Can the Cards make use of a lefty utility hitter with a Ben Zobrist-type ceiling (and a Tommy Edman floor)? Yes, they can!
Heading into the 2021 season, the Cardinals hoped that Matt Carpenter could be their do-it-all left-handed hitter off the bench. He was the presumptive starter at 3b before Nolan Arenado arrived. Then, he was shifted to second where he would split time with the defensively versatile Tommy Edman. The hope was that he would recover enough of his old offensive form to be a valuable contributor as a platoon player. If nothing else, at least Carpenter would provide some pop and the ability to draw walks in a pinch-hitting role.
That didn’t work out so well. Carpenter’s bat did the opposite of bounce back and that pretty much negated any value he could provide by his handedness and his defensive versatility.
The Cardinals now enter the 2022 season looking for the kind of player they hoped Carpenter would be. With a righty-heavy lineup, they need a left-handed infielder who can play second, third, first, and maybe even some outfield with average or better defensive competence. That player needs to be able to provide platoon-level production against right-handed pitchers – whether that is strong contact ability, power or walks, or, preferably all three. Better still is a cheap contract and years of club control.
What if I told you that player was already on the Cardinals’ roster?
He might be. And his name is Brendan Donovan.
It’s probably a name you’ve heard quite a bit over the last few months. Donovan was relatively unknown by fans (but not prospect watchers) throughout much of this season. Consistently excellent performance across three levels, a trip to the Arizona Fall League (where he excelled), and his addition to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft have changed all of that.
Now, just two short months after the season’s end, Donovan is being mentioned alongside other up and coming “name” prospects, like Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, and Juan Yepez.
Donovan deserves the attention.
As with my last “What You Need to Know About…” article – on the aforementioned Juan Yepez – my intention here is not to give you a full rundown on Brendan Donovan as a prospect. Instead, I’m going to point you to quality work done by other prospect analysts for the details about Donovan and his development. I will then consider the information gleaned from those sources to make some judgments about how Donovan fits within the context of the 2021 Cardinals’ roster.
So, who is Donovan as a prospect? I have two sources I want to point to.
First, “friend of the post” Kyle Reis over at Birds on the Black finished his “Dirty Flirty” and had an excellent writeup on Donovan. Reis’ content is always worth a read or listen – you can find him on multiple podcasts, including his own “Prospects After Dark”, where he somehow turns excellent prospect analysis into an interactive, after-hours-style show. To say it’s unique is an understatement but it’s fun to listen to and a blast to join in live.
I love this descriptor of Donovan from Reis: “In my mind, Brendan Donovan is who Mike Shildt thinks that Tommy Edman is.” He describes Donovan as a very high IQ hitter, who plays situational baseball with his bat. Need a double in the gap? Donovan will do it. Need to poke the ball down the line to get on base? Donovan will do it. Need a walk ahead of power hitters? Donovan will do it. Need to crush a homer with a high exit velocity? Donovan will do that, too.
All that comes with no notable platoon splits across three levels of minor league action. Intrigued yet? You should be.
For our second source, let’s go with our own A.E. Schafer, who had a fantastic article back in July about the Cardinals’ current class of “emerging bats”. Donovan features heavily about three-quarters of the way through the piece. Pay attention to the commentary but ignore the timing, as Donovan was still trying to work his way to AAA when Schafer published.
Schafer makes a reference that caught my attention: Donovan might be a “Ben Zobrist-type”. Zobrist turned the concept of the “utility player” into an art form. He was a switch hitter. He had a career walk rate of over 12%. He could hit for some power, with 167 homers, 349 doubles, and a career ISO of .160. He finished with a 116 wRC+ for his career. His offensive versatility was impressive.
More impressive was his defense. Zobrist played over 100 defensive innings at 1b, 2b, SS, RF, LF, and CF. By UZR, he was essentially average defensively at every position he played, including SS (where he was -1 UZR for his career in just under 1800 innings.) He was a plus defender at second base and in the outfield.
Schafer is careful not to say that Brendan Donovan currently is or will become Ben Zobrist. Instead, he just sees Donovan as similar in his jack-of-all-trades ability and offensive skill set. As Reis said above, he can provide good contact ability, walks, limited K’s, production against righty and lefty pitchers, and carries a bag full of defensive gloves that he knows how to use. Not Zobrist. But Zobrist-like.
That’s why the excitement level over Donovan has grown the closer he’s come to the majors. Here we have a player that might land somewhere between Tommy Edman and Ben Zobrist.
Yes, please, and thank you very much!
How realistic are those kinds of comps? Statistically speaking, they seem accurate enough to me.
In 2021, at age 24, Donovan hit his way through three minor league levels, never skipping a beat. Look at the consistency that Donovan maintained throughout the season:
Just as a point of comparison, at around the same age (23-24), Tommy Edman had a very consistent 108 wRC+ performance at AA/AAA/AAA, with limited power and on-base ability but more speed.
For the coming season, STEAMER has Edman with a .269/.321/.404 slash line with a 99 wRC+ – a projection that’s significantly higher than his ’20 and ’21 seasons because of the residual effect of his unrepeatable .500 slugging % in ’19. Is that line doable? Sure! Let’s hope so.
Donovan, though, projects to the same 99 wRC+ with a BB% that’s inexplicably low – 7.2% versus a MiLB BB% of nearly 12%.
That’s why I think a “floor” comp of Tommy Edman is relatively fair. With a little less than half a season at AAA, Donovan already projects to be a league average MLB hitter with room to grow in his projections.
Now, defensively, this is another story. Edman has already won a Gold Glove at second base and has displayed a high level of competency at both short and third. He has tremendous speed on the basepaths and in the field.
Donovan can play defense. Don’t get the idea that he’s a liability in the field. His primary position is second, where he’s likely an average fielder. He can also play third and first more than competently and should have no trouble in a corner outfield spot if the situation demanded it.
He has played some shortstop and with an offseason’s worth of work, he could probably back up that spot in a “he won’t kill you” sort of way. Think early career Paul DeJong or maybe Daniel Descalso at that position.
Now, where does he fit in the roster?
Everywhere? Anywhere? The club has talked about the need for a lefty utility hitter. Names like Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, and Colin Moran have come up regularly. Donovan fits into that same role and deserves a chance to at least compete to fill it.
That’s the key for me: competition. It’s not going to hurt Donovan to learn the drive between Memphis and St Louis this coming season, shifting through roster spots with Edmundo Sosa, Juan Yepez, and maybe, later, Nolan Gorman. If Donovan hits and fields as well as we hope, then he’ll push his way into more playing time. If an injury happens – and we can probably count on at least one or two injuries on the offensive side of the roster – then Donovan is there to fill a bench spot or to start, depending on the circumstances.
Donovan is not yet in a “he has to play” situation. For Yepez, the club has to see what they have with his bat because he could be an impact hitter. When Gorman arrives, he has to take the field every day because of his All-Star caliber ceiling, even if it means displacing other players.
Donovan’s role and future is versatility. As much as this article can read like a Donovan vs. Edman battle-royale, that’s not the case. He doesn’t need to displace Edman. He is there in the wings to be the true lefty complement to Edman, Sosa, DeJong, and the other infielders. He doesn’t need a dedicated position. He doesn’t have to have his bat in the lineup every day. He just needs a creative manager who will use him strategically. Here’s hoping Oliver Marmol is that guy.
What do you need to know about Brendan Donovan? Whether the club signs a lefty utility hitter or not, 2021 will be Donovan’s chance to get his feet wet in the majors, show off his bag of useful skills, and secure a roster spot for the long haul. If all goes well with him, then the Cardinals have their utility player for the next half-decade.