After playing their final springtime exhibition game Monday afternoon, the Cardinals vacate Florida and head to St. Louis to face the truth.
Face the truth?
What do I mean by that?
The annual spring-training ritual is a time of hype, hope and speculation. It is a safe space for going absolutely bananas over everything. We flip out over promising young stars, inducting them into the Hall of Fame in our minds. We overreact to journeyman no-names who get a few hits as if we’ve discovered the next Frankie Frisch.
We take the bait on trumped-up job competitions. (This year, the battle royale for the backup catcher spot between Andrew Knizner vs. Tres Barrera was a thriller, I tell ya. Gonna take me a couple of weeks to recover from all of the excitement.)
For starting pitchers who have something to prove, we view each springtime assignment as a make-or-break episode. Jack Flaherty is a fine example of this. If he looked good, he was back! If he looked bad, it was a crisis.
The Cardinals go into Monday with a 16-7 record, the best in the land this spring. Media have taken note of this, as if it’s a portent of things to come. The 2011 Cardinals were 14-16 in the Grapefruit League but somehow recovered to win the World Series.
During spring training, it can be awfully challenging to separate the reality from the fantasy. Where have you gone, John Nogowski?
All of the things I’ve mentioned here are fun. In spring training, you get a free pass to day dream, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Thankfully, the Cardinals will play real baseball on Thursday. Opening Day at Busch Stadium. The first of 162. The Toronto Blue Jays will provide the first of many tests over the next six months.
A team doesn’t begin the process of facing and learning the truth until the regular season gets underway, and the standings and statistics count.
Now that I’ve established the premise of this exercise, I’ll dive in.
Jordan Walker: Seven games into the exhibition schedule, the young phenom was batting .438 with an .813 slugging percentage, 1.251 OPS, three homers and three doubles. Over his past eight games before Monday, Walker was slumping with a .133 average, .200 slugging percentage, .333 OPS, no walks, no homers, two doubles and a 30 percent strikeout rate. The Cardinals have so much confidence in Walker, they put him on the opening 26-man roster, even though he’s never played above the Double A minor-league level. Like most of you, I believe Walker is an exciting talent who will have an outstanding major-league career. But what can we expect from Walker in the early stages? Was his late-March slump merely a blip?
It can be a problem and a struggle for young hitters to adapt to big-league pitchers. That doesn’t apply to everyone, though. Last season we saw a group of impressive rookies deliver immediate impact for their teams. That list includes Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Michael Harris II, Brendan Donovan, Vinnie Pasquantino and Oscar Gonzalez. They prospered from the start. Walker is capable of it. The rookie hits the ball damn hard, but must elevate more pitches instead of hitting so many ground balls. Walker will be 22 on May 20. What will his stats look like on that day?
The Cardinals offense: MLB.com recently listed STL as having the fourth-best offense in the majors going into the 2023 season. That’s a nice endorsement, and it isn’t crazy. It’s a realistic assessment that comes with a proviso: will enough of the bats come through?
The Cardinals have much goodness in place, but the goal of becoming an elite offense depends on guys who can rebound from a disappointing or underwhelming 2022 season. Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, etc.
It also depends on improvement from Nolan Gorman, and the pace of Jordan Walker’s real-time development in the majors. It depends on Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado coming close to matching their MVP-level performances in 2022, and that’s a big ask.
It depends on Lars Nootbaar coming through as the No. 1 “breakout” darling of the AMC (advanced-metrics club.) I’m betting on Noot. It depends on Brendan Donovan maintaining his high onbase percentage and increasing his power. It depends on Willson Contreras doing noisy damage with a bat in his hands.
The truth: If a high percentage of the names mentioned on this list come through, the St. Louis offense should flourish. Can the Cardinals take the step of going from a good offense to a great attack? I like their chances.
Last season – despite injuries and inconsistencies – St. Louis led the National League in OPS+ and ranked among the top four in runs per game, onbase percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, and doubles. Albert Pujols has left the building, but his retirement can be offset by the power and high OBP that Contreras brings to a catcher position that was woefully weak offensively during the past two years.
Will the Cards’ weaknesses be exposed in the new scheduling format? Beginning in 2023, the Cardinals will play their NL Central brethren 52 games per season – down from 76. The biggest change is playing at least one series against every AL team. (They’ll play two series against Kansas City.)
So what will this mean?
Truth is, the Cardinals have a lot to prove. They went 93-69 last season, but let’s read the small print under that headline number. Last season the Cards were:
* 34-38 against winning teams
* 45-41 in games played outside of the NL Central.
* 55-50 when playing teams other than the Cubs, Reds and Pirates.
Truth: The Cardinals can beat up on weaklings but have failed to distinguish themselves against quality opponents. That includes their 1-9 record in their last 10 postseason games.
Jack Flaherty: I’m tired of talking about Jack. It’s nothing personal, and I’m pulling for him to have a good comeback season. For now, I want off the rollercoaster ride. It’s foolish to get overheated by what he did – or didn’t do – during spring training. He’s scheduled to pitch against the Blue Jays on Saturday. At that point, we’ll can collect evidence in our attempt to discover the truth. But we really can’t judge Jack until he’s given us about three months of evidence with his pitching.
What about the lineup? Truth is, I don’t care. Correction: I do care, it’s just that I won’t be fussing over lineup choices every day of the season. Manager Oli Marmol will have Arenado-Goldschmidt hitting back-to-back in the lineup, and everything else is mixable, matchable, and interchangeable. Marmol has no reason to install a “set” lineup … so why should we expect him to?
Last year – the first season of the DH in both leagues – Marmol was constantly on the prowl to give the Cardinals a matchup advantage with his lineup. He went with 152 lineup combinations, and his most frequent lineup was used only three times. That was the lowest common-lineup usage among the six NL teams that made the postseason. Marmol increased his team’s platoon-advantage by nearly 10 percent in 2022, and that’s a plus.
Marmol’s final lineup of the exhibition season resembles something we’ll see in Thursday’s season-opener:
As Larry David would say: pretty, pretty good!
Adam Wainwright: The truth-discovery process was delayed by his groin injury and he’ll open the season on the Injured List. When Wainwright returns, we’ll learn more about his velocity, swing-and-miss rate, and the other indicators that pointed to a decline. If he pitches poorly, then we’ll reach another stage of the inquisition: if warranted, will manager Oli Marmol recognize the truth and pull Wainwright from the five–man rotation during his farewell season?
The state of the rotation: Other than Wainwright, I’m curious about several things. If Steven Matz, Jordan Montgomery and Flaherty each have strong, above-average seasons, the Cardinals would benefit from the extra strikeout pop and can exceed expectations. But they have to stay healthy, and they must deliver. That’s questionable. And then there’s Jake Woodford. As a longtime proponent of Woodford, I’m anxious to see what he’ll do with his rotation opportunity as Wainwright’s fill-in. After being snubbed so many times, this is Woodford’s chance to show us the truth about his qualifications to become an effective starting pitcher in the big leagues.
Willson Contreras and his defense: His pitch-framing and blocking have been scrutinized, which is nothing new. And with stolen-base attempts expected to increase – perhaps significantly – under the new rules and larger bases – his powerful throwing arm should be an asset. The truth? Contreras has a chance to improve his framing and blocking, and he’s worked extremely hard this spring to become a more complete catcher. He’s hungry. I wouldn’t bet against his pride and determination to impress his new team and prove the critics wrong.
But as usual, let’s wait and see. And we won’t have to wait much longer. The Cardinals will be playing real baseball on Thursday at Busch. Hurrah.
Thanks for reading …
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.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference 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.