They have much bigger problems at pitching
I’ve made the case for why the Cardinals need to focus on pitching over the offseason, but I don’t know that I’ve written an actual article about the topic. It would just naturally come up when I was writing about something else. So I thought I’d devote some words to explaining why, exactly, I think that way.
Part of it is obviously that the Cardinals pitching needs reinforcements. That is dictating a lot of why I think they need to focus on pitching. But it’s not the only reason. The Cardinals… do not need a bat. It’s not a case of “the pitching is more dire than the need for another bat,” I literally do not think the Cardinals need another bat. I know this can be seen as a controversial take among Cardinals fans.
Let’s go position-by-position, which I feel is the best way to do this sort of thing. I don’t think many fans think we need to replace Paul Goldschmidt, but I’ll still use the evidence anyway: Goldschmidt has the sixth best projected wRC+ and sixth best projected WAR by Steamer for 2022. There is an upgrade available here in the form of Freddie Freeman, but it was just be a poor use of resources to devote that much money to two first basemen. Freeman will barely be an upgrade in 2022 (less than a win by projections).
So we don’t need a 1B. How about 2B? Tommy Edman has a projected WAR of 2.5, which is 17th in MLB. But this includes players such as Max Muncy (254 innings played in 2021), Ketel Marte (129 IP), Kiké Hernandez (366.2 IP), Luis Arraez (321), and Gleyber Torres (169). Any player who plays multiple positions, for whatever reason, plays 2B it seems. You can’t exactly remove those players, but if you had to consider them as playing only one position, only Arraez seems like he might actually be called a 2nd baseman. And Marcus Semien may move back to shortstop depending on where he signs. I feel comfortable calling Edman a top 15 2B.
Yeah his bat is much less impressive. He has a projected 99 wRC+, which ties for 30th among people who qualify for 2B. But actually this is a good place for my beef on the discourse around the lineup: offense isn’t the only thing that matters. When people talk about needing a bat, they’re ignoring that part of a player’s value comes from baserunning and defense. To use an extreme example, in 1969, Brooks Robinson was worth 4.1 fWAR. He had a 91 wRC+. I don’t care if most of a hitter’s value is in baserunning and defense, I really don’t. If those two things are good enough to compensate for a slightly below average bat (or worse), then you don’t need to replace them even though the “bat” part of the game is easily replaceable.
Fortunately, if you’re not a fan of Edman, Edman isn’t the only argument for not upgrading 2B. There’s also the soon-to-be arriving Nolan Gorman. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to be great, or even good in 2022, signing anyone instantly blocks him, and while that would be less of an issue for 2022 itself – though I’d like for there to be a route for him to play still – it’s a huge issue in 2023 and beyond.
I really, really wish we had ZiPS at a time like this because Gorman’s projection, while reasonably promising at 99 wRC+, just doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s like Steamer ignored his minor league history and just focused on how he did in AAA, envisioning a 5.4 BB% and 21% K rate. I’ll take the over on both of those. (His K% should be AT LEAST like 25% – it’s possible his drop in K rate is for real, but there’s no reason a projection system would buy it on 328 PAs against a whole bunch of more strikeouts in rest of minor league career)
Moving on to shortstop, this is less of an argument that either Edmundo Sosa or Paul DeJong have good bats, but that both have gloves that make up for their bats. DeJong has a weird projection. Steamer has him worth 1.9 WAR in 397 PAs. Let me tell you. If Paul DeJong is that good, he’s getting more than 397 PAs. He also has a 103 wRC+ projection which sure that seems pretty optimistic. So despite the low PA total, that’s 31st in MLB. Sosa isn’t far behind with an also optimistic 95 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR, tying him for 38th, in just 333 PAs.
Put the two together, in 730 PAs, they combined for 3.1 WAR. That’s a little on the high side for PAs – you give 700 PAs for each position. They would combine to make the 18th best shortstop in baseball. Trevor Story would represent a total upgrade of… half a win. It boggles the mind people want him. At least Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Marcus Semien would be actual, significant upgrades.
Nolan Arenado will be easier to justify. He has the sixth best projected WAR by Steamer, though just the 12th best wRC+. Vlad Guerrero Jr. is still listed as a 1B, but the rest are full-time 3Bs. I don’t think I’ll have much trouble justifying Tyler O’Neill either. He’s 5th in projected WAR among LF. Like Arenado, he’s just 11th in wRC+. See how much defense and baserunning (in Tyler’s case, absolutely not in Arenado’s case) matters? It turns the Cards 3B and LF from not even being top ten at their position to top five.
Harrison Bader has been the guy everyone wants to replace for a few years now. I think that’s died down a bit though. But he’s projected 15th among CF. He’s 23rd in wRC+, but that does include players like Max Kepler and… Dylan Carlson, guys who start when the main guy is hurt. Speaking of Carlson, he is also 15th in projected WAR, though his 2.3 WAR is lower than Bader’s 2.9 projected WAR. Ignoring the players who have low PA totals (as low as 33), Carlson is 28th in projected wRC+ among RFs so they must be high on his defense.
