Before I jump into my usual jargon, I have an honest question that I want you to answer.
Think about it. Think about it carefully. I want you to give this some real consideration. And I’ll even give you some space before I give you my answer so as not to overly influence your answer.
What is the most important thing that needs to happen for the Cardinals to return to contention in the National League in 2024?
Not long after the news broke about Sonny Gray, this was the question that I began to ponder. There are a lot of right answers to my question. There are so many factors that go into a losing team becoming a winning team.
But I think there’s one best answer and it’s not the one that we’ve been focused on lately.
First, let me just say this: I really like Sonny Gray. Lost in the general frustration over the Cardinals’ rotation additions over the last week is the fact that Sonny Gray is not Kyle Gibson or Lance Lynn. He’s a darn good pitcher. He’s one of the best pitchers the Cardinals have had on their staff since Jack Flaherty in 2019. He’s probably the best external free agent pitching addition signed by St. Louis since … Andy Benes, maybe?
He wasn’t my first (Yamamoto) or second (Nola) or third (Glasnow) choice as the #1 pitcher on this team but that’s not because he’s not good. I just had different priorities that led me to a different approach to re-making this team.
Sonny Gray is not the problem with the 2024 Cardinals and their quest to return to contention next season.
I’m also not convinced he’s the most critical part of the solution. The best Sonny Gray can do is essentially replicate the production that the excellent Jordan Montgomery provided to the Cards and the Rangers. He would have to surpass his ZiPS projections just to reach that “what they had last year” level. It’s foolish to expect him to provide production that notably elevates their ceiling of contention.
The rest of the rotation is in a similar position. We can quibble (and we have and we will, I promise) over tenths of a point of fWAR in the projections for Gibson and Lynn, but neither is capable of transforming the team’s future. At least not in the positive direction. They just don’t have that upside in their aging arms.
If we’re honest, we would say the same thing about most of the rest of the free agent and trade-candidate starters we’ve discussed this around the site this offseason. There are a hundred different ways that the Cardinals could arbitrage their resources to fill out their starting rotation but so long as they added three legit MLB starters, the margin of improvement was always pretty limited. Outside of Ohtani, who won’t even pitch next season, there just wasn’t a 6-8 fWAR franchise-future-changing pitcher out there for the Cardinals to nab. (That includes Yamamoto.)
So, if the rotation isn’t the answer to my question. Then what is it?
It’s the hitters. It’s always been the hitters.
Nolan Arenado. Paul Goldschmidt. Willson Contreras. Certainly, those three have to perform for this team to contend. That goes without saying. Those three form the offensive floor for the club to return to contention.
If they are the floor, what can legitimately push this team’s ceiling? That has to come from the bats and gloves of the Cardinals’ stock of talented young hitters who have not yet reached their full potential: Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar, and Nolan Gorman.
Getting unrealized production from Walker, Nootbaar, and Gorman is the most important that has to happen for the Cardinals to not just challenge in the Central but return to contention in the National League.
Let’s just go one by one and consider the impact their performance can have on the team’s win totals.
When I got lost in the pitching frenzy in the early off-season, I momentarily how bad Jordan Walker was last season. He produced .2 fWAR. .2! And that’s up from where he sat most of the year.
We know why. 2023 was Walker’s first full year playing the outfield and, man, did it show. His -14 OAA was just brutal.
It’s also not likely to happen again. Walker has speed. He has good hands. He has a high level of athleticism for his large frame. He has a very strong arm. He has all the tools he needs to be a perfectly acceptable outfielder. He’s down in Jupiter right now working with the club’s coaches and trainers to add instinct and reps to his raw athletic skills.
Offensively, he’s already a force. Jordan Walker is 21 years old. He skipped AAA. He was demoted for a month last season. He still produced a 116 wRC+. That’s fairly remarkable for a player who was, let’s face it, in way over his head against Major League pitching.
What could he do next season? Who knows! I certainly don’t. It’s hard to peg a player that young and that inexperienced. The talent, though, flashed. There is a decent chance that Walker will go off in 2024.
What does that mean? I think Walker could end up with a wRC+ anywhere between 125 and 150. Fangraphs has him with an 80-grade game and raw power upside. That’s as high as it gets. He already showed he can walk. He murdered fastballs. He, somehow, is already good against breaking pitches. He had to learn to elevate balls on the fly.
Next season he won’t have two months where he leaves at bats saying, “oh, so, THAT’s a quality changeup? Never seen one of those before.” In 2024, he can just come in hitting from day one. That little bit of added familiarity will show up. Quickly.
What kind of impact will he have? The best I can do is offer a range. Let’s assume that he approaches average defensive levels. That’s not a safe assumption, but it makes comparables easier.
On the high side, we can probably look for a season like Kyle Tucker. Tucker was a -4 OAA defender who produced a 140 wRC+ in 674 PAs. He produced 4.9 fWAR last season.
We don’t even have to shoot that high to see a huge production bump. Seiya Suzuki with the Cubs produced a very reachable 126 wRC+ and was just +2 in OAA. That was good enough for a 3.2 fWAR in under 600 PAs.
Settling in in the outfield and taking a full step forward toward his talent on offense can add between 2.5 and 4.5 fWAR to this season. No one has the potential to change the trajectory of this baseball club more than Jordan Walker.
While Jordan Walker has to do something he hasn’t yet done in his young career, Nootbaar just has to do more of what he’s already done to raise the Cardinal’s ceiling. Noot had 503 plate appearances last season in only 117 games. The season before, playing down in the lineup and more part-time, Noot played in 108 games and received 347 PAs.
That’s a lot of games missed but it didn’t stop Nootbaar from being a major contributor when he was on the field. Combined, Noot has produced 5.8 fWAR in 850 PAs in his first two seasons at ages 24 and 25.
Wow. That’s really nice. Imagine if he had stayed healthy!
We can do that. If we project Noot to 650 PAs from the leadoff spot – a full, healthy season – that career production rate translates to a 4.4 fWAR.
That assumes he doesn’t take any steps forward as a 26-year-old hitter entering his third full season. Considering Noot’s average exit velocity and max exit velocity over the last two campaigns, I think there’s reason to believe Noot could add a bit more power to his game as he enters his prime seasons. He’s already flashed that power upside in 2022 in limited PAs.
To keep this simple, we can just start there. If we take Noot’s power numbers from ’22 and project those over a full 650 PAs, his fWAR climbs to 5. That doesn’t include the better contact skills he displayed last season. You can add those tenths of a WAR I was talking about for each additional high-quality batted ball event he supplies.
The Cardinals know they are going to get production from Nootbaar. He’s a sure thing. But he is still an ascending player. There’s a career year in him that will carry this team.
Nolan Gorman had the surge we are looking for from Jordan Walker last season, his second season in the majors. Through the first few months of ‘23, Gorman looked like he was headed toward an All-Star appearance. It wasn’t to be as he later struggled with the same inconsistency that plagued him throughout his minor league career.
Still, look at all the red ink on his Baseball Savant dashboard!
Gorman is in the top 25th percentile in baseball in seven batting categories, including some pretty important ones like xwOBA, barrel%, and BB%. That kind of batting prowess has not quite shown up in his actual production yet. In both ’22 and ’23, Gorman landed below his expected slugging percentage and wOBA by enough to warrant attention. If nothing changes about Gorman’s game, he’s bound to have a season where his batted ball data lines up better with his actual production on the field. That would raise his 118 wRC+ last year to the 120-125 range.
That’s nice. But it’s not where Gorman can make up the most ground.
Gorman ranks near the bottom of the league in both K% and whiff%. When he makes contact, he destroys baseballs. He just doesn’t make enough contact to be an elite hitter in the league. Yet.
Gorman turned 23 in May. He’s completed a season and a half in the Major Leagues. There’s no reason to believe that he’s a finished product. He’s shown the ability to improve as he climbed the minors. In his return to A ball in ’19, he cut his K% from 36.4% down to 28%. In 2021 at AA and AAA he had a 26.7% and 19.2% K rate respectively.
I wouldn’t expect a number in the teens from him, but going from 32% down to 28% would put that many more balls in play and lead to that much more production.
Staying healthy would help him, too. Gorman only reached 464 PAs last season as he battled back troubles (and unwarranted platoon concerns.) If we expand his fWAR rate from last season to 550 PAs – still not a full season – he becomes a 3 fWAR player before we start tweaking his batting profile.
We haven’t even gotten to his improving defense! A little better K rate, a little better luck with health, a little better production over the same batted ball events, and a little better defense would make Gorman a LOT better baseball player. He has 4-5 fWAR upside, assuming he stays out of the DH spot.
The Most Important Thing
That’s just three players. Three players we know have the talent to produce at a high level. Three players with a significant gap between their measurable abilities and their actual production. Three players with the realistic potential to transform this team’s place in the standings.
That’s something the starting pitching simply can’t do. Even if Mozeliak had done what many of us wanted.
The Cardinals’ young hitters getting things right is the most important thing that needs to happen for the club to return to contention in the National League in 2024.
That doesn’t excuse the front office for playing it safe in the rotation so far. Wins added are wins added. Lynn and Gibson epitomize the “half measures” concept that I’ve written so much about this offseason. A full measure approach – Gray counts – for three starters would have raised the floor of the club, reduced the risk of collapse, and better distributed the production potential of the club through the core of the roster.
Maybe the Cardinals have more planned. Interestingly, the team’s reporters have not shut down the possibility of Mozeliak making opportunistic moves to further improve the rotation. It’s also interesting to me that they signed three starters without making a trade. We know they want to trade. We know they need to trade. We know trades are what they do best. We know they worked on deals at the deadline and during the offseason.
The Cardinals might have some full measures to add to their pitching staff that would further raise the club’s floor.
Their ceiling, though, almost certainly rests in the hands of their talented young hitters.
How high could that ceiling go? We’ll have a better idea once ZiPS comes out. Until then, I believe the Cardinals could hope for a bump of 4 - 7.5 fWAR from these three young players.
Walker: +2.5 – 4.0
Nootbaar: +1.0 – 2.0
Gorman: +.5 – 1.5
That’s potential production on top of any gains from Masyn Winn, Brendan Donovan, and Alec Burleson. Heck, let’s throw Ivan Herrera in there too, who could start 81 games and is likely to be better than Knizner’s sub-replacement level fWAR value.
Then there’s the possibility of bounce-back performances from Goldschmidt, Arenado, Edman, and whoever sticks around between Carlson and O’Neill.
This club is built on its offense. That’s where they have the most room for growth. It’s where we’ve spent the least amount of attention this offseason. It’s the most important thing for the Cardinals in 2024.