Yes, Albert Pujols is back where it all began. And yes, I’m am all sorts of nostalgic and excited to see him playing for the Cardinals again. He is the reason that both of my boys have worn #5 throughout their entire baseball playing careers, even though they both only have faint memories of him actually playing with the team. However, he is not the reason I’m excited about this Cardinals season; well, actually he sort of is.
The line on the Cardinals win total for the season is a 85.5. That number seems low to me, and I’m going to explain why. I am very aware of the questions the Cardinals have with their pitching. Their ace is currently out with shoulder issues, which are never good for pitchers, and most people that follow the Cardinals have learned to never believe what they hear from the team’s medical staff. Couple that with the fact your second best starter from a season ago is 40 years old, and the depth of the rotation is a concern. However, the Cardinals will feature a ton of groundball pitchers that will have the games best defense behind them, and that should be a recipe for success.
Dakota Hudson is one of the best groudball pitchers in baseball and had a full offseason after working his way back from Tommy John surgery at the end of last year. Miles Mikolas finally looks healthy, and Steven Matz is a groundball machine when he is right. Add in the fifth starter the has an incredible 101MPH sinker, and the recipe is set for the Cardinals to give themselves a chance to be in every game.
The bullpen certainly has some question marks as well. Giovanni Gallegos might be the most under appreciated reliever in all of baseball the past three years, and Genesis Cabrera has been extremely effective over that same stretch. However, after that, things look like they can get pretty interesting in the Cardinal bullpen. They brought back TJ McFarland, who truly saved their season last year, but the club and fans should not expect him to replicate the same stats he put up down the stretch last year. After all, this was a man that was released by a horrible Nationals team last season. Yet, the Cardinals have a lot of intrigue and upside in the bullpen as well. Instead of bringing in overpriced, fading veterans like they have in the past, the Cardinals made a number of under the radar acquisitions and internal promotions that have me more excited to see how things play out than anxious to see how they fall apart.
This Cardinal team is one that could settle right around those 85.5 wins, or be one that really exceeds that number. I think it will be the latter. Did you think you would ever watch a team where Yadier Molina was the worst defensive player on the field? Well, that will likely be the case for the 2022 Cardinals, and that is not a knock against Molina. at all. The Cardinals have 5 Gold Glove winner from 2021 returning to their lineup. That doesn’t include guys like Paul DeJong who has been a finalist in the past, and Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina who have both won the award multiple times. Dylan Carlson will likely be a finalist this season as well in right field. I’m so excited to watch this Cardinals defense help inflate their pitchers numbers above their projections. Yet, that still isn’t the reason I’m really excited for this season.
Like I said at the top, I’m excited about Pujols return to the Cardinals, but I’m more excited because the Cardinals for the first time in a decade have a legitimate offense and bench. In recent years, the Cardinals have relied on excellent pitching and defense to scratch and claw their way into a playoff spot, only to be eliminated by teams with more offensive firepower and late inning options off the bench. This year, I am extremely excited about what the Cardinals have and can feature coming off their bench.
In recent years past, the Cardinals have identified younger players they wanted in their lineup and simply cleared a path for them to get a lot of at bats. That formula has played out with mixed results. It took multiple seasons for Tyler O’Neill to show the promise that he had teased for so long. After watching the Cardinals consistently trade away good outfield production, it seems that Harrison Bader has rounded out into a consistent major league hitter. Dylan Carlson was not going ot meet the expectations of his prospect rankings in his first full season, but those at bats seem to have him primed for a big year in 2022.
Entering this season, it seemed natural that the Cardinals would just gift at bats to some of their touted prospects Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbar, and Nolan Gorman. In typical Cardinal fashion, they would hype these guys up, only to see them struggle and be left with no internal options to resolve the hole in their lineup. The past few seasons, the Cardinals offensive bench options have been absolutely pathetic. With the adoption of the universal DH, it seemingly forced teams like the Cardinals to go and seek out proven offensive bats, and I love what the Cardinals did. Instead of overpaying at the position or just gifting at bats to unproven guys, the front office went out and got a formidable veteran platoon of Albert Pujols and Corey Dickerson. If deployed properly, it is not unreasonable to safely expect 25 home runs and 80 RBI from that spot. That is solid production that exceeds any projections of the young guys above as rookies.
Now, I’m all for the Albert Pujols nostalgia tour that features him at DH every game and reaching 700 career home runs sometime in September in front of a sold out stadium. I’d love to go the ballpark and just know that I’m going to see #5 in the lineup, regardless of who the Cardinals are facing on the mound, but that is not what is best for him or the team. The Cardinals and their rookie manager, Ollie Marmol, need to realize the weapon that they have and deploy him properly. That goes for everyone on the bench. The Cardinals offense should be one of the best in baseball this season, but with the questionable pitching, I expect the Cardinals to need to score late in baseball games to exceed that projected 85.5 wins. The Cardinal bench is why I am excited and believe they can do that.
With the three batter mininum rule, teams cannot avoid certain pinch hitters coming off the bench like they could in the past. Therefore, if a team goes to a left handed reliever late in a game, the Cardinals can counter with Albert Pujols, who still hits left handed pitching really well. Conversely, if a team comes in with a hard throwing right hander, Lars Nootbar from the left side is a great option. A right hander with a good slider would seem to play right into the hands of Corey Dickerson. Getting outs 22-27 against the Cardinals should be a big challenge for any team this year. Couple that with the fact you have versatile players like Edmundo Sosa that can fill in at any infield spot and Nootbar that can play any outfield spot, and Marmol should be very calculated but aggressive deploying his bench. While Nootbar is better at the corners, Carlson and O’Neill can shift to CF when Bader is facing a tough right hander late in games. Also, Nootbar and Sosa provide good baserunning and decent speed options if Dickerson or Pujols are on the basepaths late in a close game.
The 2022 Cardinals should be a very exciting offensive team to watch. That hasn’t been the case much in the last eight or so seasons in St. Louis. They have a new manager that has talked about being aggressive and embracing a lot of the new philosophies in the game. While the Cardinals are not the youngest team, they now have solid options to play guys in the field while allowing a regular a chance to DH or take a day off all together without seeing much dip in production. And oh yeah, if the Dickerson and Pujols platoon isn’t working out well, you have young guys like Yepez and Gorman who only stand to benefit from getting more seasoning in AAA. x
While the Cardinals frustrated many, including myself, by not going out and addressing the pitching concerns by adding another proven starter or reliever, they quietly have put together a championship level bench. That is something that has been missing for over a decade in St. Louis. When you go back and look at some of the great Cardinal moments from 2011-2014, a lot of bench players were involved. Those guys tend to be the difference in teams that make the playoffs and teams that win in the playoffs. The Cardinals have a distinguished playoff history of finding a way to rip teams hearts out late in games, and I look forward to seeing that again this season with their stacked bench.