While the St. Louis Cardinals overhauled their pitching staff this offseason, they've kept their position player group relatively intact, outside of shipping a few outfielders out to help with their pitching retool.
While that strategy comes as little surprise to many of us, there have been some who questioned why the Cardinals have not added to their offense as well, especially after finishing the season pretty much middle of the pack in most offensive categories. If I and many others believe this can be a top offense in baseball, why weren't they like that in 2023?
The steps back in performance from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado certainly played a role, but the number one factor in terms of their limited offensive upside simply came down to health in 2023. Injuries oftentimes get too much credit for why a team did not reach their full potential, but in the case of St. Louis in 2023, it's jarring how few games their best position players played together. Brandon Kiley of 101 ESPN shared on X (formerly known as Twitter) the other day that the group of Brendan Donovan, Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar, Nolan Arenado, Willson Contreras, Nolan Gorman, and Jordan Walker played just 10 games together last season.
That means in just 6% of the games the Cardinals played last season, they have their full arsenal of bats in the lineup. We aren't talking about a random 10 or 20-game stretch where the offense wasn't at full strength, we are talking about 94% of the games they played in last year featured a depleted lineup.
And yet, even with the inconsistency the Cardinals saw from their position player availability each game, they still managed to be a top-10 offense in all of baseball before the Trade Deadline when they officially went into seller's mode. Check out their rankings in key statistical categories from Opening Day until July 28th when Donovan played his last game and the fire sale began:
Cardinals' Ranking (first 105 games of season)
The one area where the Cardinals seemed to lag behind a bit was in the most important category - runs scored. I would be willing to bet they do a lot better job of manufacturing runs if they had their best lineup more than 6% of the time in 2023.
Injuries are a part of the game and no team stays completely healthy the whole year, but you do need a better bill of health than the Cardinals got to be a top offense in this game.
The Cardinals are not in the same tier of offense as the Atlanta Braves, but let's take a look at their historic lineup for a month. Ronald Acuna Jr., Matt Olson, and Austin Riley all played in at least 159 games last year, while Michael Harris II, Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna, Orlando Arcia, and Eddie Rosario all played in at least 139 games. Even their elite catching duo of Sean Murphy and Travis D'Arnaud combined to play in every game they played last year, including overlapping in many of them.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, only had Paul Goldschmidt play in over 150 games. Nolan Arenado played in 144 and Tommy Edman played in 137, but not a single other played in 130 or more games for them. See the issue here?
It's realistic to expect Arenado, Goldschmidt, or Contreras to play in 150+ games each year anymore. Goldschmidt and Arenado certainly could, but anything above 140 games would be what's at least needed from them. But in the cases of Walker, Nootbaar, Gorman, and Donovan, it's completely fair to ask them to be playing 150+ games a year, and getting that kind of consistency from them would help this offense in a big way.
It's fair to least wonder if Nootbaar and Gorman can manage that workload. Both players intend to play in as many games as possible in 2024, but Gorman's back issues and Nootbaar's random injuries have to be at a minimum for that to happen. I believe that's very possible, especially in the case of Nootbaar, but we need to see that kind of health first before we can bank on it.
Health alone can be a huge boost to the Cardinals lineup, but there are plenty of other reasons to be high on their potential production. Arenado finished barely above league average as a hitter in 2023 after an All-Star caliber first half, so it's fair to expect him to be at least somewhere in between, if not his old self again. Goldschmidt, even if he's truly past his prime, could have a resurgence as well. But the real thing to watch is the development of young bats like Walker, Gorman, Donovan, and Nootbaar. There is so much potential for this lineup to be a top unit in 2024.