In Part I of my two-column offering, I looked at five potential reasons to worry about the 2023 Cardinals. The outlook was based on their assembled roster at this moment. Changes will likely occur over time, and that could alter our view. At the end of this piece I posted a worst-case scenario for the ‘23 Redbirds.
In Part II, I’m pitching five reasons to feel upbeat and reasonably confident about the Cardinals in 2023.
Let’s go …
1. The healthier and happier presence of rejuvenated outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. In 2021, the duo stayed healthy for the most part and combined for 1,156 plate appearances. In 2022 injuries limited them to 871 PA. Carlson’s playing time went down, but he still had 488 PA. The problem was his glaring decline offensively over the final two months, mostly due to wrist and thumb injuries. Before the pain reduced his effectiveness, Carlson was crushing it offensively from the start of May to through the end of July. As for O’Neill, a series of injuries reduced his plate appearances to 388 for the season – a drop of 105 PA from his total in 2021.
O’Neill had an outstanding 2021 season, and Carlson played very well. For perspective, I conjured a comparison of the two outfielders, looking at their WIns Above Replacement (WAR) totals, and their adjusted runs created totals (wRC+) to see how they rated in 2021 when measured against first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado. I’m using the FanGraphs version of WAR.
* O’Neill, 5.6
* Goldschmidt, 5.0
* Arenado, 4.1
* Carlson, 2.6
Yes, that’s right. The 2021 version of O’Neill had more overall value than the 2021 Goldschmidt. WAR accounts for offense, defense and baserunning. And Arenado’s superb defense gave him 1.5 WAR more valuable than Carlson.
In 2021, Goldschmidt and Arenado combined for 9.1 WAR.
O’Neill and Carlson weren’t far behind with a combined 8.2 WAR.
Now, what about offense only? In wRC+, 100 is league average. So the higher a hitter is above 100, the better he is. The beauty of wRC+ is that it neutralizes offensive performance in a way that levels ballpark effects. Players that play home games in hitter-heaven ballparks don’t get a free ride on the inflated numbers; all hitters are judged fairly. If MLB-wide is scoring is way down or way up in a given season, the fluctuations are accounted for and neutralized.
* O’Neill, 144 … + 44% above average.
* Goldschmidt, 137 … + 37% above avg.
* Carlson, 113 … + 13% above avg.
* Arenado, 113 … + 13% above avg.
Not only did O’Neill have a better all-around season than Goldy in 2021, but the Bro was also a slightly better hitter than Goldschmidt in ‘21. And it’s interesting to note that Carlson matched Arenado in park-and-league adjusted runs created.
I didn’t realize that at the time. You may have not known that, either. But that’s why I displayed this information … because it reminds us of how impactful O’Neill and Carlson can be – and how important they are – when they’re healthy and staying in the lineup instead of idling on the IL.
2. Led by Goldschmidt and Arenado, this should be a potent, productive offense. Sure, that depends on the hitters staying healthy (see the Carlson-O’Neill stuff above.) That depends on young hitters getting better offensively, or at least avoiding a decline. That depends on the proven hitters’ ability to perform to their usual higher standards. Obviously, the fortune and fate of the ‘23 offense depends on many things.
But for starters, even if their statistics decrease somewhat in 2023, the Cardinals arguably have the best one-two punch in the National League in heavyweights Goldschmidt and Arenado.
They led the way in 2022, and on multiple occasions I’ve listed how highly the Cardinals ranked in so many offensive categories last season.
Here’s looking at this in a different way: with OPS+, which, like wRC+, adjusts for ballpark and league effects.
The 2022 Cardinals were second in the majors and No. 1 in the NL with a 114 OPS+, performing 14 percent above league average offensively.
Here’s the thing. That 114 OPS+ was the BEST by a Cardinals team over the last 61 seasons since the National League expanded in 1962. The 2011 Cardinals are second with 112 OPS+, the 2003 team is third with 111 OPS+, and the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Cards are tied for fourth-best in a season since 1962.
And the 2022 Cardinals pulled it off despite their hideous production at the catcher position, injuries to O’Neill and Carlson, the ongoing freefall by Paul DeJong, the rookie growing pains of Nolan Gorman, plus cold starts by Lars Nootbaar, Albert Pujols and Corey Dickerson. In 319 combined plate appearances through the end of June, the three hitters collectively put up eight homers and has driven home 35 RBIs.
