Major League Baseball will return at some point in 2022. Until then, I’ll keep my mind and typing fingers busy by taking an advance look at the 2022 Cardinals.

The roster isn’t completely set, and we don’t know if the front office will go outside the organization for upgrades. But the bullpen will likely have a new addition or two, and the rotation is in need of depth. There should be room for a bench/platoon bat, but the front office could go with what they have, knowing that prospects Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez are on the way.

Today, I want to offer opinions on players and a couple of non-players that have a lot on the line in 2022. This really isn’t based on contract concerns, but that’s at least a minor factor with some of the names on the list.

Shall we begin?

1) Jack Flaherty, starting pitcher: He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2019 after pitching to a 2.75 ERA in 33 starts – including a 0.93 ERA over his final 16 outings of the season As a follow-up to his solid 2018 campaign, Flaherty delivered a breakout year at age 23. But Jack regressed over the past two seasons due to injuries (2021) and the chaos caused by the pandemic (2020.)

In 2018-2019 combined, Flaherty ranked 31st in the majors for most innings, was 29th in most starts, and had the eighth-best ERA (3.01) among big-league starters.

Since the start of the ‘20 season Flaherty ranks 131st among MLB pitchers in innings, is tied for No. 123 for most starts, is 48th with a 3.79 starter ERA, and is tied for 62nd with a 4.18 FIP.

In 2018-2019 Flaherty’s 135 ERA+ meant that he performed 35 percent above the league average, and that ranked 12th in the majors. But over the last two seasons Flaherty has a ERA+ of 105 (five percent above average) that’s tied for 66th among starters.

Flaherty is getting deeper in the arbitration cycle and can become a free agent after the 2023 season. The Cardinals need him to make more starts, provide more innings, and pitch like an ace. Flaherty needs to do just that to maximize his future earning power and make the case for a substantial contract from the Cardinals or a team that’s in the market for a free agent. For the Cardinals and Flaherty, this would be a great time for Jack to return to his 2019 form.

2) John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. Mozeliak doesn’t have much to apologize for since becoming the GM and head of baseball ops before the 2008 season. In his 14 seasons as the baseball boss, the Cardinals rank third overall and second in the NL in regular-season winning percentage, and have made the postseason nine times. In the National League, only the Dodgers (11) have qualified for more postseasons than the Cardinals (9) and Braves (9) during Mozeliak’s term in office. And the Cardinals rank third in postseason wins (36) by an NL team during that time, trailing only the Dodgers (60) and Giants (37.)

Going into 2022 the Cardinals have made the postseason for three consecutive seasons. Since the start of the 2011 season the Cardinals have competed in the playoffs eight times in 11 years – tied with the Yankees for second-most in the majors behind the Dodgers’ nine postseasons.

The Mozeliak resume is topped by a World Series championship, two NL pennants, and five appearances in the NLCS.

It’s absolutely ludicrous to slam Mozeliak for doing a poor or mediocre job. The Cardinals are high on the list of the most consistently successful teams in the majors. But the Mozeliak resume has more holes now.

The Cardinals have played in one World Series during the last 10 seasons. They haven’t won a game in the NLCS since 2014. They are 5-15 in their last 20 postseason games. The frequency of postseason appearances is worthy of praise, but Mozeliak hasn’t been aggressive enough in constructing deeper and stronger rosters that make the team more capable of winning a pennant or World Series.

Mo’s relative inactivity at the annual MLB trade deadline is difficult to accept. Not that he must make big-splash moves every year, but just look at what can happen when the front office makes a moderate trade-deadline upgrade; in 2021 the Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs without the July acquisitions of starting pitchers Jon Lester and J.A. Happ and relievers T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia. Those effective moves validated the critics who chastised Mozeliak for being too passive about making in-season trades.

And then there was the abrupt firing of manager Mike Shildt, the 2019 NL Manager of the Year who led the team to three straight postseason appearances. A month after being sacked by Mozeliak, Shildt finished third in the NL’s 2021 Manager of the Year voting. Mozeliak had his reasons for replacing Shildt but has declined to share them with fans and media. Shildt’s successor, Oliver Marmol, is a Mozeliak favorite. And if Marmol disappoints as a rookie manager in 2022, the heat will get turned up on Mozeliak – and Mo’s contract expires at the end of the 2023 season.

And if the 2022 Cardinals skid and fail to make the postseason, the disappointment could prompt third baseman Nolan Arenado to consider opting out of his St. Louis contract after ‘22.

