It’s a funny tradition in March–we know all about the obvious, huge names, ones which if omitted from the final slate would cause riots, but instead we fixate on the fringes. We concern ourselves with the final cuts and we talk ourselves into the significance of the mediocre, but when it comes down to it, we know it’s going to be the aforementioned big names that define how things go. But enough about the NCAA Division I basketball tournaments–let’s talk Opening Day roster, or more specifically, my dream Opening Day roster. This is what I want, not what I expect, though the overlap between the two is unsurprisingly quite substantial.

Most of the 26 players on the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster are, barring injury, reasonably well-known. But those players still do play a factor–if a safe player is, say, a defensive liability, or has limited pitching stamina, it may impact which other players should fit the roster. Which is why I will spend some time dissecting every player on my dream 26-player roster. Note: I am trying to get in the habit of calling it a “26 player roster” because literally one time, I heard somebody make the case that it would be optimal to call it a 26 player roster rather than a 26-man roster because “26-man” excludes women and non-binary people, and while the rosters of MLB teams at this point do not currently consist of any women nor openly non-binary people, it seems silly to exclude them with our language, so I’m trying to make a habit of calling it a 26-person roster more often. I will fail regularly, and I don’t think anyone sticking with “man” is in any way a bigot or trying to make any broader point than using the common and official terminology. It’s just something I’m doing that I assume most people reading will not care about either way, and for whatever slim majority is truly offended by it, there’s plenty of other blogs that can act as a safe space for you and I wish you well.

Let’s unveil that Cardinals roster, starting with the starting eight defensive players–the designated hitter discussion will unfold when discussing the bench.

Catcher–Willson Contreras: I do think the guy on a fresh five-year, $87.5 million contract should have the inside lane, yes. While I doubt Contreras is an iron man on par with prime Yadier Molina, the reformed Chicago Cub should certainly play the bulk of the Cardinals’ games behind the plate.

First Base–Paul Goldschmidt: While it would be a tremendous troll to try to justify benching the defending National League MVP over his playoff struggles, I’m going to go ahead and say he should probably play a bunch on the 2023 Cardinals. I don’t expect Paul Goldschmidt to be his MVP level again, but I also would be astonished over any circumstances where his regular presence in the lineup is sincerely questioned.

Second Base–Brendan Donovan: I’ve been lukewarm on Brendan Donovan, but when a guy coming off a 4.2 Wins Above Replacement rookie season is absolutely terrorizing Grapefruit League pitching, with a 1.030 OPS and four home runs in 34 plate appearances (he had five in 468 plate appearances in MLB last season), it’s hard not to find a spot for him. Unlike Contreras and Goldschmidt, who I suspect will only play their regular positions along with occasional DH days throughout the season, Brendan Donovan will likely rotate around the field, not unlike Tommy Edman in previous seasons, but most of the games ought to be at second base.

Third Base–Nolan Arenado: While it would be a tremendous troll to try to justify benching the defending National League MVP finalist over his playoff struggles, I’m going to go ahead and say he should probably play a bunch on the 2023 Cardinals. I don’t expect Nolan Arenado to be his MVP-caliber level again, but I also would be astonished over any circumstances where his regular presence in the lineup is sincerely questioned.

Shortstop–Tommy Edman: Ultimately, Edman’s spot in the lineup ought not to be questioned–he was a 6+ WAR player last season and has been a 5+ WAR player per 162 games over his career. He is a legitimate star player–a good hitter and a great hitter and base runner. The only question would be if Edman would play at second base or shortstop, and while Paul DeJong has been pretty good at the plate in Spring Training, he hasn’t done enough to wrestle away a regular starting spot away from Brendan Donovan. So Edman ends up at short.

Left Field–Tyler O’Neill: I won’t lie–his Spring struggles do have me at least somewhat worried. But even in what was considered a down season for the 2021 MVP contender, O’Neill was still an above-average hitter with enough defensive value to be seriously considered for the center field job. I almost switched around my starting outfield to put O’Neill, who is play in center for the Canadian World Baseball Classic team, in the middle, but ultimately decided to err on the side of familiarity.

Center Field–Dylan Carlson: Carlson, who was a league-average hitter last season who received a defensive spectrum promotion in the middle of the season, is a cautionary tale about prospect hype–he’s been a perfectly good player but because he was a top-ten prospect, he is widely seen as disappointing. But while there is a deep enough roster of potential outfielders that the Cardinals need not tolerate with any major struggles from Dylan Carlson, I believe he has at least earned the right to play until those struggles manifest.

Right Field–Lars Nootbaar: The more I see what a magnetic superstar Nootbaar has become on the team that has Shohei Ohtani on it in the World Baseball Classic, the more I understand why the Cardinals organization believes Lars Nootbaar is the truly indispensable one in the outfield. I still have more questions about Lars Nootbaar, but for the time being, I definitely want him playing regularly.

