Here is my initial take on the St. Louis Cardinals’ signing of veteran outfielder Corey Dickerson to a one-year, $5 million-plus-incentives contract: Sure.
It’s a boring signing, which does not make it a bad signing. Corey Dickerson has bounced around, with the Cardinals being the seventh MLB team for the 32 year-old. He was an All-Star in 2017 and a Gold Glove winner in 2018, but like most players who bounce around that often, he is wholly uninteresting. He has been a good enough player for teams to keep wanting him but not a good enough player for teams to want to commit to him.
No matter your thoughts on Corey Dickerson as a player, one thing seems quite apparent–he was not brought in to replace one of the incumbent Cardinals outfielders. In his rookie season, Dylan Carlson was worth 2.8 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, lowest among the team’s three starting outfielders but equaling the career high of Dickerson. Unsurprisingly, the aging Dickerson projects to be a definitively worse player in 2022 than any of Carlson, Harrison Bader, or Tyler O’Neill. But where Dickerson’s role really becomes a reasonable question is as a bench player.
Before the Dickerson signing, I would have said that the four most likely players on the Cardinals’ bench (assuming that the team does not have a committed, everyday designated hitter) to begin 2022 were, in order, Edmundo Sosa (presuming that Paul DeJong remains the starting shortstop–if Sosa got the nod, DeJong becomes the most likely bench player), Andrew Knizner, Lars Nootbaar, and Juan Yepez. The Cardinals could easily slot Corey Dickerson into a fifth bench role and enter the 2022 season with a thirteen position player rotation–according to the MLB rule that I most frequently inexplicably forget, MLB teams cannot have more than 13 pitchers, and while the Cardinals could have 14 position players, this isn’t especially likely. But Dickerson creates a slight redundancy, a slight excess that is not a bad thing but is arguably inefficient.
The Dickerson signing has virtually no impact on Sosa nor Knizner–Dickerson has appeared in 937 career MLB games, 719 as a fielder, and none at a defensive position other than outfielder. It could have an impact on Yepez if the Cardinals view Dickerson as an everyday designated hitter, but since Yepez projects as the superior hitter anyway and bats right-handed while Dickerson is a lefty, there would still be a fair amount of opportunity available for Yepez as a pinch-hitter/platoon DH.
But like Corey Dickerson, Lars Nootbaar is a left-handed batter with some history of playing in center field but who is more suited to a corner. Neither projects to be much of a power hitter but both project to be somewhere in the neighborhood of average at the plate–ZiPS tabs both somewhat pessimistically (relative to other systems) at a 92 wRC+, Dickerson holds slight edges by ATC and Derek Carty’s THE BAT systems, while Nootbaar leads by Steamer. If you were building a baseball team from scratch, you would probably prefer to replace one of these guys with a strong defensive center fielder, or a power hitter, or a righty.
Your personal preference may depend on your risk profile–Corey Dickerson, with 3,489 plate appearances and coming off an exactly average 100 wRC+ in 2021, seems pretty safe to be okay but pretty unlikely to turn into a star. Lars Nootbaar, however, only has 124 plate appearances in his MLB career. He’s more likely than Dickerson to flounder, but he is also more likely to establish himself as a straight up force with which to be reckoned next season.
Lars Nootbaar became a bit of a cult hero the day he was drafted, and it hardly seems worth pretending this was based on anything other than his name. He furthered his legend when promoted to the big leagues in 2021. Name aside, Nootbaar isn’t exactly a guy who screams “cult hero”–as a jack of all trades type without any exceptional skills but competence across the board, he’s closer to, like, a latter-day Jon Jay. This isn’t an insult of the man nor those who worship at his altar–I am somebody who loved Jon Jay like he was family despite all logic telling me he was a super fungible MLB outfielder. But it’s a practical assessment of the guy.
In Nootbaar’s previous minor league season, 2019, he was a pretty good A-ball hitter, an okay high-A hitter, and an even okay-er AA hitter. In 387 plate appearances across the levels, he hit seven home runs and had a .712 OPS. All of which is…fine? In his 136 AAA plate appearances in 2021, Nootbaar was a legitimate offensive powerhouse, with a 140 wRC+, though he also was helped at least in part by a .349 batting average on balls in play. He didn’t have crazy BABIP luck in the Majors, but he also didn’t have production quite in line with his folklore–124 plate appearances, five home runs, a perfectly cromulent 101 wRC+ but with an xwOBA, a metric which indicates a player’s expected offensive production based on how hard he hit the ball, 31 points lower than his wOBA, suggesting that he did get a bit lucky once you dig past his BABIP.
I don’t mean any of this as an insult of Nootbaar, a guy who I was perfectly happy twenty hours ago being the Cardinals’ lone backup outfielder and about whom I’ve waxed poetic in the past. But honestly, it doesn’t matter at this point whether you prefer Dickerson or Nootbaar–the five million dollars the Cardinals are guaranteeing Dickerson suggests that, barring a very early total flameout, they have made their choice. So what do you do with Nootbaar? Is he a player who has performed so well in the big leagues that he cannot reasonably go to the minors, or so well in the minor leagues that he has nothing left to prove? I would argue no, and I would argue that a twenty-four year-old with 124 plate appearances in AAA is not above further seasoning if the situation dictates it.
But then there’s also that the Cardinals have a starting outfield of a twenty-six, twenty-seven, and twenty-three year-old. None of them will become a free agent for a full two seasons. It’s not as though there is a declining player that Nootbaar will imminently be replacing in the starting outfield, and it’s not as though he has proven himself as a potent enough bat to sustain himself as an everyday, inarguable designated hitter. And given that Nootbaar, in his first looks at high level baseball, did perform reasonably well, and that Nootbaar will be making the league minimum salary until 2025, this is a guy with potential value to a team with fewer viable outfielders.
As was addressed here on Wednesday, the Cardinals could really use a starting pitcher. That the Oakland Athletics acquired Cristian Pache and Shea Langeliers, MLB-ready (or experienced, in Pache’s case) prospects, in their sale of Matt Olson suggests that they are not necessarily looking for low-floor, high-ceiling low-level minor leaguers but would enjoy guys who may not become superstars but could seemingly be serviceable MLB players, a description which fits Lars Nootbaar to the letter. Nootbaar almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to acquire Frankie Montas alone (but nobody is saying you can’t start with that), but he could be an interesting starting point. And frankly, Lars Nootbaar should be thrilled with the prospect of being traded to Oakland–a California kid who would be perpetually at risk of being demoted to AAA in St. Louis instead gets a legitimate chance to compete for playing time? And if you think Nootbaar is a cult hero in St. Louis, are you telling me the ultra-hyped bleacher bums of Oakland wouldn’t embrace him?
The Cardinals have an unfortunate pattern of selling low on players, waiting until someone is at the nadir of his value and then getting something minimal in return. In a world where Nootbaar spends 2022 atrophying on the Cardinals bench, it’s hard to imagine that his value wouldn’t decline. As for the final bench spot, there is a seemingly endless supply of guys half-a-notch beneath Corey Dickerson who could fit the bill at a low, low price, low enough that the Cardinals could reasonably cut in case they’ve decided Nolan Gorman
had his service time sufficiently manipulated is properly seasoned for MLB duty.