34th round picks do not typically become successful ballplayers, especially not 34th round picks who were released by the team that drafted them and then spent time in indy ball. However, there is a chance that John Nogowski could defy the odds and earn a place on the 2020 Cardinals team.
The right-handed hitting first baseman was not highly regarded in his early professional years as he was a first baseman with a good glove and not much power. The glove is nice, but teams always look for power at such a ‘low-value’ defensive position. However, Nogowski’s strengths were his plate discipline, approach at the plate, and overall hitting ability. Since he did not have much power when he was first entering professional ball, he managed to create offensive value by limiting his strikeouts, drawing enough walks, and hitting for a solid average. Once he was released by the A’s following Spring Training in 2017, however, he played some indy ball and then joined the Cardinals. From here he began his upward trajectory. Since joining the Redbirds, Nogowski has yet to finish a season with more strikeouts than walks. This is a remarkable feat, and he has done it every year for two and a half years. Additionally, he has discovered his power. After never hitting more than eight home runs in a season, the first baseman clubbed 12 in 2018 and 15 in 2019. This uptick in power, along with his elite plate discipline gives him the profile of a solid all around hitter who is able to get on base frequently while also adding a decent amount of long balls.
He may never be an elite power hitter, but he has enough power to provide value at his position, especially when it is paired with his plate discipline. It seems reasonable to believe that Nogowski’s 14.9% walk rate and 11.7% strikeout rate in Triple-A should help him make a quick adjustment to MLB-caliber pitching.
However, with Paul Goldschmidt locked into first base, it did not seem likely that Nogowksi would really be given a chance. Now, the adoption of the universal DH rule in 2020 changes his fortunes. The Cardinals have an opening at designated hitter and could very easily rotate different players into that role. It seems likely that Matt Carpenter will play that role frequently as that would allow his bat to stay in the lineup while the younger and more agile Tommy Edman could man third base. However, it seems unlikely that Mike Shildt would allow the left-handed hitting Carpenter to DH against a left-handed pitcher. This creates opportunity for the right-handed hitting John Nogowski who would have the platoon advantage in such situations. With a platoon advantage, Nogowski has shown an ability to do major damage at the plate as he batted .364 against southpaw in 2017 and .349 against southpaws in 2018 while playing at Double-A Springfield.
If the Cardinals are looking for a platoon partner for Matt Carpenter in the DH role, then they should give Nogowski a shot as he has the ability to get on base consistently and add some extra base hits as well.
It appears that the Cardinals do see some promise in Nogowski as he saw action in 11 Spring Training games earlier this year before Spring Training was shut down. In his 25 plate appearances he walked five times and posted an OBP of .400 while striking out just three times. All of his hits were singles, but there was a very small sample size, and thus milited time for him to show off his power.
Clearly minor league success does not always translate to major league success. Additionally, the Cardinals also have more accomplished players at the MLB level and more highly touted prospects that will all be fighting for at-bats in the new designated hitter role. Despite this, Nogowski should not be disregarded, he should be given a chance. Additionally, the player with better results should be the player to receive the at-bats. So, if Nogowski hits better than players like Tyler O’Neill or Dexter Fowler, then he should be allowed to continue receiving regular plate appearances. If that is not the case, then he should be removed from his role. However, Nogowski seems like a late-bloomer who has recently been developing power after spending years as a hitter with an extremely advanced approach at the plate. These things together can create a valuable hitter, and John Nogowski should be given the chance to be just that.