After entering 2022 with already-high prospect expectations, St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer Nolan Gorman is crushing baseballs at alarming rates. In 95 plate appearances with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, Gorman has 11 home runs and a 1.067 OPS. A third baseman by trade, Gorman has played exclusively at second base this season while in the field, though it is primarily his bat that has the Cardinals excited.
That Cardinals fans have been disappointed by the team’s feast-or-famine offense so far in 2022 is not particularly noteworthy–this is a thing that every fan of every team in the history of baseball feels, that their team is somehow uniquely inconsistent on offense, when in reality inconsistency is simply the natural state of being in baseball. But it is also fair to note that there are some fairly obvious holes in the current Cardinals lineup. While one should keep their expectations for a 21 year-old in check, it is not unreasonable to believe that the lefty Gorman is among the best, conservatively, half-dozen hitters against right-handed pitching in the Cardinals organization.
The problem for Nolan Gorman, of course, is that the two positions where he has played the overwhelming majority of his professional baseball career–second and third base–are the two least up for grabs on the Cardinals at the moment. After a very good but relatively subdued debut season in St. Louis, Nolan Arenado is playing like a legitimate MVP candidate in 2022, and Tommy Edman, a defensive wiz whose offense has been merely passable since his breakthrough rookie season in 2019, has been the team’s second-best hitter in 2022. Even local fans, the demographic across the board in every sport with every team most likely to substantially overrate their own prospects, can easily concede that neither Arenado nor Edman should be regularly benched in favor of Gorman. But if Nolan Gorman is truly as prodigious of a hitter as his early returns have indicated, then he is the kind of player that one makes room for.
The most frequently cited solution in recent days is one which kills two birds with one stone–shift Tommy Edman to shortstop, let Nolan Gorman play second base, and sit Paul DeJong, who has been a disaster offensively in 2022, on the bench (some go further in their distaste with DeJong, but let’s just start here). Offensively, it’s hard to imagine that this would not make the Cardinals better–although DeJong has exhibited competent offensive numbers in the past, his current .444 OPS and 31 wRC+ have made 2013 Pete Kozma looks like 2002 Álex Rodríguez. Even with DeJong’s defensive metrics still reasonably intact, he is now flirting with Replacement Level, and although his advanced batted ball data suggests he has gotten a bit unlucky, even a luck adjustment would put him somewhere around the Kozma zone. Because he has always been prone to some ugly strikeouts, DeJong has always had some strident critics, even when he was by WAR the second most valuable player on the 2019 NL Central championship team, and my compulsive need to counterbalance that criticism has made me probably slower than I should be to jump off the bandwagon, but it’s looking brutal–I haven’t given up to a point of wanting to cut the guy, but it’s hard to deny the signs of decline.
But the problem with the Gorman-Edman middle infield solution is that it makes the infield defensive substantially worse at two positions. Nolan Gorman’s move to second base should be viewed as analogous to Matt Carpenter’s in 2013–it’s strictly as a way to get him into the lineup with the hopes that he will be merely passable out there. I would have far more trust in Gorman at second base on an infield with three other Gold Glove-caliber fielders, but is Tommy Edman a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop? There isn’t a ton of evidence to back it up–he only started in three games at the position last season, and while his statistics at shortstop have actually been pretty good, this is over 122 total MLB innings. In a world where the Philadelphia Phillies exist, I am not so naive as to believe that sacrificing defense for offense cannot or should not be done, but the Cardinals are also, quite transparently, built around having a strong infield defense. It was the rationale for signing Steven Matz and nobody else for the starting rotation and for putting all of their eggs in the Dakota Hudson basket.
Nolan Gorman, of course, could also play designated hitter, and given how the Cardinals’ primary DH against righties has played this year, this should sound quite appealing, as Corey Dickerson has somehow been a worse hitter than Paul DeJong this year. Dickerson has exhibited almost no power–he has a grand total of one non-single hit this year (a double)–and although he is competent enough defensively that he could theoretically be a fourth outfielder, this just makes him miscast as an everyday DH. Even knowing that a learning curve is likely for Gorman in the Majors, I would be astonished if he isn’t already a better hitter than Corey Dickerson. But do they want to keep Gorman out of the field, or do the Cardinals hope to give him some more reps defensively so that he is not relegated to full-time designated hitter status before his time? It’s a reasonable concern if the Cardinals are hoping to maximize Gorman’s potential long-term value.
In 2019 especially, Mike Shildt was much maligned for how frequently he played Tommy Edman in the outfield–it was very obvious that Edman was a defensive wizard in the infield, and while Edman didn’t look bad in right field, he was being deprived of his greatest value. But this was also usually a matter of circumstance–the Cardinals had a dearth of competent outfielders and a miscast Tommy Edman was still helping the team, even if it hurt his Wins Above Replacement on an individual level. But a slightly out-of-left-field (and into right field, I say crashing into a cymbal so hard that my drum kit falls through the floor) solution could be putting Tommy Edman in right field because there is yet another struggling bat out there–Dylan Carlson. And Carlson, with his 61 wRC+ and zero home runs, could be a candidate for re-tooling in Memphis. This would allow Nolan Gorman to play second base alongside Paul DeJong (or eventually Edmundo Sosa, depending on taste), a solid defensive shortstop who can mask Gorman’s defensive deficiencies.
In reality, I don’t love any of these solutions as a long-term fix, but any of them could periodically work, and that’s why I ultimately support promoting Nolan Gorman and, well, just kind of winging it. Framed like this, it sounds like I am being non-committal, which I assume is why the Cardinals won’t do it, but this is a realistic approach in a designated hitter league. The Cardinals clearly want guys to have roles–they entered 2022 with an idea of their eight position players, with possible shortstop flexibility but little else, and then a straight handedness platoon at designated hitter with Corey Dickerson and Albert Pujols. But rotating guys around the field and into the DH slot should be viewed as an advantage which suggests depth and a variety of options. Maybe you can sprinkle in some Gorman-Edman games when one of your less ground ball reliant starters takes the mound and then be ready to substitute Paul DeJong when it becomes advantageous to bring in his glove. Maybe you let Nolan Gorman rip against righties as designated hitter most of the time but also let him take the field to give Nolan Arenado or Tommy Edman a day off. Lineup flexibility is a good thing. The Cardinals should enjoy this.
Maybe the Cardinals are trying to keep from putting Nolan Gorman on the 40-man roster for as long as they can, but he looks fully formed and ready to contribute right away. Forget the ethics of service time manipulation–how certain are you that you’d rather have Nolan Gorman in seven years more than you want a guy that you are reasonably certain, right now, can help your team in a playoff push? If I am the St. Louis Cardinals, I’m cashing out my ticket right now.