Playing Pepper 2023: St. Louis Cardinals

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

St. Louis Cardinals
93-69, first in the NL Central, lost in Wild Card round
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas (2.8)
Top hitter by fWAR: Nolan Arenado (7.3)

It’s the Cardinals.  We all have our thoughts on what this team is doing.  Let’s see what some names we know (but don’t always hear from) think about what’s coming up for St. Louis!

Contributor Site Twitter
Will Leitch williamfleitch
Ben Clemens Fangraphs _Ben_Clemens
Larry Borowsky founder Viva El Birdos
Drew Silva RotoWire drewsilv

C70: Last year was a magical season. This offseason, not so much. What are your thoughts about what the Cardinals did (and didn’t do) this winter and how they look going into 2023?

Will: On one hand, I wish they would have gotten more starting pitching. On the other hand, if they weren’t going after the big Verlander fish —and they weren’t outbidding Steve Cohen for him — I’m glad they didn’t throw good money after bad by paying premium, even exorbitant prices for mid-level rotation pieces. I think the further away you get from the offseason, the more rational the strategy seems. But then again: Waino can’t get above 86 on his fastball, so we may end up regretting not even paying those premium prices at some point.

Ben: I wish the Cardinals had done more to address their pitching this offseason. It felt like a weak spot already and got worse with Quintana leaving. FanGraphs projects the Cards rotation as 20th in baseball, which is a pretty big disadvantage when you’re playing at the big kids’ table like the Cards are. I’m happy with the way they handled the offense, catcher was the only place to go add a marquee free agent and also a logical free agent to add, but at some point they need to do something about pitching. The pipeline just does not seem to be delivering there.

Larry: I’m glad the Cards bet on their young position players, rather than throwing $200m+ at a free-agent SS or OF. But I’m sorry they settled, as always, for a merely adequate set of rotation options. And I assume they’re sorry too, now that — for the Nth year in a row — at least one of their incumbents will be on the IL to open the season. You’d think they would have learned their lesson by now, after seeing their supposed pitching depth evaporate every spring and the innings reservoir run dry every June-July. They’ll be crossing the same old desert again in 2023, thanks to making the same old offseason mistake. Shoulda overspent on an arm.

Drew: It was a confusing offseason, to maybe put it kindly. Starting with Nolan Arenado declining the golden opportunity to opt out of his contract, a decision which might have cost him upwards of $100 million. My assumption was that he received some sort of verbal commitment from ownership outlining a plan to increase payroll with a strong push toward forming this roster into a true World Series contender. But they signed Willson Contreras and then did little else. Perhaps the Bally’s bankruptcy was/is to blame, or it could be that something big was supposed to happen and the front office was blindsided by certain price tags or dominoes falling in a different direction … I don’t know. It felt like ownership was ready to get uncomfortable, but the business model marches forward. There are real holes on the pitching side of things, both short term and long term. The rotation sorting could get ugly this year and hold back an offense that carries immense upside.

C70: Jack Flaherty seems to be healthy and ready to go. What do you think the club gets from him this season?

Will: 115 innings, 3.70 ERA, theoretical Game Three starter of a theoretical series. I will believe he’s healthy and straight when I see it, and probably not even then.

Ben: I think they get an above average but below All Star kind of season from him, with an IL stint in there somewhere, either phantom for innings management or real. I’m a bit worried about the fact that he’s down a tick or two in spring training, and really not missing any bats, but I always say to take spring stats with a grain of salt so I’ll follow my own advice here. I’d like to see him lean a little more on his slider against righties, as I think that’s his best pitch.

Larry: I’ve got the over/under at 150 innings. Anything above that is cause for celebration. Flaherty’s aggregate total for the last three seasons is 155 IP, and he has only qualified for the ERA title (ie 162 innings) once in his career — four seasons ago. He was late to appear in games this spring, and he has yet to complete a 5-inning outing with just a week until Opening Day. I’d like to think he can lead the staff, but I’m not at all convinced. I hope he persuades me.

Drew: I’m at the point with Flaherty that anything he provides is gravy. Having logged only 114.1 total innings over the last two seasons, and just 36 innings in 2022, he can’t be counted on to deliver a full meal. And his numbers this spring in the Grapefruit League don’t exactly inspire much confidence — 19.2 IP, 26 H, 14 ER, 7 BB, 15 K. I worry about the durability more than the effectiveness, but I do worry about the effectiveness too. It’ll be a great surprise to me if he has a full and productive walk year.

C70: Who has the best season overall–Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, or Juan Yepez?

Will: I’m going with Carlson. I’m a true blue believer in him. Eventually he’s gonna at least be average against righties, and probably much better. Giving up on him early would be a huge mistake.

Ben: Carlson. It’s between him and O’Neill in my mind, and I think that Carlson has a greater ability to play center field, which is going to give him more playing time even in the face of some of the young talented hitters coming up. I also don’t believe in his switch-hitting splits, I think he just got into a funk against righties last year that he couldn’t quite correct in-season, and that he’ll have recovered there this year. 

