Given their current roster construction, the ability of the St. Louis Cardinals to challenge seriously for a World Series championship in 2022 is somewhat strongly correlated to their belief both Corey Dickerson and Lars Nootbaar can continue to hit as well through the end of the season as they have since the All-Star break.
If either or both falters, then it will fall to players who have had significantly less recent success to pick up the slack.
After forcing his way onto the roster in May with an early-season power barrage at Triple-A, second baseman Nolan Gorman has entered a particularly rough stretch, hitting just .218 with a .275 on base percentage in the second half through play on Monday. He’s combined five doubles and four home runs with 38 strikeouts over that stretch, with six of those strikeouts coming in his first nine at bats of September.
With all of that in mind, his arrival at Busch Stadium on Tuesday with a newly shaved head hardly came as a surprise. All the metrics and measurables available in the modern world can’t take all the superstition out of baseball.
“It’s a combination,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said when asked what he’s seeing in Gorman’s struggles. “I think he’s seeing a heavy dose of fastballs at the top of the zone, having a hard time laying off of it. There’s some things mechanically that he’s working through in order to get to that pitch and lay off of the ones that are above the zone.”
‘Tough stretch’ for Gorman, Dickerson’s hot 2nd half
Acknowledging Gorman has been in “a tough stretch,” Marmol’s utilization of the rookie also makes clear the ways in which the Cardinals believe he can contribute. Frequently, against a righty starter, Gorman has played second base with Brendan Donovan as the designated hitter.
Donovan is generally considered a superior defender, but Marmol explained Gorman’s comfort around the second base bag and arm strength in turning double plays makes him the preferred option in those spots.
If nothing else, Gorman continues to get opportunities in those situations. Dylan Carlson, ostensibly the everyday centerfielder after Harrison Bader’s trade to New York, has found himself on the bench.
Dickerson’s white hot second half — he’s batting .405 with a .595 slugging percentage — has him firmly planted in left field against righties, sliding Tyler O’Neill into center. Lars Nootbaar has also continued to deliver even as he gently tapers off, reducing Carlson’s opportunities.
“It’s been tough getting him in against right-handed pitching,” Marmol said of Carlson, “just because we have options that are producing right now.”
More possible options
Each of those struggles impacts roster decisions downstream. Juan Yepez, who has 11 home runs in the big leagues this season, was eligible to be recalled from Triple-A Memphis before Tuesday’s game.
He was not, however, and while Marmol said he’s eager to see Yepez display some more strength at bats in the minors before a potential recall, he also acknowledged the pieces as currently assembled don’t work in his favor.
Without Carlson’s production in center, there’s more need for a player like Ben DeLuzio, a legs-first, glove-second career minor leaguer who’s on the active roster to be slotted in to particular spots which might otherwise be occupied by Carlson. A productive Carlson would mean less need for defensive replacements and more opportunities for an offense-first player like Yepez.
Of course Yepez, a right-handed slugger, would find himself on a roster that includes some of the best hitters in the big leagues against lefties this season. With a productive Albert Pujols running down history as a DH, Yepez might slot in as a right fielder.
But that’s a position the Cardinals would be more comfortable with if they were similarly comfortable with Carlson manning center. Therein lies the rub.
Relying on the hot hand
Any path to a championship for the Cardinals will run through some combination of the Braves, Dodgers and Mets. Each of those teams features some of the toughest righty starters in the game — Spencer Strider and Kyle Wright for Atlanta, Tony Gonsolin for the Dodgers and Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer for the Mets. In a short series, opportunities for those starters could grind an uneasy offense into the ground.
That uncertainty is a large part of why Marmol has been willing — eager, truly — to lean heavily on the hot hand. By waiting out early season swoons for both Dickerson and Nootbaar, the Cardinals have managed to cobble together production that a less patient or less flexible organization may have denied.
Measuring that staying power against some of the worst teams in baseball, as the Cardinals will do this month, will be difficult. Winning in the playoffs without hitting righties will be impossible. Carlson and Gorman, among others, will have to rise for this team to meet its fullest potential.
A haircut isn’t a terrible place to start.