In which the author presents four possible solutions to what is not really a problem. (But could be.)
Four weeks into the 2021 season, the Cardinals are 12-11. They’re a couple games behind the Brewers, tied with the Pirates, and a couple games ahead of the Cubs. I don’t think we have to worry about Pittsburgh this year, and after seeing the Reds several times I don’t think they have the overall team firepower (yes, I mostly mean pitching), to take the division. The Brewers look real, particularly with Corbin Burnes having decided to go supernova this season, so that’s going to be a concern all year. Chicago is a diminished team, but the Bryant/Rizzo axis of evil has decided to turn back the clock and are both having vintage Cubbie domination-type years, and so will at least make some noise through the summer, I believe. The Cards’ pitching has been by turns atrocious and sublime, and the offense has had serious ups and downs. The outfield has been a serious issue, Matt Carpenter looks done. Tommy Edman looks like a long-term fit at second, though, and Dylan Carlson has the look of an emerging star.
In other words, the 2021 season has been mostly what we expected: some good, some bad, overall a pretty good team that should be in contention for the division title all season. I won’t say it hasn’t been a frustrating season, because in many ways it has been. It feels like the club should be at least a couple games better in the standings than they are, and even with some good stuff happening, that feeling is difficult to escape.
There is, however, one thing that has been nearly all positive, and that’s the early Cardinal tenure of Nolan Arenado. Yeah, he’s hit a cold spell at the plate the last week and a half, but he was also one of the hottest hitters in baseball the first couple weeks of the season, so you take the good, you take the bad, you take ‘em both and then you have a batting line, as the saying goes. (Note: the saying may not actually go that way.) The defense, though, has been pretty much as advertised, including one of the more remarkable foul territory adventures I think I’ve ever seen last night. It has been a pleasure watching Arenado in a Cardinal uniform, and it seems that he is feeling just as good about wearing the birds on the bat as we do watching him. Given all the various and sundry factors surrounding Arenado’s contractual situation and just general baseball stuff, I have to believe we are not going to be sweating out an opt-out clause. Nolan, it appears, is here for the long haul.
Which brings us to another Nolan, and the subject of today’s rumination. Nolan Gorman came into the 2020-2021 offseason as the club’s top third base prospect, and the heir apparent to, well, I guess still Matt Carpenter? Was Carpenter still the third baseman last year? It’s hard to remember. Tommy Edman played a bunch there? I don’t know. It was a confusing mess over at the hot corner six months ago, and now it looks like we are going to be watching one guy at the position for the next five years. And that, of course, is bad news for the heir apparent. Well, former heir apparent. You get what I’m saying.
If Nolan is staying, then Nolan has a problem. The Cardinals have a Nolan problem. Okay, I’ve run this bit into the ground, and it wasn’t a particularly strong bit to begin with. Nolan Arenado looks like a long-term fixture of the St. Louis Cardinals’ organisation at this point, which means that Nolan Gorman, slugger par excellence and top-flight third base prospect, is going to have to find somewhere else to play, and the Cardinals are going to need to figure out a solution. So let’s explore the possible solutions to this issue that is not quite a problem, and see if we can’t find some way of getting value out of both Nolans.
Solution #1: Move him to Second Base
I’m starting here because this is the solution Gorman himself appears to have landed on, at least during the offseason, and because it is, at least currently, the apparent plan. When the Arenado deal came down the pipe, Gorman immediately tweeted about moving to second base, asking someone to get him in touch with Dustin Pedroia, only half tongue-in-cheek. And, in fact, Gorman did reach out to Pedroia, and the former Boston stalwart apparently gave the young slugger some pointers about a potential move to the keystone. Now, just how intensive this training-slash-instruction was isn’t entirely clear; going by the written accounts we have of their interaction, it seems like the two players, both Arizona natives, communicated via text only, and it was strictly advice given, rather than any in-person training. Still, you have one of the game’s top third base prospects reaching out to one of the preeminent second basemen of the past fifteen years, asking for tips on moving positions, and then said third base prospect appeared at second base several times during spring training. It would seem like this is the preferred way forward, at least for now.
And it makes sense, really. I think we all like Tommy Edman, but Edman is not such an irreplaceable player that you wouldn’t think of going in a different direction, and he’s already proven multiple times over he’s more than capable of serving well in a utility role. If Edman were to end up playing three infield positions and a little corner outfield his whole career, that actually wouldn’t be such a bad outcome. Meanwhile, a bat of Gorman’s potential at second base could be a very, very rare thing indeed. Chase Utley and Jeff Kent come to mind as second basemen with that kind of offensive prowess, and then the list peters out pretty quickly.
