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Pivotal 2023 seasons for Cardinals: success or failure?

An update on a previous post of mine.

MLB: JUL 02 Yankees at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I wrote two posts over the offseason, covering similar ground, that I want to update since the season is most of the way through. The premise for these posts was that certain players in the Cardinals organization had extremely important years in 2023, the kind that can determine both their baseball future and future as a Cardinal. I covered both the major leagues and the minors.

In the case of the minors, well I’ll let myself explain what I meant back in January: “Now, when I say these are pivotal seasons, I do not mean minor leaguers fighting for their career, nor fighting to make the MLB roster. Players in danger of staying employed do not qualify for this list. In theory, they’ve already passed the pivotal season and failed. The Cardinals kept them employed because they need to fill out rosters. Players like Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn aren’t really pivotal in the way I’m trying to portray - their status as a future MLBer is fairly secure.”

Amusingly enough, I used an example of a player who failed his pivotal season. That player was Luken Baker and I said this: “ I doubt anything he does this year will affect his future as a Cardinal.” Now to be fair to myself, I am an on the record doubter of Baker and don’t actually think anything has changed, but it is proof that if you play well enough, you can dig yourself out of your hole. But if that bar is Luken Baker’s AAA season, that’s not a bar most minor leaguers will reach.

Failed Pivotal Seasons

LJ Jones, 24 (OF/1B)

Stats (AA): 68 G, 258 PAs, .215/.272/.359, 6.6 BB%, 17.4 K%, .143 ISO, .232 BABIP, 64 wRC+

The Cardinals kind of helped proved my point with Jones. At this point last year, Jones had 400 PAs. He has not been injured this year, at least none serious enough to go on a 7-day injured list. He played in just 15 games and got 52 PAs in all of August. Jones surprised with a pretty good 2023, so he has rose from the dead before, but it’s going to be difficult if he’s treated as a bench player.

Francisco Hernandez, 23 (2B)

Stats (High A): 71 G, 216 PAs, .223/.273/.337, 6.5 BB%, 29.2 K%, .114 ISO, .309 BABIP, 71 wRC+

Hernandez is even more of a bench player than Jones. Hernandez had less rope than Jones. He needed to play his way out of a bench spot, whereas Jones sort of played his way into one. But he has had a clearly worse season than last year when he had a 91 wRC+ at the same level. He’s repeated High A for the third straight year and not really improved. I am pretty sure he’ll be a minor league free agent and I’m not sure the Cardinals will re-up with him.

Osvaldo Tovalin, 23 (3B)

Stats (High A): 111 G, 445 PAs, .244/.297/.366, 4.3 BB%, 17.1 K%, .122 ISO, .282 BABIP, 86 wRC+

Well, if you’re a Tovalin Tart - we got to work on the fan club name - there is sort of good news. Tovalin is still getting opportunities. I don’t know if it’s from lack of better options or they still have some faith. But 445 PAs is a lot. And he might be in the other category if his BABIP was .302. But minor league BABIP being low for two straight years at the same level does not usually portend to success.

Mack Chambers, 24 (SS)

He got released before the season started. Sort of unexpectedly in my opinion.

Tre Fletcher, 22 (OF)

Stats (Low A): 21 G, 86 PAs, .205/.259/.295, 5.8 BB%, 46.5 K%, .090 ISO, .410 BABIP, 52 wRC+

One might usually say that 86 PAs is too early to give up on a pivotal season but if those plate appearances come with strikeouts nearly half the time and need a .410 BABIP to be a 52 wRC+, then it just starts to feel like you’re delaying the inevitable release. It was an improvement over last year, when he struck out in every single plate appearance he had in Low A. But he just couldn’t make contact. His lowest K% as a professional was 37.9%.

Wilfredo Pereira, 24 (SP)

Stats (AA): 22 GS, 124.2 IP, 17.4 K%, 9.1 BB%, 33.9 GB%, ,298 BABIP, 5.13 ERA/5.38 FIP/5.65 xFIP

Couple caveats here. He already signed a minor league extension and might do so again, and like any minor league starter, he might be moved to the bullpen and see a future there. But unless he signed a multi-year extension, he’s eligible for minor league free agency and he doesn’t do any of the three things a pitcher needs to do to be successful: strike people out, don’t walk people, get groundballs.

Successful Pivotal Seasons

Pedro Pages, 24 (C)

Stats (AA): 105 G, 445 PAs, .255/.351/.426, 11.5 BB%, 20.2 K%, .171 ISO, .294 BABIP, 104 wRC+

He’s not particularly young for the level, but if his defense is as good as advertised, he should be a legit prospect. Not a highly ranked one but probably ranked on a team list farther down. Last year in AA, he struck out 33% of the time, so he has adjusted pretty well in his second go-round, even though his wRC+ (last year: 94) hasn’t improved much and might not be improved when the season is over.

Connor Lunn, 24 (SP)

Stats (AA): 20 GS, 113.1 IP, 20.8 K%, 6 BB%, 34.1 GB% , .332 BABIP, 4.84 ERA/4.45 FIP/4.63 xFIP

This would not necessarily jump out as a success without needed context. That context is that it is incredibly difficult to pitch in Springfield. Lunn had a 6.61 ERA in 17 starts (and 4 relief appearances) last year. Now I’m not sure if AA’s offensive environment has changed but, Lunn has a slightly lower K rate, slightly lower BB rate, and nearly identical GB%, and... his xFIP went considerably down. I think the walks and strikeout differences offset, so his xFIP went from 5.02 to 4.63 and the main ingredients of that stat would seem to be basically the same. I find that very weird.

