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A plan for playing time for young, unproven Cardinals

The Cardinals arguably have four young players fighting for one spot in the order. How do you get them all playing time?

Fall Stars Game Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

In 2021, the Cardinals had a very defined situation at middle infield. Paul DeJong was the starter, Edmundo Sosa was just the guy who was only on the roster because he was out of options, Tommy Edman was the starting 2B, and Matt Carpenter was there. A lot has changed. Nothing has changed with Edman. He’s still the same player we thought he was. DeJong had his second down season in a row, though that’s not exactly accurate since 2020 wasn’t what one would call a season. 60 games played in a month and a half, while he was recovering from COVID. Nonetheless, DeJong is no longer the certain starter he once was.

A lot of that has to do with Sosa, who basically took his job away towards the end of the season. Sosa was a pleasant surprise. His glove was as advertised and he was faster than anticipated. And thanks to being a magnet to baseballs, his offense was also significantly better than expected. Two other players potentially factor into the middle infield plans, Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman.

How does everyone play when there are only a limited number of spots?

I’m glad you asked. I’m currently experiencing a difficult dilemma in the franchise mode of Out of the Park Baseball. It’s not a perfect comparison to the situation the Cardinals face, but it is somewhat similar. I have a 1B locked up for the next four years, two soon-to-be 26-year-olds splitting time at 2B, an All-Star shortstop a couple years from free agency, a 3B with 7 combined WAR in the past two seasons, and a 1B/3B who is mostly platooned against lefties, but he could start on most teams I think. (1.6 WAR in 404 PAs). I also have the #106 prospect in baseball coming off a 123 wRC+ in 400 PAs in AAA who is also a 2B who really needs to be in the majors. There’s the Gorman comp.

Like I said, it’s not perfect. But I bring this up, because I’m essentially going to figure out who to trade to make room for the prospect. But first, I would like to have more data. I operate under the principle - in this game - that I delay trading until necessary - because I like having depth. But as you can see, kind of tough to give plate appearances to all these guys. And I don’t have a DH.

So I’ve resolved to figure out a constantly evolving system. I decide how many plate appearances I want each player to have, and figure out how to best achieve those results. But here’s the key part: These PAs are contingent upon the data I have now. Obviously, if someone gets hurt, I alter these plans. But also if someone struggles for two months, I alter the expected PAs. Instead of one of my second baseman starting 1 of every three games, he’ll start 1 of every four. Or something like that.

Similar thing should be applied to the Cardinals. So when I calculate the plate appearances for each player, it is by no means a fixed number that I’m dedicated to achieving. Let’s say Paul DeJong has a 150 wRC+ in April. It’d be kind of stupid to have him split his games with Sosa at that point, huh? That’s what I mean when I say it’s a constantly evolving system. Pay attention to what’s happening. And don’t go extreme. Don’t say we’re splitting time with DeJong and Sosa, and whoever gets hot first gets all the plate appearances. Maybe two out of every three games for the hot player.

The way I see it, there are four players likely to be on the Cardinals roster on Opening Day who need MLB plate appearances, but who do not have a guaranteed spot in the starting lineup: Sosa, Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbaar, and Brendan Donovan. You can quibble with Donovan, but if the season started today, he’d be on the roster I think. So that’s why he’s here. If a free agent bat is signed, he will probably not be on the roster.

Surprisingly, these four players, plus DeJong and Edman, complement each other very well for sharing playing time. DeJong has shown reverse splits at the MLB level, being significantly better against RHP. Sosa, while he had better numbers in 2021 against RHP, has a history of being better against LHP in the minors. Edman kills lefties. Brendan Donovan is left-handed, so presumably he’s significantly better against RHP. Yepez has shown no splits while Nootbaar is presumably better against RHP.

None of these situations call for a straight platoon. You would be insane to platoon Edman with Donovan right now. But luckily, Edman has a main weakness - hitting right-handed pitching - that Donovan could potentially soften. Edman shouldn’t only start against LHP, but he also shouldn’t start every game against RHP. If you take even 100 PAs away from Edman against RHP, his batting would likely improve.

