Ivan Herrera's rise complicates the Cardinals' lineup and that's not a bad thing

Complicated doesn't mean bad, especially when it comes to the continued development of Cardinals' catcher Ivan Herrera and how the Cardinals structure their lineup.
St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins
St. Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins / Rich Storry/GettyImages

The St. Louis Cardinals have a lot of mouths to feed when it comes to their position player group, and although they seem to have learned from some of their mistakes in 2023, it will still be complicated to get all of their talented bats consistent playing time.

That becomes especially true if Ivan Herrera pushes his way into an even more signifcant role.

Ever since the Cardinals decided to non-tender catcher Andrew Knizner, Herrera has been locked into the backup catcher role for the 2024 season. We knew right away that would be an important role, as Herrera would likely draw at least 60 starts at the position, if not more. Well, with the way Herrera played this winter during the Caribbean Series and the eyes he's opened at Spring Training, he may be someone the Cardinals want to work into their lineup as often as possible.

When healthy, the Cardinals will be looking to get the following players consistent playing time:

Brendan Donovan
Paul Goldschmidt
Lars Nootbaar
Nolan Arenado
Willson Contreras
Nolan Gorman
Jordan Walker
Masyn Winn
Tommy Edman
Ivan Herrera
Dylan Carlson

Carlson is someone who, even if he's not as highly valued as those top ten guys, will still play often with his ability to play center field and the other two outfield spots. Herrera, if the Cardinals want to have him play more than 43% of the games (which is what 70 starts would amount to), has to come in at DH or catcher, which then begins to complicate the Cardinals' lineup.

Hear me when I say complicates, not creates problems. If Herrera is playing well enough that the Cardinals want him playing more and more often, that's a great thing, it will just make the Cardinals' other decisions even more interesting. Does an increase in playing time for Herrera result in more off-days for Contreras? Do Arenado and Goldschmidt not DH as often and instead get to rest more as well? Does a player like Donovan or Gorman lose out on some at-bats?

As I've thought more and more about this, I've found some potential ways the Cardinals could maximize that core of players while increasing Herrera's playing time, specifically by starting him as often as possible against left-handed pitching.

When making hypothetical lineups for the Cardinals, most fans have Dylan Carlson starting against left-handed pitching due to his platoon advantage against lefties. While I do like that thought a lot, I actually think it may be wiser to work in Herrera, as Carlson will get spot starts throughout the week against both right-handed and left-handed pitching as the fourth outfielder. Sure, so will Herrera because of his role as the backup catcher, but long-term, he's the guy the Cardinals want to develop as much as they can.

While I still think they should look to start Carlson against left-handed pitching as much as possible (perhaps in place of Nootbaar in left field as he has a .726 OPS against southpaws in his career). In 2023, the Cardinals faced a left-handed starter on 42 occasions, and this could be what their lineup looks like against them in 2024.

CF Tommy Edman
1B Paul Goldschmidt
RF Jordan Walker
3B Nolan Arenado
DH Willson Contreras
2B Nolan Gorman
C Ivan Herrera
LF Lars Nootbaar
SS Masyn Winn

I love Brendan Donovan, but he has struggled against left-handed pitching in his career thus far, posting a .666 OPS against them. His .801 OPS and 128 wRC+ against right-handers in his career make him a weapon off the bench in these scenarios, potentially pitch-hitting for Herrera, Winn, or Edman in late-game situations.

Beyond even just the offensive impact Herrera can have on the game, the Cardinals may want him to play more and more often if his defense and game-calling are better than Contreras. Contreras has worked hard this offseason to improve behind the plate, but there is definitely a world where his job looks more like a 50/50 split with Herrera, which again, clogs at-bats a bit.

Because Brandon Crawford will mostly just play when Winn needs a day off, and Carpenter won't require consistent at-bats, the search for playing time should not be as complicated as it was last year. In 2023, the Cardinals wanted to find time for five outfielders (Walker, Nootbaar, Carlson, Alec Burleson, and Tyler O'Neill), four middle infielders (Edman, Gorman, Donovan, and Paul DeJong), alongside removing Contreras from his catching duties for a period of time which clogged up that DH spot. This year, the Cardinals are concerned about three outfielders getting playing time (Edman, Nootbaar, and Walker) and three middle infielders (Gorman, Winn, and Donovan).

Could issues arrise from this? Sure. But injuries happen, which will carve out more time for others, as well as underperformances, which will make it clear who should play and who should sit. I don't anticipate there being major concerns here in 2024, but I do think it could air on the side of complicated if Herrera proves himself as a guy who needs more playing time as the year goes on.