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The Cardinals are Now an Offense-First Team

The Cardinals are deep with offensive talent and that’s where they continue to invest.

MLB: Wild Card-Philadelphia Phillies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos!

It’s a week before Christmas. I hope you’ve got your seasonal shopping out of the way! I finished mine just last week. I’m done and ready to relax and enjoy the holidays!

The same can probably be said for the Cardinals. Despite ample budget “flubber”, as I covered here, John Mozeliak and his gang seem to be done for the (off) season. Oh, sure, they might go crazy and have a little Spring Break fling with a left-over free agent or two, but this roster is probably complete.

As evidence, I present starting pitcher Carlos Rodon. Rodon has that swing-and-miss stuff that the club covets. He has the top-of-the-rotation security that the team lacks. Rumors earlier this week had Rodon receiving a 5 year $125M offer from the Yankees. While some in the media tried to attach the Cardinals to him, Katie Woo of The Athletic shot that completely down. Rodon would end up signing for 6 years at a $27M AAV. While that’s not necessarily a discounted deal, it’s not exorbitant. It’s exactly the kind of contract for the kind of pitcher that the Cardinals should be in on.

As the market is right now, and it likely isn’t going to get more team-friendly by next offseason, the Cardinals will find themselves having to pay nearly that amount just to retain average-to-good starters like Miles Mikolas and Jordan Montgomery.

Which is the better investment? $27M per now for Carlos Rodon? Or $24M next year for Miles Mikolas?

I just don’t think the Cardinals have much interest in paying even market rates for starting pitching. By default, that means they have no interest in acquiring and retaining top of the rotation pitching talent. This approach has left the rotation in a state of repeated implosions over the last three seasons and forced the team to endure months-long minor league triage before the supply of veteran bandaids hits the trade market in late July.

It’s been ugly.

And it’s the Cardinals’ plan.

That approach to pitching has pushed a lot of the club’s contending thoughts and prayers on the offense, where the Cardinals have taken the exact opposite approach. The club has invested a large percentage of its resources in drafting, developing, acquiring, and locking up a stable full of sleigh-pulling hitters.

The result is an offense that is remarkably deep and very productive.

Last season, the Cardinals had 10 batters who produced a wRC+ of 100 (average) or above. Just off the list is an 11th name, Corey Dickerson, with a 98.

That’s an impressive total of “good” hitters. Even more impressive is the range of their production. They are getting it from all over the roster. Look at this spread:

That’s three batters who were in the “very good” to “elite” range with Goldschmidt, Arenado, and Pujols. They had two batters in the solidly “good” category with Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar. Then five more batters – Yepez, Edman, Gorman, O’Neill, and Carlson – in the “average to above average” camp.

Pujols is exiting but everyone else is sticking around. The club has now added Willson Contreras to the mix. Plus, they have some exciting hitters on their way in Alec Burleson, Jordan Walker, Ivan Herrera, and Masyn Winn.

Could they have even more than 10 batters with a wRC+ of 100 or higher this coming season? Steamer, a projection system used at Fangraphs, seems to think so.

Projection systems are going to bake some regression for players who exceeded their established track records into their calculations. Goldschmidt and Arenado both set career highs in wRC+ last season and both are predicted to take a step back while remaining the best hitters on the team (and two of the best hitters in the league.)

The systems are going to love Lars Nootbaar, who erased a miserable first half with brilliant peripheral and Statcast numbers in the second half of the season. Balancing out the highs and lows of 2022 leaves him about where he was last year, a 125, with hopefully more consistency throughout.

The computers think Juan Yepez, who also had good Statcast numbers, is due for a step forward in his second full season. He and Brendan Donovan come in at 121 and 120 respectively.

Willson Contreras, who is expected to fill a middle-of-the-lineup role, is projected to be just the team’s sixth-best hitter with a 119, a number that’s very good for a catcher and a huge upgrade over the team’s production at the position last season. It’s still quite a bit lower than his 2022 total, and I think both the fans and the club would expect him to finish a bit higher.

Steamer then hits us with its first surprise, which is no surprise at all for those of us who have followed his minor league career and his advanced stats. In his very short professional career, Alec Burleson has been the king of bounce-back performances following aggressive promotions. In late 2021 he reached AAA and provided just an 81 wRC+ there. He returned to the level this season and owned it, producing a 137. That earned him a promotion to the majors, where he had just a 58 in 53 PAs. Steamer has him pegged for an impressive 118 this coming season. It will be hard to keep his bat out of the lineup.

(Watch for my podcast interview with Alec coming next Friday!)

Alongside Burleson, the Cardinals have a solid group of above-average hitters with O’Neill, Carlson, Jordan Walker, Moises Gomez, and Nolan Gorman all around 110. Then Tommy Edman rounds out the list at a very solid 105.

Other players who are likely to receive plenty of playing time this coming season are close to average, including Ivan Herrera at 96 and Oscar Mercado at 94. Even Paul DeJong and Andrew Knizner aren’t too far back at 91.

In all, that’s 14 players projected to have a wRC+ of 100 or higher this next season. 5 hitters at 120 or above, 6 from 110-120, and just 3 from 100-110.

It’s very impressive offensive production and even more impressive offensive depth.

Just for fun, let’s throw those numbers into our depth chart and see how it all shakes out in terms of roster configuration:

The Cardinals have a very good offense. And the Cardinals are now an offense-first team.

I think this offseason shows the distinction in the way the Cardinals have chosen to approach hitting vs. pitching. Consider their signings so far.

The Cardinals had a strong offense already in place. Still, they wanted a hitter who could provide some protection for their middle-of-the-order bats. They could have helped their pitching staff by signing a defense-oriented catcher and there were several available on both the trade and free agent markets for a relatively low cost. Instead, the front office brought in the best hitter they could find, Willson Contreras, and committed to him past when he will likely be a productive player.

The Cardinals have a deep pitching staff with significant injury and performance risk in their starting rotation, and only one starter locked up after this season. They have a stated need to add swing-and-miss stuff to their staff as a whole. What do they do? Do they aggressively commit resources toward pitching by targeting a player who fills all of their needs, like Rodon? No. The front office instead commits significant funds to a 41-year-old with a collapsing K rate. Yes, it’s Adam Wainwright’s farewell tour, but let’s be somewhat objective about what he is now. Then they filled out their 40-man with two career minor league arms who might be able to get K’s and might not even make the roster.

None of those moves are bad in and of themselves. But they do reveal where the club is willing to invest, take risks, and accept some uncertainty.

This team is building around offense. And it is comfortable being uncomfortable about their pitching.

We’ll see if that changes next offseason. It almost certainly has to!

Have a great week before Christmas, Cardinals fans!