Ian Bedell, 23 (SP)

Stats (High A): 26 G (18 GS) 92 IP, 27.5 K%, 8.9 BB%, 38.9 GB%, 2.35 ERA/3.40 FIP/3.73 xFIP

This was without a doubt an unqualified successful pivotal season. I know some people do want him in AA already, but it’s clear they had a plan for him and are primarily concerned with innings and keeping him healthy. I’m not even sure they originally intended for him to throw 100 innings, he just pitched so well that they thought he could handle it.

Success by virtue of not being a failure

Mike Antico, 25 (OF)

Stats (AA): 114 G, 492 PAs, .261/.348/.441, 10.2 BB%, 23.4 K%, .179 ISO, .179 ISO, .321 BABIP, 108 wRC+

Why is he not in the clear success category, you might ask? Mostly because we never got to actually see him in AAA. He got 275 PAs in AA last year and had a 85 wRC+. The only thing that really changed was a bit more power and BABIP. Again, sounds like a success. But he’s 25 in AA. If he had this line in AAA, I’d call him a success. I can’t call him a failure though either, because he did improve upon last year. Hence his placement here.

Matt Koperniak, 25 (OF)

Stats (AAA): 80 G, 354 PAs, .272/.347/.417, 9.9 BB%, 16.1 K%, .144 ISO, .298 BABIP, 91 wRC+

Man offense in AAA is insane if that slash line is a clearly below average line. Anyway, he’s my contender for 26-year-old who kills it in AAA next year whose numbers we can’t really trust, because they are 26.

Austin Love, 24 (SP)

Stats (High A): 2 GS, 10 Ks, 3 BBs, 6.23 ERA/2.57 FIP/3.46 xFIP

He got injured immediately. Very unfortunate timing.

MLB Edition

I won’t belabor this edition, because we already pretty much know how they’ve done.

Paul DeJong

Success? Yes?

If we’re talking purely the Cardinal part of his season, yes he succeeded. He had 1.4 fWAR up until the trading deadline. He now has 0.3 fWAR, which yes means he’s been worth -1.1 fWAR since. Thank you DeJong for keeping it together just long enough for the Cardinals to get a relief prospect.

Lars Nootbaar

Success? Yes

“If injuries don’t get in the way, and he receives 500-600 PAs, we will have a very good idea of what Nootbaar is as a player. So while the year might not be pivotal for Nootbaar himself, it is pivotal in how he factors into the Cardinals’ future plans.”

Well injuries got in the way, but it doesn’t matter. He has been worth 3.2 fWAR and counting in 400 PAs. He has proven he can duplicate what he did last season. On a rate basis, Nootbaar has been nearly a 5 WAR player per 600 PAs. I would call that a successful pivotal season.

Brendan Donovan

Success? Yes

“Nootbaar has underlying stats backing up his breakout. Donovan... sort of doesn’t. It’s difficult to imagine a under .100 ISO player being able to maintain his K/BB numbers just because pitchers aren’t going to be afraid to challenge him. It’s also unclear if he can maintain a .330 BABIP, because he doesn’t hit the ball hard.”

Donovan decided to both add power and hit the ball harder, so there are no longer concerns about him maintaining his breakout. Huge, huge successful pivotal season for Donovan.

Dylan Carlson

Success? No

Unfortunately, both the Cardinals treating him like a 4th outfielder and injuries have gotten in the way of knowing more about Carlson. I consider his pivotal season incomplete.

Juan Yepez

Success? No

I do not know what happened to Yepez. He was a 108 wRC+ hitter last year. This year he has mostly played in AAA and has a 74 wRC+. Hard to imagine how that’s the same guy we saw last season.

Nolan Gorman

Success? Yes

“I’ll make this short, because this is entirely related to his defense. Can he stick at 2B or not? I would use 2023 to definitively answer that question. This is in no sense of the word a pivotal year for his bat though.”

He can stick at 2B.

Jack Flaherty

Success? Yes

“The measure of his season can be summarized by what happens at the end of it: will he be offered the QO?”

He hasn’t pitched that well with the Orioles, although that is mostly ERA. Higher strikeout rate, slightly lower walk rate, less groundballs, identical xFIP. It might not necessarily be the best use of $20 or so million, but had he not been traded, I think they’d probably offer him the QO.

Genesis Cabrera

Success? Eh

Fun fact: Cabrera has a worse xFIP with the Blue Jays than the Cardinals this season. It’s effectively the same, I’m just illustrating a point. So yeah I’m not buying his “improvements” over there. He’s barely walking anybody, but that comes with very few strikeouts (19.7 K%), a .163 BABIP, and a 4.3 HR/FB%. (He’s also kind of “lucky” that one of his off games began with an error, so three of his runs allowed are unearned. I know that’s not really lucky, but you get my point I think?)

Dakota Hudson/Andre Pallante

Success? Not really

“Both pitchers will be fighting for a spot on the 2024 rotation, without a clear path to starting in 2023 without an injury. Hudson is a bad year away from being non-tendered, whereas Pallante could either be destined for the bullpen or cement a spot.”

Hudson pretty much looks the same as last year, so there’s a good chance he’s non-tendered, unless they are willing to pay him $3 million to send him to the minors. And Pallante seemed to have cemented his place in the bullpen.

And that’s all I have for you. Have a good Labor Day!