You’re 29-years-old. You used to be a good player and even a good enough player to make an All-Star team. But coming into the upcoming season, you’ll be four years removed from your last well above average season. You’re only on the team because of your contract, once team friendly, but now it stands as the only reason you remain a Cardinal. This upcoming season could define your career and your earning potential.
That could just as easily apply to a current Cardinal, but in this particular instance I’m referring to Carlos Martinez. The 2021 season was a pivotal season for him. He was trying to become a starting pitcher again. He made 5 very poor starts in the shortened season. In the previous two seasons, he had been converted to reliever, and he wasn’t as good a reliever as he should have been considering he was viewed as a 3 WAR starter.
Martinez threw 82.1 IP in 16 starts in 2021 with a 6.23 ERA. He did not appear in the major leagues last year, making two starts in AAA and pitching very badly in them. He also got suspended twice, for a combo of 165 games (I’m not sure if the suspensions overlap at all). So it hasn’t been all about baseball. But he would have been in a position to get an MLB deal if his 2021 went better and it went very poorly, so now he will really have to work his way back into the majors.
Most players on the active roster are not in this position. But they do have pivotal seasons in other ways. There’s sort of a line in the sand about how they can be viewed depending on their season. I consider these players 2023 seasons pivotal, because it might be the difference between expecting a starting-caliber player for the future or penciling them as a bench player. You’ll see what I mean when I explain why each player is on the list.
So this is self-explanatory. Paul DeJong is, at worst, set up to get paychecks from MLB teams for as long as he’s interested in playing. That is, if he’s willing to play in the minor leagues. I see no reason he can’t last a few more seasons, purely on his reputation as a good fielding SS, if Pete Kozma could play six seasons beyond the point where it was clear he wouldn’t have any real value to an MLB team. That’s his floor.
But if he bounces back in any significant way, even if it’s like a competent bench player and not a starter, he will get an MLB paycheck. There is even (a very unlikely) chance the Cards pick up his option. Whether or not it ends up being on the Cardinals, his 2023 will be extremely important to how he’s viewed around the league. There is no question this is a pivotal year for him.
Okay, so I’m stretching what a pivotal year really is when I include Nootbaar. Technically, he has given himself some leeway with the end to his 2022. He will probably get more chances beyond 2023 no matter how his 2023 season goes. But there does seem to be an interesting divide among Cardinal fans in what Nootbaar is right now: a 4th outfielder or a clear starter. I’ve long since planted my flag on the starter side, but we’ve certainly seen players have a great 300-400 PAs in the past who did not sustain that success. Just because Nootbaar is doing in a way that looks sustainable doesn’t guarantee he can continue it.
If injuries don’t get in the way, and he receives 500-600 PAs, we will have a very good idea of what Nootbaar is as a player. So while the year might not be pivotal for Nootbaar himself, it is pivotal in how he factors into the Cardinals’ future plans.
You could almost use what I said about Nootbaar word for word in this section. In a weird way, this year is both more and less pivotal than Nootbaar. The Cardinals are far less reliant on Donovan being the real deal, whereas they seem to have traded Harrison Bader specifically to make room for Lars Nootbaar (and needing a starter of course), in a similar way that they traded Tommy Pham to make room for Bader. (Not a perfect comparison admittedly). On the other hand, Nootbaar has underlying stats backing up his breakout.
Donovan... sort of doesn’t. It’s difficult to imagine a under .100 ISO player being able to maintain his K/BB numbers just because pitchers aren’t going to be afraid to challenge him. It’s also unclear if he can maintain a .330 BABIP, because he doesn’t hit the ball hard. I’m not exactly worried about Donovan and he’ll get starts because he’s willing to play anywhere, but if he comes close to replicating his 2022 numbers, I’m not sure you can go into future seasons without penciling him as a (mostly) full-time 2B.
I am not writing Dylan Carlson off and it feels weird to put a 24-year-old player here, but I kind of feel like if he does the same thing he did his first two full seasons, he’s pretty much what he appears to be. An average to slightly above average player. Really Carlson is a victim of expectation more than anything. 5 fWAR combined in your first two full seasons from a 22 and 23-year-old is really, really good. And in fact if he had flipped his 2021 and 2022 seasons, I think we’d be a lot more optimistic about Carlson.
