How the 2021 off-season changes are playing out in the 2022 season (so far)

Now that the dust has settled from spring training and the season is underway and has reached the quarter point, new trends are emerging (and old ones are continuing). Let’s take a look at how the roster construction work of the 2021 off-season is playing out.

First, let’s review the needs the Cardinals had as of the end of the 2021 Championship season:

  • Need 1 or 2 LH bats to offset the LHB vs. RHP platoon disadvantage,
  • Need a high OBP player to primarily fill the lead off spot (could be part of #1, in a perfect world)
  • Deepen the starter/piggy-back/bulk depth to cover 2022 innings
  • Replenish LH starting and relieving depth
  • Fill out the match-up portion of the bullpen

The Cardinals allocated almost 400 ABs to Matt Carpenter and Justin Williams last year, for almost zero production. To improve the LH hitting side of the line-up, the Cardinal’s let those two go and leaned on Lars Nootbar and FA-signee Corey Dickerson, plus some hope sprinkled in that Edman and/or Carlson can improve on their platoon-splits. Gorman just arrived this weekend. The Cardinals OPS against RHP in 2021 was 12th in the NL at .706 OPS. This year, they have dropped to 11th in the NL at .677.

To gain a higher OBP out of the lead-off spot, the Cardinal’s elected to run with Dylan Carlson, at least for a while. That did not work out so well, although I see the logic. Over the course of the season, I could see .350 OBP from him. He may not yet be ready for that role yet. OBP in the lead-off role in 2021 was a paltry .313. So far in 2022, we’ve seen some modest improvement, up to 8th in NL at .322.

To deepen the starter/piggy-back/bulk depth, the Cardinals added VerHagen, Brooks, re-classified Hicks into a "starter" and kept Woodford in this mix. Liberatore waited in the wings. When the Cardinal’s committed to Hicks as the 5th starter with all of 2 innings of spring training built up, I wondered if that said more about Hicks’ upside or more about their evaluation of the other characters in this group. In 2021, Cardinals starters ranked 11th in NL with FIP of 4.49. This year, they’ve modestly advanced to 10th in NL with a 4.12 FIP.

To replenish the LH starting and relieving depth, the Cardinal’s brought in Steven Matz to start, and re-signed TJ McFarland to help in the BP. Solid moves, but seems a little thin, particularly if health becomes an issue in these quarters.

I’d venture the general consensus at the beginning of the season would have been that the Cardinal’s didn’t do enough to deepen the starter side of the pitching corps. When Reyes and Flaherty went down in early spring, this seemed even more acute. In 2021, Cardinals starters ranked 11th in NL with FIP of 4.49. This year, they’ve modestly advanced to 10th in NL with a 4.12 FIP.

To fill out the match up portion of the bullpen, the Cardinal’s appear to have relied mostly on health of returning players, plus the proverbial "internal options" choices. Interesting, they really have not adopted a "match-up" strategy. They are still paint-by-the-numbers, where the inning number determines who pitches, not the match-ups. Gallegos gets the 9th, etc. Pallante, Whitley and Wittgren are the three newcomers and were expected to add stability (and reduce walks). Gallegos has been good, mostly dependable. Helsley has been very sharp and makes me think the half-step back he took last year may have been more health related than let on. Cabrera has been mostly ok, and sometimes pretty good. Bullpen WPA in 2021 was 8 for the whole year and now is 2022 is 2.5, so roughly half a win improvement.

One off-season strategy that emerged very late was visualized with the acquisition of Albert Pujols. One could question if the Cardinal’s really had need for another RH bat, with Yepez and others seemingly on the verge of MLB action. Ignoring the marketing/feel good aspect of this acquisition, I see the play as one of taking a strength and making it stronger. The Cardinal’s mashed LH pitchers in 2021, to a tune of an NL-leading .798 OPS. Now in 2022, they’ve advanced that to .843, still first in the NL. That is crushing! The weakness of this strategy is that other teams can defeat it by not pitching LH against this line-up.

Another subtle strategy they seem to have employed is to provide themselves depth at almost every position in the case of injury or under-performance. While no team is unaffected when a starting position player goes down, it is nice to have someone who can plug in without reducing that position to average replacement player production. Goldschmidt or Arenado would be tough bats to replace, but at least Gorman and Yepez wait in the wings. DeJong might not bounce back, but Sosa and Edman could cover SS, moving Gorman into 2B. Knizner seems ready to take a greater load if Molina gets hurt. Donovan seems plug-and-play at a variety of spots. Probably the most vulnerable position would be CF. If Bader were lost for a significant time period, I think both offensively and defensively there would be a significant drop off, and it would cascade into the pitching, too. Those are the kind of injuries that can derail an otherwise promising season.

Baseball is a funny game. Someone should write a book with that as the title. It is amazing to watch how a team can fill various holes during an off-season, just to watch new ones emerge. Or watch the same ones re-emerge every year. When is the last time they had enough LH pitching depth? Same story this year, it turns out.

Overall, it seems like the Cardinals’ off-season strategies haven’t done much. It is pretty much the same team as last year, with better hitting against LH pitching and less walks out of the pitching. Perhaps more crucially, they’ve maintained the talent of a wild-card caliber team, without trading away any of their top prospects. The result is a pretty solid team that might need an addition or two to become top tier.

This brings us to the next round of thinking … now we get to start thinking about what are the in-season moves this team could make to move into the top-tier. In a testament to the solid, but not great, nature of the Cardinal’s roster, the list of possible moves is not very long. Some candidates to consider:

  • A top of the rotation (1 or 2) starter. Especially if Flaherty isn’t back soon or if Matz is lost.
  • A higher OBP hitter to hit at the top of the order.
  • A shortstop. Can anyone think of a top-flight SS who is on a short contract (with an opt-out) who might be available? Plays for Minnesota and might look awfully nice in this lineup.
  • CF depth
  • Filling the innings gap

None of Miles Mikolas, Jordan Hicks or Jack Flaherty have approached anything like 160 innings in recent years. It is too much to expect any or all of them to bump anywhere near that number, with 140 maybe being too high a target. So who pitches the remaining innings? It looks to me like there is about a 300 inning deficit. Liberatore? And who else?

It is a bit early get too deep into this process. Realistically, a team will want to go as far into July as they can before committing to the proverbial "all in" move. While the team as constituted looks solid, health issues and under-performance can and will rear their ugly heads at any time, so you don’t want to over-commit too early. As it stands now, this roster might be one that qualifies for that last push to become top-tier, even at the expense of a prospect. Moreover, the NL Central looks to be a division where wins can be had this year and next (with Cincy and Pirates tanking and Chicago in half-way mode), improving the division winner’s chances of home-field advantage in the playoffs.