The Cardinals offense was a tale of two halves last season. In the first half of 2021, the team had a wRC+ of 86 which ranked 25th in the league. That figure jumped to 111 in the second half of the season which was fifth best among the 30 MLB teams. This balanced out into a 15th place finish with a wRC+ of 97.
Which offense is real? The first half one or the second half one or some sort of blend between the two? The latter option feels most likely since the since it is unlikely that the Cardinals have a top five offense or a bottom six unit. Still 15th does seem too low for this lineup next season.
Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Tyler O’Neill will anchor the lineup while Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader should also be above average hitters. There is concern with at catcher and the middle infield, but the Cardinals’ five best hitters should be strong enough to make this an above average group.
Nolan Arenado posted his lowest wRC+ in a full season (not counting 2020) since his rookie year in 2013. He will turn 31 in 2022, but I would still expect some sort of rebound. He had just a .249 BABIP and his average exit velocity of 89 mph was just a touch below his career average of 89.4 mph. Arenado got pull happy last year and hit very few balls to the opposite field. This can be a beneficial approach, especially for someone with so much power, but not if he is selling out to pull everything. This may not be what happened to Arenado, but his numbers did suffer after making the change to his approach and he did not hit a single home run to the opposite field or even dead center.
Arenado may keep the same approach and do it better or he may just see his BABIP stabilize, but he should be a better hitter in 2022 than 2021.
After a difficult first season with the Cardinals in 2019, Goldschmidt’s numbers have returned to Arizona levels of production. This is an encouraging sign that he can maintain a similar level of production in 2022. He is 34 years old, however, and even though he has yet to show signs of decline, those signs are likely coming soon. Even so, it is unlikely that he will be anything less than a middle of the order force next year.
Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson are all still young, with Bader the oldest at 27, and all three have promising bats. O’Neill should join Arenado and Goldy in the heart of the order, while improvement from Carlson should occur as well. Carlson was a fine hitter in the first half of the season with a 104 wRC+, but the 23-year-old really figured things out after the All-Star break with a 127 wRC+. This improvement was not BABIP dependent either as his BABIP actually dropped one point in the second half of the season. The improvement was also due to better contact as Carlson saw his walk rate decline and his strikeout rate rise in the second half. I expect this second half to continue into 2022 and to see Carlson be a more productive hitter next season.
Bader is a potential risk for decline due to having an average exit velocity in the 7th percentile last year. Despite this, Bader has been an above average hitter in 2018, 2020, and 2021. The center fielder had a career low .268 BABIP in his 2019 season which certainly contributed to his 82 wRC+. Thus, the 27-year-old seems to have the floor of an average hitter with the potential to be above average every year.
A clear suspect for decline is Edmundo Sosa. It is unlikely that he can replicate his 104 wRC+, though a wRC+ around 90-95 seems possible. This would not be a catastrophic decline, but it does turn the shortstop position into a below average position offensively. Paul DeJong may improve but I doubt he will be an above average hitter again.
Because of this, the Cardinals should have an above average offense in 2022. I would not expect them to repeat the second half levels of production, but a wRC+ close to 10th in the league should be possible within a range of 8th-12th. This is not an elite offense, but it is one that is capable of scoring plenty of runs. The team could have at least five above average hitting starters, with three or four of those (depending on Carlson) being well above average. This does not factor in Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, or Lars Nootbaar, who could all impress in 2022.
The team could also gain more production with a new manager at the helm. If Oli Marmol is willing to play the matchup game more than Mike Shildt did, then the team could see better results from players put into a better position to succeed. The middle infield seems like a place where this could happen the most, but the left-handed hitting Nootbaar could help in the outfield too. I already discussed how DeJong and Sosa could platoon with DeJong facing softer starters since he struggles with hard stuff. Tommy Edman is better as a right-handed hitter which pairs well with the eventual arrival of Nolan Gorman and his lefty bat.
There are plenty of options for Marmol to add value to this team by not being afraid to play matchups instead of keeping someone in the lineup because he is the starter. If he can handle this well, then the Cardinals could see their offensive production increase to the higher end of the 8-12 range.
It seems like the St. Louis Cardinals turned a corner in the second half of the season last year and even though they will probably not replicate their top five performance, the team should still be comfortably in the top half of the league in terms of wRC+. Improvements from Carlson and Arenado seem likely while O’Neill and Goldy should be able to maintain their production levels. A decline from Sosa is likely while it is possible for Bader, but the improvements of Carlson and Arenado may be able to offset that while promising young hitters from the Triple-A ranks may augment the team with even more bench production.