THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Let’s take a break from agonizing over St. Louis pitching and shift our attention to the shape of the Cardinals’ offense for 2024.
Unless I’ve missed something the Cardinals appear to be virtually set with their personnel. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has alluded to the possibility of picking up a veteran bat for depth purposes, but it’s nothing that he’s emphasized.
Here’s my concern: the Cardinals overestimate what they have. I’m not suggesting the Cards will be weak offensively in 2024. But will this offense be strong? Is the assembled cast of position players as good as management believes? It’s a fair question.
Here are my concerns.
1. Remember 2023. It Wasn’t Great Offensively. The ‘23 Cardinals ranked 19th in the majors with an average of 4.44 runs per game, below the MLB average of 4.62 runs per. Among National League teams only the Mets, Nationals, Pirates, Giants and Marlins scored fewer runs than the Cardinals.
Brendan Donovan (elbow) didn’t play after July, and his absence mattered. The Cardinals also had two key hitters – Nolan Arenado and Nolan Gorman – bothered by back issues that cut into their production. Over the final two months Arenado slashed .235/.285/.343 with four homers in 166 at-bats and was 30 percent below league average offensively per wRC+. In the final two months Gorman batted .217, slugged .405 and struck out in 37 percent of his plate appearances. Paul Goldschmidt experienced a drop in numbers last season but much of that had to do with unfortunate batted-ball outcomes. Getting rid of Tyler O’Neill was a necessary move but it doesn’t alleviate potential concerns about the state of the STL offense going into 2024.
2. What About The Offense At The Center Field Position? It’s A Big Question. I understand why manager Oli Marmol wants Tommy Edman’s defense in center; last season Edman was 5 outs above average out there. But in 2023 season St. Louis center fielders combined to slash a poor .225/.306/.368 and ranked 22nd at the CF spot with a .673 OPS. Per wRC+, the team’s center-field group generated offense that was 15 percent below average. That ranked 21st among 30 center-field contingents.
Most of the CF playing time went to Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson and Edman. Nootbaar – with a wRC+ that was 22 percent above league average offensively – put up good numbers when deployed in center.
Edman and Carlson combined for 313 plate appearances when used in center and struggled terribly on offense:
Edman as a CF: .185 average, .250 onbase percentage, .296 slug, .546 OPS and a wRC+ that was 50 percent below league average offensively. Playing center field isn’t easy, and Edman’s high-speed chasing of baseballs can lead him into diving and leaping, hard landings on the turf, and banging into the outfield walls. The demands of center field could wear him out.
Carlson as a CF: .204 average, .273 onbase percentage, .306 slug, .579 OPS and a wRC+ that was 40 percent below league average offensively. Carlson and Edman are switch hitters who get overmatched by right–handed pitching. In 517 plate appearances vs. righties over the last two seasons Carson batted .204 with a .620 OPS and was 23 percent below league average offensively per wRC+.
3. Related: What Can We Realistically Expect From The Outfield? Last season St. Louis outfielders combined for a wRC+ that was two percent above league average offensively. The group collectively hit .246 with a .329 OBP and .401 slug and ranked 19th with a .730 OPS. And St. Louis outfielders ranked 20th in the majors in home runs, and 22nd in RBI.
According to Mozeliak, the plan is to go with Nootbaar in left, Edman in center, Jordan Walker in right and Carlson as the fourth outfielder. Alec Burleson (presumably) would serve as the fifth outfielder, a backup first baseman and a DH. I’ve given you the info on Edman and Carlson and their hitting concerns. So we’ll look at the others.
Nootbaar: Over his last two seasons, the left-swinging Noot has gotten into right-handed pitching for a .358 onbase percentage, .451 slug and a .809 OPS. He also posted a wRC+ that was 20 percent above league average overall, and 25% above average against RH pitching. Nootbaar hasn’t lived up to the hype, but he’s good and should improve in 2024. And you can count on him to be a regular presence on the bases because of a juicy career walk rate of 14 percent. And relative to modern standards, he doesn’t strike out much.
Noot must stay healthy. Nootbaar missed 45 in-season games last season with thumb, back and groin injuries. He played in 108 games in 2022, and 118 games last year. Swing adjustments made by Nootbaar before the ‘23 season set him back a bit and his slugging percentage dropped 30 points from the previous year (.448) to .418. Noot’s average exit velocity dropped by 2.6 miles per hour and his hard-hit rate went from 46 percent in 2022 to 38% in ‘23. Nootbaar has to put everything together with his swing and be healthier and more consistent to have a bang-up year we’ve been waiting for.
