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Critical Developmental Failures are a Key Factor in this Lost Season (Offense)

The Cardinals have a strong history of developmental successes. Not this season!

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports

Player development. It’s a term that we throw around all the time. It’s become part of our baseball vernacular. What do we mean when we say it?

Player development is the process that an organization goes through to coach and train players to fulfill their playing potential at the Major League level.

Typically, when we think of player development, we think mostly of the minor leagues. Draft and development. An organization drafts a player and then they have to develop that player through their minor league system to the majors.

The minors are a testing grounds where players refine their traits, hone their strengths, and correct their weaknesses. Each step of the minor leagues from A ball through AAA is a critical step in the developmental process. They present new challenges that a player must master before they are deemed “ready” to move on.

Ready to reach the majors, however, is not the same as reaching their potential at the majors. It’s that last phrase in my definition above that matters the most. Developing players to the majors is not the end of the process. Once a player arrives, the team stills has to develop them to reach their potential as productive major leaguers.

That is perhaps the most difficult part for an organization to consistently get right and the part that can have the biggest impact on a team’s winning potential.

The Cardinals have been remarkably successful at this over the last few decades. They are admittedly a draft and development team. They build a solid core of veteran, proven players but rely on their developmental system to provide the talent to fill gaps as role players and to cover for injuries and ineffectiveness.

It’s largely worked. That’s how the Cardinals built annual contenders with a combination of Hall of Famers (like Albert Pujols or Paul Goldschmidt), veteran role-fillers (like Jeff Suppan or Miles Mikolas), and a slew of ready-and-waiting prospects (like David Freese or Nolan Gorman).

For the last decade-plus, the Cardinals always had just the prospect they needed developed and ready to perform when the need arose.

Until now. In a season where the Cardinals had the best crop of young talent they’ve seen in years ready to take significant roles on the MLB roster, they’ve suffered through their most impactful developmental failures.

Today, we’ll go through some of these players. We’ll talk about how each player’s development, or lack thereof, has contributed to the club’s struggles and what that means for the future.

Lars Nootbaar

Nootbaar seemed like such a sure thing heading into the season! In some ways, he was already a developmental success story. Last season he put up excellent exit velocity data, an elite batting eye, and solid contact ability. He produced 2.7 fWAR in essentially half a season of production. It seemed as if all he lacked was a rebound in his BABIP to become an All-Star level player, something that was sure to happen when MLB banned the shift. Plus, with his athleticism, playing center field was not out of the question.

Noot entered the season with almost no one – including myself – questioning his upside and potential for ’23. The sky was the limit.

We were wrong. Noot still walks. He can still control his strikeouts. But his exit velocity – the golden goose of developmental success that would take him from fringe major league prospect to a legitimate potential superstar – has tanked. He’s lost nearly 2 mph from his average batted ball event. His tendency to hit the ball on the ground, a problem for him in the minor leagues, has come roaring back. Those balls he hits hard are less productive. The lack of a shift has helped his BABIP but not his overall production. His slugging percentage is down sixty points to .383 this year – a shockingly low figure for a player with good power upside.

Injuries have surely been a factor here. But health is a critical factor in player development. Should we give the team and the player a pass when a player has injuries that contribute to the loss of his primary productivity skill?

The reality is that the Cardinals were counting on Nootbaar’s development to continue. He was supposed to become one of their best players. They were so confident and motivated by their belief in Noot that they passed on sending him in a package to the A’s for Sean Murphy, their preferred replacement for Yadier Molina. At the time, this seemed like the right decision. It might prove to be the right decision over time. But, as of today, their failure to keep Noot healthy and performing up to his production potential has hurt them gravely.

It’s a good lesson. Player development is hard. There’s always risk, even for players that seem virtually risk-free.

Dylan Carlson

On the flip side sits Dylan Carlson. Unlike Noot, Carlson entered the season with relatively low expectations from the Cardinals. Despite a good showing defensively in center field in ’22, the Cardinals tried to displace him from the position in favor of Tyler O’Neill, who we will talk about below. Jordan Walker and Alec Burleson had a clear edge over him in the roster pecking order coming out of spring. Despite being a switch hitter, Carlson’s lack of power from the left side of the plate seemed to pigeonhole him as the right-handed bench player and defensive replacement on what was presumed to be a deep outfield depth chart.

