Well the season is over, and I’ve reconciled myself to that fact now. It was a tough way to lose, but that’s baseball.
As I thought about what to write for today, Gabe’s article (and the post-loss reactions of the fanbase) inspired me. If you haven’t read Gabe’s article yet, you definitely should. Basically it’s a reminder to calm down.
The playoffs are made to be over-analyzed. Are the Cardinals a bad team? No. They just played like it twice. And those two games happened to be at the end of the season with everyone watching.
Big deal. They’re a 93 win team that had the 5th best post-deadline record. That’s pretty good. More than pretty good, in fact.
The end of the season was tough, but the season was fun. Many saw this season as an ending. An ending for Pujols. An ending for Yadi. An ending for Wainwright (probably, but maybe not). I’ve even seen some argue that this offseason represents a semi-rebuild.
I don’t agree. It sure was fun to watch two (or three) of the greatest Cardinals of my lifetime walk into the sunset, but 2022 wasn’t and ending. It was a beginning.
I think a look at the roster as it stands will show that.
I want to start out by taking a look at who’s retiring, who’s contract is expiring, and who may be a trade candidate.
Retiring: Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright
Expiring Contracts: Corey Dickerson, Jose Quintana
Trade Candidates: Paul DeJong, Tyler O’Neill
Now, I want to point out that the trade candidates are only speculation. DeJong is obvious, O’Neill is less so. I don’t think the Cardinals will sell low on O’Neill but I don’t think his spot is secure either.
Again, I’m not saying he will get traded, I’m simply listing him here as a possibility.
Then there’s Quintana. I think the Cardinals will end up resigning him, but if not, they’ll sign some other pitcher.
There’s really not a ton of talent leaving. At least, not talent that can’t be replaced. That’s why I shy away from the soft rebuild narrative. Sure some long-time Cardinals are leaving but the stars are staying and the youth is here.
Let’s dig into that more.
The infield will be the same next year as it was this year. Playing time will change but the players will largely remain the same. That’s a good thing. The Cardinals had 3 of the top 20 players (excluding pitchers) in terms of fWAR this season. All 3 played in the dirt.
The Big Three
|Player||fWAR||MLB Rank||NL Rank|
|Player||fWAR||MLB Rank||NL Rank|
This leaves out Brendan Donovan who should be penciled into the lineup at second base in heavy lead. He compiled 2.7 fWAR last year and he didn’t even begin the season on the roster.
He finished the year with 468 plate appearances. Give him the 650 PAs that Goldschmidt had and he’s a 3.75 fWAR player.
That’s the team’s worst infielder on the roster. A nearly 4-WAR player (with a full season’s worth of PAs)
You would be hard pressed to find an infield that beats that. So, no, the Cardinals aren’t going to throw cash at a marquee shortstop this winter. That’s not the best way for them to improve. Donovan doesn’t belong on the bench.
If Goldschmidt and Arenado keep being themselves, Edman proves that his gains at the plate are real, and Donovan builds on his rookie the year, the Cardinals may have the best infield in the league.
I don’t want to set that in stone this early, though. A lot can happen in a year’s time. We found that out with the outfield this season.
The Cardinals looked like they had one of the best outfield trios in the league last season. Nobody would think that now.
Catcher is the only spot of real uncertainty. With Yadi retiring, Andrew Knizner is the only catcher on the roster. Is it Ivan Herrera’s time to shine or is a free agent veteran going to give the position some strength?
That’s the decision the Cardinals must make this offseason. Herrera didn’t have the best of debut seasons but he was still a fine hitter with Memphis (111 wRC+). I don’t think he was good enough for the Cardinals to not reinforce the position, though.
Regardless of what happens, the position can’t really get worse. The Cardinals finished 27th in Major League Baseball in fWAR from the catcher’s spot at -0.6.
If the Cardinals can get replacement level production they will actually improve, so it’s hard to feel down about this position next year.
Things happen, but, on paper, the Cardinals infield should be a strength. It may even improve next season with fewer at-bats for Paul DeJong and a non-black-hole behind the plate.
The outfield isn’t as strong as the infield, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of promise. At the end of the season we saw a lack of quality options in the outfield. Tyler O’Neill was hurt, Dylan Carlson was ineffective, Corey Dickerson was...well...Corey Dickerson, and Alec Burleson didn’t see hard hit balls turn into production.
This is an area where a lot of growth can be had simply by doing nothing. I know that might be frustrating for some since this is an organization that always touts internal improvements over splashing cash in the open market, but it’s true.
Tyler O’Neill saw his wOBA drop from .384 to .307 while his defense declined as well (11 DRS to 1, 4 OAA to 1). Injuries likely played a big role in this. I don’t know if O’Neill will ever replicate his 2021 season, but it’s a good bet that he’s better than a league average hitter and league average defender.
If you give him 650 plate appearances last year, he would have been on pace for 2.2 fWAR. That’s just about a league average starter. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think he’s better than that. Especially when he’s healthy and unhampered.
Dylan Carlson is another question mark. He seemed ready to take a leap this year, and then he didn’t. Or did he?
