Who should be the Cardinals' leadoff hitter in 2024? The choice is clear.

Every great lineup needs top production from the leadoff spot. The Cardinals have multiple options, but one name stands out above the rest.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds / Lauren Leigh Bacho/GettyImages
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Barring a major trade by the St. Louis Cardinals, we have a pretty good idea of who the starting nine for the club will be in 2024. The only questions that really remain with their lineup are where guys will be positioned defensively, and how the lineup is structured.

One of the most important spots in any starting lineup is the leadoff hitter. They set the tone for the lineup, get on base for the heavy hitters behind them, and keep the rally going when the bottom of the lineup is making moves. For St. Louis, the two biggest candidates to fill that role, especially against right-handed pitching, are Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar.

Both players served as the primary leadoff hitter for the Cardinals in 2023 and were very similar in terms of production from that spot on the season.

As Leadoff hitter

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Brendan Donovan (232 PA)

.300

.354

.461

124

Lars Nootbaar (309 PA)

.277

.362

.454

125

Tommy Edman (192 PA)

.232

.277

.356

72

On the surface, both players are natural fits for the leadoff spot for the Cardinals, and both would be great choices for the Cardinals. But when I dug into their stats as leadoff hitters against right-handed pitching, the decision became a lot clearer to me.

Leadoff hitter vs. RHP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Brendan Donovan (206 PA)

.312

.361

.497

135

Lars Nootbaar (250 PA)

.265

.352

.447

120

Again, both guys were great leadoff hitters, but Donovan was excellent in that spot. His 135 wRC+ would've been the 13th-best wRC+ among all hitters in baseball if he maintained that over an entire season, and 206 plate appearances is not a tiny sample size. Donovan was great in 2022 as well, and after a slow start to 2023, he was in a groove at the plate for two months before being sidelined with his season-ending elbow injury.

Outside of Donovan's elite leadoff numbers, when I began to factor in how either guy profiles in other spots in the lineup dug into those numbers, it cemented my belief in Donovan as the Cardinals' leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching.

Both Nootbaar and Donovan were slightly above league average hitting at any other spot in the lineup (107 wRC+ for Nootbaar compared to 108 wRC+ for Donovan in under 200 at-bats for each of them). But what really stuck out to me was how productive Nootbaar was slotted into the third spot in the lineup for the Cardinals.

Batting Third

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Lars Nootbaar (79 PA)

.292

.392

.462

135

Nolan Gorman (229 PA)

.204

.297

.428

98

Going into this exercise, I slotted Gorman in as my number three-hitter against right-handed pitching but looking deeper into the numbers, he was actually far more productive outside of that spot. Gorman, in 147 plate appearances batting either fifth or sixth in the lineup, posted a .959 OPS and 158 wRC+. Most of these are relatively small sample sizes, but they are drastic enough differences that it's made me envision this as the Cardinals' Opening Day Lineup against right-handed pitching:

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

I could see Gorman or Walker slotting higher in the order eventually, but I don't really see manager Oli Marmol moving Goldschmidt, Contreras, or Arenado further down in the order to start the year.

Donovan leading off against right-handed starters would make him the primary leadoff hitter, even if he does not lead off against left-handed starters (more on that in a moment). The majority of games the team will play in are against right-handed starters, so I'd imagine this would make Donovan the leadoff hitter 70%-80% of the time the team plays.

Where things do get a little more interesting for the leadoff spot is when the Cardinals are facing left-handed starters. Donovan has been a lot less effective against left-handers in his career thus far. In comparison, Nootbaar had a 147 wRC+ leading off against lefties in 2023, albeit in just 59 plate appearances. Maybe he can lead off on those days while Willson Contreras or Jordan Walker slot into the third spot in the order, or maybe Dylan Carlson gets to lead off those days, as he's been awesome against left-handers in his career (.377 OBP and 135 wRC+ in 378 career plate appearances).

I actually think there's an argument for Donovan to sit against left-handed pitching due to his struggles, using that as a day to get Carlson into the lineup, and then deploying Donovan into the game later against a right-handed pitcher, and then slotting him in wherever on the field because of his versatility. If the Cardinals were to use Carlson as the leadoff hitter against left-handed pitching, the lineup could look something like this:

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

I envision games against a left-handed starter will likely draw some rest days for St. Louis, allowing Marmol to rest one of Donovan, Winn, or Edman and mixing up the lineup based on who is starting. This would also make sense as a designated hitter day for Contreras, allowing Ivan Herrera to get a start.

Anyways, we'll dive deeper into the total lineup construction in the coming weeks, but for now, Donovan appears to be the best option for leading off against right-handed pitching, and it also allows the Cardinals the lengthen their lineup quite a bit after him. If Nootbaar were leading off and Gorman was batting third, the 6th and 7th hitters would lack a bit of that punch from a power perspective. Instead, the Cardinals' first three hitters all have great on-base skills and varying levels of power and then are followed up by mashers in Arenado, Contreras, Gorman, and Walker.

Against left-handed starters, the Cardinals have a lineup full of guys who feast on southpaws and then have firepower off the bench depending on who's sitting that day whenever the opposing team calls upon a right-hander from the bullpen.

This lineup really has the potential to be elite in 2024. Before Donovan played his last game in 2023, the offense graded out as a top 6-8 unit in most of the major statistical categories. If they can be healthier in 2024, this lineup can easily be a top 5 unit in the game by year's end. There's still a lot that can happen between now and Opening Day, but as things currently stand, Donovan is the clear-cut choice to leadoff most games for the Cardinals.

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