Creating a lineup that optimizes the St. Louis Cardinals' defense in 2024

Things did not go well in 2023. It's time to do something different.

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies
St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

The St. Louis Cardinals have a poorly constructed roster. On offense, they have two older All-Star caliber players, a couple of young exciting players that management is afraid to let play, and a lot of players up the middle. The biggest change they made was to remove Tyler O’Neill and add Matt Carpenter. 

The Cardinals have only three fielding positions set for the everyday lineup card going into spring training. Nolan Arenado at third base, Paul Goldschmidt at first, and Jordan Walker in right field. 

It seemed too many times last year that the lineup comprised the players that the manager didn’t have a problem with. Not having O’Neill and Contreras in your lineup, but playing Taylor Motter and Tres Barrera doesn’t always create the best team. Why not blow it up and put it back together in a way that makes more baseball sense, regardless of seniority or salary? 

Let’s come up with a different strategy this year. Just like football teams build from the line, baseball teams should build with defense up the middle. Last year the Cardinals led the league in giving up the most percentage of balls in play with 68 percent. The average for Wainwright, Flaherty, and Montgomery was 68 percent. Gray, Lynn, and Gibson replaced them and their average was 68 percent last year. If this team can’t do a better job of keeping the opposition from hitting the ball, then the team must tighten up its defense before it does anything else.

Optimizing the Defense

I wrote that with all the ground balls our new pitchers throw, shortstop is the most important position on this team. Masyn Winn must play. MLB rates him as a 60-fielder and an 80-arm. Think of Ozzie Smith who doesn’t have to bounce the ball to first. 

The second-base defense will surprise many people. Nolan Gorman doesn’t get enough credit here. Comparing him to Tommy Edman, we see the same Outs Above Average (OAA). When Edman played second base last year, his fielding percentage was .986 and Gorman at second was 984. Deserved Runs Prevented (DRP) is a Baseball Prospectus metric for assessing fielder performance. Gorman’s DRP is 1.0 and Edman when playing second is 0.2 Not bad for someone still learning a new position. 

In center field, the Cardinals have Edman winning this position. I still think Scott should start here. MLB grades him as an 80-runner and a 70-fielder. With Walker still learning RF and LF uncertain, I feel Scott will save a lot more runs than Edman here.  

Left field is Lars Nootbaar. The only other player would be Brendan Donovan and while hitting is almost equal, Nootbaar has the edge on defense when playing left field. Also, Donovan is more valuable off the bench, having played RF, LF, 1B, 3B, and even a game at short. 

Catcher is another bold move the Cardinals should make. Ivan Herrera was the Cardinals' Minor League Player of the Year. He has been tearing the cover off the ball this winter and let’s not forget that Contreras didn’t get a high grade for his work with the pitchers. They even removed him for a period. Herrera received praise for his improvement in that area and has been working with Yadi this winter. 

That doesn’t mean we just sit Contreras on the bench. I discussed how making him the DH was the best move the Cardinals could make. A DH platoon of Contreras, a right-handed bat, and Donovan the LH bat. 

By putting Donovan and Edman on the bench, we have every position backed up with just two players. They would both be playing almost every game, giving the starters a day off, just not in one position. 

Now that we set the defense, what should the lineup look like?

Optimizing the Lineup

Last year’s most-used lineup was, Nootbaar, Goldschmidt, Gorman, Arenado, Contreras, Donovan, DeJong, Burleson, and Edman. That lineup was good for 71 wins. Let’s create a new one.

1st - Contreras (R) - Everyone thought it was crazy when Kyle Schwarber started batting leadoff, but it works. Contreras has the highest wOBA on the team and the second-highest SLUG behind Gorman. Why not start with the player with the best chance of getting on base?

2nd - Nootbarr (L): If the lead-off batter doesn’t get on base, I want someone who has an equal chance. I also want to make sure the batter following Contreras has the highest OBP on the team and the highest walk percentage. This also slips a lefty in between Contreras and Goldschmidt. 

3rd - Goldschmidt (R): Goldschmidt batted second and third last year and his stats were almost identical. By moving him down to third it gives the Cardinals two chances to get someone on base in front of him instead of just one. 

4th - Arenado (R): He batted third and fourth last year but batting 4th his batting average was 16 points higher. 

5th - Gorman - (L): Gorman fits here. He has the highest slugging percentage on the Cardinals team in 2023. He offers some protection for Arenado and breaks up two right-handers. His batting average batting fifth (.296) or sixth (.297) was the same. 

6th - Walker (R) - Walker will become one of those players whom the manager can slot into any spot in the order. Last year he had over 100 ABs batting 6th, 7th, and 8th. His Slug and OPS were the highest when he batted 6th. 

7th - Herrera (R) - In three minor league seasons, his batting average was .282 and an OPS of .865. He has been tearing the cover off the ball all winter and can slot nicely into the lower part of the order. 

8th - Winn (R): Winn is in this lineup for his glove. Any offense is a bonus. Steamer, FanGraphs, and Zips all have him projected to have a .247 batting average. With his elite defense, having a .247 batting average out of the 8th spot in the order works just fine. 

9th - Scott (L) - ZiPS has Scott also producing a .247 average. Like Winn, he is here to save runs, but if he hits .250, he will score a bunch as well. If he gets the 50 predicted stolen bases, he might score on almost every hit with Contreras hitting behind him.

This adds a lot of speed and a lot of defense, and it would be a much more exciting team. It is a much better team with Edman and Donovan able to come off the bench and play everywhere instead of counting on Edman playing center every day. The pitchers would love this defense. If they need a pinch hitter, I would much rather have Donovan or Edman available on the bench. If they have Contreras or Donovan as the DH, then Goldschmidt and Arenado can have days off.

After winning only 71 games, it’s time to do something different.