At the height of the service time manipulation boom, during which baseball teams brazenly refused to promote top prospects until the precise moment at which the team could delay his free agency eligibility by a season, a running joke, derived from reasons actually cited by various teams, was that any super-prospect who did not make the Major League team coming out of Spring Training was “working on his defense”, and then magically, a few weeks later, his defense was considered strong enough, serendipitously right after he passed the point at which another year of arbitration was accrued. Probably the most infamous example came when former Chicago Cubs super-prospect Kris Bryant was promoted just a couple weeks into the 2015 season, was awesome, and then filed a grievance arguing that the Cubs had intentionally kept him in the minors as a way to avoid paying him; while doing so purposefully is against the rules of baseball, and this was almost certainly the Cubs’ intent, it is a nearly impossible thing to prove, so the grievance was unsuccessful.

When it comes to Jordan Walker, however, the St. Louis Cardinals have plausible deniability for days. Although Jordan Walker is one of the most acclaimed prospects in the sport (though, even though ranking #4 in MLB is undeniably promising, it does put him marginally below where Bryant was), he is a fair amount younger than Bryant–the Cub, who attended the University of San Diego before being drafted #2 overall by the North Siders, was 23 years and 103 days old when he made his MLB debut, and Jordan Walker will be just 20 years and 312 days old on Opening Day 2023. And while Kris Bryant was drafted as a third baseman and logged 1,585 innings at the position prior to his MLB promotion (he spent zero innings playing at any other spot on the field), Jordan Walker, particularly post-Nolan Arenado non-opt out, is being somewhat abruptly shuttled from his draft position, third base, to a corner outfield spot–he has played 249 innings of meaningful outfield since he left high school. And unlike Kris Bryant, who played 77 games with the AAA Iowa Cubs prior to his promotion to the bright-if-tardy lights of Wrigley Field, Jordan Walker has never spent one second of time at the AAA level.

None of this means that Jordan Walker is inherently unworthy of a promotion to the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day–Albert Pujols, after all, spent just three games in AAA before making the 2001 Opening Day roster, and as a far less acclaimed prospect then than Walker is now. But the decision about whether or not the latest Next Great Cardinal should begin 2023 in the minor leagues is not simply a matter of the will of the Cardinals organization. This isn’t the 2015 Cubs opening up the season with Mike Olt in lieu of Kris Bryant–there is legitimately a chance that Jordan Walker is not as strong of an option as a corner outfielder as some of the other internal choices. Of course, there is also a legitimate chance Jordan Walker is already a better option than any of them, but if Jordan Walker were to be relegated to bench duty, letting him ride the pine rather than taking at-bats with Memphis would be rather wasteful.

Projections are of greatly diminished value when they are addressing players who have never played in Major League Baseball, much less AAA, but they are also not completely irrelevant, and Jordan Walker, by ZiPS, is hardly viewed as an immediate superstar. The system projects six potential Cardinals outfielders/part-time outfielders–Alec Burleson, Dylan Carlson, Brendan Donovan, Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill, and Juan Yepez–as above-average hitters in 2023, but estimates Jordan Walker at a 94 wRC+. This may teeter on heresy for those who have gawked at his Spring Training highlights, but Spring Training box scores are filled with players who, not unlike Walker, are not parts of 40-man rosters, and many of the pitchers he has faced have been of AAA or lower quality.

The temptation to extract inevitable excellence from Jordan Walker’s prospect credentials is certainly high, but it was just three short years ago that Dylan Carlson, a lifelong outfielder, was hyped as a consensus top 10-20 prospect. And while Carlson has had a decent career so far, he has been just slightly above-average at the plate throughout his career, and in 119 plate appearances in his first season in 2020, he sported a wRC+ of just 66. None of this is to say that Carlson didn’t improve, nor that he will improve throughout his career, but it, like Oscar Taveras six years earlier, demonstrates that growing pains are common when young players reach the big leagues. And while the outfield is a more promising path to the Majors for Walker than third base, this is not necessarily an organization starving for outfielders–in addition to the incumbent options of O’Neill, Carlson, and Nootbaar, plus utility player Brendan Donovan, there is a case that the two players battling for a roster spot not accounting for Jordan Walker are Alec Burleson, who himself is a (lower) top 100 MLB prospect, and Juan Yepez, who was firmly above-average in 274 plate appearances in 2022 and delivered the only true offensive jolt for the Cardinals in the 2022 postseason.

To this point, this post seems like it is leaning in the direction of “Jordan Walker shouldn’t be on the Opening Day roster”, but this really isn’t necessarily my stance on the matter–it’s just to establish that said position is not inherently the domain of 2015 Cubs-esque penny-pinching Bill DeWitt Jr. apologists. The case for Jordan Walker is simply one of upside–this is a Cardinals team that seems dead set on the same end result as last season–to be the worst of the National League’s division winners and host what is effectively a coin flip best-of-three series against a team that, as last year demonstrated, is still perfectly capable of making a run to the World Series (as it stands now, FanGraphs projects the NL’s third Wild Card to be the same Philadelphia Phillies team which toppled the Cardinals last season).

For a taste of Jordan Walker’s prospect status, here are the players who occupied Walker’s current prospect ranking at the beginning of the 2022 season, per Baseball America, Major League Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus–Riley Greene, Grayson Rodriguez, and Adley Rutschman–a guy who played quite well as a rookie, a TBD, and a guy who had a legitimate Rookie of the Year case last year, respectively. Jordan Walker occupies similar prospect territory to Julio Rodríguez, who like Walker was entering his age-21 season having never played above AAA, and who went on to put up 6.2 Wins Above Replacement and win American League Rookie of the Year–while it is unlikely that Walker can touch the defensive value of the center fielder Rodríguez, matching his wRC+ of 146 would make him the production equivalent of 2013 Matt Carpenter.

Bringing Jordan Walker to St. Louis for Opening Day seems like the slam-dunk move that the fans want, but ultimately fans will only continue to want it if he produces. By all accounts, he has a terrific head on his shoulders and should handle the pressure as well as anybody his age could, but wondering if he can go from a primary third baseman with a .898 OPS in Springfield to a star outfielder in St. Louis is a fair concern. I suspect that, whether it is later this month or later this year, Jordan Walker will play for the St. Louis Cardinals at some point in 2023–injuries, prolonged slumps, and maybe even trades to bolster areas of weakness a la the Harrison Bader for Jordan Montgomery trade of 2022 happen–but if the Cardinals decide they want to break camp with Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar as the everyday outfield with the likes of Juan Yepez, Alec Burleson, and Brendan Donovan spending time in the outfield and rotating a designated hitter for de facto off-days, I can’t really argue against that. The popular whipping boy among Cardinals position players is Paul DeJong, but ultimately, he is irrelevant in the Jordan Walker discussion, unless somebody believes Walker can handle the middle infield on a semi-regular basis. Walker would be supplanting somebody who seems to be a solid Major League player–maybe he should, but it is hardly an obvious decision.

One thought on “Should Jordan Walker start the 2023 season in St. Louis?

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