For my money, this is a decent solution, but I’m not sure it’s the best. Gorman could probably end up playing second base at a Carpenterish level, but I don’t think his physical tools translate especially well to a position where range is going to be more important that reaction time. Gorman’s foot speed is below average, and I just don’t think he’s going to cover a whole lot of ground at an up the middle position. Meanwhile, Edman looks like a league average or slightly above hitter, and a plus or better glove at second base. He’s not bad in the outfield, I don’t believe (though his arm isn’t really what you want out there), but at second base he looks like a readymade Kolten Wong replacement. Gorman’s bat might very well be good enough to make up for the hit you take defensively at second, but it’s not a guarantee, and I like the airtight defense that has been a hallmark of Mike Shildt Cardinal teams.
Solution #2: Move him to the Outfield
This is a move that works in a similar way to the logic of moving Gorman to second base, at least in the short term. The Cardinals, it’s pretty clear at this point, are not exactly bursting at the seams with all-star caliber outfielders, minus Dylan Carlson, so Gorman to, say, left field could be the kind of answer that would be very attractive. Yes, Tyler O’Neill is an all-world defender in left, but as time goes on the offensive upside he undeniably possesses is looking more and more like potential unlikely to be fulfilled. It’s a shame that is the case, but sometimes players with loud tools and serious flaws in their game just don’t develop. Justin Williams looks like a decent bench bat, but no more than that. Lane Thomas is a backup center fielder at best. Scott Hurst is even more of a defensive specialist type, it appears, a la Shane Robinson. Harrison Bader is good enough defensively in center field he should be a fixture in the lineup for a couple more years at least, even with a somewhat questionable bat, and Carlson has to be penciled in for the next decade at this point in all likelihood.
All of that adds up to a real opportunity in the outfield for a player with a special bat to come along and seize a spot. Gorman is obviously not a center fielder, but if Carlson is locking down right, it feels like O’Neill is plenty vulnerable in left, whether that means he simply loses his job or starts taking some more starts in center or whatever. Nolan Gorman as a 120-130 wRC+ hitter looks pretty damned good sitting in the middle of the lineup and playing left field, you would have to think.
On the other hand, what I said above about Gorman at second base applies to him playing a potential outfield spot as well, by which I mean Nolan Gorman is simply not all that fleet of foot, and even in an outfield corner would likely be a below-average defender. Teams obviously make due with weak fielders in certain positions all the time, and left field is a classic spot for that; think of the Cubs sticking Kyle Schwarber out there and hoping he could outslug his defensive shortcomings.
If Gorman looks like a potential middle of the order bat, then it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to see him trying his hand at left field. After all, I just mentioned Kyle Schwarber, who was put in left to try and outhit his terrible outfield play, and then turned out to not be terrible in the outfield, just pretty bad. Gorman is more athletic than Schwarber, and so would hopefully be able to play at least that level of outfield, if not better. Still, this feels like a square peg/round hole sort of situation to me, and even less desirable than the second base move. In the second base situation you’re sacrificing a little defense for offense, but still trying to take advantage of everyone’s best qualities. In moving Gorman to the outfield, you’re really putting him in a situation where his weakest tool is going to be on display at all times, and essentially defining his defensive value. It could still work, but it feels like a bad solution to me.
Solution #3: Trade Him
This might actually be my least favourite solution of the bunch, but it is, admittedly, a move with some real logic behind it. Trades are often what happen when a prospect is blocked, after all, and while I think Nolan Gorman has a very high offensive ceiling, he is not an asset so valuable as to be untradeable. If you could get something you really need in return for Gorman, you have to at least consider making that move.
The question, of course, is what would make such a move worth it. If the Orioles were looking to build a future infield and wanted to trade, say, DL Hall in return for their third baseman of the future, then maybe that improves your club long term. I’m not trying to write a hypothetical trade piece here, though, so the specifics of such a deal I will leave up to your own imagination-slash-conjecture.
My personal feelings on Gorman should be well known by now; he was in my initial draft favourites post back in 2018, and I have never really found much reason to doubt my first impression. (Then again, the other two players in that post have both failed to really excel in the way I thought they might, so it’s also possible I just suck as a scout.) Trading away Nolan Gorman at this point would be very difficult for me were I the guy in charge, simply because I feel like he would be another serious regret for the club in three years when he’s knocking the cover off the ball for some other team. Then again, we have seen with guys like Randal Grichuk and Tyler O’Neill what happens when a hitter with high-level offensive upside just can’t quite figure out the plate approach part of things, and it’s possible that happens with Gorman. Still, I would want a future potential star in return if I were moving Gorman, and I’m not sure how many teams would be looking to make a challenge trade of top prospects, rather than a more typical swap of an established, useful player for a potential star, which is the kind of deal I’m just not sure I would be willing to make.
Solution #4: Move him to First Base
And here, finally, we have what is probably the most realistic long-term solution, and the one with the highest likelihood of working out well for both team and player. Gorman has solid defensive tools at third base, and the things he does well there (soft hands, quick release on his throws), would translate very well across the diamond to first base. While Gorman at second base has the potential benefit of putting a high-level bat at a premium defensive position where his offense can make up for weak defense, at first base I think you could have a plus or better defender with that same possibly star-level bat. Over the years, I have become a fan of teams moving players down the defensive spectrum voluntarily, taking a guy who can handle a tougher position and moving them to an easier spot where they should be able to excel, and that would be exactly what Gorman to first would accomplish.
