Some Thoughts on Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman

I’ve really enjoyed watching Brendan Donovan play for the Cardinals this year. Besides Albert, he’s probably my favorite player on the Cardinals right now. What has made his season all the more fun to watch has been keeping tabs on how it stacks up with another Cardinals rookie infielder’s, Nolan Gorman.

It’s not a novel idea to compare the two players and I’m certainly not the first to do it. They play mostly the same position, were drafted the same year, were both called up this year, and have both held up pretty well over the course of the season. But I’ve been meaning to start writing about the Cardinals for awhile now, and the two’s career trajectories have had a really refreshing impact on how I think about prospects and team-building, so I figured why not.

Donovan has, by all accounts, had a more productive season than Gorman. Both names have been tossed around in Rookie of the Year Award consideration, but only Donovan’s has been suggested seriously next to Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider of Atlanta. (Harris II should win by the way, despite Strider’s recent dominance).

Here are their two FanGraphs lines, for comparison. Neither grades out exceedingly well on the basepaths or defense, and Donovan has the slight edge on plate appearances. bWAR agrees, giving Donovan 3.2 wins to Gorman’s 0.8.

Brendan Donovan - FanGraphs

Nolan Gorman - FanGraphs

While I think the majority of fans would probably agree that Gorman’s ceiling still looks higher than Donovan’s, I also think that majority is slimmer than it was a year ago today.

Going into the offseason, Kyle Reis of had Gorman at 1a on his list of top Cardinals Prospects, barely eeking out Jordan Walker at 1b. Donovan, meanwhile, was listed just between Juan Yepez and Alec Burleson at #7. This was the highest any prospects list had featured Donovan, with MLB Pipeline slotting him in at #17 and FanGraphs leaving him off the Cardinals Top 31 Prospects list entirely.

Gorman was drafted out of high school with the 19th pick of the 2018 draft and signed by the Cardinals for $3,231,700. Six rounds and 194 players taken later, the Cardinals drafted Brendan Donovan and signed him for $200,300. No chump change, but still less than 10% of what Gorman got.

At that point, Donovan was three years older than Gorman, having already spent three seasons slapping the ball around the diamond at South Alabama University. In his personal bio for the school’s baseball website, he listed his favorite athlete as none other than fellow Cardinals Devil Magic lefty Matt Carpenter, who, having no leverage at his age (23) and draft position (399th overall), signed for only $1,000 out of TCU.

This kind of disparity in draft position and prospect hype tends to linger in our collective expectations for years, in this case four.

Take Donovan and Gorman’s minor league stats. Gorman certainly had a louder start and finish to his minor league tenure than Donovan, and to his credit was two or three years younger at each level, but overall the two were on near equal footing offensively.

Brendan Donovan - FanGraphs

Nolan Gorman - FanGraphs

The batting profiles, obviously, are where the differences lie. Donovan’s on base skill and Gorman’s power are what makes each so fun to watch when they step up to the plate. But in the minors, it’s the power that summons the national (and STL media, for that matter) prospect watchers, not the slap singles and 11-pitch walks. This is why it’s so nice to have someone like Kyle Reis paying such close attention to each draftee as they grow through the minors, to highlight gems like Donovan who so clearly make the team better on a daily basis. I imagine that Kyle’s philosophy and approach to prospects more closely resembles a major league front office’s than yours or mine does, particularly as it relates to prospects already within the organization.

Outside of Donovan, the Cardinals of 2022 are benefitting significantly from a couple other formerly overlooked low draftees who otherwise had really productive minor league careers en route to their major league success.

Lars Nootbaar was drafted in the same 2018 draft as Gorman and Donovan, one round behind Donovan. Despite consistently above average performance in the minors, he never cracked either of the FanGraphs or MLB Pipeline top Cardinals prospects list. Right now going into the playoffs, it’s him getting right-field starts - not Dylan Carlson, former first round pick and consensus top 20 prospect in the majors, currently on the phantom IL.

Tommy Edman was taken in 2016 in the sixth round, a little higher than Donovan or Nootbaar were in 2018. Tommy posted above-average batting lines at every minor league level, to go along with the defense and speed we’re accustomed to today. His fWAR this year is higher than each of the three big 2021-2022 offseason SS FA signings, and within a rounding error of Francisco Lindor, who makes $30 million more a year than Edman and has been mentioned in most MVP discussions as of late. Edman was never ranked higher than #20 on either of the MLB or FanGraphs Top Cardinals prospects lists.

I could also mention Albert Pujols (drafted 402nd overall) and Yadier Molina (drafted 113th overall) here, but I was only 4 and 6 when they made their respective debuts, leaving me decidedly out of the loop on prospect buzz when they were called up.

There are a few ideas this piece reinforced for me that many of us already understand to some extent - defense and defensive versatility is undervalued, contributors can come from anywhere, and the Cardinals are one of the best organizations at finding value later on in the draft.

But what stands out most to me is the path dependency we assign to high-draft or highly-rated prospects in comparison to unhyped or unheralded teammates of theirs. Despite the remarkable amount of information available to each of the thirty MLB front offices today, I think the sheer scale of organizations and rosters (as compared to the NBA, maybe) will allow this phenomenon to continue on unabated for a good while longer.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be excited about Nolan Gormans and Dylan Carlsons - would you sacrifice one of them in a trade right now to clear a path for Donovan or Nootbaar? I’m not sure I would. It’s more boring than that I think.

It’s that these less-hyped players aren’t coming out of nowhere because their minor league performances didn’t warrant it. They came out of nowhere because as fans, we just don’t regularly adjust our expectations as much as we maybe should.