Who are the 10 Cardinals with the most to prove the rest of this season?

By Rob Rains

What happens in the Cardinals’ final 52 games of the season, beginning with this weekend’s series against the Colorado Rockies, will officially be recorded in the statistics for 2023.

For several players, however, the true impact of what happens over the last eight weeks of the season will be measured by the impact it has as the planning begins for 2024.

A good performance between now and the end of the season could go a long way toward putting that player into a position where the Cardinals are counting on him next season. By the same token, a player who struggles could find himself in trouble when it comes to determining the makeup of the 2024 roster.

The Cardinals will use these two months as part of their evaluation in sorting out who they want in their outfield, what their middle infield will look like and, of course, to try to get an idea about how they are going to fill the holes in their rotation – and perhaps in the bullpen.

With that in mind, these 10 players – some of whom are still at Triple A Memphis – would appear to have the most to gain with a strong performance over these two months, or the most to lose if they struggle: (Players are listed in alphabetical order)

Dylan Carlson – The Cardinals need to determine if Carlson can become their everyday center fielder going forward or if he will continue to primarily be their fourth outfielder, starting against lefthanders and coming in late in other games for defense. He can be a valuable asset to the team either way, but with one of the biggest offseason questions concerning the alignment of the 2024 outfield, Carlson needs a strong two months to help keep him from being the odd-man out in what is sure to be a game of outfielder roulette this winter. To help determine that answer he needs to get regular at-bats against righthanded pitchers, not just continue being a platoon player.

Tommy Edman – The biggest question concerning Edman for 2024 is where will he play? He is going to play shortstop now, with Paul DeJong in Toronto, but he also can play second base or center field. If, as expected, Masyn Winn is promoted before the end of the season, that could leave Edman as the player without a position if Carlson is playing well and Nolan Gorman plays second. While the Cardinals love Edman’s versatility, they might not have a regular position available for him in the 2024 lineup – which could result in him becoming part of a trade package to acquire the needed pitching help – or he could become the centerfielder of the future, with Carlson moving to the trading block.

Gordon Graceffo – This has been a frustrating season for Graceffo, who has only been able to pitch 55 innings at Memphis because of shoulder inflammation which sidelined him from late April to the middle of June. The 23-year-old righthander probably has the best chance of any Memphis starter to jump to the Cardinals in 2024, whether that be as a starter or a reliever. How Graceffo finishes this season, and proving that he is healthy, will be the best way that he can do that. It will not be surprising if he is one of the pitchers the Cardinals send to the Arizona Fall League, trying to make up some of the innings he lost because of the shoulder injury this season.

Ryan Helsley – The Cardinals need a closer for 2024. Helsley has had the job before, and made the All-Star team. If he is healthy, he should be at the top of the list of candidates. What Helsley has to prove the rest of this season is that he can stay healthy and become the anchor at the back of the bullpen, which would seem to be in need of a major overhaul this winter.  He is almost ready to go out on a minor-league rehab assignment, and then should have about six weeks left of games with the Cardinals before the end of the season.

Dakota Hudson – The open tryouts for the three spots available in the 2024 rotation began on Wednesday night, with Hudson making a strong case to remain in that mix. Now the question will be if he can repeat that success in the remaining eight or nine starts he is likely to get before the end of the year. Hudson doesn’t have to hold opponents to two hits over seven innings like he did against the Twins, but he has to establish consistency, show that he can throw strikes and command counts keeping walks to a minimum.

Matthew Liberatore – While it seems like the Cardinals have been waiting for Liberatore to arrive for a while, two facts remain – one is that he is still 23 years old, and the second is that he has yet to receive an extended string of starts at the big-league level. Liberatore should finally get that chance over these two months, not having to always be pitching as if his performance in a singular game was going to determine whether his next start was in the major leagues or Triple A. It probably is fair to say this will be the best chance Liberatore can get to prove that he deserves to be part of the 2024 rotation.

Tyler O’Neill – The Cardinals know what O’Neill can do – if he is on the field. That is the biggest thing he has to prove the rest of this season, which if it happens, will accomplish one of two things. O’Neill will either become the third regular outfielder in 2024, joining Lars Nootbaar and Jordan Walker, or a strong performance could help increase his trade value this winter as the Cardinals shop for pitching help. O’Neill’s status as a potential free agent after 2024 will also impact those decisions since the Cardinals have more years of control over all of the other outfield candidates.

Drew Rom – One of three players obtained from the Orioles in the Jack Flaherty trade, Rom will join the Memphis rotation for the rest of the season. Of all the minor league pitchers who joined the Cardinals at the trade deadline, the 23-year-old lefthander is probably the closest to the majors. Some strong outings in Memphis will help the Cardinals determine what they might realistically be able to expect from Rom in 2024, whether that will be as a candidate to start or perhaps with a shift to the bullpen, which some scouts believe could be a better fit.

Zack Thompson – The experiment with Thompson as a starter should be over. What the Cardinals need to do with Thompson over these two months is to give him repeated high-leverage opportunities in the bullpen that will establish him as one of the relievers the team can build its bullpen around for 2024. He had success in that role in both 2022 and early this year, and if he gets the chance for steady work, there is no reason to suspect that this won’t be the perfect role for him going forward.

Masyn Winn – The question is no longer if Winn, the Cardinals’ top prospect, will be promoted from Memphis this year, it’s when. The answer probably be with a month or so to go in the season for a couple of reasons – there is a maximum number of days a player can be on the roster, and a maximum number of at-bats, to allow a player to retain his rookie status for 2024. The Cardinals likely don’t want to exceed that. Also, with Edman now playing shortstop, the Cardinals don’t need Winn right now because when he does come up, he is going to play. More games like he had on Thursday night, however, four hits and his 17th home run, might change the Cardinals’ thinking. Getting Winn into the lineup this season, whenever it happens, should help erase some of the jitters and butterflies of playing in the majrs for the first time and help him relax and prepare to become the starting shortstop in 2024.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo of Dylan Carlson by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.