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BenFred: Cardinals’ post-Pujols DH puzzle has intriguing pieces that need to come together

As the Cardinals prepare for their annual Florida migration starting with Monday’s departure of moving trucks crammed full of baseball stuff, I find myself wondering about how one key piece of second-year manager Oli Marmol‘s lineup will return to St. Louis.

Last season, the Cardinals headed to camp pledging to use the designated hitter role to create more opportunities for internal options. They changed that plan on the fly by signing not one but two veteran hitters during spring training. Left-handed hitting Corey Dickerson became a league-average hitter who started slow and was not always healthy. Right-handed hitting Albert Pujols became, well, Albert Pujols.

The Cardinals legend turned into one of the most crucial hitters in the lineup whether he was facing left-handed or right-handed pitchers. He became the engine behind the Cardinals producing from the DH spot an on-base plus slugging percentage of .777, which ranked fourth-highest in the NL. The Cardinals popped an NL-high 29 homers from the DH position. Pujols, who spent more than 70 percent of his at-bats at DH, knocked 13 of those. He was the only Cardinal to appear at DH in the postseason, where he hit second in both Wild Card Series losses. Then Pujols rode off into retirement, toward Cooperstown, leaving the Cardinals to solve their DH riddle all over again.

With Dickerson and Pujols gone, and the only significant offseason addition made by the Cardinals coming in the form of slugging catcher Willson Contreras, the Cardinals are taking a similar stance entering this spring as they did the last one. They’ll figure it out on the fly. The internal options have, hopefully, improved. How Marmol and his staff decide who gets opportunities and when could become one of the more compelling aspects of how this offense does or does not come together.

A look at what we learned about the Cardinals’ handling of the DH last season could offer some hints …

• A chunk of the DH action will go to the Cardinals’ crucial corner infielders. After Pujols, the Cardinal with the most appearances there was National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt. The first baseman slugged .524 in 84 DH at-bats. Third baseman Nolan Arenado, who wound up with the fourth-most DH reps, slugged .518 there. Goldschmidt is entering his age-35 season with Arenado (soon to be 32) not too far behind. Giving both elite defenders some games off their feet defensively is absolutely a part of the DH equation, and it worked well for all parties last season.

• How much Contreras starts behind the plate is a significant factor. The preseason goal discussed between player and team was somewhere around 120 to 140 starts at catcher for Contreras. Contreras has started 120-plus games at catcher just once in his career, back in his age-26 season in 2018. He’s been adamant that he wants to be a full-time catcher, not a designated hitter and occasional catcher. If the plan changes, so does the DH dynamic, leaving questions at catcher in its wake.

The Cardinals' Juan Yepez (36) celebrates his three-run home run against the Miami Marlins on Monday, June 27, 2022, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. 

The Cardinals’ Juan Yepez (36) celebrates his three-run home run against the Miami Marlins on Monday, June 27, 2022, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. 

• Some folks seem to be overlooking and perhaps undervaluing Juan Yepez. You remember him. He’s the guy who smacked the only Cardinals homer this past postseason. Other than Goldschmidt and Arenado, Yepez is the only returning Cardinal who had more than 45 DH at-bats for the Cardinals last season. His 72 DH at-bats produced a .486 slugging percentage. Want to know what the MLB average slugging percentage from the DH spot was last season? It was .397. Good sign for a second-year player. Here’s another one. The right-handed hitting soon-to-be 25-year-old was very productive against right-handed pitching at the MLB level last season. He slugged .460 against righties. If that holds, he’s not a platoon guy. If anything, he could be a reverse-split guy, and the Cardinals face a lot more righties than lefties.

• Nolan Gorman’s power is an X-factor. The bumps in the road of his rookie season have received plenty of attention. Pitchers attacked him and beat him with high heat at and above the top of the strike zone. If he doesn’t get more selective and close that hole in his swing, he’s in trouble. He’s also still 22 years old, and his average of hitting one home run every 20.2 at-bats ranked fourth among all qualified MLB rookies. It’s always best to take projections with a grain of salt, but FanGraphs’ ZiPs system predicts Gorman will lead all Cardinals in homers (29) in 2023. That plays, whether he’s playing second or not.

• Other than getting a sense of what life in the majors looks like, and learning he will need to dial back his aggressive swing a bit, there is not much of a meaningful conclusion to draw from Alec Burleson‘s small sample size last season. Fewer than 50 at-bats while a team is rounding the corner toward the postseason doesn’t tell us much. Burleson is still the same interesting option he was when he was raking in Class AAA last season.

• There has been much fretting about how star prospect Jordan Walker’s in-season switch from infield to outfield could or perhaps should limit his promotion to the majors. The Cardinals have set a pattern that should not be overlooked. If the bat plays and the DH is in play, the defense can be figured out later. Happened with Gorman. Could happen with Walker.

• Last season, I was among those hollering about how the Cardinals needed to add some proven DH thump. They did with Pujols just in time, and it paid bigger dividends than most could have imagined. Pujols isn’t walking through that door now, but the DH puzzle he left behind has pieces that look capable of producing damage. That’s if they come together.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

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