But then there’s the whole thing where he makes shockingly weak contact. We may very well have something like 1,700-1,800 plate appearances from Carlson after 2023, and it’d be kind of hard to argue there’s some untapped potential if he essentially repeats his previous two seasons. Nothing wrong with that player, as I said. But it is the difference between him being part of the core or someone who might get traded for the next Bader, or Nootbaar when they arrive.
Yepez’s MLB debut season was kind of disappointing. It wasn’t necessarily the production for me, so much as the approach. In 2021, in both AA and AAA, he posted extremely good hitting lines on the basis of his power and a great approach - his walk rate was elite and his strikeout rate was better than average. And he showed none of that at the MLB level, except power.
His power is for real, but his approach is going to determine what kind of player he is. Because a poor outfield defender with a 6% BB rate and 22% K rate is not going to cut it. I’ll be curious to see what his approach looks like this upcoming season, because that - more than his defense, more than his actual hitting line - soured me on Yepez more than anything.
I’ll make this short, because this is entirely related to his defense. Can he stick at 2B or not? I would use 2023 to definitively answer that question. This is in no sense of the word a pivotal year for his bat though.
Obviously. Probably one of the first names you thought when you saw what the premise was. Some of these are pivotal years for how their future role as a Cardinal will be, this is most certainly a pivotal year for Jack Flaherty. The measure of his season can be summarized by what happens at the end of it: will he be offered the QO? If yes, he’s back in business and if no, that’ll make four disappointing seasons in a row.
And it’s pivotal for the Cards too, because they really could use Flaherty, ace pitcher. That would be nice.
Pretty easy one as well. Cabrera collapsed at the end of last season, and in general stopped striking people out. He was an effective reliever in 2021. However, the advanced stats behind his 2021 are... not great. I’m certainly willing to say he pitched better than his xFIP and SIERA suggest (his xERA was 3.68), but if he follows that up with two bad seasons, I’ll be less inclined to do that.
He has one MLB option left, and if the Cardinals are forced to use that in 2023, he might not be a Cardinal in 2024.
Dakota Hudson/Andre Pallante
Both pitchers will be fighting for a spot on the 2024 rotation, without a clear path to starting in 2023 without an injury. Hudson is a bad year away from being non-tendered, whereas Pallante could either be destined for the bullpen or cement a spot. In both cases, how they pitch in 2023 will help the Cardinals plan for the 2024 rotation.
And that’s it for me. There are other players who certainly have an argument as well. I struggled with whether or not to put Tyler O’Neill on here, but I don’t really think his 2023 will change either his role or what we can expect. He’ll still be a guy we are worried will get injured and who has tantalizing upside we hope he can reach with a good, mediocre, or bad 2023. It could be pivotal in the sense that he might get traded to make room for Jordan Walker, but that situation might happen regardless of how he plays. It’ll affect the return of course.
You could make an argument for Jordan Montgomery, but he’s been reliable enough over the length of his career that I think he can weather a bad or injured season. And I put the Cards’ odds of re-signing him (or extending him) low enough that I don’t really think 2023 is going to make much of a difference. Miles Mikolas has a stronger argument, being significantly more likely to re-sign and while it’s undeniably pivotal for Mikolas’ himself, the Cards may still re-sign him (to a lesser deal) if things don’t go as hoped in 2023. Might even be more likely depending on how things go wrong.
Steven Matz has an argument as well, but seeing as he’s the only member of the rotation locked up for 2024, I don’t think he has a realistic chance of losing his spot. You could also make the case for Alec Burleson, but I don’t really think a 24-year-old with 53 career PAs who you’re only depending on to be a 4th outfielder really could be considered pivotal for either Burleson or the Cards. He also may or may not be traded and it also could happen whether or not he does well or poorly. It depends on what the Cardinals are shopping for. I think Burleson needs a solid year of MLB plate appearances before I call it pivotal.
And lastly, you could also make the case for Matthew Liberatore, but given how long it sometimes takes for pitchers to adjust to the MLB level, I don’t necessarily think I would treat his 2023 as some line in the sand when he will still be 24-years-old in 2024. He is fighting for a spot on the 2024 rotation which is my argument for Pallante and Hudson, but he (hypothetically) is going to be in the rotation at some point barring a trade where Hudson and Pallante would very much not be in the Cards rotation if it doesn’t happen in 2024. Liberatore could join the rotation for good next year... or 2025. He still has time and the 2024 season is not the deadline for me.
And of course there are a ton of minor leaguers, like Connor Thomas, who absolutely have pivotal seasons for their minor league career and maybe I’ll make that post later, but that post would be entirely too long.