2 - Lars Nootbaar
It seems a bit self-serving that the "Noot News Podcast" would have Lars Nootbaar so high on this list, but he certainly deserves this spot. Nootbaar was never regarded as a top prospect and for the longest time was viewed as a backup outfielder, but he's quickly been the most reliable and effective player in a constantly changing Cardinals outfield. After Harrison Bader was traded for Jordan Montgomery, many injuries from 2021 MVP candidate Tyler O'Neill, and Dylan Carlson never truly rounding into form, "fourth outfielder" Lars Nootbaar has stabilized an otherwise messy outfield situation.
Since his debut in 2021, Nootbaar has slashed .246/.351/.429/.780 and has improved greatly year-to-year. Combining his elite plate discipline and solid defense in center field, he's the first reliable leadoff hitter the Cardinals have had since Matt Carpenter. In 2023, his chase rate, whiff rate, and walk rate were all in the top 85th percentile according to Baseball Savant. He might not have the elite power of Nolan Gorman or the lightning speed of Tommy Edman, but Nootbaar's skills combined make him one of the most polished hitters on the Cardinals.
On top of his play, Nootbaar provides much-needed positive energy that reenergizes the clubhouse. When Noot injured his thumb on Opening Day, it coincided with the start of a losing skid the Cardinals would never rebound from. His enthusiasm and never-quit mentality were sorely missed. He's quickly become a fan favorite both in St. Louis and in Japan, and he's become one of the faces of the Cardinals. It's also possible his presence in the Cardinals dugout and Samurai Japan connections could lure up-and-coming Japanese stars to sign in St. Louis. (Roki Sasaki anyone?)
However, it's quite possible that Nootbaar would not agree to sign a team-friendly extension. Having been doubted and undervalued his entire career, he may want to test the waters of free agency to truly find his worth. Unlike some of the other players on this list, the Cardinals extending Nootbaar would not be a bargain, but rather solidifying a franchise cornerstone long-term. It's unlikely a Nootbaar extension would go wrong for the Cardinals, but the upside also wouldn't be very high.