Larry: I’m betting on Carlson because he has the most well-rounded skill set and ergo has the broadest variety of ways to excel. He could have a .400 OBP and/or a .500 SLG; win a Gold Glove at a corner OF; score 100 runs as a top-of-order hitter; or knock in 100 as a down-order bat. I’m not saying Carlson will do any of these things, but he’s the only player on this list who feasibly could achieve them all.

If I was gonna bet on somebody to hit 30 homers, I’d take Yepez— or I would have if he’d made the team. If I were betting on someone to hit .300, I’d pick Burleson. If I had to bet on who’s likeliest to spend two months on the IL with a sore hammy or rib cage, my money’d be on O’Neill.

Drew: I have to go with O’Neill. He earned down-ballot MVP consideration when his health cooperated in 2021. The numbers: .912 OPS (148 OPS+), 34 home runs, 80 RBI, 15 stolen bases and 89 runs scored in 138 regular-season games. He’s the only player among the four here with that kind of dynamic offensive upside. It all comes down to steering clear of the injured list for O’Neill, and he did get through the spring unscathed. His tremendous — albeit brief — WBC run with Team Canada can hopefully spur on a massive bounceback MLB campaign.

C70: We’re all keeping eyes on Jordan Walker. When do you think he makes his major league debut and how good will he be right out of the gate?

Will: I think he’s the opening day left fielder. I think he can hit 30 homers this year. And more to the point: He feels like the next face of the franchise. I can’t wait. Cardinals fans are going to LOVE him.

Ben: I think he’ll end up on the roster out of camp at this point, but I don’t really have any inside information there, I just keep hearing the buzz. I think he’ll struggle out of the gate. I hate saying that, and it’s no fun at all, but that’s just a smart bet with top prospects making the jump from mostly Double-A competition to all major league competition. It’s hard! He’s young! Doesn’t mean it’s not worth giving him a shot, but the odds are against him raking from the get-go.

Larry: I’m not sure he’s quite ready to play every day in the majors. I would have started him out at Memphis, where he could work on his defense and refine his approach against high-level pitching. Inevitably one of the big-league OFs will get hurt or play himself out of a job; that would have been the time to promote Walker IMO. I’d put the over/under on his Wins Above Replacement at 2.0, and I’m betting the under: In the last 60 years, only 10 rookie outfielders aged 21 or younger have topped 2.0 WAR, and only two (Ronald Acuna and Darryl Strawberry) have won Rookie of the Year.

Drew: I waited long enough to submit these that the first part of the question has already been answered — Jordan Walker is debuting on Opening Day, and I’m having trouble keeping my expectations low. Baseball is hard, and it’s more likely that he stumbles a bit rather than achieving immediate stardom, but he has all of the tools. All of them. Again, though, I am keeping my expectations low … or I’m lying to myself. Deep breaths, Drew.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Will: Best Case: The rotation stays healthy, the bullpen is nails and everybody locks into position in the outfield and DH. (MVP candidate Lars Nootbaar?)

Worse Case: The rotation implodes — are we ready for Gordon Graceffo to be tossed to the wolves, Johan Oviedo-style? — the big bullpen arms get hurt, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt regress and there’s no big third bat of Albert Pujols to pick up the slack.

Likely Case: Not everything goes wrong, but more doesn’t go right than they’re expecting, and they end up two games behind the Brewers but sneaking into the Wild-Card.

Ben: Best case: Cards win 102 games and the World Series. Worst case: The pitching is disastrous, the young hitters we’re counting on regress, and this is a .500 team despite a bad division. Most likely: Cards cruise to the playoffs with 92 wins and lose to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Larry: Best case: Flaherty comes all the way back, Montgomery has a career year, Wainwright returns in time to deliver 20 decent starts, and a young hitter (Carlson? Gorman? Walker? Nootie? Donovan?) breaks out. Check all those boxes and they’re a 95+-win team that inspires belief in a deep postseason run.

Worst case: Wainwright’s injury, the departures of Molina and Maddux, and the restrictions on infield shifts and pickoff throws all combine to bloat the team ERA by half a run a game. Flaherty makes fewer than 20 starts, and the innings drought bites hard. Goldie and Arenado regress from MVP level to mere excellence, and none of the young hitters makes a dent. Even if all those mishaps occur, they’re probably still a .500ish team . . . . . and maybe still on the fringe of relevance after Labor Day.

Most likely scenario: Same as it ever was. It’s the Cards, it’s the NL Central. Put ’em down for 89 wins.

Drew: Best case is the lineup absolutely cooks, which it is very capable of doing, and Jordan Montgomery and Miles Mikolas battle for the ERA title. Flaherty and Steven Matz provide 100-plus innings and somebody breaks out from the lower end of the rotation depth chart. That’s a team that probably runs away with the NL Central and looks dangerous in October.

Worst case is the lineup is only average, hit by serious regression in key spots. And the pitching is plagued by workload issues that extend to the bullpen. We’ve seen a few overworked Cardinals pitching staffs in recent summers. That’s still probably a .500 team, granted. For all my negativity, the floor is fairly high at least.

The most likely scenario is that the offense is really good and the pitching gets patchworked enough to sail along on excellent defense and a spacious home ballpark. They finish around 86-89 wins and are playing in another Wild Card Series come October.

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