Hello, friends. Here’s my 6th piece in a series of cautious-optimism columns as I look ahead to 2024. The Cardinals will be better. I am convinced of that. But how much better? That’s the important question. If I didn’t think there were legitimate reasons for optimism, I wouldn’t be writing about it. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of pandering to readers by feeding into the negative feelings out there.
Frankly, I’d rather do some work and research in an effort to gauge potential areas of improvement and offer some aspects of this team that are being overlooked. I also realize that this is a futile task.
(My goodness, I still have to read and hear people denigrating free-agent starting pitcher Kyle Gibson as if he’s some marginal, mediocre retread – even though last season he was tied for 12th in the majors for most innings and had more quality starts than Aaron Nola, Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, Eduardo Rodriguez, Marcus Stroman, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Nathan Eovaldi, Freddy Peralta and many others. Gibson had as many quality starts, 17, as Sonny Gray. Gibson had one fewer quality start than Spencer Strider. And there was nothing wrong with Gibson’s 4.13 fielding independent ERA. What the heck do these knuckleheads expect for an addition who will serve as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter?)
OK, time for the next chapter …
The Cardinals are transitioning, and I’m speaking about the position players. The Cards have a cast of younger veterans that have displayed talent and shown improvement. For the most part, their careers have moved into a different realm. They are core pieces now.
With the exception of outfielder Dylan Carlson, this group of players has gotten better. They’ve made their mark and have largely avoided the Tyler O’Neill experience – one-season wonder, perpetual tease – to establish career traction. The Cardinals are justifiably counting on these individuals instead of doing the usual hoping and wishing and guessing and spinning in a nonsensical cycle.
I didn’t include center fielder Tommy Edman in this evaluation for several reasons: he’ll be 29 in May, and he’s been a regular lineup presence since 2019, and he already has 2,425 big-league plate appearances. Edman is an asset with his defense, speed baserunning and positional versatility. And with a new contract Edman will be a lineup fixture for at least two more seasons. I don’t know if this switch-hitter will ever become a more impactful hitter against right-handed pitching but his all-around play provides plenty of value. Edman ranks 37th among 302 qualifying position players since the start of 2019. And among those who have at least 2,000 plate appearances over that time, Edman has more WAR (15.3) than Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso, Bryan Reynolds, Ketel Marte, Max Muncy, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Luis Arraez, Randy Arozarena, Whit Merrifield and many others.
I just wanted to give Edman his props. His continuity fits into the overall picture. He’s the most “senior” member of the drafted-developed cast of homegrown position players.
As for the others only Carlson has played in more than 300 major-league games and had more than 1,000 plate appearances. From there, the range of experience goes from Masyn Winn (21 games) to Lars Nootbaar (283.) Nolan Gorman (208) and Jordan Walker (117) have combined for just 325 big-league games. Brendan Donovan is at 221 games. Alec Burleson has 123. Catcher Ivan Herrera and Winn are getting acclimated to the majors.
The Cardinals front office has missed on assessments of other younger position players along the way, but I give John Mozeliak and staff credit for getting it right with Gorman, Walker, Nootbaar and Donovan. Over time, I believe the front office will be proven correct in their evaluations of Winn, Herrera and Burleson.
This is important. With Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado getting older, the Redbirds have a position-player assembly to provide a positive foundation. And center field prospect Victor Scott (age 22) is on the way.
Last season the Cardinals were the only National League team to have three hitters age 25 or younger produce an OPS+ of 114 or higher. (Minimum 350 plate appearances.)
The three were Nootbaar, Walker and Gorman. Only one other team in the majors, Tampa Bay, had three hitters in that age group post an OPS+ of 114 or better. (Translation: the 114 OPS+ is 14 percent above the league average.)
Reason No. 6 For Optimism
It’s Paying Off.
And We Can Expect Improvement.
Let’s take a look, one-by-one.
JORDAN WALKER: Among age-21 Cardinal rookie hitters during the expansion era (1961-present), Walker ranked second to Albert Pujols in home runs, doubles, onbase percentage, OPS and OPS+. And Walker was third among age-21 hitters in slugging percentage and batting average. Among 21-year old MLB rookies last season Walker had the highest offensive WAR and was second in OPS, OPS+, batting average, doubles, slugging, total bases and extra base hits. And in that age-21 rookie group he ranked third in RBI and onbase percentage. Walker was awful in right field for much of his rookie season but visibly improved over the final two months or so.
NOLAN GORMAN: Gorman hit 41 homers in his first two big-league seasons. And among hitters aged 23 or younger only Julio Rodriguez and Bobby Witt Jr. had more bombs than Gorman in 2022 and 2023. During the expansion era only Pujols hit more home runs than Gorman among players that were 23 or younger. And Gorman was third to Pujols and Randal Grichuk in OPS+ and slugging. Gorman’s OPS over his first two seasons (.771) was higher than what Andy Van Slyke put up among Cardinals age 23 or younger.
