Well it was a rough year. The St. Louis Cardinals lost more games than the Pirates. The pitching staff is terrible. Blah blah blah. I don’t care about any of that right now. Okay, I do, but we’ve talked about the team’s issues all season and with today being the last day of the season, I want to turn my attention to the players who made their MLB debuts this year.
It might have been a rough season overall, but don’t tell that to these guys. This poor 2023 season, however rough it was, marked a milestone moment in the lives of each of these players. For some, this year was just the start of a long and prosperous career but for others, it may have been the peak of their careers.
Each of these players deserves some recognition and my goal with this article is to give them just that.
The Cardinals had 8 players make their major league debuts this year. That’s actually down from last year when 13 players debuted. And while you may think the Cardinals should have had more debuts in a terrible season, it actually makes sense that they didn’t.
For starters, 13 players is a lot. Those players can’t debut twice. And they debuted in a season in which the Cardinals were actually good, meaning they were mostly talented prospects, and there are only so many talented near-MLB prospects who can fill an immediate need in an organization at a given time. With 13 players debuting last year, it only makes sense that the pipeline would slow down a bit this year.
And then we can consider the quality of the players who debuted last year because that matters too.
Players like Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Andre Pallante, Alec Burleson, Matthew Liberatore, and Zack Thompson all debuted last year and played sizeable roles on this year’s team. That really limits the opportunity for players coming up behind them, not to mention the effect that the exodus (from the minors) of these talented players had on the farm system as a whole.
So the Cardinals did have fewer debuts in a worse season but that makes sense given the context. Let’s get into the debuts now.
With 1 game left in the season, Jordan Walker has a 115 wRC+. That means he’s been 15% above league average in terms of runs created and he’s done that as a 21-year-old. And he was 20 when the season started.
Yes Walker had just 0.2 fWAR and was one of the worst defensive players in the majors. We all know that. But what he was able to do with the bat as a 20/21 year old at the highest level of the game is nothing short of impressive.
What’s impressive too is the growth that he showed throughout the season. That may get lost a little bit, but the numbers are pretty clear.
Remember when Jordan Walker was sent down to Memphis to work on elevating the ball and then there was that whole dispute about whether or not he needed to go back to the minors? Well, his ground rate in the first half of the season was 55.7%. In the second half, it fell to 40.2%. In the first month of the season, basically the time before Walker got sent down, he had a ground ball rate of 60.4%. He clearly learned how to elevate and was a better, more productive hitter when he came back.
Big power with loft is a recipe for home runs, extra base hits, and lots of production so that was a key adjustment for Walker.
Beyond that, he also looked more comfortable in the outfield as the season went on. The eye test tells us that, or, at least, it tells me that, but the numbers do too.
Jordan Walker OAA by month:— Adam Akbani (@AdamAkbani) September 10, 2023
Last month he put it together offensively; now Walker's becoming a complete player with the glove
He'll be a top breakout candidate going into 2024#STLCards pic.twitter.com/o8ZIVHTXsk
Ya know, small sample size defensive statistics and all that but this still shows growth and the eye test seems to confirm it. We shouldn’t have been shocked that Walker struggled in the outfield this year after basically never playing the position prior to the majors. What’s important is for him to show growth and he did that.
Now if he can be even an average defender, which would require a big improvement, he can be a really valuable player given the strength of his bat.
So it was a mixed debut season for Walker. The bat is legit, that much is clear, but if the glove comes around too (as it started to at the end of the season), then Walker can be a really valuable player going forward. That’s obviously asking a lot but I haven’t given up on Walker’s glove. He’s still young and athletic and has shown an ability to make adjustments during the season.
That’s a great sign that he can improve his weakest link next season.
Jordan Walker will be a starter next year regardless of the defensive questions. He’s an above average hitter, former top prospect, and spent most of the year in the majors this year. There’s no way he gets sent back to Memphis next season. At least, that’s how I see it.
The same can’t be said for Masyn Winn. It was great to see him debut this year but after 129 plate appearances, the shortstop has a 33 wRC+ and -0.5 fWAR. He’s electirc, he’s exciting, he’s athletic, he may have the best infield arm in the game, he makes a lot of contact and he doesn’t chase very much, but I simply don’t feel comfortable penciling him in as the Opening Day starter following this season.
Winn showed us much of the same things as he showed us in the minors. Solid discipline (24.6% chase rate), good bat to ball skills (22.0% whiff rate) and limited power (86.1 mph avg EV). He was also solid defensively with some spectacular moments and near-outs.