The Cardinals faced 38 left-handed starters last year, which is actually probably on the lower end for the league as a whole. Wade Miley of the Reds, Brett Anderson of the Brewers, Dillon Peters and Steven Brault of the Pirates, and later in the season, Justin Steele of the Cubs were pretty much the only NL Central lefties. Miley moves from the Reds to Cubs, Aaron Ashby will replace Anderson as the lefty on the Brewers staff, Jose Quintana replaces Brault for the Pirates, and someone named Reiver Sanmartin appears to be the Reds planned 5th starter. Seems roughly like the same situation. So I’ll go with 38 assumed starts against lefties.

Pencil Edman in for all 38 starts. That’s easy. I’m also going to give Sosa all 38 starts against LHP. And while we’re at it, Juan Yepez can get every left-handed pitching start as well. Their main competition are all probably worse against LHP. Donovan and Nootbaar because they’re lefties, and DeJong because he has a career 87 wRC+ against LHP (106 against RHP)

Alright, at least to start the season, I want DeJong and Sosa to time share, but for DeJong to get a slightly larger share of the playing time. So I give Sosa all the starts against lefties, but I also start Sosa 30% of the time against RHP. That gives Sosa 75 starts at SS and 324 plate appearances, and DeJong 376 PAs. If DeJong bounces back and is having a good offensive season, you gradually start making that more of a straight platoon. Rule of thumb: give it a month and then check in, and readjust if needed.

Designated hitter will be split among three players: Donovan, Yepez, and Nootbaar. This will be fairly straightforward. 100% of starts against LHP to Yepez, 50% of starts against RHP to Yepez. 25% each to Nootbaar and Donovan. Yepez gets 432 PAs in this scenario, and obviously if his projected 117 wRC+ is at all accurate, it’s pretty easy to ramp that to above 500 PAs. 134 PAs each to Nootbaar and Donovan, purely from the DH spot at least. Donovan can get 20% of starts against RHP at 2B, which would give him 25 starts. In total, he gets 242 plate appearances, which is a tad lower than I’d prefer, but I don’t feel comfortable taking more time away from Edman.

Nootbaar meanwhile can fairly easily get to 300 PAs that I’m not going to give him any specific number. I’m starting Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson pretty much every game, with maybe a rest every 10 days or something. Nootbaar can take those starts. And it goes without saying, but there’s some injury risk in this group and suddenly Nootbaar is nearly an everyday player. Donovan and Yepez might get OF starts in that situation as well.

You’ll notice I never mentioned Gorman in these plans. That’s not because I don’t want him to play in the majors. It’s more that he’s clearly not part of the Opening Day plans, so I’m not stressing about his plate appearances yet. All the plate appearance numbers I’m throwing out should be seen as “on pace for” as injuries and ineffectiveness may change these numbers quickly. If he ever gets called up, the Cardinals have a plan in mind to get him a start on most days. I don’t think the Cardinals need to rush him, let him develop in AAA and if he forces his way on the roster - or an injury opens up a spot, then he’ll get his MLB reps.

I also want to stress that this system does not literally mean I’m giving 75% of starts to Yepez at DH. That’s just an easy way to do this. Yepez will start at 1B on some days, while Goldschmidt DHs. He may start in LF. Similarly, Donovan may play at 3B while Arenado DHs. Sosa may play at 2B. Edman may play at SS. The point is the playing time, not specifically where they play. Confining these guys to specific positions is just an easier way to calculate plate appearances for me.

So for all the people worried that, for instance, I’m penciling Donovan in for 250 PAs, well I’m not. It’s more than I’m penciling him for 50~ plate appearances in April, and then we’ll see how he handles MLB pitching, and based on his performance throughout the season, the 250 number will rise or fall. Just think of the system in that way. And yeah ideally, you give players more rope than 50 PAs, but hopefully you get what I’m going for.

All this system is designed to do is give players a shot so that the Cardinals don’t have another Randy Arozarena situation. And I say that as someone fine with that trade, it’s just a fact that he got no shot at all in St. Louis, and that’s not ideal. Everyone I mentioned maybe won’t become Randy, but I’d like to know for sure and you can only do that with more plate appearances than a cup of coffee.