Playing Pepper 2022: St. Louis Cardinals

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  Obviously, you have many ways to keep up with the Cardinals during the season, including this blog, but if you want a Twitter list you can find mine here!

St. Louis Cardinals
90-72, second in the NL Central, lost in Wild Card Game
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Adam Wainwright (3.7)
Top hitter by bWAR: Tyler O’Neill (6.3)

It seems unlikely that you are reading this post (or typically follow my ramblings) without knowing what I think of the Cardinals for 2022.  However, we’ve got some folks that don’t always get the chance to get into the weeds about their favorite team.  So folks, the stage is yours.

Contributor Site Twitter
Will Leitch MLB.com williamfleitch
Ben Clemens FanGraphs _Ben_Clemens
Drew Silva NBC Sports Edge drewsilv
Larry Borowsky founder Viva El Birdos

C70: Let’s talk about St. Louis’s offseason, outside of the labor issues. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Will: I liked the Steven Matz signing: A lefthander with decent control, upside and no major health issues seems to be exactly what that rotation needed. I still think they need more. But I honestly don’t understand why the shortstop issue hasn’t been addressed more aggressively. The front office’s faith in Paul DeJong very much exceeds mine, and as fun as it was to watch Edmundo Sosa in September last year, I don’t think anyone considers him the answer. Shortstop has been an issue for this franchise for, jeez, 25 years now? Maybe it’s Cardinals Fan Muscle Memory, but the shortstop carousel has always caused me agita.

Ben: I liked the early focus on getting a pitcher whose style works well with the Cards’ strength, their defense. I would have preferred Marcus Stroman over Matz, but I liked name brand cereal over generic cereal when I was a kid, and the generic cereal was delicious nonetheless. I think that’s basically what will happen here — there was a better option in my mind, but that doesn’t mean Matz isn’t a good option. I’m also a big fan of the Aaron Brooks and Drew VerHagen signings, I think that’s a smart angle to play and that pitchers returning from stints overseas have generally been undervalued by baseball as a whole. I know it was a pretty light offseason in comparison to the last few — a fair complaint — but if you accept that the team wasn’t going to make a splash, I think they did a good job maximizing the money they did spend. My biggest quibble — what the heck is the team doing in arbitration? Their file-and-trial approach is going to lead to hearings with both Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, and that’s just trying to pick up pennies in reduced compensation in exchange for angering two key components of the team who only project to be more important going forward. It seems like a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision — only I’m not even sure it’s penny-wise, as I think both outfielders might win their hearings.

Drew: I really believed the Cardinals were going to make a significant splash on the shortstop market given the high-level talent available and the obvious avenue for upgrading the roster as a whole via an outside addition at that position. They have the cash for another big spend, and Paul DeJong and Edmundo Sosa don’t inspire much confidence as things stand right now. I was also hoping they’d do better with the new DH spot — really, a Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols platoon? I liked the Steven Matz signing, but they definitely could have used another starting pitcher. And an established reliever or two. It felt like an offseason of intentionally-missed opportunities.

Larry: For the second straight year, they ain’t got enough pitching. Originally it looked like the Matz signing and the depth moves (VerHagen, Aaron Brooks, Nick Wittgren) would be sufficient, but once again spring injuries have left them with a perilously thin Opening Day staff. Either Jake Woodford or VerHagen will have to start the year in the rotation, and it’s likely Oli Marmol will need some starts from Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, and/or Angel Rondon along the way. I think they’ll be looking for innings at the trade deadline. I wasn’t wild about the Corey Dickerson signing, but I understand the rationale. The Pujols reunion makes sense as a business proposition, but it’s not a good baseball decision.

C70: What do you expect from new manager Oli Marmol and how different do you think he’ll be from Mike Shildt?

Will: I hope he’s … steadier? I was a fan of Shildt, if just because of how obviously better he was than the previous guy (a ham sandwich would have been), but there always seemed something a little in danger of careening out of control. He was always a little too extreme in one direction or the other, and he also seemed to be trying too hard to be “tough” for the players. Marmol has a calmer vibe that I suspect will help. I do hope he’s more forthright with the media, which is to say, forthright with the fans.

Ben: I’m not informed enough here to feel like I know anything that the very good beat coverage of the team hasn’t already turned up on Marmol. He seems like an excellent choice to be manager, like he has a good rapport with the clubhouse, and like he won’t butt heads with the front office in the way that Shildt did, though that head-butting wasn’t all that clear ex ante in his case. But aside from that, I’m mostly just trusting what I’ve heard and waiting to see how things go.

Drew: It’s obviously difficult to say here before the start of Marmol’s first season. I viewed the firing of Shildt as a devaluing of the manager role, rightly or wrongly, and so I would expect most decisions to flow through the front office moving forward. That’s not a unique approach in modern baseball — even Dave Roberts, possibly the most well-regarded manager in the sport, didn’t get final say on his starting pitchers last postseason. With a very veteran-led clubhouse in St. Louis, the more intangible stuff should be easy enough for Marmol. If they’re winning games, I’d expect smooth sailing for the most part.

Larry: I expect more flexibility overall —- greater variety in lineup construction, greater creativity in bullpen usage, and more extensive use of the bench. I think he’ll get starting pitchers out of the game more quickly (Wainwright excluded). It will be interesting to see what he does with the leadoff spot in the order. Carlson makes the most sense to me, followed by Goldy, Arenado, and O’Neill. I’d place Edman and Bader (and Sosa, when applicable) at the bottom of the order as a small-ball caucus. I’m pretty concerned about whether Marmol is prepared for the delicacy of the Pujols balancing act — the obligation to find him some crowd- and clubhouse-pleasing at-bats, weighed against the necessity of giving the Cardinals their best chance to win.