That’s what Winn brings to the table. His bat simply didn’t produce much this year. That’s okay. He’s 21 years old. It’s his first MLB exposure. It happens.
I’m just glad the Cardinals didn’t start him in the majors after his excellent Spring Training.
With that said, I’m not out on Masyn Winn. The talent is real. He simply didn’t find immediate success. There’s not much more to say than that. Regardless, it’s exciting to see Winn and Walker close to becoming key contributors for this team. These are fun prospects that are easy to root for and I can’t wait to see more of them next season.
While Walker and Winn have exciting futures as potential key players for the Cardinals, Fermin’s future is more unclear. He’s not likely to be an above average hitter, or even an average hitter, at the major league level but he does profile as a contact-oriented utility infielder if he can hit enough to keep the job.
The infielder played some second base and some third base with the Redbirds this year but he also has experience at shortstop in the minors. On top of that, small sample defensive metrics loved him at second base. We’re only talking about 74.1 innings but Fermin tallied 3 DRS and 2 OAA in that time. He was -1 in both figures in a little over 50 innings at third base but that’s a solid season in the field even if he didn’t play much.
It’s hard to believe that Fermin can hold down a job with the Cardinals considering the tam’s abundance of good young infielders but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Fermin end up as a utility infielder somewhere else.
Luken Baker felt a bit like this year’s Moises Gomez to me. Gomez signed as a minor league free agent last year and then went on to lead the minor leagues in home runs and earn a 40-man roster spot. He also struggled immensely the year before.
This year, Baker was leading the minors in home runs before getting promoted to the majors and he had a huge bounce back year after posting a wRC+ of 78 the year before. Both players can mash and neither is a particularly adept defender. Gomez is about a year and a half younger, though, meaning he first crushed Triple-A at age 23/24 while Baker first demolished the level at age 26. That does matter.
Suffice it to say that while Baker earned his debut this year, it’s hard to imagine him wearing the birds on the bat next year. Baker only got 90 plate appearances this year but he didn’t exactly seize his chance (69 wRC+) and while it often takes more than 90 PAs for a player to settle in, the Cardinals may not be willing to give any more PAs to an older corner prospect with little to no defensive upside.
The bat is something that can play, though. Baker does indeed crush the ball and he continued to do that at the highest level (92.8 mph avg EV). He also didn’t chase much and found the sweet spot almost 40% of the time. Again, we’re not looking at a huge sample here but those are good signs that Baker has a chance to be a productive major league hitter.
I don’t know when his next chance will come but he did show some promise this year, even if he didn’t keep up his Triple-A production.
The last hitter I’m covering on this list is the one least likely to return to the majors and that’s what made Irving Lopez’s debut so fun. He’s been a fantastic organizational soldier since being selected in the 19th round in the 2017 draft and while he’s never been the most promising prospect, he’s been solid enough to work his way to the upper minors.
And that’s where he stalled. The utility man has repeatedly bounced between Double-A and Triple-A for the past 4 seasons, going back to 2019, depending on roster needs.
As someone who’s also watched Lopez play in the Mexican winter league in recent years, Lopez has become one of my favorite minor leagues, not because of his talent or prospect pedigree, but because of the energy and enthusiasm with which he plays the game and his willingness to do anything to help the team.
I don’t care about Lopez’s results on the field. It was great to watch him get the crowing moment of his career. Now I’m jut hoping for a hit before the end of the season as this may be the last time Lopez makes the majors or even steps on a field as part of the Cardinals organization.
Drew Rom needed only 2 games in the Cardinals system before his new team gave him his MLB debut after coming to the organization in the Jack Flaherty trade.
In the minors, Rom showed an ability to miss more bats than one would expect given the quality of his stuff but that didn’t stick in the majors as Rom’s 16.9% whiff rate would have ranked around the 5th percentile among MLB pitchers.
But that wasn’t even the biggest problem. Rom had some command issues pop up in the upper minors and that stuck with him into the majors as he walked 10.8% of the batters he faced and surrendered 6 home runs in just under 30 innings.
Suffice it to say, Rom’s first exposure to the majors did not go well.
There are some changes he can make, though. For starters, I don’t think he profiles as a starter at the major league level. I’ve said it before, but I do think Rom fits best in the bullpen.
But also, what do I know? I could be wrong and Rom could turn a corner, settle in, and be a productive starter. That’s within his range of outcomes. That’s why I don’t mind if the Cardinals return him to Triple-A next year and keep him in the rotation. Rotation depth is a good thing and there are quite a few things that Rom could improve.