3) Paul DeJong, shortstop. We can also tie DeJong’s situation to Mozeliak, who gave the young power-hitting infielder a six-year, $26 million contract before the 2018 season. At the time of the signing, it was the largest-ever contract for a player with less than one year of Major League service time. DeJong peaked offensively during his rookie season in 2017. He had 30 homers and a solid 2019, only to struggle over the past two seasons.

From 2017 through 2019, among the 10 NL shortstops that had at least 1,100 plate appearances over that time, DeJong ranked second in homers, RBI and Isolated Power and was third in slugging and fourth in OPS.

Since the start of the 2020 season, among 12 NL shortstops that have at least 550 plate appearances over that time, DeJong ranks last in batting average (.213), is 10th in OPS (.671) and slugging (.375), and ranks ninth in homers and RBIs.

Mozeliak is determined to stay the course with DeJong as the starting shortstop, in part because of his above-average defense. But another reason is payroll politics; the Cardinals owe DeJong $15 million total over the next two seasons with team options for 2024 and 2025. A lot is on the line for DeJong. He will either reestablish his offense after two brutal seasons at the plate, or continue to sink. And if DeJong continues to plummet offensively, his failure will also be viewed as a front-office failure.

4) Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, legends. First, let us restate the obvious and say they have nothing to prove. Both are locks for the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Molina almost certainly will be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and is the No. 1 catcher in franchise history. Wainwright ranks second to Bob Gibson in franchise history in wins and strikeouts, is third in starts and winning percentage, is fourth in innings, and sixth in ERA+ for a starter that’s pitched at least 1,000 innings.

But these two Cardinal Classics have something at stake in 2022. Wainwright needs 18 individual-pitcher wins to reach 200 for his career. That’s still a special milestone. Molina is in position to move up in the all-time catcher rankings for most games, hits, RBIs and doubles. Depending on the category, we’re talking top three, top five, or top 10. And of course both proud Cardinals would love to put the finishing touch on their careers by leading the Cards to a pennant and World Series title.

If Waino and Molina work with each other for 20 starts this season, they’ll become the No. 1 pitcher-catcher battery in MLB history with 325 starts. They have 305 starts going into the season and can overtake the Detroit combination of pitcher Mickey Lolich and catcher Bill Freehan, who were the battery for 324 starts as Tigers between 1963 and 1975.

If Wainwright and Molina get there, we can safely say that their record will never be broken. We’ll never see a starting-pitching + catcher combo work as teammates for the entirety of their lengthy major-league careers. Careers just don’t last as long during modern times – and we don’t see guys being teammates for 18 seasons. And 2022 will be the 18th season of Wainwright pitching to Molina as Cardinals. Wainwright first pitched to Molina as a reliever on Sept. 23, 2005. Their first start as battery mates came on April 6, 2007 – or before most – if not all – of your kids were born.

But the lockout and a truncated 2022 schedule could jeopardize or ruin the Waino-Yadi chance to reach start No. 325, or crush Wainwright’s hopes for career win No. 200, or prevent Molina from making his way up the charts for career achievements by a catcher. And if both men retire after 2022 and don’t have a chance to maximize their career goals, it would be a travesty and another reason to turn away from major-league baseball.

5) Oliver Marmol, manager. He’s excited about having his first opportunity to manage in the majors. And he’ll be managing the team that drafted him as a player at age 20, made him a manager in the organization at age 25, and promoted him to the major-league coaching staff at age 30, and made him the St. Louis manager at age 35.

There’s a familiarity, comfort and abundant organizational knowledge, and that should be a significant plus for Marmol in 2022. But Oli still must prove that he can handle the many demands that come with the most difficult job he’ll ever have.

Marmol is replacing a manager, Shildt, that had a .559 winning percentage in three-plus seasons for the Cardinals. Shildt’s winning percentage that was superior to that of previous Cardinal managers Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog, Red Schoendienst and Mike Matheny. And Shildt guided the Cardinals into the playoffs in each of his three full seasons in the job. If Marmol is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the assignment, he’ll lose credibility. And that matters. Mozeliak has fired two managers since July 14, 2018 … winning managers, Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt, that led St. Louis to the postseason a combined seven times in 10 years.

6) Miles Mikolas, starting pitcher. He has no worries financially after signing a four-year, $68 million deal with the Cardinals before his second season (2019) with the club. Based on the contract structure the big money kicked in before the 2020 season with an average salary of $15.75 million annually through 2023.

