The Cardinals have a couple of veterans – including a team legend – serving as their designated hitters this season. That will change next year.
With the designated hitter added to National League rosters for 2022, the Cardinals made the decision to choose experience (and nostalgia) to fill the role, bringing all-time great Albert Pujols back to the Gateway City to end his career where it began.
Pujols still has a potent bat against left-handers, and that’s mostly how he’s been effective so far, with two home runs and a .412 batting average in 17 at-bats. However, he’s also gotten 26 at-bats against right-handed pitchers, and that’s not gone well at all, with his .077 batting average and matching slugging percentage clear signs of his struggles.
The other vet signed to fill DH duties was Corey Dickerson. Limited almost exclusively to plate appearances against righties, Dickerson somehow has managed to knock in seven runs despite hitting only .192/.246/.231.
Combined, these two players are earning $7.5M this season, with Dickerson getting two-thirds of that salary. So far, the ROI on St. Louis’ investment has been minimal.
It’s not like the Cardinals didn’t (and don’t) have other, younger options. Juan Yepez looked like the leading DH candidate heading into spring training. However, a middling performance there and the chance for St. Louis to bring a legend back home led to Yepez being optioned to the minors before the season started.
With the Cardinals searching for an offensive spark, Yepez was called up on May 3, and he’s made a strong impression in his brief time in the bigs. A couple of homers, a .400 average, and a team-record-tying seven-game hitting streak to begin his major league career certainly have endeared him to Cardinals fans.
And then there’s Nolan Gorman, a third baseman coming up through the minors who has been working at second base the last couple of seasons in deference to the presence of Nolan Arenado at the hot corner for the next several campaigns. All Gorman has done is blast 13 home runs at Triple-A, whetting fans appetites for his call-up.
That call-up hasn’t come yet, however, and two main reasons are his high sky-high strikeout rate (35%) and defensive performance at the keystone, which is very much a work in progress. Some might say the Super Two arbitration deadline is another factor, and that’s probably accurate. However, as is often the case, the team has the two above-mentioned reasons as justification for keeping Gorman in Memphis a while longer.
So what happens in 2023, when Pujols is retired, Dickerson is a free agent, and Yepez and Gorman have gained more experience? Most likely, the two youngsters will share DH duties while also filling in around the field defensively.
Yepez already has played left field, right field, and first base with the big club, and those are the three positions where fans should expect to see him line up when he’s not the designated hitter. Gorman’s development at second base should allow him to play there at least part-time at the big-league level, while also filling in at third base and potentially first base when the starters need a breather.
Positional flexibility is becoming more and more valuable throughout baseball, and the ability to shift these two young hitters around will improve their value to the Cardinals and increase their opportunities at playing time. However, with neither Yepez nor Gorman offering all that much value with the leather, designated hitter is where each hitter is likely to see the plurality of his playing time going forward.
Of course, there’s the awkward question of what happens if Pujols and/or Dickerson go into deep (or in Dickerson’s case, deeper) slumps this season. Will these senior members of the major league fraternity cede playing time to the up-and-coming kids? That already seems to be the case to some extent with Yepez, and it wouldn’t be surprisingly to see Gorman get the call some time in June.
Nostalgia and veteran presence both offer benefits, but performance typically wins the day. Yes, the Cardinals should have their 2023 designated hitters already in the organization, but it’s possible these two kids accelerate their time to shine.
(All MLB stats through May 12. Minor league stats through May 11.)