Before the 2023 season, many of us were very eager to see the debut of the Cardinals' top prospect Jordan Walker. My hopes for Walker were very high coming into the year, believing he could be the next rookie to play like a star in his first season at the big league level, but what I expected him to be was an above-league average player who is already showing signs of stardom.
It's been a lot more of an up-and-down season for Walker than I had anticipated, but considering the position the club has been in this year, I'm not shocked that Walker hasn't been a stable force. part of my excitement surrounding Walker was around the fact that he got to be this talented of a player and not have to be relied on for the team to succeed. Walker could bat at the bottom of the order on a daily basis and work his way up to being a top player while the club's established players carried the load.
The series finale against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday may have been Walker's best showing of the entire year, going 4-4 with a 3-run bomb off of Rich Hill and a double that he added later in the game. Before Walker's last two hits, he had already raised his wRC+ to 134 over his last 17 games.
I was curious while watching Walker's performance what others thought of his rookie campaign, so I put a poll out on Twitter to gauge Cardinals Nation, and at the time of writing this, 64% of fans said he has met their expectations this year, 31% have been underwhelmed, and just 5% thought he had outperformed their expectations.
I think that's probably a fair representation of the fanbase. Walker is one of the youngest players in baseball and was drafted back in 2020, so his performance this year itself shouldn't be concerning. But I think it's fair for fans to have expected a little bit more with the kind of hype he was getting, especially on the defensive side of things.
Looking ahead to 2024, what should we expect from Jordan Walker in his sophomore season?
As things currently stand, Walker has been a little bit above average at the plate this year and has been one of the league's worst defenders as well. That has amassed to a -0.8 WAR on the season, so there is clearly room for improvement.
Let's start with the defensive side of things. It's been awful for Walker, and it's led some to speculate that his long-term future is as a first baseman or DH. I wrote recently about how the Cardinals will not be considering that any time soon, and how they are right to continue to run him out as their right fielder each day. Walker's physical gifts should aid him in becoming a much better outfielder long-term, and I could see him being much closer to league average in 2024, which would be a huge improvement for him.
If Walker is going to be an everyday outfielder for the Cardinals next year, which he will be, then that will be a big part of how we view him next year. A repeat of his defensive woes in 2024 will not only sink his ability to improve upon this year in a substantial way but it will also truly bring into question his future out there. But again, I would be shocked if we do not see a major stride from next season.
Offensively, there's reason to believe things are heading in the right direction as well. His success over his last 17 games is noteworthy. Walker seems to think his decisiveness has been the key lately.
That all makes sense to me. Walker is still continuing to grow and mature as a hitter, and feeling more confident at the plate will be a huge spark to his ability to mash the ball. Floating between a 2%-5% above league average hitter right now, I think the expectation that he would be about 20% above league average isn't far-fetched at all.
The talent is there for him to be more much than that, frankly. Once he can tap into his power potential on a more consistent basis, Walker could quickly soar into All-Star caliber status at the plate. His bat-to-ball skills have already been extremely impressive this year, and pairing that with extra-base hits galore will carry him big time.
I know I touched on it earlier, but I do think having a more stable environment next year as well will go a long way for Walker. The entire clubhouse seems to be pressing game in and game out, and the frustration and failure the team has had this year cannot be helpful to a player like Walker's development.
I expect Walker to have a big second year in St. Louis. I wouldn't be surpised if we see him take not just a big step in his development, but a massive leap that reminds all of baseball why he was touted so highly. But I tend to try and keep my expectations a bit lower than someone's ceiling, so a high impact player at the plate with league average corner outfield defense feels fair for Walker in 2024.