Random thoughts, questions and observations about the last-place Cardinals
By Rob Rains
The Cardinals had the day off on Thursday, which might be considered a victory. In a a season of one tough loss followed by another, they might need more than one day to recover from the disappointment of being one strike away from a win on Wednesday only to lose their fifth game in a row and fall a season-low 15 games under .500 with the worst record in the National League.
Having the day off also left time to consider some random thoughts, questions and observations about the Cardinals:
There’s nothing wrong with having Jordan Walker DH part of the time.
Part of the reason the Cardinals said they waited until Aug. 2 to have Walker make the move from third base to the outfield at Double A Springfield last season was so he could get more comfortable hitting first before changing positions. It made sense – he was the youngest player in the Texas League.
If that was true at Double A, why isn’t it true in the major leagues?
Walker is 21 years old and has had success as a hitter in his rookie season – posting a .326 average (14-of-43) with two doubles and two homers in 12 games since he rejoined the team. He has done this while at the same time trying to learn the finer points of playing the outfield under the watchful eye of Willie McGee. Letting Walker work at least part of the time as the DH would not slow his progression in the outfield. He could still get in all of the pre-game work with McGee, and then concentrate on offense during the game.
Having Walker be a part-time DH would not label him as a DH for the rest of his career. He will get more comfortable in the outfield with experience, but for now, letting him DH would improve the Cardinals’ defensively. Brendan Donovan could start in left field, with Nolan Gorman at second base. When Lars Nootbaar returns from the injured list, he also would be a defensive upgrade over Walker.
Give Walker time and he will develop into a quality outfielder. At the same time, let him concentrate on what will ultimately be the strongest part of his game – hitting the baseball hard and often.
Will this be the year Nolan Arenado does not win a Gold Glove?
The voting for Gold Gloves always provides interesting results, and even using advanced analytical data, the biggest factor sometimes in the results is the reputation of a player who is known as an outstanding defender.
Arenado has been the standard by which all third basemen are judged for the last decade, but even he admits that this has not been his best season.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Arenado has a rating of minus 2 defensive runs saved this season. Last year he was plus 19, and he has never finished a season lower than plus six.
The competition for the NL Gold Glove at third base this year will be high, with Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes, Colorado’s Ryan McMahon and San Diego’s Manny Machado all making a strong bid to unseat Arenado, who has won the award all 10 years he has been in the majors. Unless there is a dramatic improvement in his play the rest of this season, if Arenado wins again it will be based primarily on his reputation.
If Tommy Edman is going to stay in center field, when will be the right time to promote Masyn Winn?
The decision to move Edman to center field came more out of necessity for what was seen as a short-term problem, but the way he has taken to the position may change the long-term plan.
Part of that is because Winn, right at the top of the Cardinals’ prospects list, is getting ever closer to being ready to take over the shortstop duties at the major-league level. Winn, 21, got off to a slow start at Memphis but since May 1 has posted a .278 average.
If the Cardinals are going to commit to Winn as their starting shortstop next season, Edman will need a place to play. Second base figures to be covered with either Gorman or Donovan, so keeping him in center might make sense – unless he becomes a piece the Cardinals try to package in a trade for a starting pitcher.
There also doesn’t appear to be much reason to keep starting Paul DeJong at shortstop when he is struggling on offense again. In 18 games since May 25, he is 9-of-68 with only two RBIs.
That kind of performance is not going to be good enough for the club to pick up DeJong’s $12.5 million option for 2024, so going ahead and making the switch to Winn now might be the right move to make.
Willson Contreras has to be dropped out of the fifth spot in the batting order
It was likely a philosopher, not a baseball manager, who said that patience was a virtue. But managers also know it can be a curse. Oli Marmol has been very loyal to Contreras, keeping him fifth in the batting order for almost all season despite the fact that while hitting fifth this year, he has a .197 average.
That performance has been a huge weight on the Cardinals’ offense, with their combined performance in that key spot ranking at or near the bottom of the National League. The combined .211 average is tied for last and they rank next-to-last in homers and RBIs out of that spot.
Contreras was supposed to be an upgrade offensively from the performance of Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner last year, but it has yet to work out that way. Trying to force him into a spot just because of his big contract and pre-season expectations has been a mistake the Cardinals can no longer justify.
Contreras should continue to catch, but moving either Walker or Dylan Carlson into the fifth spot in the order is overdue.
Paging Zack Thompson. Please return to the Cardinals bullpen
In a season so far filled with a lot of strange moves and decisions, optioning Thompson to Memphis in late April – with the accompanying announcement that he was moving to a starting role to prepare for 2024 – just made no sense.
Thompson had been among the most effective Cardinals relievers in 2022 and in April, with a combined 2.72 ERA. As the last month has shown, they need all of those they can get.
In addition, the change to the rotation hasn’t worked. Thompson has made six starts and a four-inning relief appearance for Memphis and has an 8.02 ERA, allowing 24 hits and walking 28 in 21 2/3 innings.
It’s true the Cardinals will need starting pitchers next season, but they also will need improvement from their relief corps – which they also need now – and that’s where Thompson belongs and the sooner they can get him back in that spot the better.
Which starting pitchers should be on the Cardinals wish list as the trade deadline approaches?
For the first time in years, the Cardinals need to primarily be sellers at the deadline but their focus has to be on making trades that bring in starters who should be part of the 2024 rotation and beyond, making them buyers at the same time.
The name most observers have focused on is Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, signed through the 2024 season before he can become a free agent. The Indians need offense. It seems there could be some kind of match there.
There are other pitchers who also should be on the Cardinals’ radar, however, even though some teams might be more interested in making a deal over the winter instead of during the season. What the Cardinals need to target is pitchers who can be at the front end of a rotation, not add to their collection of third and fourth starters.
Among the other starters set to become free agents after 2024 are Tyler Glasnow of Tampa Bay and Walker Buehler of the Dodgers, even though he is still recovering from surgery. If Marcus Stroman does opt out of his deal with the Cubs this winter, the Cardinals should be at the head of the line of interested teams. The same is true with Aaron Nola if he leaves the Phillies.
The Cardinals, as has been well documented, have been reluctant to meet the market demands for top quality free agent starters. If they can’t pull off a trade for a pitcher like Bieber, Glasnow or both, they might have no choice but to finally change their thinking about how much to pay for a starting pitcher if they want to become a playoff contending team again.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports