I want to start this piece with a stat. The St. Louis Cardinals had 15 players take 200+ plate appearances last year. If you don’t know whether or not that’s a lot. It is. The last time the Cardinals had that many players take 200+ plate appearances was...never...maybe? Actually, I don’t know because it’s been forever if it has happened before.
2022 was actually the first time that happened in the 21st century for the Redbirds and I stopped looking after that because, well, you get the point. It’s a rare occurrence.
In fact, do you know how many other teams had 15 or more players take 200+ plate appearances last year? None.
The Cardinals stand alone.
Interestingly, 2 teams came up just one player short it’s not exactly great company - Cincinnati and Miami, two teams who failed to win 70 games.
So, this brings us to my first point. There’s “depth” and there’s depth. “Depth” is giving PAs to a bunch of guys because no one is really good whereas real depth is giving PAs to players who deserve them.
Let me illustrate the difference this way. Last year, the Cardinals gave 200+ plate appearances to one player with negative WAR - Andrew Knizner. For the Reds, that figure was 3. For the Marlins, it rose to 4.
Some teams give playing time to a smattering of players because they don’t really have a true, clear cut starter. Some teams give playing time to a smattering of players because they have a bunch of injuries. But the Cardinals gave substantial playing time to 15 players because they had the talent and the depth to play the matchups. And they did it because they have a manager savvy enough to do so.
The obvious exceptions are Paul DeJong serving as the backup shortstop, Molina and Knizner splitting time with neither being good, and Corey Dickerson playing because of injury/ineffectiveness (but also because of matchup some time). But I don’t want to belabor the point — the Cardinals used a ton of depth last year and they had a manager who was able to find playing time for a number of talented rookies.
So that brings us to this year when Oli Marmol will have the same challenge. He showed he was up for the challenge of finding playing time for everyone last year but his job hasn’t gotten any easier in 2023.
The depth is still strong and that’s what I want to talk about. We can pencil in 8 starters already, assuming an outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar. So let’s just assume those 8 players will get 200 PAs at a minimum. Injury could obviously change that but I’m not going to worry about that because that isn’t the point.
Are there 6 other players who could feasibly reach the 200 PA mark? I think so. I’ll count the backup catcher - Andrew Knizner - as one. Then there’s Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez who should see a lot of time at DH. That’s 3. I’d be willing to bet that Alec Burleson and Paul DeJong will both hit the threshold too. So there’s 5. And those are the only 5 I can predict with a somewhat high degree of confidence, which leaves us 2 short.
But maybe Moises Gomez pushes his way onto the roster and into 200 PAs at some point and I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Jordan Walker did the same thing. So there is still a solid chance that the Cardinals will have 15 players hit the 200 plate appearance mark again in 2023.
I don’t want to bore you with any more details about who we might expect to play this year. Instead, I want to talk about something else that the Cardinals have in abundance, and it may be even more important than depth. And that’s flexibility.
For a good team to be able to give so many plate appearances to so many players, it needs to have a lot of good players but it also needs to have players who can fill different roles. And that is exactly what the Cardinals have this season.
We’ve already seen the early news about Tyler O’Neill competing for a job in Spring Training and that’s one example of flexibility that opens up all kinds of interesting options for Marmol.
Despite switch hitting, Dylan Carlson has never hit righties well (91 career wRC+ vs RHPs) but Tyler O’Neill has never had that problem (career 112 wRC+ vs RHPs) which gives Marmol the option to start O’Neill in centerfield against right-handed pitching flanked by a pair of left-handed hitters in Lars Nootbaar and Alec Burleson. Or Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan to get Nolan Gorman’s bat in the lineup at second base.
This is how I think Alec Burleson will find playing time this year. He won’t be a regular starter but I do think he’ll be used as an occasional outfield starter against right-handed pitching while also being in the mix for DH plate appearances.
Against left-handed pitching, either O’Neill or Carlson can play centerfield with Yepez taking the final spot, unless the Cardinals want to stick Nootbaar in the right field every day which is entirely plausible and probably should happen.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see O’Neill and Carlson split time in centerfield this year. It probably wouldn’t be a 50/50 split if it does happen as I expect one will be considered the regular starter or the 1A to the 1B. That’s a far cry from the days when Harrison Bader locked down the center of the outfield but a bit of a centerfield platoon isn’t a weakness.
Rather, it’s the depth of the Cardinals outfield combined with the fact that different players can play centerfield that gives the Cardinals the ability to optimize matchups, even if there are 3 regular starters.
And then there’s the infield where defending Gold Glove utility man Brendan Donovan seems to be the perfect fit for a manager willing to move his guys around to find the right opportunities.
Whether it’s the outfield, third base, first base, or even shortstop, Brendan Donovan is the perfect player to fill in when someone needs a day off, and that’s, of course, when he’s not starting at second base. Tommy Edman is the same way too, even if he’ll likely be the everyday shortstop this year. We’ve seen him deployed in a similar manner to Donovan in the past and we know he still has the ability to play all over the place.
And with Nolan Gorman also on the team, the Cardinals have the option to attack right-handed pitching with a number of quality left-handed hitters. In fact, including the 2 switch hitters, the Cardinals have the option to fill the lineup with 6 lefties on any given day.
|2022 wRC+ vs RHPs
|2022 wRC+ vs RHPs
Interestingly, many of these players actually had stronger numbers against left-handed pitching but, as a general rule, I don’t believe in reverse splits until I’ve seen them play out in a large sample size. Even without the reverse splits, this is called having a lot of depth as both Gorman and Burleson probably aren’t going to be regular starters except maybe at DH despite both being good hitters.
Despite his struggles last year, Gorman finished as an above league average hitter and Alec Burleson raked his way through the minors and then put up good batted ball data in limited MLB exposure. These are two guys who can be weapons off the bench and legitimate starting options and it’s the flexibility of the Cardinals that allows these weapons to be used.
We’ve covered the strong depth and the capable flexibility of this team but that brings us to the final component needed to bring everything together - the manager. Oli Marmol proved capable of using his whole bench last year, which is more than can be said for some past managers, even if some of us were unhappy that he stuck with Corey Dickerson for so long.
This is still a manager who, in his first season as a manger, proved himself capable of handling a roster loaded with lineup talent. He used Brendan Donovan expertly, he used his bench, he spread playing time around to optimize the matchups, and he even called for the 8th most pinch hitters in the league.
Roster depth and roster flexibility are valuable things but only if they are used and used correctly. That doesn’t happen without a good manager. Oli Marmol certainly has his work cut out for him this year with a lot of talented players on the bench, but last year he proved that he can find plate appearances for everyone and this year he’ll need to do it again.
I think he can and that is one of the biggest strengths of the team.
Thanks for reading, VEB. It’s awesome to have baseball back and once we seen a few games, I’m sure I’ll have some observations to make about some changes that I’ve noticed. But, until then, enjoy your Sunday and enjoy some more Cardinals baseball today.