Let’s put the trade speculation and discussion to the side, and save the prospect talk for a later time. Just for the purposes of having a more disciplined assessment of what’s already here, let’s close out the file on the remaining free agents. And if the Cardinals add talent along the way, we can talk about their moves in real time.
For now, as we approach the start of spring training, let’s focus on the current roster. For the Cardinals to be at their best – or close to it – in 2023, they’ll need bounceback seasons from players they’re depending on rebounds from players they’re depending on.
In order of most likely to least likely, here’s how I see the probability of a bounceback for each candidate …
1. Left fielder Tyler O’Neill: I’m optimistic that his revised offseason routine will pay off and limit his injuries in 2023. It’s encouraging to know that O’Neill has prioritized stretching, running, sprinting. And that he’s doing Yoga. And that he’s into training exercises that will loosen his hamstrings. O’Neill’s enhanced flexibility is a positive development. And I like what O’Neill told Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold in early December.
“It starts by staying consistently on the field,” O’Neill said in his convo with Goold. “There’s no question about that. I’m not concerned if my performance will be there or my skill set if I can stay on the field, stay in a rhythm. That’s how I help the Cards win ballgames. That’s the kind of player I am. Step 1: stay on the field, staying healthy.”
O’Neill’s games-played log shows that. During his major-league career, when O’Neill has taken his five-highest number of plate appearances in a month, he’s performed 29 percent above league average offensively. (That’s the average of his five-busiest months.) And his slugging percentage in his five most active months range from .731 at the top end to .462 at the low end. None were poor or mediocre months. They were good months, very good months, or exceptional months. The point: the more he could play, the more he delivered offensively.
In 2021, O’Neill stayed healthy enough to play in 137 games and make 537 plate appearances. His consistent presence in the lineup resulted in his best season: 34 homers, .286 average, .352 onbase percentage, .560 slugging percentage and a .912 OPS. Per adjusted OPS, O’Neill performed 48 percent above league average offensively.
So, yes, there definitely is a strong connection between O’Neill’s playing time and production. And this offseason he’s done all that he could to prepare himself in a way that will help him avoid the Injured List.
Another factor: O’Neill’s mind is clear. He agreed to a one-year contract worth $4.95 million for 2023 instead of diving into another protracted arbitration battle with Cardinals management. O’Neill fought the Cardinals last winter, lost the arbitration case, and the conflict messed with his head. He wasn’t focused. In the first month of the 2022 season, O’Neill batted .188 with one homer and 20 strikeouts in 69 at-bats.
The ZiPS forecast for 2023 has O’Neill batting .249 with a .459 slug, 22 homers and an OPS+ that’s 15 percent above league average. That’s fine, but I sincerely believe he’ll top that and put up his second-best season as a Cardinal. If I’m wrong, you can blast me later.
2. Lefty starting pitcher Steven Matz. I’m tossing out most of his 2022 debut season with the Cardinals. Matz worked only 48 innings all season because of injuries to his shoulder and knee. His ERA was an unsightly 5.25, but if you take a closer look you’ll see the best strikeout rate (26%) and lowest walk rate (4.8%) of his career. That explains why his fielding independent ERA was a more realistic 3.78. Matz has three more seasons to go on his deal with the Cardinals. And I’m not saying he will stay healthy for three consecutive years – but I like his chances to make 25 to 30 starts in 2023.
3. Nolan Gorman. I don’t know if he even belongs on this list, but I’ll play along. As a rookie slugger in 2022, Gorman finished slightly above average offensively (106 OPS+) and muscled his way to 14 homers and a respectable .420 slugging percentage. People seem to forget a couple of things about Gorman: One, he’s still only 22. Second: through Aug. 20 of last season Gorman had homered every 17 at-bats and was slugging .469. He had a decent batting average (.250) and had pushed his OBP up to .323.
And then Gorman cratered, hitting .136 with a woeful .237 slug, one homer and a brutal 40% strikeout rate over his final 20 games and 65 plate appearances. That was bad. So if you want to say that Gorman must rebound … well, yeah, OK. But don’t forget this part: we’re saying he must bounce back from his final 65 plate appearances of the season. Truth is, 80 percent of Gorman’s rookie season was pretty damn good offensively. Especially for a 22-year-old rookie in his MLB debut. And then the final 20 percent of his season was terrible. I think the 80 percent means a heck of a lot more than the 20%.
