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Can the 2023 offense be the best the Cardinals have ever had?

Short answer: things will have to go right, but it wouldn’t be crazy.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After a weekend start like the one the Cardinals had, one can’t help but to dream big. I immediately went to see what the Cardinals had to do in order to be the best offense St. Louis has ever seen. At first, it looked easy.... too easy. I went on Fangraphs, sorted the team offenses since 1901 and the Cardinals wRC+ of 114 last year was the best they’ve ever had. That... did not pass the sniff test. Then I remembered: pitchers used to bat. We have to take them out of the equation. Removing pitchers, they were “merely” tied for sixth, although with five other teams.

I don’t think it would take much convincing to suggest the 2023 offense has a very good chance to beat the 2022 offense. Catcher offense last year was worse than you remember. I doubt you have positive memories, but it was so bad. Collectively, catchers on the Cardinals hit for a 61 wRC+. Now we have Willson Contreras. 613 plate appearances of 61 wRC+ offense replaced by a career 118 wRC+ hitter (and a 121 wRC+ projection). We do still have Knizner but I don’t think he’ll get 293 PAs and I think there’s a halfway decent chance he’s replaced by Ivan Herrera by the time the year is over. Throw in 561 of Corey Dickerson (98 wRC+) and Harrison Bader (93 wRC+) being replaced by Jordan Walker and Alec Burleson and well, you can see how there is a lot of potential to improve upon that 114 wRC+.

What teams are better you must be asking? There is only one recent team that is better: 2011. They hold the 2nd highest mark. The 1920 (4th) and 1921 offenses (1st) were quite formidable, but the Cardinals don’t really have a Rogers Hornsby, as good as Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are. The 1943 (5th) and 1944 (3rd) complete the six. Interesting that four of the five teams are back-to-back seasons (the 2012 team is tied with the 2022 team; the 2003 and 2004 teams are also tied with the 2022 team. Apparently the best offenses in Cardinal history were sustainable)

In order to be the best Cardinals offense of all-time, the Cardinals as a team need a 121 wRC+. That is a high, high bar. Let’s keep this simple. Before assuming improvements to the players on the 2023 team from last year, let’s simply replace the weaker offensive members. Contreras with his projected 121 wRC+ for 450 PAs and we’ll give the backup catchers a 70 wRC+ for the remaining 150 PAs at catcher. Since Walker has a 94 wRC+ projection and will probably get something close to 561 PAs, I can’t actually improve there, though we all know the upside. Guess what swapping just the catchers does? Gives the Cardinals a 119 wRC+.

Okay, but the Cardinals aren’t going to get career years out of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado not to mention the surprise of Albert Pujols. Goldy and Nado are easy enough to account for. Simply take their plate appearances last year and give them their projection instead. We’re down to a 113 wRC+. Pujols is trickier. His direct replacement, Nolan Gorman, was already on the the team last year. That said, he only received 313 PAs and I think he’s a solid bet to get at least 500. We’ll give the rest to Alec Burleson to make up the difference for Albert Pujols’ 351 PAs. Okay, now we’re down to a 111 wRC+.

Let’s start easy. Nolan Gorman has a projected improvement upon his 107 wRC+ last season so we’re going to insert a 114 wRC+ into his 2022 total of 313 PAs last year. It doesn’t move the needle, but it’ll help in the long run. Then we have 368 PAs of Edmundo Sosa and Paul DeJong that need to be replaced. Not all of them, but I figure this role will get about 175 PAs all year, whether that’s DeJong, Taylor Motter, Masyn Winn, or somebody else. It doesn’t work perfectly, but I’m giving all 193 extra PAs to Lars Nootbaar, which would put him at a 540 PAs pace.

I’m going to also take 61 PAs away from Walker, because if he actually has a 94 wRC+, I don’t think he’s batting 561 times. We’ll give that to Brendan Donovan, giving him 529 PAs. He’ll beat that, but I don’t know where to grab more PAs. Tyler O’Neill only has 383 PAs in this scenario, and I can’t find extra for him either. Adding Nootbaar and Donovan PAs puts us back at 114. O’Neill has a 122 wRC+ projection and had a 101 wRC+ last year while Donovan has a 107 wRC+ projection and had a 129 wRC+, so I’m just not going to do more math and say they cancel each other out. So they project as a 114 wRC+.

Except, as you can see, there is a whole lot of potential in that without a ton of downside. Walker’s projection is almost entirely upside. I will take the over on both Gorman’s 114 wRC+ and Donovan’s 107 wRC+. Juan Yepez, who I didn’t even factor in, has a projection by ZiPS considerably higher than his season wRC+ (124 compared to 109).

