Wednesday, March 29, 2023

2023 Pre-Season Profile: St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals had two of the top three finishers in NL MVP in 2022, but couldn't get out of the Wild Card Round.  Will 2023 see them make a deeper playoff run?

#16 - 2nd in NL Central
MIH - Nolan Arenado
MIP - Steven Matz
PTW - Matthew Liberatore

2022 Results
#10 - 93-69, 1st in NL Central, lost in Wild Card Series
Highest WAR (Position) - Nolan Arenado
Highest WAR (Pitcher) - Ryan Helsley
It was hard to call the 2022 regular season anything but a success for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Paul Goldschmidt won the MVP, Nolan Arenado finished 3rd in the MVP voting.  Cardinal legends Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were sent out with style, with Pujols entering the 700 home run club.  They won the division pretty handily and entered the playoffs as a possible title contender.  Then they run into the buzzsaw that was the Phillies.  Two home wild card games, and it was all over.  It was an anticlimactic ending to a season to remember.

Additions / Subtractions
Off goes Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina into retirement and eventually Cooperstown.  Those are the biggest departures, at least by name from the roster.  Mid-season acquisition Jose Quintana also moved on to the Mets.  The biggest question facing the Cardinals entering the offseason was how to replace Yadier behind the plate.  Enter Willson Contreras on a free agent deal from the Cubs.  Even with that big signing, there really was very little change to the roster this offseason.

Most Important Hitter
Nolan Arenado
Nolan Arenado has a chance to be an all-timer.  He has won the Gold Glove ever year he has been in the league, also winning the Platinum Glove 6 times.  He is also a 5 time Silver Slugger winner and a 7 time All Star.  He is coming off an 8 WAR season and a third place finish in MVP, his 6th time finishing the top 8.  There's just one problem: for as great as Arenado is, he has never been able to perform at the top of his game on the biggest stage.  In 8 postseason games over his career, he is batting just .152 with 1 home run.  He has struck out 9 times in 33 at bats.  This includes a 1-for-8 performance with 2 strikeouts in last year's Wild Card Series.  It is reaching a point that if Arenado wants to be remembered as one of the best to ever do it, he has to start showing he can be great when the lights are brightest.  He showed that he may be ready for the big stage in the WBC this year, hitting .385 over 7 games.  Now, can he do it in the playoffs?

Most Important Pitcher
Jack Flaherty
If the Cardinals had a weakness last season, it was their starting rotation.  It was such an issue that they made two Trade Deadline deals for starters, one even trading their starting centerfielder for a starter.  Adam Wainwright is still hanging around, but he is nowhere near the level he was in his prime.  They lack a true ace ... that is unless Jack Flaherty is healthy.  Flaherty burst on the scene in 2018 as a rookie, finishing 5th in the Rookie of the Year vote.  Then in 2019, he became a star, finishing 4th in Cy Young, 13th in MVP, a 152 ERA+, and leading the league in WHIP.  The 2020 season was weird for so many, and he had a bad year.  Then he got hurt in 2021.  Battling injuries for most of the last 2 seasons, he has only thrown 114 innings between the 2021 and 2022.  Now it appears he might be healthy, but how much wear and tear have the injuries taken on his body.  He is entering his age 27 season which is also his contract year.  He needs a big season, and the Cardinals need him to have a big season too.

Prospect to Watch
Jordan Walker
The Cardinals always seem to have a deep farm system, and this year is no different, ranking 9th according to and 3rd according to Bleacher Report.  The star of their system is the 4th best prospect in all of baseball, Jordan Walker.  Drafted out of high school in the 2020 draft, the 20 year old has done nothing but hit since reaching the minors.  This production includes Spring Training this season, where he opened enough eyes to make the Opening Day roster.  A natural third baseman, Walker is transitioning to the outfield due to Arenado having the hot corner locked down for the foreseeable future.  This kid has all the makings of being a special player, as if the Cardinals need another one.

2023 Prediction
1st in NL Central, lose in NLDS
Possibly the easiest prediction to make entering this season is that the Cardinals would be winning the NL Central.  No one in their division can touch their talent level.  The problem facing the Cardinals is the top of the National League is filled with these superteams that appear to be much more complete than the Cardinals.  I see them struggling to compete with the rest of the NL elites, but they will be right there in the NL final four.

Fearless Prediction
Jack Flaherty wins NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Call it wishful thinking, but I'm a fan of Jack Flaherty and really want to see him be healthy and show that he is back to his elite form.  If he is just a fraction of what he was in 2019, he should easily be the favorite for this award and help lead the Cardinals to the playoffs.

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