Alright guys. Today is Tuesday. Opening Day is Thursday. That means this is my last chance to write something before the season begins so there’s no better time to write a season preview and predictions article.
I’ve come up with a few categories around which to center my thoughts and those categories can be broken out into 2 main topics - individual player and team. On the individual player side of things, I’ll discuss who I think will be the best pitcher, the best hitter, the most impactful rookie, the most impactful player not on the Opening Day roster, and two players who I think have flown under the radar (one pitcher and one hitter).
On the team side of things, I’ll talk about what I think is going to happen at the trade deadline, how many all-stars I think the team will have, and how far the St. Louis Cardinals can go in the playoffs.
So, without further ado, let’s get the ball rolling.
Best Pitcher - Steven Matz
Before I explain my choice, I want to point out that I’m thinking about WAR here. And specifically fWAR. If I was using a measure like ERA or FIP to choose the best pitcher then I would no doubt end up with Ryan Helsley’s name above. But since I’m using fWAR as the measure, that pretty much necessitates my choice being a starter. And that starter is Steven Matz. And, no, I’m not crazy. Or, at least, I like to think I’m not.
I think a lot of Cardinals fans likely had Matz penciled in as the #4 or #5 starter depending on how they viewed Adam Wainwright this spring. Now with Wainwright on the injured list, that bumps Matz up to the #3 or #4 spot in the rotation in most people’s minds.
But I’ll argue that there is no 1-5 in the Cardinals rotation. There’s 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, and 3e.
The Cardinals don’t have an ace but we all know that. Jack Flaherty could change that but I’m not expecting him to because that’s simply a high expectation to have for someone who accumulated more than twice as much WAR in the second half of 2019 (4.0) than he did in the past 3 seasons combined (1.5).
But, anyways, back to 3a-3e. Miles Mikolas was compiled 2.8 fWAR last year. So did Adam Wainwright. Jordan Montgomery came in a hair lower at 2.7. Matz was the worst of the group at 0.7 but he only threw 48 innings. Give him 160 innings, and at that pace, he would have finished with 2.3 fWAR.
So, yes, he still would have been the worst starter of the 4. But I see reasons for optimism. According to Eno Sarris’ stuff+ model, Matz had 2 pitches with a grade better than 100 (his changeup and his curveball). If we want to go by pitching+, then Matz had 3 pitches over 100 (sinker, changeup, curveball). Since he really only uses 3 pitches, that means that every single pitch he throws is, (pardon the extreme oversimplification here) pretty good.
Both Adam Wainwright and Jordan Montgomery were also able to land 2 pitches above 100 by stuff+ but only Montgomery got 3 pitches above 100 by pitching+. The problem for him is that his four-seamer and cutter don’t grade out too well and he threw them a combined 21% of the time last year.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that Matz grades out better by stuff+ (100) and pitching+ (103) than any other starter in the opening day rotation, at least according to last year’s numbers. (Wainwright had a better stuff+ grade last year but that will almost certainly change this year).
But if metrics like stuff+ and pitching+ aren’t your jam, then let’s take a peek at some other things. We could go off last year’s stats in which Matz had a solid 3.78 FIP which was much higher than his 3.15 expected FIP. We can also look at how he paired a strong 26.1% strikeout rate with elite control (4.8% walk rate). Those numbers could change this year, but that’s a great place to start. And then I’ll mention his age too because even though he’s on the wrong side of 30 at 31 years old, he’s only about a year and a half older than Jordan Montgomery and 3 years younger than Miles Mikolas.
I have hope for Matz but my hope is also built on the fact that he doesn’t need to pitch better than a #1 starter, he just needs to pitch better than a 3a starter and that’s well within reason.
Best Hitter - Nolan Arenado
Done. Next. What is there to say about this one? Nolan Arenado finished with the most WAR on the team last year and his only real challenger to the throne is the reigning MVP. It turns out, though, that the reigning MVP is 35 years old and will turn 36 during the season.
Even though it’s Paul Goldschmidt, who is always just doing his job, age catches up with every player eventually. I’ll hedge by bet here and go with the player who was better last year (by WAR) and is 3 1⁄2 years younger.
Most Impactful Rookie - Jordan Walker
Done. Next. Again. Is there seriously anyone who thinks that a rookie not named Jordan Walker will have more of an impact that Jordan Walker, the 20-year-old mega-prospect who just made the team out of Spring Training and cracked a talented and capable starting lineup?
I think not.
What I’m not saying is that Jordan Walker is going to be a superstar as soon as he sets foot on the field. We’ve seen him struggle in Spring Training, especially with MLB caliber breaking balls, and we’ve seen him hit monster home runs. The talent is there but the refinement isn’t complete.
Walker is going to struggle. All rookies do. He’ll have plenty of 0-fers and multi-strikeout games. But that’s okay. He can hit a baseball. It’s important to not get too down on him when he’s struggling and not to raise the expectations too much when he’s raking.
