Nolan Gorman might just be the St. Louis Cardinals’ most important prospect. I’m not saying he is their best prospect, but rather, he is the prospect that the team most needs to be successful. Jordan Walker and Matthew Liberatore are great prospects, but the Cardinals have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado on the corners and Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and plenty of other young rotation options. Thus, Walker and Liberatore would strengthen areas of strength for the team.
On the other hand, Gorman would strengthen an area of relative weakness. The Cardinals do not have any middle infielders who project as above average hitters, or even average hitters. Paul DeJong probably has the most offensive upside among the group including himself, Tommy Edman and Edmundo Sosa, but given his struggles at the plate in the last few seasons, he cannot be counted on to be a good hitter.
Nolan Gorman is the only in-house middle infielder with above average offensive upside. This makes him a valuable prospect for the Cardinals and it makes his development extra important. He handled the tall task of learning second base at the Triple-A level as a 21-year-old and he had a solid season. Now it is important that the Cardinals do not rush him.
Gorman needs to be given time to complete his development by mastering the Triple-A level. A 106 wRC+ is good for a 21-year-old at the most advanced minor league level, but that is not something that screams promotion. He did not dominate the level in a way that a bat-first top prospect should. He could also use more time at second base.
Gorman actually improved as a second baseman as the second progressed, at least in terms of not making errors. He started the year in Double-A and had a .947 fielding percentage at second base, but after his promtion that improved to .989.
Fielding percentage never tells the whole story about a player’s defensive abilities but without the eye test or other defensive statistics which are not publicly tracked at the minor league level, fielding percentage is about the other number we can look at. There may be a more reliable indicator as to Nolan Gorman’s defensive talent, though, and that indicator is Jose Oquendo. In a Baseball America article, Jose Oquendo was quoted as saying that Nolan Gorman is going to be an above-average defensive second baseman.
If that is true, then it is a huge boost to Gorman’s value. Gorman’s ability to play second base is what makes him so valuable to the Cardinals. He would be a top prospect and third base, and he was, but the Cardinals could use an above average hitter at the keystone and it appears that Gorman’s glove is good enough for him to stick there. Now, he needs to continue developing at the Triple-A level before he reaches the majors.
A good hitter at second who is a solid fielder but may lack range is a good complement to glove first options at shortstop like Edmundo Sosa and potentially Tommy Edman. A strong defensive shortstop with plenty of range could stick next to a strong hitter on the other side of second base.
If Gorman can develop properly and become an above average hitter, then the Cardinals’ ceiling gets a boost. There is not other way to add another above average hitter to this team without making some kind of signing or trade, but the Cardinals have shown no interest this winter in acquiring another strong bat. This was not necessarily a poor choice, but Gorman is the team’s only chance at getting a good offensive middle infielder without spending money.
It was encouraging to see his strikeout rate drop to 19.2% in Triple-A, but that also came with a decline in walk rate (9.2% in AA, 6.1% in AAA). Having a chance to repeat the level, at least for the first half of the season, should give Gorman the opportunity to master the level. It would be nice if he could help the Cardinals in the second half of 2022, but he should not be promoted out of necessity. It is important for the team not to push him too quickly. He has rapidly advanced through the system but having a year to repeat the highest level can only work in his favor and that works in the Cardinals’ favor.
It may be tempting to pencil him into second base early in the year, but that would not be the right decision. The Cardinals do not have any other prospects like Gorman. They have no other middle infielders who project to hit at the same level. It is important that he reaches his full potential to provide the Cardinals with a left-handed power hitter that can play up the middle. If he does not do this, then the team must sign a middle infielder that can hit and the team showed no indication that they were willing to do so earlier in the winter. This may have been due in part to the promise of Gorman (as well as the need for pitching), so it is all the more important that Gorman pans out in the majors and proves to be a strong hitter.