4. Outfielder Dylan Carlson: He didn’t hit much in April. And by late summer the excruciating pain of wrist and thumb injuries deadened his bat. Those injuries were legitimately damaging, and I have no cynicism about that. I didn’t overlook a three-month section of the season when Carlson was a helluva player from the start of May through the end of July. That’s when we saw him perform 30 percent above league average in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), which was third on the team behind Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado over that time. Carlson was also third among Cardinal regulars in onbase percentage, slugging and OPS over his three-month surge. The May-July heat-up included a slash line of .273/.346/.459. That’s good stuff that gives me hope for a more impressive offensive showing by Carlson in 2023.
5. Adam Wainwright, legend. Last season here was slippage in his swing-and-miss stuff, strikeout rate, WAR, fastball velocity, ERA, and a some other age-related things. And at the risk of being arrested, I feel I should mention his 4.99 ERA over his last 11 starts in 2022. But he’ll find a way to pitch respectably — and maybe come up with more than that in his final MLB season. This is a proud man with a relentless competitive spirit. He doesn’t want to finish on a down note.
6. Jack Flaherty, right-handed starting pitcher. My confidence isn’t firm. I can’t embrace this overly optimistic, fingers-crossed notion that he’ll pitch like it’s 2019 all over again. There have been too many injuries including a torn oblique and multiple afflictions with his right shoulder. Since Flaherty walked off the mound at Dodger Stadium with the damaged oblique on May 31 of the 2021 season, he’s made 15 starts, pitched 52.1 innings, has a 4.30 ERA and a 5.31 FIP. During this troubling time Flaherty has had a problematic decrease in strikeout rate (21.8%) a rise in walk rate (12%) and has yielded a slugging percentage of .440. And in his last 15 starts Flaherty has been rocked by RH batters for a .400 OBP and .506 slug. You would expect to see him have some trouble against LH hitters, but you know it’s bad when Jack can’t control RH batters.
The reality: Flaherty has a long way to go before we can honestly talk about a return to his near-peak form. It starts with solid pitching health. I wish him luck. He’s had to deal with those injuries and the immense frustration of failure. I’m not saying that Flaherty is a hopeless case. But I need to see some true and lasting signs of improvement.
7. Dakota Hudson: I’m pretty sure that this enigmatic right-hander, age 28, is better than what he showed in 2022. Namely a 4.45 FIP, an inflated 10.2 percent walk rate and an abysmal 13 percent strikeout rate … not to mention opponents’ 40.4% hard-hit rate against him. He could really help the Cardinals when the inevitable and annual disruption hits the rotation, and he seems pretty excited about his work with new pitching coach Dusty Blake. (Dak is discovering the wonders of the more modern components of pitching including hi-tech advances.) I think there’s a decent chance for a turnaround.
8. Genesis Cabrera: I’m not feeling it. Last season the lefty reliever experienced a dreadful drop in fastball velocity and was battered for a 5.62 FIP. Over the final three months of the season the Cardinals entrusted him to work only 13 innings – and he had a 11.70 ERA and 7.27 FIP with a 9 percent strikeout rate and 12.3% walk rate. Enough said. I don’t think this is one of those “no problem, we’ll get him fixed” things. Hope I’m wrong.
9. Paul DeJong. Sigh. No need for me to go into the stats because you all understand just how much he’s gone off the cliff (metaphorically) over the past two seasons. This offseason DeJong has been rebuilding his swing (again) and working with many coaches (again) and is optimistic about the process working (again.) Cardinals management is eager to see DeJong during spring training and will overreact if he beats up on some minor-league pitchers during the exhibition games. But with Pauly, you don’t get an answer about his state of mind and state of offense until he slips into his first real slump of the regular season. That’s when the headwires get tangled again. I know he’s worked hard. I know he cares. He wants to be good again. I would like to see him rally. But performance matters. I can’t bring myself to bet on a meaningful upturn from DeJong, the hitter. At least he’s well above average defensively.
Thanks for reading …
Have a wonderful weekend …
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.