St. Louis Cardinals 2023 Season Preview
If it ain’t broke… That seemed to be the mindset for the St. Louis Cardinals this winter. They added Willson Contreras in place of retired backstop Yadier Molina and it looks as though they’ll be promoting 2020 first-round pick Jordan Walker. That’s it. Those are the only new additions projected to make the Opening Day roster for the Redbirds, as they look to defend their NL Central title.
The Cardinals had six free agents going into the offseason and didn’t sign any of them. They signed a few minor leaguers, made a couple of minor league Rule 5 draft picks and head into the 2023 season with their 93-win squad intact. St. Louis ultimately won the NL Central by seven games but lost to the eventual NL champion Phillies in the Wild Card Round.
Things could have gone very differently. The Cardinals gave up six runs in the ninth inning of their 6-3 loss in Game 1 and lost Game 2 by a 2-0 count. It was an underwhelming end to a good season and the third straight exit for the team in the Wild Card Round. But, they’re poised for another return to the postseason. It would be their 17th since 2000, which is just an absurd number. The Cardinals have had ONE LOSING SEASON since the Y2K scare. I don’t think we appreciate that enough.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 St. Louis Cardinals Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 18)
World Series: +1800
Yes -235 / No +195
St. Louis Cardinals Offense
Truth be told, nothing needed fixing with this offense, so there’s nothing wrong with running it back with the same group. The Cardinals were fifth in wRC+ at 114, trailing only the Yankees, Mets, Blue Jays and Dodgers, so that’s some pretty good company. Frankly, this offense has the chance to be even better this year. Molina and Andrew Knizner were two of the worst regulars on the roster, as Molina had a 51 wRC+ in 270 plate appearances and Knizner had a 79 wRC+ in 293 PA.
The Cardinals had nine players with at least 300 PA. They all ranked average or better, with Dylan Carlson at 100 and Paul Goldschmidt at 177 by wRC+. St. Louis does lose the random outlier season from Albert Pujols, who hit .270/.345/.550 in his swan song season, but I have to assume youngsters like Carlson and Nolan Gorman are just getting started. Having two studs in Goldy and Nolan Arenado goes a long way, but the Cardinals have surrounded those guys with a really good supporting cast.
I won’t pretend to believe that Goldschmidt will replicate his career year, but the 35-year-old is riding consecutive seasons with elite contact quality and some launch angle changes that give him the chance to keep up this kind of power production. He just had the seventh season of his career with at least 30 homers and continues to walk at a high rate. I think he regresses back to his career norm of around a 140 wRC+, but that’ll absolutely play.
Similarly, Arenado’s 151 wRC+ was probably a one-year outlier and I’d presume he goes back to around a 130 wRC+, but we’re still talking about a player 30% above league average that plays some of the best third base we’ve ever seen. Arenado did have one of his higher Hard Hit% and Barrel% seasons, so there’s a chance he stays where he was, but I think he and Goldschmidt will collectively go from elite to nearly elite.
As long as others pick up the slack, those decreases in production won’t hurt at all. Contreras has seven Major League seasons to his name and has been at least 10% above league average with the stick in every one of them. Judging by what several Cardinals did last season, there’s even a chance that he’s going to a place where he, too, can have a career year. He just did last season offensively with a 132 wRC+. He’s a huge upgrade over Molina and Knizner.
I don’t want to hit every player in-depth, but you’ve got good speed with Tommy Edman (32 SB) and excellent defensive prowess up the middle. Carlson won’t turn 25 until after the season and he was a strong hitter with good speed coming up through the minors. I’d expect a boost in his production, much like I do with Gorman, who turns 23 in May and hit 30 homers across two levels in 521 PA. Lars Nootbaar walks a ton and showcased a bit more power last season than he had in the minors. Tyler O’Neill is just a season removed from slugging 34 homers in 537 PA back in 2021.
Jordan Walker is the boom or bust bat in the lineup. He won’t be able to legally buy a beer until May 22, but he slashed .306/.388/.510 in Double-A last season with 19 homers and 22 stolen bases. He may strike out a lot and most projection systems are worried about his ability to be league average, but if it doesn’t work, the Cardinals have lots of depth. He’s the No. 12 prospect in baseball per FanGraphs.
There just aren’t many weaknesses with the lineup. Also, I know I’m talking about the offense, but this was an elite defensive team last year. In a post-shift world, as many good individual defenders as possible will go a long way. I know I’ve fixated on how the shift ban will help offense in other previews. That means it will hurt defense, but some teams will be less affected than others. This is a terrific infield and one that will fare far better than most, if not all.
St. Louis Cardinals Pitching
This is where things get a little more interesting. This is an excellent lineup with a bunch of above-average dudes. I cannot say the same about the rotation. There are some good to very good pitchers here, but this is a rotation that doesn’t miss a lot of bats and is very dependent on defense and batted ball luck. With the shift a thing of the past, I’ll be curious to see how much the starters are hurt by the rules. On the other hand, as I mentioned, the Cardinals still have elite defenders at multiple positions.
