THE REDBIRD REVIEW
By now we know the Cardinals are obsessed with finding multiple upgrades for their starting rotation in a hurry-up plan to resuscitate the team for 2024.
But should the front office be concerned with the offense? It’s possible that we’ll see the Cardinals pursue quality starting via trade.
That figures to be an expensive undertaking, especially if potential trade partners are fixated on left-handed hitters Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. Not that the Cardinals would trade all three of them – but could the front-office be persuaded to part with one of the three?
Over the last two seasons the Cardinals have been among the top 10 teams in the majors in their performance against right-handed pitching, ranking eighth overall across 2022 and 2023.
That’s kind of a big deal.
From 2019 through 2021, the Cardinals ranked 21st among the 30 teams in matchups against RH pitchers, coming in at eight percent below league average according to wRC+.
Over the last two seasons, the Cardinals were six percent above league average against righties, an improvement of 14 percent from where they were before.
Three reasons for the enhanced performance against right-handed pitchers.
Yes, they’ve really made a difference. Nootbaar appeared in 58 games in 2021, but didn’t become a regular (when healthy) until the middle of the 2022 season. Donovan and Gorman didn’t arrive at the scene until 2022.
All three hitters have made the Cardinals better against right-handed pitching and that’s an important distinction to keep in mind.
+ Donovan has a .287 average and .381 onbase percentage against righthanders … and with improving power. This past season he slugged .460 and had an .831 OPS against them. Very good.
+ As a rookie, Gorman slugged .428 with 14 home runs against righties. But added experience made Gorman considerably more dangerous against right handers in 2023. This past season he slugged .477 and blasted 23 homers off RH pitchers.
+ Compared to his rookie-season showing against righties, Gorman hit four points higher, had a 23-point increase in onbase percentage and raised his slugging percentage by 49 points. As a rookie, Gorman homered against righthanders every 18.8 at-bats. In 2023, that ratio was more impressive with a homer vs. righties every 14.4 at-bats.
+ When Nootbaar faced righthanders in 2023 his batting average and onbase percentage were up 54 points (both categories) compared to 2022. His slugging percentage was roughly the same, around .450, over the two years. But his OPS vs. righties increased from .774 in 2022 to .835 last season.
On average, the Cardinals score more runs when the three left-side bats are in the lineup for the same game – hold that thought – but it’s been a problem to keep them on the field.
The trio missed a combined 139 in-season days because of injuries in 2023. Here’s the breakdown of missed days: Donovan 62, Nootbaar 49, Gorman 28.
And the Cardinals weren’t the same team when they didn’t have these three impact hitters slotted in the same lineup for a game.
A) Donovan, Gorman and Nootbaar were in the same starting lineup only 46 times in 2023. That’s only 28.4 percent of the 162-game schedule.
B) With the three LH bats in the same starting lineup, the Cardinals had a record of 22-24 for a .478 winning percentage. When these guys weren’t in the same starting lineup, the team’s record was 49-67 for a .422 winning percentage. That’s a positive difference of 56 points when they were in there together.
C) When the 2023 Cardinals used a starting lineup that didn’t include the Donovan-Gorman-Nootbaar presence, they averaged 4.2 runs per game. But when the triumvirate was intact, the Cardinals averaged 4.95 runs per game.
D) In the final 34 games that featured Donovan, Gorman and Nootbaar in the same lineup, the Cardinals went 21-13 (.618) and averaged 5.35 runs per game. The success was terminated when Donovan played his final game of the season on July 29. He withdrew to have elbow surgery and it’s expected that he’ll be ready by spring training.
E) With Donovan missing after July 29 – which unplugged the trio – the Cardinals went 25-31 and averaged 3.9 runs per game.
The drop in scoring was understandable.
Among Cardinal regulars, Donovan had the highest batting average (.294) against right-handed pitchers.
Nootbaar and Donovan ranked first and second respectively for the highest onbase percentage vs. righties.
Gorman led the Cardinals in homers (23) and Isolated Power (.150) against right-handed pitching and ranked second to Nolan Arenado in slugging and RBI against them.
Nootbaar and Donovan were first and second (respectively) in OPS vs. RH pitching. Gorman was sixth, a few points behind Paul Goldschmidt.
Gorman, Donovan and Nootbaar each ranked among the team’s top four in effective baserunning according to the FanGraphs metric.
Can the Cardinals swing a trade for a starting pitcher without giving up Gorman, Donovan or Nootbaar? That’s the big question.
Donovan is an onbase machine with burgeoning power. He’s been a respectable hitter against lefty pitching – but not so much in 2023. Donovan has been used at six different positions defensively. He won the Gold Glove as the NL’s best utility defender in 2022. Donovan turns 27 in January and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2028.
Nootbaar, 26, can play all three outfield positions. His best spot is right field, where he has six defensive runs saved over the last two seasons combined. Since the start of July in 2022, Nootbaar has posted a .374 onbase percentage, .473 slug, and .848 OPS. Per wRC+, Nootbaar has been 35 percent above league average offensively over that time. And 43 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases. He can’t become a free agent until 2028.
Gorman’s raw power is scary, and he’s only 23. He won’t be eligible for free agency until the 2029 season. In 2023, Gorman’s 27 homers ranked fifth among MLB players age 23 or younger. And that’s misleading because Gorman had the best home-run ratio – one every 15 at-bats – among the young hitters on the leaderboard. Gorman’s 27 homers were the most in franchise history in a season by a left-handed hitter age 23 or younger. And his second-base defense improved in 2023.
Gorman should be off-limits in the trade mart. He’s several years younger than Nootbaar and Donovan and has the most remaining years (five) of contract control.
The Cardinals haven’t had a power-hitting prodigy from the left side since … well … through his age-23 season, Stan Musial had a career .539 slugging percentage. Gorman has the second-best career slugging percentage (.454) to Musial through age 23. That’s based on a minimum 750 career plate appearances. And Gorman’s early-career 41 homers at age 23 are the most for the Cardinals by a left-handed hitter that young.
The last thing the Cardinals should want to do is send away another young hitter to become an All-Star for his next employer.
Adolis Garcia has 97 home runs and just under 300 RBI for the Texas Rangers since the start of 2021. Randy Arozarena had one of the greatest postseason performances in MLB history in 2020 to carry Tampa Bay to the American League pennant in 2020. Over his last three seasons, Arozarena has averaged 21 homers, 31 doubles and 25 stolen bases while performing 25 percent above the league average offensively.
Paul Goldschmidt is entering the final season of his contract in 2024, and he’ll be 37 by the end of next season. His offensive performance is good, but it’s declined. Nolan Arenado turns 34 in April and just had his lowest onbase percentage, slugging percentage and OPS in a full season since his rookie year (2013) at Colorado. That’s something to think about as St. Louis management ponders various trade scenarios.
I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to see Gorman blasting 40 to 45 homers a year in another team’s uniform. Kyle Schwarber had 16 big-league homers by age 23. Gorman has 41, giving him a head start. Schwarber has gone on to rip 30 or more homers in five different seasons, and he’s averaged 46.5 homers over the past two campaigns.
Not only that, but Schwarber’s 18 career postseason homers are tied for seventh in major-league history. In today’s style of game, if you want to win in the postseason, your team must have the capability to hit lots of home runs.
Be careful, Cardinals.
Please be very careful.
Thanks for reading …
And I hope you have a splendid weekend …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.