Sure his bat declined, but if you extrapolate his season to the 619 plate appearances he received last year, you get 3.0 fWAR. That’s a step up from the 2.6 fWAR he was worth in 2021.
You can probably guess why that is. It’s because he switched to center field and did it effectively. The 23-year-old tallied 6 DRS and 3 OAA in center field, which actually makes him a plus defender at a premium position.
He still needs to prove that’s real since he was still bad in the corners by any of the defensive metrics, but that’s an encouraging sign in an otherwise discouraging season.
He finished the year as just a league average hitter (100 wRC+), so some offensive growth could push him into the 4 WAR territory if his center field defense is legit.
That brings us to right field where we find the sole bright spot of the outfield this season. Lars Nootbaar jumped to a 125 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR. Since I’ve been giving you a lot of fWAR/650 paces in this piece, here’s another one.
Give Noot 650 plate appearances and he was on pace for 5.1 fWAR. That’s legitimately an All-Star caliber player. To me, he’s the only surefire starter in the outfield next season. I’m not saying I would bench Carlson or O’Neill by any means, but I am saying that Nootbaar has been more convincing than both of them.
He also played a serviceable center field in a small sample size. That gives him versatility, which gives the Cardinals flexibility. And to be honest, I think the outfield is where the Cardinals will make a move.
That’s because I haven’t even discussed the other options yet. Something must be done with Alec Burleson. It’s not like he needs more seasoning in Triple-A after demolishing it this year. He doesn’t seem to be the favorite for a starting job either.
Jordan Walker is coming too. He staked his claim as the top overall prospect in baseball this year and has started working in the outfield to prep for a major league job. He will start next year in Triple-A, and if he keeps raking, the majors shouldn’t be too far away,
He won’t start the year in the majors, though, so he shouldn’t factor into the plans too much just yet.
There’s another potential option, but it’s a little outside the box — Nolan Gorman.
Now, I can’t take credit for this idea. J.P. had this idea first and I would give him credit for being smarter than me if I could find his tweet from the other day. Maybe he can find it for us, since, you know, he is smarter after all.
The problem with this idea is obvious — Gorman doesn’t play the outfield. He’s played a grand total of 0.2 innings in the outfield in his entire professional career, and that came in the 2022 season.
Don’t let that deter you from the idea, though, because where else is Gorman going to play? Second base? That’s the position where he tallied -6 DRS and -12 OAA. Donovan isn’t a particularly talented second baseman, but he’s leagues better than Gorman.
Donovan’s bat was also more productive. And he’s left-handed so it’s not like Gorman is really a platoon option. Donovan should have second base all but locked down. And Nolan Arenado has third base locked down for a while.
So, where does that leave us? The outfield. Unless the Cardinals want to use Gorman as part of a DH platoon with Juan Yepez next season, there’s nowhere else for him to play.
Maybe he’s trade bait. Maybe Burleson is. Maybe Juan Yepez is. Maybe one of the other outfielders are, but there sure does seem to be a surplus of outfielders ready for major league time. If the Cardinals wanted to scour the trade market for an impact talent, they have the assets to do it.
But, anyways, now I’ve gone down from a rabbit hole. Let’s get back to our discussion of what the team looks like right now. I see three starting outfielders with a lot of quality depth options. And those three starters have the potential to be league average or a whole lot more.
As such, this is the area of most uncertainty but also the area of the most potential growth.
As of right now, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz, Jordan Montgomery, and Miles Mikolas give the Cardinals four options. That leaves room for one more. My guess would be Quintana, but the Cardinals could chase a top of the rotation starter in free agency or via trade as well. It wouldn’t hurt to have 6 qualified starters either. Spring Training injuries aren’t out of the ordinary.
This part of the team is set for the most part. If Wainwright comes back, it may need to be as a reliever.
The only real potential for growth, at least internally, here is Jack Flaherty. Finally healthy, if he can find his stuff again, he could be a huge boost in the rotation. That’s a big if, but I would rather have Jack Flaherty than not have him.
I expect the bullpen to be mostly set too. Gallegos and Helsley are the back of the ‘pen options and Hicks could be one too. And there’s plenty of middle and long relief options. It’s tough to see the Cardinals making any significant acquisitions here.
So, where does that leave us? Some great Cardinals are leaving but the team is just fine. A full season of Donovan and fewer at-bats for DeJong is a boost to the infield while the outfield has a lot of potential but also some uncertainty.
The pitching staff is mostly set too.
That means a 94 win team is bringing back nearly all of the players that made it successful with plenty of young talent that can be used as trade bait or can seize starting roles. Maybe it’s early offseason optimism but this team seems set up to win 94 games or more next season.
There’s been a lot of doom and gloom after the St. Louis Cardinals bowed out of the playoffs early yet again, but that doom and gloom shouldn’t be about the future of the team next year.
There is a strong nucleus with a ton of young talent. That’s a recipe for sustained winning. The Cardinals will be back next year and they may even be better than before. Now we just need to see how the offseason plays out.
Thanks for reading, as always! This was more of an overview piece as I wanted to survey where the team stands at the moment and where it might be headed. In the coming weeks I’ll narrow my focus more and bring you all some analysis pieces.
Until then, enjoy your Tuesday!