Cards 'hungry' to prove offense can be elite

February 1st, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

From July of the disappointing 2023 season to the start of February and Spring Training now clearly in sight, the Cardinals’ mantra has been mostly one confident chorus: Fix the starting pitching and fortify the bullpen, and they will be back in the playoffs in 2024.

Not long after president of baseball operations John Mozeliak delivered his “pitching, pitching, pitching” singsong as his stated focus for the offseason, the Cards backed up those desires with actions by landing free agents Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. Next, they turned to the bullpen and used a variety of channels to add hard-throwing right-handers Andrew Kittredge, Nick Robertson, Riley O’Brien and Ryan Fernandez.

Yes, the pitching is improved, but one question persists: Just how confident can the Redbirds be about an offense that fell off dramatically last season, showed cracks and unsightly age spots in key areas and analytically isn’t projected to light up scoreboards this season? Yes, the Cardinals ranked fifth in the National League in home runs (209) and sixth in slugging (.416) and OPS (.742), but they dipped to a troubling 10th in runs scored (719) in 2023.

In their 71 wins, the Cardinals hit .287 and averaged 6.6 runs per game. However, in their 91 losses, they mustered just a .220 batting average and scored only 2.8 runs. Incredibly, they scored just one run or were shut out 30 times last season. In the offense’s defense, the Cardinals were often facing early deficits and had their will broken by the pitching struggles.

The most noticeable drop-offs came from 2022 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and ‘22 third-place MVP finisher Nolan Arenado, who saw their combined average (.305 to .267), on-base percentage (.381 to .339), slugging (.555 to .453) and WAR (14.2 to 6.3, per FanGraphs) plummet. A bit of regression was expected for Goldschmidt, who at 36 is working to try to slow the effects of Father Time. As for Arenado, who played through back pain for much of 2023, he’s already conveyed to his teammates how fired up he is for 2024.

Said Lars Nootbaar, Arenado’s close friend and offseason workout partner: “He’s excited. A motivated Nolan is a scary Nolan, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

To improve their entire offense, the Cardinals are also banking on sizable jumps from potential stars Jordan Walker and Nootbaar, full seasons of health from Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Tommy Edman and a complete year of comfort from catcher Willson Contreras. After weathering a tumultuous first half of his first season with the Cards, Contreras had MLB’s second-best OPS (1.059) and its second-best on-base percentage (.440) from July 1 on. Rookie shortstop Masyn Winn, who has a history of slow starts followed by long stretches of dazzling play, can also bring some much-needed energy and athleticism to the group.

Add it all up and manager Oliver Marmol thinks there is potential for massive growth from Cards hitters who were too often plagued by prolonged slumps and dodgy health in 2023.

“That’s what you’re counting on -- another year of experience,” Marmol said, referring to the team’s bevy of young players in key spots. “Nootbaar understands himself even more now, Gorman understands himself better and he’s made adjustments. You’re going to have a healthy Donovan and a healthy [Edman].

“When you look at that lineup, you can get excited about it. Yes, we were a top-10 offense [in 2023], but I think we can be a top-five offense. This is a group that is hungry.”

Will the offense be consistent and potent enough to overcome some of the flaws that still exist with the aging starting staff? In FanGraphs’ 2024 projections, no Cardinal ranks in the top 27 MLB players in wRC+. Contreras (126 wRC+) is projected as the team leader, while Nootbaar and Donovan are expected to improve to 113 wRC+ -- the same as the soon-to-be 33-year-old Arenado and not far behind Goldschmidt at 123.

FanGraphs is also projecting the Cardinals to win 83 games -- good enough for fifth in the rugged NL, but first in the pedestrian NL Central ahead of the Brewers (81), Cubs (81), Reds (79) and Pirates (77). Keep in mind that FanGraphs projected the Redbirds to win 88 games in 2023 and we all know how that turned out.

Their pitching figures to be improved in 2024, but if the Cardinals are truly going to pull off a worst-to-first run in the NL Central and return to playoff baseball in October, they are going to need their offense to be much more consistent and potent.