Carlson advanced through the minors with an all-around above-average to good hitter’s profile, with a mature hitting approach and a frame that should take more power as he aged. He could field. He could throw. He could run. He could walk. He could make contact. He never hit the ball that hard, but it was the sum of his parts that could make him a “good” starting outfielder who could play some center.

That’s exactly what he showed as a 22-year-old in his first full season. That year, he produced a 113 wRC+ and a .172 ISO. It seemed likely, considering his all-around game, that he should be able to translate that to a 120+ wRC+ annually in his prime years.

Instead, his age-22 season proved to be Carlson’s high point. Last year, while struggling with wrist/thumb issues, Carlson produced only a .236/.316/.380 line with a 100 wRC+. This year, while battling injuries again, his slash line is .242/.335/.379 and 102. He’s improved his average exit velocity and Statcast thinks he should be better than he is, but he’s still well short of what he produced just a few years ago.

All that contributed to the Cardinals’ tempered expectations and a reduced role for Carlson this season. Lowered expectations, however, are merely an acknowledgment of their failure to develop Carlson into the player they once believed he would be. They made trades and didn’t make trades based on their belief in his potential. He was supposed to lock down an outfield spot for a decade. Instead, only injuries and the ineffectiveness of other players have kept him in an everyday starting role. Any way you slice this one, Carlson has been a huge developmental failure not only this season but for almost all of his young career.

Tyler O’Neill

Can a 28-year-old in their sixth season in the major leagues represent a failure of development? In O’Neill’s case, I think he does.

Rewind to 2021. As a fourth-year player, O’Neill was finally able to make the most of his elite power ability. Buoyed by a .366 BABIP, O’Neill put up a .286/.352/.560 slash line with a 144 wRC+. While most reasonable prognosticators expected him to take a step or two back in subsequent years, there was optimism that his power, average walkability, and quality defense would let him settle in as a core player heading into his arbitration years.

That optimism now seems completely misplaced. Last year, O’Neill had a .165 ISO. Because of his poor bat-to-ball skills, that translated to just a .392 slugging percentage. Injuries kept him out of the lineup for most of the season. This year his ISO has taken another nosedive, his injuries are more severe, and the club’s ill-advised attempt to move him to center field was a miserable mistake.

One season of near-MVP caliber production illustrates the upside the Cardinals rightly believed O’Neill possessed. Five other seasons where that player produced less than 1.3 fWAR and a high of 383 PAs show how poorly they’ve done in drawing that potential out of O’Neill consistently. Still, they’ve acted as if O’Neill’s production was going to be a certainty. They expected core-level production. They built their roster around that expectation. It has not come. Now it seems inevitable that O’Neill is on his way out of the organization.

Nolan Gorman

Here’s one we can debate: does Nolan Gorman represent a developmental failure this season? For most of the season, it looked like Gorman was a huge developmental success. Through the first of June, Gorman had a .272/.360/.555 slash line with a 146 wRC+. His defense at 2b was much improved. He looked like he was headed to an All-Star appearance.

So much has changed in a month. Since then, Gorman is hitting .169/.253/.326 for a 61 wRC+.

Do we judge a player by his surge? Or his slump? The answer is neither. It’s the sum of a player’s ups and downs that tell us what he is.

And what is Gorman? Right now, he is somewhat improved from what he was as a rookie. His wRC+ last year in 89 games, which included a demotion, was 107. This year? 118. A respectable increase. That’s largely due to his BB rate climbing from average to 11.4% and his ISO climbing from .194 to .240. He’s still held back by a K rate that’s above 30% and has poor contact skills.

In July, Gorman has shown signs of recovery. His wRC+ over the last week is over 180. Will it hold up or will it become tempered again by another long stretch of futile production? Time will tell.

As of today, Gorman’s development is a mixed bag. Improved power and walk rates are excellent signs for the future. He’s also become an average defensive second baseman, a development that is certainly worth celebrating. He is still very young. He has years to work through his persistent issues. That said, his devolving K rate is very concerning. As are the long stretches where his production disappears. Expectations for Gorman remain high, while his fWAR values and wRC+ remain lower than hoped for.

The jury is still out on this one, but I think the Cardinals were hoping for more from him after his spring and early season and they’re not getting it right now.

Jordan Walker

Last on this list is a player who is unequivocally not a developmental disappointment. Except in the one area where he is.

