Coming into the season, I was one of the many that were shouting from the rooftops that the Cardinals would have a top-5 offense in baseball this season. It's been hard to find the silver linings for a club that has disappointed so much this season, but as things currently stand, they've risen into the top 5, just behind the Dodgers, Rays, Rangers, and Braves offenses.
If you look at major offensive categories like OPS, OBP, wRC+, WAR, and wOBA, they rank top 5 in all of them. They are doing all of this while their BABIP ranks just 15th in the league as well.
Think I'm cherry-picking numbers? They are also 8th in batting average and 7th in slugging percentage. What about with runners in scoring position? They are 9th in wRC+ (111) and OPS (.778). Their real area of weakness has come with the bases loaded this year, where they have a .543 OPS and 45 wRC+ on the season. This seems to be just a blip on the radar for the club though, as they were a top-10 offense with the bases loaded last year. And no, it's not because they lost Albert Pujols, as he only had a .756 OPS with the bases loaded in 2022.
The offense has seemed a lot quieter than I forecasted it would be this year, and yet, it's just as quietly risen up the leaderboards among offenses as the year has gone on.
How are they doing this? Well, it's been powered by an offense that is as deep as any offense in the league.
Jay Cuda is such an awesome follow on Twitter. There is one thing I need to correct here though. Yes, the Cardinals have 6 players with at least a 2.0 offensive WAR this season (Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar, Brendan Donovan, Willson Contreras, and Nolan Gorman) according to Baseball-Reference. More on that in a moment. But it's important to note that the Atlanta Braves also have six players with at least 2.0 offensive WAR this season as well.
Why is this so important? First, that Braves offense could go down as one of the best offensives in baseball history. The Cardinals' offensive doesn't have the same upside that the Braves do with three MVP-level bats this year in Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson, and Sean Murphy, along with All-Star caliber bats in Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies, but the gap isn't as far as you would think it is. The Cardinals' lineup goes nine deep (and even further with their excellent depth options) and could see more All-Star and MVP-like production in 2024.
Lars Nootbaar has taken huge steps in his development as a player over the last calendar year, and now not only leads the Cardinals in wRC+ (132), but is 16th in all of baseball, ahead of names like Rafael Devers, Corbin Carroll, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and well, pretty much all of baseball. Out of those Braves' sluggers, he's only behind Acuna Jr. and Olson this year. Nootbaar is putting himself in the conversation for one of the best hitters in baseball.
Nolan Arenado had a weird first half and still has a 125 wRC+ on the year. I expect him to be back to being top-20 in that category in 2024 and could rise significantly this year if he finishes strong. Same with Paul Goldschmidt, who although he's struggled as well, has raised his wRC+ to 127 on the year.
What about Nolan Gorman? The second baseman with legit 40+ home run power. He's sitting on a 122 wRC+ on the year, tied with Adley Rutschman and Franciso Lindor, and higher than sluggers like Jose Ramirez, Ozzie Albies, Bobby Witt Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
I'm not even going to go into Brendan Donovan (120 wRC+) and Willson Contreras (121 wRC+), the continued development of Jordan Walker (108 wRC+), or "secondary pieces" like Alec Burleson, Tyler O'Neill, Masyn Winn, and Tommy Edman.
Honestly, it's crazy to me that so many guys are posting 20% or above league-average offense on a team that has been in such a rut this season. I wouldn't blame the lineup for mailing it in when their pitching staff is so bad. The offense seems to get way more criticism than it truly deserves. I've seen people say they just are not "clutch" this year, and yet they are 9th in all of baseball in OPS with runners in scoring position this year.
People want to claim that the Cardinals cannot turn things around just by adding a few starting pitchers. I couldn't disagree more. I don't know how this team does not contend if they bring in pitching help. This offense is too deep and has too many guys who are blossoming into legit hitters in this league, to not win a ton of games if they can even get league-average pitching. Imagine if they go out and get a true ace and another high-level arm behind them.
Think about the names on that list. I don't think many would disagree with me that Arenado will be better next year than he has been this year. Willson Contreras is hitting right in line with his career averages. Goldschmidt is the wild card here, and although no one should expect him to be a top-3 hitter in baseball again next year, sitting between a 125-150 wRC+ feels like the floor for his expectations.
But the other names on this list - Nootbaar, Gorman, Donovan, Walker, Burleson namely - have room to grow as offensive forces in this league. The Cardinals are entering a 1-2 year stretch here where their young bats are blossoming into some of the best in baseball while their veteran bats are still in or at in the final prime years of their career.
I tend to be an optimist when it comes to the Cardinals. I can get really excited about this team and can let myself get disappointed with how high those expectations can get. But when it comes to this offense, I'm not "overhyping" what it can be. We aren't projecting a bunch of "what if" scenarios here. Nootbaar, Gorman, Walker, Donovan, Burleson, and Winn improving as hitters in 2024 is not a pipedream, it's what you expect to happen. Arenado, Goldschmidt, and Contreras being major contributors is not wishful thinking. This offense has what it takes to go from elite to truly special in 2024, and I cannot wait to watch that unfold.
I know for most reading this, none of that will matter until we see the end results of the Cardinals' offseason. I get that. They can't go into 2024 with the same mess of a pitching staff as they did in 2023. I just tend to believe this organization is ready for significant changes, and since the offense is already set in stone for 2024, an offseason of prioritizing "pitching, pitching, and more pitching" has the power to transform this club from one of the worst in baseball to true contenders in the National League. You better believe this offense will be ready to slug even more if they get the pitching they so badly deserve.