John Nogowski is a strong candidate for a bench bat role for the St. Louis Cardinals. To begin with, he is batting well this spring. The 28-year-old is batting .391 with a .533 OBP and 1.055 OPS. He has also hit a home run, recorded a four hit game and has walked seven times while striking out in just three plate appearances. While this is certainly impressive, he has tallied just 30 plate appearances this spring, which is too small of a sample size to make any conclusions of significance.
However, Nogowski has a history of success in the upper levels of the minors. Since being acquired by the Cardinals in 2017, Nogowski has been a solidly above average hitter at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. In 2017, he posted a 118 wRC+ at Double-A Springfield. Then, in 2018, he posted a 136 wRC+ as he repeated the same level before finishing the 2019 season with a 122 wRC+ at Triple-A Memphis.
Additionally, In each of these years, he finished with more walks than strikeouts. This is surely why Baseball America has considered him to have the best strike zone discipline of any prospect in the Cardinals’ organization in each of the last three years. This ability to control the strike zone if his greatest attribute. This is especially important since he lacks prototypical power for a first baseman.
Nogowski has only ever finished a season with double digit home runs twice in his career. However, both of these instances occurred in his last two minor league seasons when he finished with 12 home runs and 15 home runs, respectively. These were his two best minor league seasons in terms of power (.154 ISO in 2018, .182 ISO in 2019). This suggests that he may have enough power in his bat to stick in the major leagues as a first baseman and occasional corner outfielder.
However, even with modest power for his position, Nogowski has strong enough strike zone discipline, and contact skills to make the most of his power. Nearly every major projection system projects that Nogowski will finish the 2021 season with a walk rate of at least 10% and a strikeout rate below 15%. When this is combined with a decent amount of power (even if it is not prototypical), there is the potential for Nogowski to be a solid bat off the bench.
Additionally, with the Cardinals bench looking light on hitting, this would be a welcome development. Matt Carpenter currently seems like the most likely option to make the roster as a bench bat, while Andrew Knizner should serve as the backup catcher, Jose Rondon should serve as the utility infielder, and Lane Thomas should serve as the fourth outfielder. This leaves one more bench spot, and this spot should go to John Nogowski, who should be the primary bench bat instead of Carpenter.
Matt Carpenter has struggled at the plate in each of his last two seasons, and is not having much success in Spring Training so far. Nogowski, however, is coming off his two best minor league seasons in 2019 and 2020 before bouncing between St. Louis and the alternate camp in 2020.
If Carpenter does not show improvement, then the Cardinals will need to find a way to get production out of its bench, and Nogowski should be the solution. He consistently gives competitive at-bats and makes the pitcher work to get him out. However, unlike Carpenter, he does not strike out very often. Additionally, since he makes more contact, he is able to tap into his modest power more often, and he is also able to get on base more often.
The primary risk is that he is still unproven at the major league level as he has just four MLB plate appearances to his name. However, at 28 years old and with a history of success in the upper minors, Nogowski seems ready for a chance to hit against MLB pitchers. Additionally, with the Cardinals’ bench looking light on hitting production, the former 34th round pick appears to have the opportunity to spend the season in St. Louis.
However, if he is going to have an impact, the Cardinals will need to use him as the primary pinch hitter instead of Carpenter if Carpenter is still struggling during the season. However, if the team does this, it could improve its production off the bench, while also potentially finding a cheap and controllable late game weapon. This would allow the Cardinals to bring in a better impact hitter than a bottom of the lineup hitter in late game situations. This would certainly give Mike Shildt more options and improve the team’s production in pinch hitting situations as Cardinals’ pinch hitters batted just .218 in 2019 (52-for-238) and .034 (1-for-29) in 2020.