Pitching, pitching, and more pitching? Check, check, and check. In stark contrast to previous winters, John Mozeliak and the St. Louis Cardinals have fueled the flames of the hot stove as the busiest team in free agency. Seeking innings for a rotation that severely lacked them in 2023, the Cardinals inked three starters in Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Sonny Gray, who combined to throw 559.2 innings in 2023 before John Mozeliak even set foot in Nashville for the Winter Meetings.
With reinforcements now in place, the Cardinals have provided themselves with an opportunity to get creative in the trade market. Despite standing firm in their message of adding three starters to the media, St. Louis has been linked to multiple starters available in trade. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold has mentioned Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow as a target multiple times this winter and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported last week that they have continued interest in Dylan Cease, even after the Gray, Gibson and Lynn signings.
These rumors have set Cardinals' Twitter ablaze, speculating on who will be sporting the Birds on the Bat in 2024 and, more importantly, who will be booking flights out of town as a result. While dozens of names have been mentioned as trade candidates, there is one that I feel the Cardinals should hold firm on in trade dialogue: Nolan Gorman.
Gorman, a former first-round pick and top-100 prospect, made multiple encouraging strides in his sophomore campaign. After posting a .226/.300/.420 batting line in 2022, good for a 105 wRC+, Gorman improved his triple slash in his age 23 season to a .236/.328/.478 line, good for a 118 wRC+ (via FanGraphs). In a lineup that features on-base machines like Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar, Gorman emerged as a third legitimate power threat alongside Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, leading the team with 27 home runs in just 464 plate appearances. While no one should overlook the mammoth in-game power Nolan Gorman provides, Gorman’s most exciting improvements came in other, “quieter” areas of his game.
One of those quieter skills was Gorman’s approach and discipline at the plate. After chasing a below-average 31.1% of pitches out of the zone in 2022, Gorman cut his chase rate to a far more respectable 27.7% in 2023, which graded out as slightly better than league average. This improved selectivity at the plate manifested itself in his walk rate as well, jumping from 8.9% in 2022 to a well-above-average 11.4% in 2023. While walks typically don’t make SportsCenter's Top 10, these “behind the scenes” swing decisions are the keys that allow Gorman to get to his elite raw power in game. The numbers back the theory, as his 16.5% barrel rate, 48.5% hard-hit rate and his 38.8% sweet spot rate ranked in the 98th, 86th and 91st percentiles respectively. Combine that with a guy who can get on base a little when he isn’t hitting bombs and you end up with a fearsome bat that belongs comfortably within the middle of your lineup. Those types of hitters don’t just grow on trees, especially when they’re only 23 (24 in 2024) and are making the league minimum.
Still not convinced? Don’t worry, neither was Nolan Gorman. Widely considered a bat-first prospect coming through the minors, Gorman’s most impressive improvement in 2023 came away from the plate. In 2022, Nolan Gorman was simply one of the worst defenders in baseball. His -12 OAA in 548.2 innings at the keystone ranked him in the 1st percentile of all major leaguers, per Baseball Savant. While it certainly wasn’t fun to watch at times, this wasn’t necessarily Gorman’s fault. After being drafted as a third baseman in 2018, he played there exclusively until 2021 when the Cardinals acquired some third baseman named Nolan Arenado (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Even then, Gorman didn’t make the switch to second base until partway through the 2021 season, making 2022 his first full season at second base.
Learning on the fly certainly comes with some bumps in the road (see Jordan Walker’s 2023 season in right field). After a rough transition, Gorman put his head down and went to work and the fruits of his labor were evident in 2023. In 579.2 innings, Gorman posted -2 OAA at second base, an improvement of 10 outs while fielding 31 more innings. While it still rates out as slightly below average, that level of improvement shouldn’t be ignored. Gorman’s hard work has turned him into a viable option for the next 2-3 seasons at second base.
If you’ve watched postseason baseball the last two years, you’ve surely seen the impact that left-handed power can have in October. Sluggers like Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Schwarber, and Bryce Harper can single-handedly take over games. Typically, you have to allot a corner infield, corner outfield, or DH slot to receive those playoff-defining at-bats. Nolan Gorman allows you to carry that power at second base while employing bats like Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Jordan Walker, and Lars Nootbaar at the typical slugger's positions. This makes Gorman an incredibly valuable commodity and a piece that I would be very hesitant to deal.
Now I don’t want to just paint sunshine and rainbows here. Nolan Gorman isn’t perfect (but who is, really?). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the back issues that limited Gorman to just 464 PA in 2023. You could also point at Gorman’s K%, which remains elevated above 30%, or his streaky nature as areas of concern. Should John Mozeliak and the front office share those concerns, it is definitely possible that Nolan Gorman will be moved this winter in the pursuit of another top-of-the-rotation arm. Given the improvements Gorman has made in just 12 months time however, I would certainly attest that moving on from Nolan Gorman would be a mistake, and the last thing Cardinals fans need is another former farm hand going on to have success elsewhere.