ESPN’s Buster Olney is out with his annual offseason Top 10 rankings of players at each position. His breakdowns are behind the ESPN+ paywall, but as a longtime subscriber I give myself permission to share Cardinal-related information. And if you aren’t subscribing to ESPN+, you should. Let’s go!
The No. 1 left fielder in MLB is Tyler O’Neill.
“The gap between O’Neill and any other player at his spot might be the most significant among all of the positions,” Olney wrote. “He is a plus defender, mashed 34 homers last season and finished 19th in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric. His rate of hard-hit balls jumped from 33% in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to 42.8% last year.”
In 2021 O’Neill led all left fielders with 5.4 WAR, won the Gold Glove in LF for the second consecutive season, and ranked first at the position in slugging percentage (.560), OPS (.912) and park and league adjusted runs created. A terrific runner, O’Neill swiped 15 bases and was credited with a net baserunning gain of +21 by Bill James Online.
O’Neill became the first Fielding Bible repeat winner in left field since Starling Marte in 2015 and 2016. This past season O’Neill received the highest vote total of any player in the Fielding Bible balloting, with 14 of a possible 17 first place votes. T.O. was the only left fielder to reach double figures in Defensive Runs Saved and had the best combination of range (tied for first) and arm (tied for second.) He had seven assists without the help of a cutoff man in 2021.
Other Cardinals showed up in Olney’s Top 10.
Paul Goldschmidt was ranked 3rd among first basemen behind Freddie Freeman and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Nolan Arenado was ranked third at third base behind Jose Ramirez and Manny Machado.
Yadier Molina was ninth among catchers.
Tommy Edman (2B), Harrison Bader (CF) and Dylan Carlson (RF) received honorable mention at their respective positions.
1) Two of the players signed by the Cardinals were ranked in the Top 50 in Baseball America’s International Bonus Board: shortstop Jonathan Mejia (No. 12) and catcher Luis Rodriguez (No. 28). Mejia hails from the Dominican Republic and Rodriguez is from Venezuela.
Baseball America wrote “Mejia attracted a lot of attention from scouts for his ability at the plate. He’s a switch-hitter with good bat speed from both sides, enabling him to drive the ball for damage when he connects. He has a sound swing and generally plays under control in games to make consistent contact. Mejia has a plus arm, and while some feel he might end up at third base, his improved footwork has helped on the defensive side.”
And Rodriguez “attracted attention from scouts both in Venezuela and again when he went to Colombia and piled up hits in games. He’s an offensive-minded catcher who has shown advanced hitting ability for his age. Rodriguez can drive the ball out of the park in batting practice and has done it against live pitching as well. Scouts highest on him are betting on his bat carrying him. His defense and conditioning have improved, with a fringe-average arm, but it’s an area he will need to continue to focus on to stay behind the plate.”
2) And then there’s South Korean teenager Won-Bin Cho, a 6’3, lefthanded-hitting power prospect that signed with the Cardinals instead of opting to start a pro career at home in the KBO. The outfielder is an exciting talent. Scooter Hunt, VP of Scouting for the Prep Baseball Report, said Cho “clearly looks the part with present physicality + projection. Big power potential with fluid load, easy lag, in the zone,” … other scouts believe Cho has five-tool talent. But he’ll need ample developmental time in the minors.
Brian Walton has more on the international signings right here in his conversation with “Scoops” gaffer Dan McLaughlin.
3) Former MLB general manager Jim Bowden of The Athletic rejected a couple of hypothetical trades suggested by readers. The first: Cardinals trade shortstop Paul DeJong to Twins for outfielder Trevor Larnach. “The Twins need a shortstop and have outfield depth, so if I’m them, I would do this deal,” Bowden wrote. “But the Cardinals don’t need another outfielder with Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson in place for the next couple of years at least.” …
Bowden waffled on a proposed deal that would send Cards power-hitting prospect Nolan Gorman to the Mariners starting-pitching prospect Emerson Hancock. “As much as I love the left-handed power of Gorman (and it’s the real deal), I’m not trading Hancock if I’m the Mariners because I think their young starting pitching will be key for them over the next five years,” Bowden wrote. “So I’d reject the offer from the Mariners’ side, but I’d make it from the Cardinals’ side because of their need for starting pitching.”
4) ESPN’s David Schoenfield placed the Cardinals 9th in his right-now offseason ranking of MLB’s Top 10 teams. “The big X-factor for St. Louis will be the status of Jack Flaherty, who has thrown just 118.1 innings the last two years,” Schoenfield wrote. “He has demonstrated he can be a front-of-the-rotation type, but he’s had some injury issues. The Cardinals front office and new manager Oliver Marmol will have to determine the best way to rebuild his innings and dominance. St. Louis has already signed Steven Matz this winter to bolster the back end of the rotation.”
5) The Cardinals are tied with the Giants as the sixth betting choice to win the NL pennant in 2022, according to BetMGM. And BetMGM lists St. Louis, the Brewers and Red Sox as the 11th most popular betting choice to win the World Series … at WynnBet the Cardinals are a 30-1 shot to win the World Series; 12 other teams are listed above St. Louis on the board … and The Action Network gives the Cardinals, Brewers and Red Sox a 1.88% chance of winning the World Series. Ten MLB teams have higher probabilities.
