with player-position depth.
If this is about the BFIB wanting Bill DeWitt Jr. to spend money just to spend money just to spend money – OK, fine. I agree. But spend it in the right place. The Cardinals had a top-three offense in the National League over the final three months last season, and as I mentioned, the principal players are back. It’s an inviting situation; if these young guns are as good as promised, then get busy and plug them in with the veterans. The sooner they get going the sooner they’ll get through early-career challenges and reach their peak levels. There’s no need to delay the process.
The Cardinals require reinforcement of their pitching staff. And if they fail to do that, then we’re looking at a possible repeat of the first half of last season – broken-down pitching staff, little depth, an extensive rut, and killing the chances of winning the NL Central. If the Cardinals leave themselves pitching-vulnerable again, Kyle Schwarber can come here and clout 30 homers and it wouldn’t be enough. Spend the available money on pitching.
PROBABILITY: Fans and media that are pleading for a professional DH instead of a Gorman-Yepez-Nootbaar mix have a 30% chance of being right by the end of 2022. Then again, that assumes that any of the outside candidates (Schwarber) really wanted to sign here. Moran could be an alternative, and I’m good with that.
Thanks for reading and have a swell weekend…
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
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.