In the runup to spring training the Cardinals have a lot of questions. Most center around the offense, especially the outfield. There’s concern over the quality of depth for their position players and starting rotation.
There’s one question-free area: Defense.
Unless someone out yonder is having real anxiety over Tommy Edman succeeding Kolten Wong at second base — and please don’t worry about that too much — defense is a substantive strength.
The 2020 Cardinals led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. They were fourth overall, and second in the NL, for DRS in 2019. And while the Brewers will benefit by STL management’s decision to decline Wong’s option for 2021, the Cardinals made a stupendous upgrade by trading for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
The 2021 Cardinals will have four Gold Glove winners on the field: catcher Yadier Molina (9), Arenado (8), first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (3) and left fielder Tyler O’Neill (1.) That’s 21 career Gold Gloves. You can make it 22 on days that Adam Wainwright pitches.
And five Cardinals — Molina, Goldschmidt, shortstop Paul DeJong, center fielder Harrison Bader, and pitcher Jack Flaherty — were Gold Glove finalists at their position in 2019.
Rawlings and MLB began awarding a Platinum Glove in 2011; it’s given annually to the best defensive player in each league at any position. With four apiece, Arenado and Molina have combined to win eight of the 10 NL Platinums.
Let’s survey the real estate:
CATCHER: Molina has nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, a career caught-stealing rate of 40.3 percent, and ranks fourth in MLB history in Defensive WAR. Earlier in his career, after Molina had won the Fielding Bible award for best catcher six times in eight years, the Fielding Bible proclaimed: “Yadier Molina stands alone.”
PITCHERS: Waino won a Gold Glove. Flaherty nearly did. And Miles Mikolas has been a plus fielder in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS.) The same was true of Dakota Hudson, but he’ll miss 2021 after elbow surgery. Other plus defenders on the pitching staff include Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant and Giovanny Gallegos. In 2019, Cardinals’ pitchers combined for a terrific total of14 DRS
FIRST BASE: In addition to his three Gold Gloves, Goldschmidt ranks fourth among MLB first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved over the past four seasons. According to Fielding Bible, “Goldschmidt has tremendous range at first base, affording him opportunities to make plays that no other fielders even have a chance at.”
SECOND BASE: I won’t try to make the case that Tommy Edman is Wong’s equal at second base. Wong is simply the best. But here’s the deal … Edman is good. Really good. In only 147 big-league games Edman has 17 DRS (combined) at multiple positions. He’s a plus fielder at second base (+7), third base (+4), shortstop (+3), right field (+2), left field (+1.)
Since the start of the 2019 season Edman is one of only 26 MLB players to have at least 17 DRS, and over the same time period, Edman is tied for 12th among MLB infielders with 14 DRS. And Edman has played fewer innings — by a significant amount — than most of the fielders ahead of him.
Here’s the crazy thing: over the last two seasons Edman’s 7 DRS at second base is tied for sixth at the position in the majors — even though he’s played only 256 innings at second. A total of 69 players have logged more innings at 2B than Edman since the start of the ‘19 season — and yet Edman has saved more runs defensively than all but five of them. We’re dealing with a smallish sample size, but it seems pretty obvious that Edman can handle second base in a way that preserves the high standard established by Wong.
SHORTSTOP: Weakened by the effects of COVID-19, Paul DeJong wasn’t 100 percent last season but still held his own defensively, playing at an average level. Considering the circumstances here’s nothing wrong with that. DeJong was credited with 12 DRS in 2018, and 26 in 2019. Even with his average defensive performance in 2020, DeJong ranks second to Nick Ahmed in runs saved by big-league shortstops over the last three seasons. DeJong is already good, but he’ll undoubtedly enjoy having Arenado tationed to his right.
THIRD BASE: Arenado has the eight Gold Gloves; he’s won it in all eight of his MLB seasons. He has the four Platinum Gloves. He has 120 Defensive Runs Saved over those eight seasons; that leads all third basemen, is second among MLB infielders, and is fourth overall at any position. Arenado saved 15 runs defensively in 2020; that’s an eye-opening total because he played only 48 games. And no other third baseman was in double figures for DRS.
Just watch Arenado’s range when he moves to his left; he’s been credited with 72 runs saved on such plays during his career. His strong arm, alone, has saved 33 runs. And when moving to his left, Arenado has made 103 above-average plays defensively according to the Fielding Bible. I could go on. But here’s the last word: “Arenado is essentially a shortstop who plays third base,” The Fielding Bible wrote.
LEFT FIELD: Tyler O’Neill won the Gold Glove at his position last season and the selection was warranted; T.O. led all MLB left fielders with 9 Defensive Runs Saved. He made nine above-average plays and did his best work near the wall with a +8 on deep balls.
CENTER FIELD: Over the last three seasons Harrison Bader ranks third among MLB center fielders with 23 Defensive Runs Saved. That’s particularly notable because the two center fielders that registered more defensive runs saved — Lorenzo Cain and Kevin Kiermaier — played 558 and 299 more innings, respectively, than Bader in 2019-20. Harry wasn’t as effective in the 2020 short-season test, saving only one run with his defense. But that may have had something to do with positioning; after being a +16 on shallow flies in 2018 and ‘19 combined, Bader was a minus 1 on shallow plays in ‘20.
RIGHT FIELD: Top prospect Dylan Carlson played 263 innings in the Cards’ outfield last season: 69 in left, 113 in center, 81 in right. And he did well on his initial tour, saving two runs in center and two in right. Carlson could see a good amount of playing time in center field in 2021 but is thought to be more capable of thriving in a corner spot. The Cardinals made sure to give Carlson full run in right field by trading Dexter Fowler.
Let’s just say it straight up: Fowler was bad in right field, costing the Cardinals 11 runs there during his final three seasons. Among 28 big-league right fielders who worked at least 1,000 innings from 2018 through ‘20, only four cost their teams more runs than Fowler. Carlson is still getting acclimated to the majors but almost certainly will be a meaningful upgrade over Fowler.
Cardinals’ pitchers must be smiling and happy and looking forward to performing their craft with the support of this defense.
Thanks for reading …
Please listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. (But 4-6 p.m. on Friday.) If you can’t hear it live, then access the show and show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your preferred app store.