C70: Are you emotionally prepared for (perhaps) the last ride of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina?

Will: Nope. I’ll confess, one of the (many) reasons I don’t want them to sign Pujols is that it really should be just Waino and Molina’s sunset. They deserve to finish together, and just together. I think Wainwright’s late-career resurgence is one of the most truly wonderful things I’ve seen as a Cardinals fan.

Ben: I am, if only because it felt like 2021 might be their last ride, and so I spent quite a while reliving their peak years in my head while they played last year. It’s strange to see them aging in different ways — Yadi is basically doubling down on the way he’s always played and just aging a little bit every year, while Wainwright keeps adding delightful old-man guile to make up for other things he’s losing. Both are fun to watch given the shared history and their status as team icons, but spending a year reflecting on their illustrious careers means I can spend this year just appreciating what they still do for the team.

Drew: Those two arrived in my life when I was in high school and have remained steady drivers of my Cardinals fandom now into my mid-30s. It’s wild. But life moves on, baseball moves on, and Father Time remains undefeated. I’m ready for the next chapter and more of a focus on winning games as opposed to legacy-based roster decisions. Not that Wainwright detracts from winning games — he’s their best pitcher at age 40!

Larry: And now Pujols too. From a pure nostalgia perspective, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’m hard-pressed to name any comparable trio of iconic players, from any franchise, all riding off into the sunset at the same time. But I’m equally hard-pressed to name an instance in which any such player’s farewell tour culminated with his team reaching the World Series. I think the standing ovations on October 2, the final home game for these three titans, are destined to be the emotional high point of this season.

C70: If you had to pick one, who do you pick for long-term success: Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, or Jordan Walker?

Will: Walker. Liberatore is a pitcher, which makes him a crapshoot right there. Gorman is obviously powerful, but I’m still concerned about the contact. Walker looks to be the whole package, in addition to being a truly impressive guy whose jersey I’ll be proud to wear. I cannot wait until the gets there. I think he might be the prospect I’m most excited about since … Taveras? Ankiel?

Ben: Gorman. I was extremely worried about whether he’d make enough contact to succeed at the major league level, but he had basically nothing else to prove to me with his bat. His performance in Triple-A didn’t jump off the page from a total production standpoint, but posting the lowest strikeout rate of your professional career at the highest level of competition — and at only 21 — is a great way to change your outlook. That’s not to say I’m down on Walker or Liberatore, but if you take a guy with Gorman’s power and then remove contact issues, you might have a fearsome major league hitter very soon.

Drew: Jordan Walker. Maybe it’s unfair because he’s the furthest away of the three and has yet to have to face Triple-A or even Double-A competition, but the kid looks like a monster. The glowing scouting reports, the .317/.388/.548 slash line between Low-A and High-A last year … giddy up!

Larry: Jordan Walker looks like a monster. Liberatore looks like he’ll be decent. Hard to get a read on Gorman, but I’m hopeful.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Will: I think they’ll win the division. The Brewers are being smart as always—I loved that Andrew McCutchen add—but the Cardinals do have little bit of an ascendent feel right now, largely because of that outfield, which I think could end up the best in baseball by the end of the year. (And what a turn, that.) I’d like a little more pitching, but I do believe they are situated well.

Ben: I think the Cardinals will win 90 games and miss winning the Central by two games, with the Brewers taking the crown. They’ll do it on the back of solid performances from the outfielders they angered in arbitration, which won’t get nearly the coverage it deserves. Their biggest problem will be a lack of pitching depth, and they’ll rue not splashing around a bit more last November when good pitchers were available.

Drew: The pitching staff looks problematic with Jack Flaherty possibly facing another lost season, but the pitcher-friendly home environment should help the cause, and the Cardinals are returning a league-best defense. With the Reds, Pirates, and Cubs already seemingly throwing up the white flag, I’d expect a second-place finish in the NL Central and possible contention for the newly-established third Wild Card spot. Vegas has the win total at 84.5 games, which is in line with my expectations. They’ll hover around .500 and perhaps make a late run aided by deadline moves before getting fully outclassed in the playoffs.

Larry: Their pitching’s going to keep them from winning the division, but the rest of the division is so terrible that a second-place finish ought to be attainable. I think they’ll make the tournament as the 5th or 6th seed.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me three underrated Cardinals Twitter accounts to follow.

Will: I’m extremely bad at Twitter and honestly believe it’s turning us into stupider, worse people. That said, here are good ones!

@alexcards79
@katiejwoo
@seeingredpod

Ben: I have a hard time knowing what’s underrated, properly rated, or overrated, so I’ll just give you my three favorite. @cardinalsgifs is one of the best producers of baseball highlights, period. The combination of humor, technical precision, and nostalgia is exactly what I want in short-form highlights. @kyler416 does incredible prospect coverage and is a whole lifestyle brand unto himself, plus he gave me excellent recommendations for food when I was at Busch last summer. Finally, @vanhicklestein is a tireless GIF-er who also mixes in solid Cardinals takes, but most importantly, the gimmick of opposing broadcasts calling big moments for the Cardinals is outstanding.

Drew: These are probably far from underrated to your readership, but I’m a big fan of @cardinalsgifs, @VanHicklestein, and @b_hoffman11.

Larry: I’m too old for Twitter. Instead here’s my list of three underrated baseball books to read: Fantasyland by Sam Walker, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball by Dan Levitt, and Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9369.574 -
Brewers8676.5317.0
Cubs7488.45719.0
Reds62100.38331.0
Pirates62100.38331.0

Last updated: 10/06/2022

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