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Assessing Cardinal Needs for 2022

There are a lot of internal solutions for most of their problems... but not all of them

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The off-season began with a bang for the St. Louis Cardinals when they unexpectedly fired manager Mike Shildt a week after the end of their season. The search for his replacement didn’t take long. Approximately 270 hours later, the Cardinals announced Oliver Marmol as Shildt’s replacement. In doing so, they addressed their biggest (self-inflicted) need for 2022- a manager. Between now and the beginning of the 2022 season, they have several other needs to address.

To be clear, this off-season is going to proceed at a glacial pace. The Colllective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires on December 1st. The next CBA promises to change a great deal about the economics of the game. Restructuring the arbitration system alone will have major ramifications for every team in the league. Until that piece of the puzzle is in place, we have no clue what the team payroll will be, or how much they’ll spend. Our own J.P. Hill had a great estimate last week, spitballing that- with salaries from the current CBA- the team would have approximately $20-25M to spend in free agency. Now let’s take a look at their needs, and how they might address them.

Middle Infield Structure

The Cardinals ended 2021 with Tommy Edman still holding down everyday duties at second base, and an Edmundo Sosa/Paul DeJong platoon at shortstop that leaned heavier to the Sosa side. It was an odd mix. DeJong had a disappointing season at the plate, Sosa had a surprisingly effective season there, and Tommy Edman was a tick below average. All three played good-to-great defense and ran the bases well. Add it all up and the Cardinals got 5.4 fWAR from the two positions, 16th in MLB. That was dragged down a little by Matt Carpenter’s sub-standard performance at 2B for 107 plate appearances. They were fine... but it’s an area where they could improve.

The good news is that they have lots of options. On the farm, mega-thumper Nolan Gorman is going to arrive at some point during 2022 and now takes up residence at second base. Utility man Brendan Donovan did nothing but hit in 2021 and, while he’s not a shortstop at all or an everyday second baseman, he can provide some at-bats there. The elephant in the room is the glut of shortstop free agents hitting the market this year. Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, and Javier Baez will all be available. Edman’s ability to float between shortstop and second base is helpful, and having Sosa, DeJong, and Edman all under contract- unless someone gets dealt- gives the Cardinals quite a floor. They just need to figure out if the solution involves the kids or the open market. If they go internal with it, it creates quite a logjam. Fortunately, there’s at least one place they can find fresh playing time if it’s needed. I’m talking about...

Scottsdale Scorpions v. Glendale Desert Dogs Photo by Norm Hall/MLB Photos via Getty Images

A Designated Hitter

The new CBA is almost certain to add a DH to National League teams. The Cardinals could get cute with this and go out on the open market. More realistically, they could use any of their endless internal options. I mentioned the pending middle infield logjam as one potential feeder into the DH position. The solution we should all be hoping for is for Juan Yepez to come in to spring training and put a death grip on the position. Yepez was one of the best hitters in minor league baseball this year. His bat has more than earned him a shot at every day time in the Cardinals lineup. Unfortunately, he plays third base (Nolan Arenado), first base (Paul Goldschmidt), and left field (2021 breakout Tyler O’Neill). But the DH spot is right there, with Yepez’s 2021 screaming out for a shot. And if you’d rather mix and match, Donovan and Gorman are options, as well as a few of the bonus outfielders. Which bonus outfielders, you ask?

Outfield Depth

One of the best parts of 2021 for the Cardinals was seeing their faith in Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill finallly pay off with everyday players. Only the Astros outfield was more productive by fWAR in all of baseball than the Cardinals’ 10.7, and that’s because Dylan Carlson, Bader, and O’Neill gave the team a young, productive trio with varied talents. The team will enter 2022 without questions at the top of the outfield depth chart. Unfortunately, the bottom of the depth chart was a major detriment for much of the season. Lars Nootbaar impressed at times, but so many others faltered. The Cardinals will have playing time available for 5th and even 6th outfield options. Much like the DH slot, they could get cute and go to the open market, but they have several internal choices.

Specifically, Nick Plummer looks ready for primetime, having crushed pitchers across both AA and AAA this year. Alec Burleson did much of the same in high-A and AA before finally hitting a wall at AAA. Still, he could come along quickly in 2022. And the aforementioned Swiss Army Donovan counts corner outfield experience on his resumé.

2021 Sirius XM Futures Game Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Left-handed Bats

Here’s a not-so-fun fact. The Cardinals had the largest difference in wRC+ by handedness in baseball. Their non-pitcher wRC+ of 123 against lefties was the best in baseball. Against righties, it fell all the way to 98, tied for 15th best. No other team had such a stark contrast (the Reds were close, with a +24 swing against righties). The problem is simply that the Cardinals lacked much left-handed thump to do damage against righties. Dylan Carlson (103 wRC+ against righties) held his own as a switch hitter, while Tommy Edman (85), Matt Carpenter (77), and Justin Williams (46) were all well below average. Lars Nootbaar (94) was fine, with helium to improve. Clearly, the Cardinals need some left-handed production to balance out their offense.

The good news on that front is that almost all of the internal solutions I’ve mentioned for these various positions are lefties. Gorman, Donovan, Plummer, and Burleson all qualify. Yepez is a righty... who just had a .989 OPS against righties in 2021, and has routinely clubbed righties better than lefties at every stop of the minors.

Starting Pitching

The 2021 season was almost universally a disaster for the Cardinals’ rotation beyond Adam Wainwright, half a season of Jack Flaherty, and 106 innings of Kwang-Hyun Kim. The rest was an orgy of injuries, ineffectiveness, and inexperience, plus whatever adjective you choose to describe the performance of Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose (J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, and Wade LeBlanc).

As of today if they do nothing else between now and April, they’ll enter 2022 with Wainwright, Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson in the rotation. Contenders for the fifth spot include Johan Oviedo, Matthew Liberatore, Alex Reyes, and Jake Woodford. That’s too much uncertainty. Mikolas and Hudson only returned with reliability from major injuries in the second half of 2021. It’s not fair to think of Flaherty as injury prone at all, especially since his initial injury wasn’t an arm issue. But you can’t ignore the fact that he missed half of a season. Wainwright is forever amazing, but he’s also 40 years old and has plenty of injuries of his own in his past. As for Oviedo, Liberatore, Reyes, and Woodford, there’s plenty of hope. But some will be needed in the bullpen and some will fall victim to inexperience and/or ineffectiveness.

The Cardinals desperately need to add to their rotation. Unlike so many of their other needs, the internal solutions- while exciting- offer more risk and may be needed elsewhere. This has been my TED Talk on why the Cardinals should sign Marcus Stroman and call it an off-season.