Walker turned a hot streak in early spring into a roster spot and as a starting outfielder at the beginning of the season. Looking back through the organization’s words and actions all winter, it became fairly evident that was the Cardinals’ plan all along. With elite batting skills, huge power potential, and some very impressive numbers by age at both AA Springfield and the Arizona Fall League, the front office was ready to see what he could do against major league pitchers.

Things did not start well for Walker. He survived his 23 days in the majors on sheer talent. He had an even 100 wRC+ but just a 3.8% walk rate and limited power. That earned him a trip to AAA Memphis, a level he skipped, to work on elevating the ball.

Some fans would want to portray that demotion as another organizational failure. It’s not. It’s a fairly typical path for extremely young and extremely talented players, very few of whom have Pujolsian starts to their careers.

Since then, Walker has shown just how much offensive talent he has. His slash line since June 2 is .283/.360/.475. His walk rate is 9.9%. His ISO is .192. His wRC+ is 131. That’s everything that the Cardinals could hope for from him. And it elevates his half-season line to a very respectable 118 wRC+.

Why is he listed here, then? Because Walker is a defensive disaster. His OAA is -9. His DRS is -13. His UZR/150 – a stat that projects a players UZR for 150 games played – is -20.4. Ouch. This is one of the worst half-season defensive stat sets I have ever seen.

And it could be worse. Defensive stats are cumulative and Walker’s three week demotion cuts into his outfield innings total. Still, his current -9 OAA is tied for third worst in the majors at all positions. If you project his current performance forward to match full-time outfielders at this point in the season, he would sit just ahead of Kyle Schwarber as the worst fielder in the league.

It takes a ton of offense to overcome that level of defensive ineptitude. Walker has been good, but not that good. He currently sports a -0.4 fWAR. The club has him heading in the right direction at the plate. There are a lot of reasons to be very optimistic about his offensive upside. But if the club planned to use him on the MLB roster early this season – and all indications are that they did – they needed to do more to prepare him defensively. They both failed to do this and failed to evaluate his defensive readiness. Or, perhaps, failed to care. Any way you look at that, it represents a significant developmental failure that’s costing them.

Development: Projections vs. Expectations

There are other players that I could look at. Alec Burleson. Juan Yepez. Both have disappointed. Expectations for both were relatively low entering the season. Still, they were players the club was counting on to fill roles. This is particularly true of Burleson, who exited the spring above Dylan Carlson on the organizational depth chart. Burleson has an 85 wRC+ on the season and has looked lost in the outfield. Yepez had a solid debut last season, but his playing time and performance have tanked. He’s lost his roster spot at various points to players like Luken Baker and Taylor Motter.

Both Burleson and Yepez are now below replacement-level players. The Cardinals needed both to be vial bench players this season.

The club does have some positive cases to consider. Brendan Donovan has become what the club believed he could be. He’s an unequivocal success. Maybe you could make the same argument for Tommy Edman, whose performance has largely stabilized to middle-infielder levels and has played every defensive position asked of him with rare skill.

Still, the failures this season outweigh the successes.

Could we take a more tempered view of these players? Could we not suggest that Nootbaar, Gorman, and Carlson are all performing at levels close to what projection systems suggested they would? Walker is exceeding those expectations offensively and is young enough that concerns about his defense are valid for now but not his future. And O’Neill? Well, he’s been what he is for quite a while.

The answer lies in how we choose to weigh projections vs. expectations.

50th percentile projections for these players might be reasonable and tempered and the players might be performing within range of those projections. But the club clearly expected more from them this season and for their careers. They built their roster and made critical player acquisition decisions based on expectations for these players that exceeded what the publicly-available computers have provided. They expected these players to take significant steps forward, remain healthy, and contribute enough production to lead them into contention in the National League.

They got it wrong. Not only on offense, as we’ve seen, but on the pitching staff as well. We’ll cover that soon enough.

It’s not too late for the Cardinals to turn this around. It’s certainly not too late for any of these players to start making positive strides forward again. We should expect it from an organization that has lauded and proven its developmental skills over more than a decade.

With this season half over and already likely lost, the club seems poised to gather in a slew of new prospects through trade deadline deals. These are likely to be “Major League-ready” players since the Cardinals rightly believe they can contend again next season. Players who are on the cusp of this same critical developmental stage – reaching their potential not only in the minors but as major leaguers.

They need to get their developmental problems right going forward if they want to return to contention next year and over the next few seasons.