The best part of spring training is knowing that the Cardinals have so many talented young players, busy at work. They’re trying to improve. They’re trying to make a positive impression. They’re trying to find the way to St. Louis – in 2023, or soon after.
Jordan Walker demonstrated this in Sunday’s exhibition game by plastering an inside fastball thrown by Miami’s Johnny Cueto. Uh-oh. Walker’s three-run homer officially scudded 430 feet and symbolically closed some distance between Triple A Memphis and the big club in St. Louis.
Nolan Gorman has fixated on eliminating his primary weakness, the high fastball, and is making progress. Dylan Carlson has bulked up in an effort to have more strength and endurance in 2023. Brendan Donovan has made some changes to his body, his bat, and his swing … and powered a homer in Saturday’s exhibition opener. Moises Gomez – who led the minors in homers and slugging percentage last season – already has said a loud hello with hard-contact samples of his power. My fellow statheads are gushing over Lars Nootbaar and his chance to have a breakout full season after having a startlingly good second in 2022.
(Side note: Tyler O’Neill isn’t a newbie — he’ll be 28 in June — but he’s trying to reinvent himself as a center fielder after working to shape a more flexible body over the winter. So in his own way, O’Neill is still developing.)
But take a look around at the younger Cardinals. There’s so many of them … too many to put on the 2023 opening-day roster. This is a strength-in-numbers situation. In addition to the guys I’ve already mentioned, there’s future starting shortstop Masyn Winn, outfielder Alec Burleson and professional hitter Juan Yepez – plus highly regarded pitching prospects Tink Hence and Gordon Graceffo. And others that I won’t mention for now.
Think about Burleson for a moment. Here’s a guy who won his league batting title (.331) and rolled up a .905 OPS at Triple A Memphis last season, and he’s barely getting a mention in camp. It’s a crowded outfield, with no shortage of options at DH, and that’s a good sign for the Cardinals.
The early days of spring training mean little in terms of counting statistics. Many a media person – including this typist – have experienced rapid respiration issues while overreacting to Grapefruit League stars who quickly fade.
But as a general principle, it’s OK to put trust in the younger St. Louis players. I say that because of the Cardinals’ recent upturn in drafting or developing talent. It is an opinion supported by the numbers when we compare how all 30 organizations have done in reaping meaningful contributions at the MLB level.
Since the beginning of the 2019 season the Cardinals are one of only six MLB teams that have competed in the postseason in each of the last four seasons.
And the Redbirds have gotten it done with the young players forming a meaningful part of the team’s solid foundation. Their busiest rookies have been more than a bunch of spare parts; their performances have mattered. More on that in a minute.
As we’ve all said a million times, the Cardinals benefit from having headquarters in the low-grade NL Central. Their second–rate home base lessens the challenge of qualifying for the postseason.
That said, the Cardinals didn’t force the Cubs, Reds and Pirates to go into the rebuilding mode and sink to an overall record below .500 over the past four years. The Cardinals don’t choose their schedule. The players have a job to do against all teams – abysmal opponents included.
Now, let’s get back to discussing the kid Cardinals and the role they’ve played during STL’s run of four consecutive postseasons. I went to FanGraphs to come up with these breakdowns:
— Since 2019, rookie-eligible St. Louis position players lead the majors with 11.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR.) And their rookie hitters are tied for third in MLB in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+.) The rooks were also fourth overall in wOBA.
(Note: I don’t use wOBA much in these columns, but it’s a valuable metric that I should cite more often. Here’s the definition as presented at MLB.com: wOBA is a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base — instead of simply considering whether a player reached base. Example: a double is worth more than a single)
— From 2019 through 2022, rookie-eligible Cardinal pitchers were 14th in WAR, which isn’t great … but still above average. Using a more traditional stat, St. Louis rookie pitchers were fourth among the 30 teams with a 3.83 ERA over this time frame and produced the 10th-highest number of innings. Their rookie starting pitchers ranked third in ERA, 4.01. Their rookie relievers were fourth in ERA, 3.68
Now let’s look at young players, period. Rookies and veterans that were no older than 25 during this four-season stretch from 2019 through 2022:
— The young St. Louis position players were sixth in the majors in WAR with 23.0. The defensive component stood out; the 25-and-under Cardinals had the highest defensive rating (per FanGraphs) from 2019 through ‘22. Offensively this group was about average (No. 15) in park-and-league adjusted runs created. But don’t sneer at the defense-heavy WAR figure here; excellent defense is a big part of what the Cardinals are – and a significant factor in their winning ways.
— St. Louis pitchers age 25 and under had the third-best ERA over the last four seasons at 3.75. Their starters were third with a 3.76 ERA, and the relievers were fifth with a 3.74 ERA. Their overall WAR (8.9) ranked only 16th, but that’s mostly because of a strikeout-walk ratio (2.1) that ranked 24th among the 30 teams. But as we know, this organization has gone with a pitch-to-contact philosophy to take advantage of the team’s defense. And from that standpoint the young Cards pitchers did their job by constructing the third–highest ground ball rate (47.7%) in the majors since 2019. Bottom line: the young pitchers were effective at preventing runs.
Player development is the guiding philosophy instituted by team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. It’s being carried out by president of baseball ops John Mozeliak, GM Michael Girsch, director of player development Gary LaRocque, scouting director Randy Flores, and the rest of the baseball-ops staff.
Since the start of the 2000 season rookie Cardinal pitchers have the best ERA in the majors (3.98) and rank 10th in WAR. Their starters have the best ERA (4.06) over that time, and the rookies in the bullpen churned a 3.90 ERA that ranks fourth.
That’s not all. Since the start of the 2020 season rookie STL position players lead MLB in WAR (45.6), with the Dodgers second at (40.7). Over the same 23 seasons rookie Redbird hitters are second in wRC+, second in OPS, second in slugging, third in onbase percentage, fourth in batting average and fifth in home runs.
The impact of young talent is a St. Louis specialty.
The tradition continues this spring in Jupiter.
Sure, there have been some disappointments along the way.
First, the Cardinals haven’t developed a true No. 1 starter since Adam Wainwright evolved into one of the best starting pitchers in franchise history. Michael Wacha looked to be that guy in 2013 but his career was derailed by injuries. Jack Flaherty sure looked like a No. 1 starter in 2019 when he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, but that didn’t last. He hasn’t been the same over the past three seasons but has a chance to rebound in 2023. As for the youngsters in camp, Tink Hence and Gordon Graceffo could be the answer to the top-starter void – but not immediately.
Second, the Cardinals haven’t developed a superstar hitter since Albert Pujols came to the majors in 2001. (Catcher Yadier Molina is a future Hall of Famer, but mostly for his impeccable defense.) And even with that, Pujols didn’t require development. He was ready to dominate MLB pitchers from the moment he arrived.
Over the ensuing years the next-best hitter developed by the Cardinals was Matt Carpenter, who had a .377 OBP, .471 slug and a OPS+ that put him 31 percent above league average offensively from 2012 through 2018.
The tragedy of Oscar Tavares was a separate and more painful development. The organization was planning to build around Taveras, their top prospect. But the young outfielder and his girlfriend were killed in a one-vehicle crash on Oct. 26, 2014.
The Cardinals have been searching for their next organization-trained hitting star ever since.
Pardon my awkward transition, but …
Who will be the next big-time hitter drafted-developed by St. Louis?
I’m taking a deep breath as I write this — no hyperventilating! — but Jordan Walker’s first home run of the spring may have given us a preview of coming attractions.
Thanks for reading …
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 in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online and Fielding Bible.
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.