For starters, his command. A 12.2% fastball meatball rate is not good. Rom also left a lot of splitters and sinkers up instead of working them at the knees. For a pitcher without overwhelming stuff, Rom needs to command the ball a lot better than he has.
Then there’s the pitch mix. Rom’s four-seamer averaged 90.4 mph. His sinker averaged 87.3 mph (though Statcast sometimes struggled to classify Rom’s pitches so that might not be 100% accurate). He shouldn’t be throwing fastballs 67.5% of the time.
None of his pitches played well but more sweepers and splitters should help hitters stay off his fastball a bit more.
Finally, what if Rom adds velocity? That’s always a possibility for any pitcher. Additional velocity could completely change his profile. So my point is that there are ways in which Rom could improve and even if he looks like a future reliever to me right now, that may not be the case in the future.
Regardless, for a pitching staff that really wasn’t all that fun in the second half of the season, Rom added a bit of intrigue that made the season a little more interesting. I appreciate that.
Guillermo Zuniga is a pitcher that I will never give up on because there are very few pitchers that can average 98 mph. The key word in that sentence is average. Some pitchers touch 98 but that’s the high end of their velocity range. 98 mph is the middle of Zuniga’s range, meaning that he regularly works in the 100+ mph range.
Yes he was terrible this year. No I don’t care. That may be dumb but the arm talent is unbelievable. That’s about all that can be said for Zuniga, though. He misses bats but not as many as you would expect given how dynamic his stuff is, he has suspect control, and he gives up a lot of homers.
That doesn’t paint a rosy picture.
And this is why Zuniga and the Cardinals should be experimenting. Zuniga isn’t just a little bit of control away from being a productive pitcher and he isn’t magically going to click into place by repeatedly doing what he has been.
I, for instance, would love to see Zuniga experiment with a sinker instead of a four-seamer. The velocity obviously stands out but the pitch only gets 13.4 inches of induced vertical break. That’s not great. It matters less with velocity near the upper extreme, but it still matters. If Zuniga can’t get better shape on the four-seamer, I would love to see what he can do with a sinker.
He also throws a pretty good looking changeup that average 17.1 inches of run at 89.4 mph. Maybe he should break that out more considering it missed bats at a 42.9% rate with only 10.5% usage. What does Zuniga’s slider look like as a sweeper? How about as a gyro slider? Does it play better when paired with a sinker? These are al questions that should be explored in the offseason.
Zuniga has the kind of arm that can pretty much throw any pitch with a good stuff+. His arm is just that electric and velocity matters that much. That’s why I believe in Zuniga but he and the Cardinals need to do something differently to tap into that arm talent because a 7.63 ERA and 5.95 FIP is pretty terrible.
I’m still excited about Zuniga and I will continue to be excited about him long after he makes me look dumb for believing in him so much. My belief comes from the arm though, and that’s a necessary qualifier because I the current version of Zuniga isn’t good but after some tweaks, I believe there is a version of Zuniga that can be dominant.
Leahy is similar to Zuniga in that his stuff looks good but he didn’t have any success this season. With that said, his fastball sits 95 instead of 98 so his stuff isn’t on the same level as Zuniga’s.
Interestingly, though, Leahy gets a ton of extension (7.2 feet), which means the perceived velocity of his fastball is around 97 mph on average. That helps a lot. His fastball only gets about 15.4 inches of induced vertical break which isn’t too impressive but is at least better than Zuniga.
The go-to breaking ball is a slider but Leahy toyed with a sweeper this year too. The latter missed the zone more often but generally wasn’t hit as hard and profiled well, losing just 2.2 mph from the slider and sweeping 15.4 inches (up from 4.5 inches on the slider). Control obviously matters but I would love to see more sweepers from Leahy as he only threw 81 of them compared to 438 sliders in Triple-A.
Leahy is in the same boat as Zuniga. He has some real arm talent but he needs to make some tweaks to get the most out of it because what he’s doing now isn’t working. His arm isn’t as electric as Zuniga’s and he is a bit older so I don’t have as much belief in Leahy as I do in Zuniga, but I do think he’s still interesting.
The Cardinals have held onto him despite poor results in his minor league career and gave him a debut this year so they obviously believe in him somewhat at least. I’ll be curious to see what tweaks he makes, if any, and if that can lead him to success next year.
He may be fighting for his place in the organization, too, so he most definitely will start the year in the minors, likely Triple-A, if he does remain.
In a rough season, one of the things I enjoyed most was getting first looks at these players. Some of these players will be fixtures of the team for years to come while others may bounce around and some may never make it back to the highest level but it was great to see each of these players get their moment in the spotlight.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Sunday.