Cardinals starting pitchers were only 16th in fWAR and actually racked up just a 52-53 record. Collectively, they were 24th in K%, but did a good job of limiting walks and an outstanding job of limiting home runs. Only the Giants had a lower HR/9 and part of that was because the Giants led the league in GB% as a starting staff.
St. Louis has some major health questions in the rotation that cannot be ignored. Steven Matz only made 10 starts last season in the first year of a four-year, $44 million deal. Jack Flaherty only made eight starts and pitched 36 total innings after throwing just 78.1 innings in 2021. Reports from camp have been glowing about these two guys, though, so I guess we’ll have to try to be optimistic. Flaherty’s velocity is said to be back after struggling with that and his control last season. Matz said he “feels stronger than ever”.
Both guys can be above-average pitchers with health and Flaherty could be more than that if he can channel his 2019 form. He’s only 27, though it feels like forever ago that he debuted. A guy who did debut forever ago is 2000 draftee Adam Wainwright. He’s planning to retire after his 18th season and is five wins away from 200. He had a 3.71 ERA with a 3.66 FIP last season. He had a 3.66 FIP in 2021, but a 3.05 ERA. His BABIP against normalized last season, but he was still highly effective over 191.2 innings. He is a ground ball guy and one to think long and hard about in the post-shift world.
Miles Mikolas had a really good year over 202.1 innings with a 3.29 ERA and a 3.87 FIP. He doesn’t miss many bats but does a great job inducing weak contact and letting his defense work. He was also one of 11 qualified pitchers with a BB% under 5%. I’ll save my Jordan Montgomery love for later, but this is a good rotation because just about everybody induces weak contact and plays to the defense.
Busch Stadium is also a really good pitcher’s park, despite what the Cardinal offense did to opposing hurlers. St. Louis allowed fewer than 3.5 runs per game at home and went 53-28. They were just 40-41 on the road, but they should’ve been better with a +26 run differential. The pitchers allowed 4.4 runs per game on the road. Pitching to contact and letting the defense work is a sound strategy in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. It doesn’t work as well on the road, but that’s where the offense comes in.
I actually expected the Cardinals bullpen to grade higher because it seems like a really solid unit. The relief corps finished 11th in ERA at 3.61 and 17th in FIP at 3.92. That being said, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley were both very solid. Andre Pallante will also slot into some more high-leverage situations this season after he posted a 2.35 ERA with a 3.95 FIP. His K/BB numbers terrify me, but he had a high GB% and kept the ball in the park as a result. We’ll see about the rest of the group, but a healthy Jordan Hicks would be a major weapon.
The Cardinals were 59-31 against teams with losing records, but they only went 34-38 against teams .500 or better. They were 48-28 in the NL Central by pummeling the Cubs, Reds and Pirates. The Cubs and Reds should be improved, but I think St. Louis is still pretty clearly the class of the division.
The Cardinals won 15 games that they trailed after five innings with a .224 win percentage. The league average was only .147. They got fortunate in some instances and had 40 comeback wins last year. I do think first-year manager Oliver Marmol did a hell of a job, particularly leveraging his relievers.
Player to Watch
SP Jordan Montgomery: Montgomery was traded by the Yankees in the Harrison Bader deal and made 11 starts for the Cardinals with a 3.11 ERA and a 3.08 FIP. Most importantly, he was pretty healthy for the second straight season and made 32 starts. I’m a huge fan of his. He throws four pitches for strikes with good swing-and-miss rates across the board. He has been a soft contact master throughout most of his career, though he did see his exit velocity and Hard Hit% tick up with the Cardinals. I think that was just some variance.
Montgomery had an 86th percentile Chase Rate, but an 87th percentile BB%. He gets hitters to expand the zone and make weak contact. When he joined the Cardinals, he threw his four-seam fastball more and that explained the increase in Hard Hit%, but he also threw more curveballs, which generated a good rate of whiffs. I think there was a feeling-out process for both sides and I’m a big believer in him this season.
St. Louis Cardinals Season Win Total Pick
I’m still in awe of what the Cardinals have done, even though I wrote about it last year before they added another playoff appearance to the record books. There have been 23 seasons since we started a new century and the Cardinals have made the playoffs in 17 of them. I still can’t get over the fact that they’ve had one losing season. This won’t be one either. Will they win 90+ games and comfortably clear this win total number? I don’t know.
The Cardinals are second to the Astros in terms of the odds to win their respective division and I agree with that. I think this is clearly the class of the NL Central. My hope is that they struggle a bit at the outset and I can scoop something at plus money as the season goes along. I think Milwaukee is due to step back and I’m not sure the Cubs are there yet. So, I won’t have anything on their season win total or any other futures, but I may stalk a World Series price because they’re such a clear favorite to win the division in my mind. I wish they had a better rotation, but they’re so good with player development that they have prospects to move for Trade Deadline reinforcements.
I may also look for a shorter Yes/No to Make the Playoffs price as the season goes along. I think they’re pretty clearly a top-six team in the NL, but I’d like a little bit better than -235.
Lean: Over 88.5