To simplify, Mikolas has been paid a total of $31.5 million over the last two seasons in exchange for nine starts and 44.2 innings pitched. The injuries aren’t his fault, and I’m not throwing shade on him. Pitcher injuries are frequent. Pitcher contracts are risky. Mikolas seems to be fine now, looked good late in the 2021 season, and should be full go in 2022. I assume Mikolas wants to show that he was worth the investment, and is anxious to help the Cardinals going forward. Though his 2019 season wasn’t nearly as brilliant as his 2018 season, the Cardinals would gladly take in 2022-2023 the Mikolas performance they saw over 2018-2019: 64 starts, 385 innings, 3.46 ERA.

7) Andrew Knizner, catcher. In parts of three seasons he’s played in only 89 games with only 260 plate appearances. The defense is about average, and the hitting hasn’t been there – which often is the case for young catchers that don’t play much. And if you are Molina’s backup, you are pretty much confined to the dugout. But Knizner did receive a career–high 89 games and 185 plate appearances in 2021. He didn’t supply much offense, batting .174 with a .517 OPS. If Molina follows through on his plans to retire after the coming season, the catcher competition for 2023 will be wide open. Knizner will be in the mix along with (presumably) highly-regarded prospect Ivan Herrera. (Plus a veteran catcher to be named later.) I don’t know how much Knizner will play in 2022, but he must make the most of it to get a jump on the competition for 2023.

8) Dakota Hudson, starting pitcher: In 2019 he went 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA. The shine on the win-loss record had a lot to do with Dak’s generous run support, but his talent was real. An elbow injury led to elbow surgery. He worked only 39 innings in 2020 before being shut down, and returned from surgery rehab in time to pitch 8.2 innings late last season. Hudson was impressive in his comeback, crackling with increased velocity and reducing his walk rate. And that’s important because the right-hander has a pitching formula that leads to trouble: a career walk rate of 11.3 percent, and a career strikeout rate of 18.1%. He gets a ton of ground balls, and that’s a sweet way to go with a stellar infield defense behind him. But Hudson, still only 27, has the potential to elevate the STL rotation. And 2022 will be a big year for him. He’s into the arbitration-years stage of his career, and pitching very well will lead to him getting paid very well.

9) Lars Nootbaar, outfielder. He played great late in the season and had a plus rookie season overall. His left-handed swing is a precious commodity for a Cards lineup that is largely mediocre against right-handed pitching. If Nootbaar can build on what he began in 2021, the Cardinals will have a valuable fourth outfielder and a designated hitter candidate that can do wonders for their depth. And with an impressive 2022, Noot will establish a potentially impressive MLB career.

10) Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos.

The relievers:

Reyes broke apart over the final three months of 2021, pitching to a 5.71 ERA with a hideous 14% walk rate and a soaring home-run rate. Is he built to pitch a full season of relief, or is it smarter to use him as a starter? A year later, the question is still on the table.

Hicks … who knows? I’m not being flippant or dismissive. But since the start of the 2019 season Hicks has pitched only 38.2 big-league innings. The high velocity has returned after elbow surgery and rehab, but the Cardinals are taking an extremely cautious approach with the Hicks relaunch. Defining a role for him at this point is foolish. Hicks just needs to show that he can pitch like a dominator but without breaking down. If Hicks can do that in 2022, the Cardinals will be happy to figure out the rest.

I’m a Gallegos fan but not entirely convinced that he’s a closer. He too wore down last season, with a 4.23 ERA and a drop in strikeout rate over the final three months. He was still plenty good, but not necessarily the wipeout reliever that had us spoiled. The 14 saves were nice. But if indeed the Cardinals plan to go with Gio as the primary closer from the beginning to the end of 2022, much will be revealed.

BONUS BIRD BYTES:

Hey, there are other guys that warrant a mention. Steven Matz doesn’t have a lot on the line, per se. But the Cardinals gave the free-agent lefty a four-year contract, and much is expected from him … is reliever Ryan Helsley good to go in the bullpen? He’s overrated internally and by most media and is coming off an injury … can center fielder Harrison Bader sustain his improvement from 2021 and limit his strikeouts and win the battles against RH pitching for the second consecutive years … can Tyler O’Neill announce himself as a league MVP candidate in 2022 – or was there anything flukish about his 2021? … can Arenado adjust to Busch Stadium after being frustrated by the place in 2021? In his first season as a Cardinal, Arenado hit .228 with a .722 OPS at Busch, and batted .279 with a .885 OPS on the road … how good can right fielder Dylan Carlson be for the entirety of 2022? DC tred out late in the first half of his rookie season but reanimated after the 2021 All-Star break for a .277 average, .343 OBP, .505 slug, .848 OPS, 15 doubles, and 11 homers … 2022 won’t make them or break ’em, but will Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez perform up to the hype?

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.