Willson Contreras wasn’t here in 2022 when the St. Louis catchers were a sickly 40 percent below league average offensively per wRC+. Contreras comes to STL with the highest OPS since 2016 among regular MLB catchers.
So if the 2022 Cardinals could produce at a historically prominent level for the franchise with so many things going wrong – then why wouldn’t they do just as well if not better in 2023? If your answer is “tougher schedule,” hang tight. I’ll get to that in a few minutes. But Pujols’ retirement isn’t a crisis; there are a few other Cardinal hitters who can compensate by performing up to expected standards. And I’m confident that Gorman will ramp up in his second big-league season.
3. Young players and pitchers. Jordan Walker is coming soon. All but one of the credible prospect sites and authors have Walker rated among the top 10 prospects in MLB overall (and as high as No. 5) and even the dude who rated Walker No. 14 had nothing but positive things to say about the strong-hitting outfielder… which makes me wonder why he wasn’t ranked better than 14th. Oh, well. But Walker is advanced for his age (20), and has a mature approach to hitting. He can be very special, and we’ll see him soon enough.
Pitcher Gordon Graceffo is making all of the Top 100 lists and receiving glowing reviews. He could arrive early in the 2023 season to fill a need in the St. Louis bullpen or rotation. Shortstop Masyn Winn may be tapped by the Cardinals if DeJong flops again, or if there’s a middle-infield injury. There’s a sleeper pitching prospect in Freddie Pacheco, age 24, who averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings last season for Double A Springfield and Triple A Memphis. There are more, including catcher Ivan Herrera. The kids offer hope – and in some cases, immediate help.
And having a Top 10 farm system will serve the Cardinals well should they need to compensate for a major injury, give the rotation another boost, bolster the bullpen, or add a meaningful bat to make the offense more complete. The Cards have plenty of prospects to entice potential trade partners … and it could be something special if the front office has the guts to make a bold move.
4. The schedule probably won’t be as difficult as initially believed. In the new scheduling format the Cardinals will play only 52 games inside the weak NL Central in 2023 – down from 76 games per season in the previous setup. In addition they’ll play 64 against NL teams outside of their division, and go against American League teams in 46 games.
Last season the Cardinals played 65 games against teams that had a winning record. Based on the 2022 standings, the 2023 Cardinals would have the same amount of games (65) against teams with winning records.
Teams could change from last season and get better or worse, so there are no guarantees. But if the 2022 team records matter, the Cardinals go into 2023 tied for second in the “easiest schedule” category. Last season St. Louis played the fourth-easiest schedule virtually even in a tie for the second–softest sked. With all MLB teams playing the other 29 teams for the first time in a season, the Cardinals will still get their rips against a lot of bad or mediocre teams. That’s the point.
5. The Cardinals’ historically strong foundation shouldn’t be taken for granted. And it’s important to 2023. Yes, ownership-management should be pushed to be more aggressive and build a better team that’s more capable of winning a World Series – or at least making deep postseason runs. But you have to make the playoffs to pursue a pennant and/or World Series, and I’ve been consistent about saying it’s foolish to dismiss their frequent presence in the postseason as some sort of meaningless, empty achievement.
Again: YES, I AGREE, THE CARDINALS MUST DO BETTER IN THE POSTSEASON.
But I also appreciate how many times the Bill DeWitt Jr. and his Cardinals get into October and give themselves an opportunity to win more hardware.
This week The Athletic posted their wild-card era franchise rankings, which covers 1995 through 2022.
Here are top three, in order:
New York Yankees, first.
“Only two MLB teams have had no 90-loss seasons since 1995: the Cardinals and the Yankees,’’ The Athletic wrote. “The Cardinals are a model of excellence and reliability in the National League. Since 2000, the Cardinals have had just one losing season (2007) and have reached the playoffs 16 times. If you’re a fan of the Brewers or Cubs or about 20 other teams, that’s maddening consistency. St. Louis didn’t add much this offseason — settling for one big deal to bring in Willson Contreras to replace the retired Yadier Molina — but with an established roster and a top-10 farm system, they’ll be all right.”
The Best-Case Scenario For 2023: Winning the World Series, but winning the NL pennant would suffice. The 87-win Phillies surprisingly won the pennant last season. If the Cardinals make moves to improve at the trade deadline, they can’t be ruled out in ’23.
If you missed Part I, written earlier today, no problem.
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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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.