Walker: Working with coach Willie McGee, Walker went from playing horrendous defense in right field for much of the season to performing at an average level defensively over the final month. So in his second big-league season Walker should be more confident and astute in right field. For a 21-year-old rookie Walker impressed last season with a .292 average, .342 OBP, .445 slug, 20 homers, 75 RBI and a wRC+ that put him 21 percent above league average offensively. Walker should be better in 2024 – but the early projections don’t agree. Steamer has Walker dropping slightly in slugging and OPS. To use a betting term, I’ll take the “Over” on that.
Burleson: Up front let us declare the obvious: the big man is a liability on defense as a corner outfielder. Last season he was a minus 9 in outs above average because of range limitations. In my view, too many people are dismissive of his offensive potential. Here’s why I say that:
* Because of his bat-to-ball skills and extremely low swing-miss and strikeout rate, he doesn’t get overmatched at the plate.
* Based on his quality of contact last season, Burly had an expected batting average of .277 and an expected slugging percentage of .477. And that includes an expected slugging percentage of .595 on four-seam fastballs.
* Before the All-Star break last season, awful batted-ball luck was primarily responsible for his .222 average and .651 slug. But after the break, his batting average on balls in play jumped to .307 and that was reflected in a .273 average and .742 slug. He definitely improved. Per wRC+, Burleson was 22 percent below average offensively in the first half and 3 percent above average in the second half. It’s really silly to downgrade his chances of becoming an impactful swell big-league hitter. But he has to start barreling more pitches.
I don’t know how much Burleson will play at a corner outfield spot next season, but he has a live bat. How much Burleson plays – and where he plays – is up to Marmol.
Should the Cardinals want to go another way for reserve strength they can utilize Richie Palacios or sign an extra outfielder at economy-rate prices.
Here’s the problem: Technically the Cardinals have enough outfielders – but will the outfielders do enough offensively? That’s what it comes down to. When two of your top four planned outfielders are offensively challenged … well, that’s not ideal.
4. Masyn Winn, Starting Shortstop: The Cardinals are committed to using Winn as their starter in 2024. Unless he looks completely lost at the plate in spring training, he’ll be the opening-day shortstop. I’m not sure why so many folks overreacted to his .172 average and .467 OPS in his first big-league opportunity. It was just valuable for the 21-year-old to get 137 plate appearances against big-league pitching. That will help him going into 2024. That said, what’s a fair expectation for ‘24? Steamer projects a .247 average, .308 onbase percentage and .382 slug for Winn next season. If he plays excellent defense, the Cardinals can live with that – and Winn will continue to grow and mature offensively.
After a slow start when moving up from Double A, Winn did very well against Triple A pitching last season. He doesn’t have much – if anything – to learn at Triple A. His hitting reps have to come in the majors; that’s the only way he’ll improve. The Cardinals were 11 percent below league average offensively at the shortstop position last season. But unless they’re planning to bring center field prospect Victor Scott to the show after two or three months at Triple A Memphis, Edman will roam center field and won’t see a lot of action at short.
5. Other Important Questions That Must Be Posed …
— Arenado also has back issues and will turn 33 years old in April. Last season Arenado’s slugging percentage dropped 34 points from 2022 and he had his worst all-around offensive performance in a full season since 2014. Is that something to worry about?
— How many games will rookie Ivan Herrera play at catcher? I’d think he’d need to play fairly often to continue his development as a hitter.
— Does Herrera’s presence mean more DH time for Willson Contreras? Last season Contreras had 363 plate appearances as a catcher and 127 plate appearances as a designated hitter. But he was much better offensively when catching – .878 OPS – compared to working as a DH (.677 OPS.)
— Will Gorman be bothered by recurring back problems in 2024? It’s a concern internally … and nothing to wave off.
— Will Goldschmidt, age 36, raise his offensive numbers next season? Goldy’s underlying metrics were terrific in 2023 so the age concerns weren’t a big deal. But will he begin to succumb to age-related trends?
— Will Mozeliak fortify the bench with quality additions? Do the Cardinals need a utility infielder? Or will they go with a 2024 version of Taylor Motter?
Thanks for reading!
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
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.