He’s 20 years old and will almost surely hit at the bottom of the lineup on Opening Day. The Cardinals don’t need him to change their fortunes. They just need him to plug away and contribute to what may very well be the best offense in baseball.
I’ll leave you with this excellent thread that VEB’s own J.P. Hill wrote on Twitter today, It sums up my thoughts perfectly.
2. Walker should absolutely not play everyday and does not have to play everyday in order to justify his spot on the roster. They should definitely control his exposure and total PA’s. 450-500 at season’s end would be ideal. He doesn’t know what it takes to play 162/600 yet.— Jason Hill (@JPHill_Cards) March 27, 2023
4. Albert Pujols did not set the bar for success from a rookie prospect. He is the outlier. The 1x in a lifetime exception.— Jason Hill (@JPHill_Cards) March 27, 2023
Don’t saddle Walker with completely absurd expectations that he can’t possibly live up to.
Most Impactful Player not on the Opening Day roster - Matthew Liberatore
I really wanted to say Juan Yepez here. And for obvious reasons. He was an above average MLB hitter as rookie and he was the player who most obviously got squeezed off the roster despite having the talent to play at the highest level.
But the reason I’m going with Liberatore here is simple - opportunity.
Nothing against the talent of Yepez, but he simply doesn’t have a lot of opportunity. Where is he going to play? Not in an outfield with 4 starters for only 3 spots. Not at first base where the reigning MVP plays. Probably not at DH either since the Cardinals have an abundance of options at that spot too. If he plays anywhere it’s the short side of DH platoon where he starts against lefties. But that’s not a big enough role for me to choose him here.
Liberatore, on the other hand, should have lots of opportunity. And that’s because he’s probably the 6th starter (maybe the 7th once Wainwright is healthy, but we’ll see).
With Andre Pallante in the bullpen and not really getting stretched out this spring, I don’t see him as an option to make spot starts unless he manages to stretch out during the season. Jake Woodford is already in the rotation and though he may cede his spot to Wainwright when the 41-year-old gets healthy, he may also keep a hold on the #5 spot if he pitches well. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Wainwright end up in the bullpen should that scenario come to pass.
That leaves Dakota Hudson, who I don’t view as a real challenger to Liberatore simply because I believe Liberatore is a much better pitcher.
And I believe that because of what Liberatore has shown in the spring. I wrote about that on Sunday if you want to read my full thoughts, but I can summarize them briefly here.
Liberatore has added velocity and riding life to a fastball that desperately needed a jolt. That shores up his biggest weakness and gives him a more viable fastball to play off two above average to plus breaking balls. His stuff showed better in the spring and if he can maintain it, I believe he can contribute to the rotation this year, and even hold down a spot long term whenever he gets pressed into duty.
He’s my pick here because a starter will inevitably get hurt. In that scenario, I think Liberatore’s name gets called first and he pitches well enough to be the 6th starter this year and a full time starter next year.
Last year the 6th starter made 10 starts. That’s a pretty sizeable role and there could even be more than that available for Liberatore this season.
Don’t Forget About (pitcher edition) - Jordan Hicks
I cannot overstate how much belief I have in Jordan Hicks. His stuff is simply electric and I refuse to give up on a pitcher with that much arm talent. I’ll even go so far as to say that I wouldn’t be shocked if he made an all star game appearance. If not this year, then soon. And yes, I know that might be a bold take, but let me explain.
We all know that Jordan Hicks throws harder than anyone alive sans a handful a people but, while that’s awesome, it doesn’t matter if he can’t throw strikes. Or so the thinking goes, apparently.
But “throwing strikes” is such an ambiguous term. What does it mean to throw strikes? Saying that a pitcher doesn’t throw strikes is like identifying that someone is sick but not being able to say why. That doesn’t help much and it doesn’t diagnose the real problem.
So, let’s dive into the numbers and find out why. Because if Hicks can “throw strikes” then he can be one of the most effective relievers in the game.
I think when a lot of people say that a pitcher needs to “throw strikes”, they fail to realize the nuance involved in that statement. A strike comes from a swing or a take on a pitch over the plate. So, do you want or do you want more hitters to swing more or do you want more pitches in the zone? Because those are two different things and they require two different skill sets.
Would it surprise you to learn that Jordan Hicks throws as many pitches in the zone as the average MLB pitcher? That’s right. His 48.5% zone rate is dead average 50th percentile. What he doesn’t do, in fact, what he does terribly, is get hitters to chase. His 23.5% chase rate is just under 5% below average and ranks in just the 2nd percentile among MLB pitchers.
So, how does a pitcher whose stuff is so nasty not get hitters to expand the zone? It’s simple. His pitches are too nasty. They move too much.
Hicks’ sinker averaged 15.8 inches of run last year while his slider averaged 11.8 inches of sweep. You should note that those pitches are moving in the opposite direction. So, that means they separate by a whopping 27.6 inches during their flights to the plate.
To get that kind of separation, the pitches necessarily need to start breaking early, regardless of how sharp they are. That means the hitter has more time to notice the difference between the two pitches. To put it bluntly, that’s bad tunneling.