There are, admittedly, two problems with this solution. One is qualitative, the other situational. If the Cardinals were to move Nolan Gorman to first base long term, it would put significant pressure on his bat to live up to its potential. Yes, a plus defender even at first base can make up for some lost offensive upside, but the fact is that a team has to get offensive production somewhere, and first base is not generally a spot where teams are willing to play a lesser bat in exchange for a better glove. Maybe that’s right, maybe it’s not, but it is a fact of the game all the same. Thus, Nolan Gorman at first base had better hit his 70th percentile or better in terms of offensive potential outcome, or else he’s probably not going to be worth rostering at that spot, even if the glove turns out to be good as I think it might.
The other issue, of course, is that the Cardinals have a first baseman already, and it doesn’t appear he’s going anywhere anytime soon. Paul Goldschmidt is having a really rough start to the season this year, but he’s also one year removed from a 146 wRC+ and what would have been a 5-6 WAR campaign in 2020, had it been a full season. Nolan Gorman is only marginally less blocked at first base than he is at third, particularly so long as the National League does not employ the designated hitter.
This, however, is where we need to consider our timelines. Paul Goldschmidt is under contract with the Cardinals through 2024, which is obviously quite a while still, and much too long to put Nolan Gorman off, should he prove to be ready anytime soon. Goldy under contract through ‘22 is not an obstacle; Goldy under contract through ‘24 is keeping Gorman from a first base roster spot until his mid-20s, which is not ideal for a guy in the high minors at age 20.
It is also extremely unlikely the Cardinals will be moving Goldschmidt before the end of his contract; the big guy is 33 years old this season and is making $26 million for three more years after this one. Even good Goldy probably isn’t really a trade asset with that combination of salary and age. Then again, Goldschmidt being 33 years old also means that he will probably not be playing 155+ games every year for much longer, which could open up some time for Gorman to get a few starts here and there at first base going forward.
As I said earlier, having Nolan Gorman blocked in your system is not really a problem per se; a guy with his potential offensive upside that you simply don’t have room for can only be described as an embarrassment of riches. Of course, what that construction presupposes is that you don’t have room for Gorman because the roster is just too stacked, rather than simply being loaded with big contracts at a couple positions you cannot move on from and are unwilling to simply eat the salaries. Not saying the Cardinals have a history of that or anything, but hey, is Matt Carpenter starting at second base again today?
My own ideal solution for how to handle Nolan Gorman actually relies on a very similar player from the Cardinals’ recent past: Allen Craig. Like Gorman, Craig was a high-level offensive talent whose natural position(s) put him in behind other players who were not going to be moved in his favour. Initially, Craig was blocked at first base by Albert Pujols, who obviously wasn’t going anywhere in 2010 and ‘11. David Freese was a better defender at third base. Matt Holliday had left field locked down, and Carlos Beltran came along in 2012 to occupy right, with Lance Berkman moving from the outfield to first base following the 2011 World Series run. Berkman’s injury issues ended up presenting the Craigen with the job at first, which was probably the best possible outcome for Craig himself, right up to the point when he injured his foot and saw his career essentially come to an end.
Nolan Gorman, similar to Allen Craig, is a player the Cardinals are hoping will come to the big leagues and make an impact offensively, but it’s unclear where he’s going to play. He will not outfield Nolan Arenado at third base, and Goldschmidt at first is, at least for the next year or two, probably an insurmountable obstacle. Gorman at second is probably only marginally better defensively than Craig was in his brief time playing Tony La Russa’s favourite experimental position, and is likely not an ideal solution in the outfield either.
However, the thing is, I’ve just listed five positions (two outfield corners), and Gorman could probably play any of them without being a complete embarrassment. This all becomes easier if the DH returns to the NL going forward, but even without that option, it would not be all that difficult to see Nolan Gorman getting 450-500 plate appearances playing the Allen Craig role his first couple seasons in the majors, with first base his likely best long-term home once Paul Goldschmidt starts to really slow down and see his playing time diminish in his mid-30s.
It might not seem like an ideal solution for a top prospect, admittedly, but as things stand right now, most of the straightforward paths for Nolan Gorman to get consistent playing time in the major leagues are fairly complicated, and all have pitfalls. Of course, all of this is based on Gorman being close to major league ready offensively, which is, admittedly, not clear right now. In all likelihood, this will not be an issue in 2021, but by this time next year we’re going to know a lot more about how soon the Cardinals will need to find a home for their previous third base heir apparent, and if he will be the heir apparent at some other position, or maybe just a high-quality trade chip. In the end, I worry about trading a potential 20 year old star because you have too many 30 year old former stars on the roster, and that’s why I would prefer to get creative and make it work, rather than use another player as currency, potentially only getting forty cents on the dollar because it’s obvious to every other club you don’t have a better solution than to ship him out while waiting for more big contracts to expire.