6) The Cardinals had three futures included in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects for 2022 list, which went online Wednesday morning. All three were listed in the top 50: hitting phenom Jordan Walker (24), Gorman (34) and lefty pitcher Matthew Liberatore (50.)
Baseball America on Walker: “Few prospects hit the ball as hard as the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Walker, especially teenage ones. With elite exit velocities and a mature approach that allows him to access his power in games, Walker has as much offensive potential as any prospect in the lower levels of the minors.”
Baseball America on Gorman: “St. Louis’ trade for Nolan Arenado forced Gorman to shift positions from third base to second base. He did so with aplomb, and showed tremendous power potential in the process.”
Baseball America on Liberatore: “Challenged with an aggressive assignment to Triple-A by the Cardinals out of (2021) spring-training camp, Liberatore made 18 starts for Memphis and held his own with a 4.04 ERA despite being six years younger than league average. He continues to demonstrate a polished feel for three secondary pitches and saw his fastball velocity increase as the season went on.”
7) In thinking about the Cardinals’ starting pitching, it’s helpful to look at it this way: instead of focusing solely on the guys that will handle most of the starts in 2022, think about the pitchers who WON’T be making starts in the coming season. In 2021 Carlos Martinez, John Gant, Johan Oviedo and Daniel Ponce de Leon combined for 45 starts, collectively had a 6.67 ERA and a 6.27 Fielding Independent ERA. The four had a terrible strikeout rate (14.6%) and a ridiculously high walk rate (13.3%.) The four pitchers stressed the bullpen by averaging only 4.3 innings per start. And the Cardinals had a 16-29 record in games started by Martinez, Gant, Oviedo and Ponce.
8) Lineup vs. RHP: Dylan Carlson, Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado, the DH, Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, Yadier Molina, Tommy Edman.
Notes: I like the idea of having Edman batting 9th to create a double-leadoff tandem with Carlson … I assume DeJong will be used as the starter at shortstop. And even though Pauly bats from the right side, he has a reverse platoon split and is 7 percent above league average offensively vs. RHP in his career compared to 12% below average vs. LH … I placed Bader at the No. 6 spot as a vote of confidence following a 2021 season in which he batted .273 with a .789 OPS vs. RHP; Harry was 12% above league average offensively vs. RHP last season … Edman can steal bases and runs very well; it makes sense to put him in front of Carlson in the double-leadoff tandem … if Gorman reaches the majors in 2022 – and it depends how he’s hitting – surely you can see him occupying an important spot in the lineup.
8a) In a connected stream of the thought process, my mind is scrambled just by thinking of the approximately 20,000 designated-hitter scenarios that will be implemented by the Cardinals. I don’t anticipate (at all) the Cards spending money on an actual big-time DH – so the role will be handled by a hodgepodge mix of candidates that includes DeJong, Lars Nootbar, Juan Yepez, Gorman, a half-resting Arenado, a half-resting Goldschmidt, a half-resting Carlson, and a half-resting Molina when he’s not catching, a bat to be added later, etc. … on and on and on. Molina’s bat is hardly ideal for a DH assignment – but this being the Cardinals, I’m thinking the new manager will keep Yadi happy.
9) I like Carlson batting first because I believe he’ll make a large jump offensively in 2022. That’s based on three things: he had 619 plate appearances last season and learned a lot; this switch-hitter should perform better vs. RHP in 2021; and in a preview of what’s to come DC had a strong finish last season. Over the final two-plus months of 2021 Carlson had a .364 onbase percentage and .503 slug and was 34% above league average offensively. But certainly I have an open mind; the beauty of Carlson that you can slot him just about anywhere in the lineup. But Carlson is a smart, working-the-count hitter. With Goldy, O’Neill and Arenado coming up, it would be good to have Carlson make the starting pitcher work hard and tire out.
10) And when the Cardinals face a LH pitcher? This: Edman, Goldschmidt, O’Neill, Arenado, Carlson, DH, Molina, Bader, and the shortstop – probably Edmundo Sosa. You can put Bader at the No. 7 spot and have Molina batting 8th against lefties; it doesn’t matter to me unless performance dictates otherwise during the season. I don’t know if Sosa can generate the desired offense vs. LH pitching; he was 16% below average offensively vs. lefties in 2021. As discussed, DeJong is weak against LHP and not much of a consideration here unless first-year manager Oli Marmol wants to ignore the career numbers.
Of course, Edman can handle shortstop when a lefty starts for the other side – but that would leave a hole (offensively) at second base. That’s why the Cardinals need Sosa to show he’ll hit solidly against LH pitching in 2022. They can play Tommy at short and keep Edman at second base against a lefthanded starter? What about Gorman at 2B? Nope. At least not in 2022; last season Gorman batted .202 with a poor .558 OPS and a 27% strikeout rate in 129 plate appearances vs. lefties.
10a) Then again, I’m guilty of overthinking this. The good news: the Cardinals had eight regulars perform above the league-average level against lefthanders last season: Goldy (+83% above league average), O’Neill (+71%), Carlson (+50%), Arenado (+46%), Molina (+28%), Edman (+13%) and Bader (+3%.) So if the performances remain fairly consistent in 2022, it’s fine to utilize a shortstop who may be less than stout offensively against lefthanded pitchers. If the offensive numbers mean anything Sosa is the best option against LHP. But his sample size is inadequate, so …
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.