So what happens if, say, Donovan’s power allows him to be a 120 wRC+ hitter. Let’s also say that Gorman is a 120 wRC+ hitter. And that Walker is a 100 wRC+ hitter. Call me a biased fan, but these all seem fairly reasonable. If I do all of those things, we are at 116.5 wRC+. Wouldn’t usually include the decimal but 117 wRC+ feels wrong, but 116 is too low. So could they break the record? Well I think Jordan Walker and/or Nolan Gorman have to.... REALLY break out. Like beat their projection by 30 points break out. But if they do, they have a very good chance. Great thing is that there’s still upside in Tyler O’Neill, a little bit in Lars Nootbaar (his 118 wRC+ projection feels beatable, though not something I would assume), and maybe Goldschmidt or Arenado can defy aging for one more year.

The Team Home Run Record

The 2022 Cardinals hit 197 homers, which placed 7th in team history. The most prolific home run hitting team was the 2000 Cardinals with a whopping 232. Unlike wRC+, all of the teams were recent. There’s the 2016 Cardinals, the 1998 Cardinals, 2004 Cardinals, 2018 and 2019 Cardinals. Jumping from 197 to 233 would be a tall task, so this seems a bit more out of reach.

Except that Brendan Donovan might hit 20 home runs all of a sudden. That could change things. How acheivable is 233 homers? Well let’s go through the list. Goldy has 26 projected homers and Arenado has 25. If we’re dreaming here, 30 doesn’t seem crazy for both. The team leader - projection-wise - is actually Nolan Gorman with 29. Tyler O’Neill has 22. Willson Contreras has 19. Lars Nootbaar has 18 in only 439 PAs, which I would expect him to beat.

Continuing down the list, Dylan Carlson has 15, Tommy Edman has 13, Jordan Walker has just 12, and Donovan has just 6. Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez are more complicated for playing time reasons, which ZiPS purposefully remains agnostic on. Burleson has 16 in 514 PAs and Yepez has 24 in 480 PAs. I don’t expect either guy to come close to those numbers.

Well folks, we’re already at 185 without including Burleson, Yepez or even Paul DeJong or Taylor Motter. Neither are good hitters, but they do homer. DeJong has 20 projected homers in 480 PAs and Motter has 13 in 338 PAs. If we up Donovan’s projection by 14 homers, we’ll throw in 7 homers in 175 PAs from Motter/DeJong, I’ll give both Burleson and Yepez 200 PAs, so that’s 10 and 6 homers. Knizner has 5 projected homers in 289 PAs, we’ll change that to 3 as the backup catcher (Ivan Herrera’s 8 in 386 PAs isn’t meaningfully different to affect this). We are at 225 projected homers at this point. Considering the conservative nature of projections, would it be a surprise if they hit eight extra homers?

Thoughts on Jordan Walker

I am not a scout, but I’m going to do my best impression of a scout based upon the three games I watched. Given his age, how he performed at AA, how he performed in spring training, and just plain old watching him, I think we as fans would be wise to assume Walker is going to be just okay this year. We saw this with Dylan Carlson, we saw this with Nolan Gorman. Do not expect guys as young as Walker is to immediately be great.

I have more reasons than just precedent. I think he’s going to be a bit rougher in the field than some people assumed. Yeah some of it is nerves and it’s only a few games, but he has tried a bit too hard to make a great play with his arm causing multiple runners to advance an extra base and misplayed a bounce off the wall. Long-term, I am not worried about his defense, but we’re going to see some 20-year-old playing the position for less than a year plays so I don’t expect his defense to be a plus. Maybe his speed can correct for some of his mistakes.

Secondly, he hits the ball on the ground a lot. He usually hits the hell out of the ball when he makes contact, but if it’s all on the ground, the damage will be limited. Walker has not hit a flyball yet this season. He has two line drives and nine groundballs. I am not basing this off the first three games. He hit 45.5% of his balls on the ground in AA, 42.9% in High A, and 55% in Low A. At some point, he’ll adjust to the league and the power will come, and that very well may be this year, hell it might be this week, but for the purposes of keeping expectations in check, I’m treating any power this year as a bonus.

Lastly, despite his 10.8 BB% in AA, I don’t actually expect him to walk that much this year. ZiPS agrees. He has a 7 BB% projected. This is sort of correlated with power. If he starts homering, pitchers will be afraid of him, and he’ll get less pitches to hit. So far, he’s been VERY aggressive at the plate. Before yesterday’s game, he swung at 63% of pitches and in yesterday’s game, he swung at 6 of the 12 pitches he saw (and one of them hit him). The average swing% is 47.9% and the league leader last year swung at 57% of pitches. His swing% will drop obviously, but I’m just trying to illustrate I don’t think he will be the most patient hitter, at least at first.

Nobody wants to look like a fool more than me trying to analyze his game. It’s possible he pulls a Julio Rodriguez and goes crazy on baseball. But I do want to stress that my main point, if you can derive one point from this post, is that if you expect him to go crazy on the league immediately, I think you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. What I’m describing is what I think of as his floor. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed no matter what. If he does better than his floor, I’ll be ecstatic.

I don’t want to put myself in the position where I get underwhelmed or disappointed by an extremely young, extremely promising prospect. Maybe that’s just me. If you’re like me, I would recommend thinking of him as the player I describe and then if he exceeds that in any way, treat it as a bonus.