The Cardinals are awfully quiet in the marketplace. Perhaps that will change by the time you read this. But for now, you don’t hear much about their activities, and even the usual gossip mills are coming up dry. The standard speculation is out there: they need a catcher, they should pursue one of the free-agent star shortstops, what about the starting pitching, they have to secure a potent left-handed bat … blah, blah, blah.
But other than the attempt to lower expectations on a potential spending spree, and to remind everyone that the Cardinals are the Cardinals and will continue to remain true to their (conservative) model instead of doing the “all-in” thing … president of baseball operations John Mozeliak is staying in the background – or is it the underground – until he reemerges with a newsworthy move.
I think there will be a newsworthy move or two. But it depends how we define newsworthy. I view it this way: newsworthy isn’t signing this offseason’s version of Drew VerHagen or Nick Wittgren or even Corey Dickerson. And while doing something unexpected like throwing a chunk of the DeWitt Family fortune at free-agent shortstop Trea Turner would certainly qualify as newsworthy, it would go into the “shocking” category instead.
So what is newsworthy? Higher than Drew VerHagen. Lower than Trea Turner. Somewhere in between the two extremes. And hopefully closer to, say, a trade for Oakland’s star catcher Sean Murphy than a free-agent Dollar Store purchase of a beat-up and declining veteran catcher that offers a little more than name recognition.
If the Cardinals play it safe this offseason and go with their predictable strategy – The NL Central Stinks So We Don’t Need To Do Much – then the success of their 2023 season will depend on the performances of key individuals.
And even if the front office does make impact moves, there’s a collection of current Cardinals that can really make a difference in 2023 by improving on their 2022 seasons.
Here are the dudes I’m thinking about …
1) Tyler O’Neill returning to his boom–time 2021 form. That means 30-plus homers, 90+ RBI, a slugging percentage over .500, and an OPS that approaches or exceeds .900. He played 138 games in 2021, and at this point the Cardinals would be thrilled by such a display of endurance.
2) Jack Flaherty focusing on pitching and pitching health so that he can be at his best to replicate something close to his 2019 campaign. That season he had a 2.75 ERA in 196 innings overall, and a 0.93 ERA over his final 16 starts. He led the majors with a 0.968 WHIP, struck out an average of 10.6 batters per nine innings, and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. But injuries have limited Flaherty to combined totals of only 32 starts and 155 innings over the past three seasons. In 2018 and 2019, Flaherty had 8.9 WAR and allowed an average of 3.14 runs per nine innings. Over the last three seasons he has 0.7 WAR and an average of 4.36 runs allowed per nine innings. Can Jack come back? The Cardinals don’t have a No. 1 starter. I’m not sure they have a No. 2 starter, but in a media market that routinely overrates Cardinals players, I’m sure many would view Miles Mikolas as a No. 2. But if Flaherty can deliver, the Cardinals will have enhanced strength at the top of the rotation.
3) Nolan Gorman and growth potential: He had a very rough landing in during his final month of the 2022 season, getting demoted to Triple A Memphis on Sept. 9 after hitting .114 with a 44.7% strikeout rate in a stretch of 14 games. But before that Gorman had 13 homers in 75 games (62 starts) with a .445 slugging percentage. His strikeout rate was on the high side (31%) but he bombed a homer every 19 at-bats on a team that had only 54 homers all season from left-handed batters. Gorman played his MLB rookie season at age 22. He was always going to be on a learning curve early in his big-league career. Overall he had a plus season with a 106 OPS+, and will only get better from here on out. His immense power, if controlled, could make a huge impact in 2023. Don’t worry about the ban of the defensive shifts and how it will turn Gorman into a terrible fielder at second base. He exists to hit. There’s also this thing called the designated hitter. Unless there’s a great offer that Mozeliak can’t refuse, it would be a mistake to give up on Gorman and deplete an area – left-handed power – that’s already a problem.
4) Dylan Carlson, who is he? After a fine 2021 season that featured 31 doubles, 18 homers, a .437 slugging percentage and a .343 OBP, entered 2022 with raised expectations. But his second full MLB season was a disappointment. Carlson fell to a .236 average, .380 slug, .695 OPS and only eight homers. The switch hitter batted only .207 with a .339 slug against RH pitchers. Was the decline the result of Carlson’s physical limitations caused by a painful thumb injury that he mostly tried to play through? Or was this just a case of misplaced hype? I think Carlson is really good. But he must prove that 2021 was the real DC. And he may be asked to show that he’s capable of playing above-average center field in 2023.
5) Lars Nootbaar: It’s all there. Power, speed, defense, plate discipline, an exciting set of metrics, the versatility that makes him a fit in any part of the lineup and the ability to do an effective job against all pitching. There’s no platoon-split disadvantage with his left-handed hitter. From July 5 through the end of the regular season Nootbaar posted a .376 OBP, .514 slug and .890 OPS and hit a home run every 18 at-bats. He was an elite performer over the final three months, and finished the season with an OPS+ that made him 26 percent above league average offensively. But because of his relative inexperience, Nootbaar must show that he can sustain the excellent play that he demonstrated after settling in last season. The combination of talent and competitiveness is top-level stuff.
6) Juan Yepez: We know he has power. Lots of power. And this was a fearless, confident rookie in 2022. But what about the consistency? Yepez slugged .512 in his first 49 games last season, and slugged .330 over his final 27 regular-season games. Yepez said hello again with a pinch-hit two-run homer that gave the Cardinals 2-0 lead over the Phillies in Game 1 of the wild-card series. The Cardinals lost the game and the series, but Yepez had his stand-up moment and it was a big one. The Cardinals need to replace a good percentage of the right-handed power supplied by Albert Pujols last season, and Yepez is a probable candidate to do so.
7) Jordan Walker, top prospect and a potential weapon: He’s an exceptionally talented hitter and very mature for his age (20). But will he be ready to go for the big club at the start of the ‘23 season? If not, then when. And once the Cardinals install him in the lineup will Walker provide immediate impact?
8) Steven Matz and Jordan Montgomery: The two lefty starters can elevate the Cardinals rotation. If Matz stays healthy he has a terrific chance to prove that he was worth the four-year, $44 million free-agent investment made by the Cards before the 2022 season. Matz made only 10 starts and now hits the reset for 2023. Montgomery was fantastic after coming over from the Yankees in the trade for Harrison Bader, but leveled off and struggled to a 6.64 in his final four starts. Imagine how different this rotation would look if Montgomery and Matz come through with durable, consistently effective pitching.
9) Alec Burleson: Will he have a role? I don’t know how to categorize the young corner outfielder. He’s one of the organization’s better prospects, and was a skilled and disciplined hitter with ample power in the minors. He didn’t do much with his 53 plate appearances for the Cardinals late last season – batting .188 with a .535 OPS – but it’s foolish to judge him on that. In theory Burleson could be a wild-card surprise in 2023, but he may not receive a meaningful opportunity … so again, who knows?
Thanks for reading …
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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, 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.