Then a position the Cardinals could actually upgrade – in theory – is catcher. Molina is 22nd in WAR and uh, 49th in wRC+ among catchers. In fact, he has a lower projected wRC+ than both Ivan Herrera and Andrew Knizner. Of course, 1) we all know why we’re aren’t improving this position and 2) There’s no Carlos Correa equivalent available at catcher or even remotely close.
So let’s see that’s 3.7 WAR at 1B, 2.5 WAR at 2B, 3 WAR at SS collectively, 4.3 WAR at 3B, 3.4 WAR at LF, 2.9 WAR at CF, 2.3 at RF, and 1.7 WAR at catcher. Alright that doesn’t cover two other things the Cards may need a bat for – designated hitter and depth. Fair enough.
For designated hitter, the answer is simple: Juan Yepez. I cannot stress enough how much I do not trust Steamer projections for unestablished players. So take this projection with a grain of salt. But Juan Yepez has a 117 wRC+, which would place him 7th among DH hitters for 2021. Obviously it would be lower if he were also compared to NL DHs. But to be fair, the AL has been ready for the DH since 1972. How many NL teams are ready to just pop in a 117 wRC+ hitter like the Cards (or like 110 wRC+ or whatever). Probably not six other teams! If he played to that projection, he’d probably be a top 10 DH.
Okay, how about depth? Well I already addressed some depth in the form of the duo of DeJong and Sosa, plus Gorman being the midseason/backup plan at 2B. Gorman is probably also the backup plan at DH. In the outfield, the Cardinals have 103 wRC+ projected Lars Nootbaar, also expected (in my opinion) to be an above average defender and baserunner due to his speed (and the ole’ eye test). Yepez can probably also play a corner outfield spot if needed. His defense isn’t good exactly, but he can certainly play there if the bat is for real. Brendan Donovan, projected 99 wRC+, has played every position but center, and you can bet he’ll be working on his outfield defense over the offseason and spring training.
Everyone I mentioned is more or less major league ready right now. Gorman still has a bit left to prove in AAA, but if the Cards had a black hole at 2B and not Edman, he would probably start the year as the starting 2B. Nootbaar, Yepez, and Donovan all had great minor league seasons and are tearing the cover off the ball in the AFL right now. They have nothing left to prove.
And as far the guys that are fairly close, you also have Luken Baker, potential DH candidate, and Alec Burleson, who rose to AAA awfully fast. This strikes me as a good amount of depth. You have Yepez and potentially Baker at 1B (and DH), Gorman/Donovan at 2B, the loser of the timeshare of DeJong/Sosa plus Edman at SS, Gorman/Donovan and Yepez maybe at 3B, Yepez/Burleson/Nootbaar/maybe Donovan in the OF. The one thing that could use actually, which nobody would describe as a bat, is someone who can play CF. The ideal version is Jarrod Dyson in his prime. Somebody like that. I suspect that’s not what people mean when they say the Cards need a bat. They just need someone other than Carlson who can play CF when Bader can’t play. Maybe Nootbaar is that guy, I don’t know.
(I do not consider Connor Capel that guy for what it’s worth. I don’t actually know how good he is on defense for starters, but unlike everyone else I’ve mentioned, I think things have gone terribly wrong if he gets significant MLB time in 2022.)
Let’s compare all of this to pitching projections. The Cardinals #1 starter (Flahety), has the 45th best projection by Steamer. Their ostensible #2, Adam Wainwright, is down at #60. Miles Mikolas is down at #84. Dakota Hudson is at #161. Not a typo. #161. I’ll take the over on that one, but still. Their fifth best projection is from reliever Giovanny Gallegos. There are too many relievers included at this point for me to count down but Matthew Liberatore is the fifth best starting projection and he’s on Page 8 on Fangraphs (30 players per page).
So… how exactly do the Cardinals need a bat and not like three starters? I’ll grant these projections are not perfect of course, but you have to be insane to completely dismiss how they make the Cards pitching look. They don’t have a true #1, though Flaherty certainly has potential. Their #3 guy has made nine starts in the past two years. There is reason for optimism on Hudson despite the bad advanced stats, but he should absolutely be a plan for 5th starter.
Getting at least a #3 guy here makes this rotation look way better. Still a weak top half of the rotation honestly, but Mikolas and Hudson are more than fine as the 4th and 5th guys. Liberatore is the platonic ideal of the 6th starter, a top prospect who has already had significant reps in AAA. I’d still like an additional starter of some sort in here, maybe Nick Martinez, just to add some depth to this group. Don’t love anyone behind Liberatore, at least for the start of the season.
So I really, really, really don’t think the Cardinals need a bat at all.