So, how does one overcome that? With a gyro slider instead of a sweeper. And that’s exactly what Jordan Hicks and new pitching coach Dusty Blake have worked on this spring.
In his most recent outing, Hicks threw 3 sliders. They averaged just 1 inch of sweep but what they lost in movement they made up for in velocity by gaining 3.7 mph on average from last year.
That’s a recipe for more chases. And more chases means fewer walks. And fewer walks means an incredibly effective Jordan Hicks.
Don’t Forget About (hitter edition) - Nolan Gorman
I feel that Nolan Gorman has flown under the radar as much as Jordan Hicks this spring. All the focus has been on the outfield situation this spring (and rightly so) but let’s not lose Gorman in the shuffle.
He was an above average major league hitter as a 21/22-year-old last year. That’s an impressive feat. But he also showed some major flaws. He couldn’t handle heat at the top of the zone and that was a major cause of his overall swing and miss issues.
The good news is that the Cardinals have said that he’s improved in that area. That remains to be seen but Oli Marmol also seems like one of the most straight-talking managers the Cardinals have had in a long time, so if he’s saying that Gorman is better against high fastballs, then it’s a pretty good bet that he has indeed improved.
And if Gorman can make more contact, he can more consistently tap into his incredible raw power.
But it’s not just the potential offensive improvements that have me excited. It’s the defensive ones too. Gorman has looked much better at second base this spring than he did during the 2022 season. Yes, it’s Spring Training, but Gorman’s double play turning ability looks much smoother and he overall looks more comfortable at the position.
That’s a good sign because I wouldn’t be shocked if Gorman ended up starting more games at second than Donovan.
Walker may be the new “thing” but Nolan Gorman was a top prospect for a reason. If he has indeed shored up some of his weaknesses, he could be in store for a really strong season.
Number of All Stars - 6
Yes I know 6 is a lot. But let’s look at the candidates. Nolan Arenado? Check. Paul Goldscmidt? You betcha. Ryan Helsley? Probably, Lars Nootbaar? Decent chance. Edman? He was a 5.6 WAR player last year so he has a solid chance too.
Who else has a chance? Brendan Donovan, Giovanny Gallegos, Willson Contreras, Tyler O’Neill, and Jordan Hicks, to name a few.
There are two reasons why I think the Cardinals can achieve such a high bar of 6 all-stars. the first is that they’re good. The second is that it’s a popularity contest.
Nootbaar just became one of the most popular players in the world and is also really good. We’ve covered his really goodness extensively here at VEB. Goldschmidt and Arenado are bonafide stars, Helsley and Hicks throw a bajillion miles per hour and that’s a great way to get attention from PitchingNinja which creates popularity. It also doesn’t hurt that Helsley was one of the best relievers in baseball last year.
Edman may not be as popular but anyone who comes close to 6 WAR is a deserving all-star. Donovan was also really good as a rookie and seems to have added power to a pre-existing OBP-heavy approach. It’s not too much of a stretch to see him appearing in the all-star game even if it’s not the most likely thing in the world. Oh, and let’s not forget that he won a gold glove last year. Do you know what that gives him? Popularity and name recognition.
But there are still more players with legitimate pre-season chances. Tyler O’Neill was worth 5.6 fWAR as recently as 2021 and Gallegos has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball since joining the Cardinals. Then there’s Jordan Hicks who, as I said above, could be incredibly effective if his new slider leads to fewer walks, and there’s Willson Contreras, who is a 3 time all-star.
That gives the Cardinals, in my mind, 10 solid options for the all-star game. 6 is a high number and it would require a few players to exceed their projections, but it’s entirely achievable and I’m going to say it happens.
What Happens at the Deadline - Cardinals Get a Front-End Starter
We’ve talked about this all winter. The Cardinals have plenty of depth and nowhere for that depth to play, especially in the outfield. Dylan Carlson already looks like a 4th outfielder (who will still play a lot), Alec Burleson has nothing left to prove in Triple-A but not much room to play in the majors. Juan Yepez is already down in the minors and so is Moises Gomez, the minor league home run champion from a year ago.
That’s enough to make a move for someone, especially since the Cardinals have plenty of sweeteners that they could add from their top 10 farm system. I don’t know who it will be but the only real hole on this team is at the top of the rotation so I am expecting to see a trade from a position of depth to fill a hole in time for a deep playoff run.
How Far the Cardinals Go in the Playoffs - NLCS
The playoff are a crapshoot so who really knows with this one. What I will say is that the Cardinals may have the best lineup in baseball and an average pitching staff. That’s a really good team. And if the team adds a high-end starter at the deadline it will fill the only real hole this team has.
I have no doubts about this team’s ability to win the division, so how far they go in the playoffs is the real question. I won’t lie, I could see a World Series appearance with this team but I’ll take the safe route and say at least make it to the championship series.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Let me know what you think of my predictions and feel free to make your own in the comments.
Have a great Tuesday and enjoy Opening Day!