LARS NOOTBAAR: Nootbaar, 26, has been a good hitter during his two-plus seasons in St. Louis. He’s one of 65 MLB outfielders that have logged at least 850 plate appearances over the last two seasons and ranks in the top third at the OF spot offensively in wRC+, WAR, onbase percentage, walk rate, and OPS. And he’s in the top 50 percent in slugging percentage. His hitting performance over the past two years includes a 14.5 percent walk rate, a .356 onbase percentage, a .430 slug and a .786 OPS. That translates into a hitting profile that’s 20 percent above league average offensively since the start of 2022. To reach his full potential, Lars must stay healthy, be more consistent, and get off to faster starts early in the season. Nootbarr played in his age-25 season in 2023. And if we look at where he fits among St. Louis outfielders that played at age 25 or younger during the expansion era – minimum 800 plate appearances – Nootbaar is third in onbase percentage, fourth in OPS+ and OPS and sixth in slugging. There’s more power in Nootbaar’s bat than he’s shown so far. I say that because he made some swing changes in 2023 that reduced his power, with his slugging percentage dropping to .418 after being at .448 in 2022. The swing-related issues caused an eight percent decrease in his hard-hit rate in ‘23. Nootbaar has played in only 283 big-league games and has fewer than big-league 1,000 plate appearances. He’ll improve. The ZiPS forecast has Noootbaar’s slugging percentage rising to .447 in 2024.
BRENDAN DONOVAN: No, he isn’t a kid. Donovan turned 27 earlier this month. But he’s done very well for a player in his first two big-league seasons. Among expansion-era Cardinals that had at least 800 plate appearances in their first two major-league seasons Donovan ranks second to Pujols in OPS+, onbase percentage and Win Probability Added and is third in offensive WAR.
Donovan’s .381 onbase percentage over the last two seasons was No. 1 in the majors among hitters that were in the first two MLB years. Donovan’s 120 OPS+ over 2022-2023 was fourth-best in the majors among hitters playing in their first two big-league seasons. The only guys in this specific category who did better than Donny were Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman and Michael Harris II.
Donovan doesn’t strike out much. He had an above-average 11.1 percent walk rate in his first two seasons. And he does exceptional work with his timely hitting. In his first two big-league seasons Donovan batted .331 with a .465 onbase percentage and .534 slug when batting with runners in scoring position. That hitting line translates into a 177 wRC+ that’s 77 percent above league average offensively. And that put Donovan eighth among MLB batters who made at least 100 plate appearances with runners in scoring position over the last two years.
On top of all that, Donovan won the utility-man Gold Glove award in 2022. So far for the Cardinals he’s logged 150+ innings at five different positions: second base, third base, first base, left field and right field. And he’s played 65 innings at shortstop.
As I wrote at the start of the offseason, Donovan is an emerging team leader. And that excites the manager, the front office and his teammates.
MASYN WINN: The presumptive starting shortstop turns 22 in March. He has abundant talent, a high-velocity arm, and should excel defensively for many years. The Cardinals did a smart thing by bringing Winn to the majors for 137 plate appearances late season; the first-time exposure to big-league pitching was positive for his development. His overall offensive numbers were terrible but hardly abnormal. He made real progress; you just have to look at the right things to see it. In his second month in the majors, Winn reduced his percentage of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. After a 36.7 percent chase rate in August, Winn cut that to 18.2% in September. And after walking only 1.9 percent of the time in his first month, Winn upped his walk rate to 12% in his second month. These were good signs that told us something about the young rookie: he learns fast, and knows how to make adjustments. Now he just needs to play a lot to expedite his development. Fans can probably help Winn by not losing their minds in a noisy overreaction if he starts slowly in 2024.
DYLAN CARLSON: The enigmatic, puzzling outfielder just turned 25, and there’s still time for him to get his career back on track after two downbound seasons. In 2021 Carlson had an OPS+ that was 15 percent better than the league average. But his offense declined in 2022, and by 2023 his OPS+ came in at 79. That was 21 percent below league average, and 36 percent lower than his career best OPS+ in ‘21. The ZiPS forecast offers encouragement for a bounce-back scenario, projecting a .335 onbase percentage, .412 slug and 108 OPS+ for Carlson in 2024. He has to get going to rise to the level predicted for him when promoted to the bug club in 2020.
ALEC BURLESON, IVAN HERRERA: Burleson, now 25, had an above-average offensive showing after the 2023 All-Star break. He’ll hit in the big leagues – it’s just a matter of time and opportunity – but the team’s signing of Matt Carpenter (age 38) raises questions about Burleson’s role in 2024. Will he be sent to the minors to get at-bats? It would be incredibly short-sighted – read: stupid – to have Burleson languish on the major-league bench.
As for Herrera … he’s 23 and still maturing but made considerable progress at Triple A Memphis last season, improving his offense (.951 OPS), defensive mechanics and pitch-calling acumen for the Redbirds. The Cardinals parted with No. 2 catcher Andrew Knizner just to open a big-league space for Herrera. The rookie figures to see a good amount of action; starter Willson Contreras can be used at DH to get a break from the rigors of catching.
Yeah, but! …
As part of these cautious-optimism exercises, I include potential negatives that will impact performance and lead to anxiety and/or disappointment.
– Gorman, recurring back pain.
– Walker: more defensive problems in right field, but he continues to improve through his hard work with coach Willie McGee.
– Nootbaar: injuries. Too streaky.
– Donovan: will the surgically repaired right elbow be good as new?
– Winn: A slow start, a predictable freak-out by fans, and manager Oli Marmol panicking. Remember when the Cardinals sent J. Walker to Memphis early last season?
– Carlson: a repeat of 2023, which included a .219 average and anemic .333 slugging percentage. Plus injuries that took a long time to heal.
– Burleson: blocked by Carpenter, who can be utilized as Paul Goldschmidt’s backup at first base.
– Herrera: Will it be hard for him to complete his development as a backup in the majors?
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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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts 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.