And now, we move to the bench.

Catcher–Andrew Knizner: I remain skeptical about Andrew Knizner, and nothing that has happened so far has challenged my belief that the second-best catcher in the Cardinals organization is Iván Herrera. But Herrera is also 22 years old and having him languish on the bench wouldn’t do much good for him anyway. Knizner, for better or worse, is what he is, and early on in the season especially, when there should be a ton of Willson Contreras in the starting lineup, I’d rather not waste Herrera’s development time.

Second Base/Designated Hitter–Nolan Gorman: He still strikes out too much and he still isn’t a great defender, but Gorman might still have the most raw power on the team. On the fairly regular occasions where Brendan Donovan is rotating elsewhere on the field, gravitating towards the guy who hit 14 home runs and was a plus hitter in 313 MLB plate appearances isn’t a bad choice! And as a lefty competing largely with righties for plate appearances, he could be an impressive DH candidate as well.

Shortstop–Paul DeJong: Go ahead, throw your tomatoes at me, I have a killer salsa recipe and I will use them all! This will almost certainly be Paul DeJong’s final season as a Cardinal, once the team option phase of his contract kicks in, and while his contract may not be in line with his inevitable role, the Cardinals owe him the money anyway so they might as well take advantage of what Paul DeJong can do–play shortstop. The gap between Tommy Edman/Paul DeJong and the next shortstop candidate outside of Masyn Winn, who very much could use plate appearances with the Memphis Redbirds before he is seriously considered for MLB playing time, in the Cardinals organization is enormous. When Donovan is unavailable for the middle infield, I want Gorman/Edman, but I acknowledge their defensive limitation–Edman/DeJong is far safer in late innings. I mean, DeJong has so much defensive value that he was an above Replacement Level player in 2022 despite a ghastly 53 OPS+.

Outfield/First Base/Designated Hitter–Juan Yepez: Admittedly, Juan Yepez is probably my personal favorite player on this team, so I’m a little biased, but on pure merit, it’s hard to argue against him as a member of this team. Yepez has defensive flexibility, even if he isn’t anyone’s idea of a premium defender (I did not list third base here because I simply cannot imagine a scenario with my group of players where he would ever play third base), and he was a terrific hitter in 2022–he demonstrated big-league power and projects by ZiPS to be the best hitter on the Cardinals not named Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado.

Outfield/Third Base/Designated Hitter–Jordan Walker: I go back and forth on Walker, and I’ve made it clear that I think the arguments against Jordan Walker making the team out of Spring Training are perfectly valid baseball-related ones. But I also think that if the Cardinals believe Jordan Walker is sincerely a good enough hitter to play on most days, they should go with it. He’s probably a bit raw defensively, but on pure athleticism he probably already grades out ahead of Juan Yepez, and in addition to spotting the starting outfield and Nolan Arenado from time to time, he seems to have the bat to handle designated hitter while he gets his bearings in the field. I wouldn’t oppose it being Alec Burleson or even Moisés Gómez in this spot, but for now, I’d lean towards Jordan Walker.

I roughly imagine the following starting lineup, with a primary backup in parentheses.

Catcher: Willson Contreras (Andrew Knizner)

First Base: Paul Goldschmidt (Juan Yepez)

Second Base: Brendan Donovan (Nolan Gorman)

Third Base: Nolan Arenado (Jordan Walker)

Shortstop: Tommy Edman (Paul DeJong)

Left Field: Tyler O’Neill (Jordan Walker)

Center Field: Dylan Carlson (Tyler O’Neill)

Right Field: Lars Nootbaar (Jordan Walker)

Designated Hitter: Jordan Walker (Nolan Gorman/Juan Yepez)

Now let’s talk about the starting rotation. I’ll rank in order of most to least confident should be in the rotation–I absolutely refuse to care about the order in which they start the season pitching.

Starting Pitcher–Jordan Montgomery: I think the stretch of Jordan Montgomery being awesome last year for the Cardinals is the strongest stretch I’ve seen from any Cardinals starting pitching candidate other than Jack Flaherty in late 2019, and that includes Adam Wainwright. Please do not fact check me on this. Anyway, even with his struggles in September, I still think Jordan Montgomery is at the bare minimum a #3-type starter, which…isn’t ideal for the guy I have the most confidence in, but I still want him on my team.

Starting Pitcher–Miles Mikolas: He had a 3.29 ERA last year, pitched over 200 innings, had perfectly competent peripherals and was really good in his postseason start for the Cardinals last season. I’m probably underrating Miles Mikolas just broadly, but even so, he clearly belongs in the 2023 Cardinals’ rotation.

Starting Pitcher–Jack Flaherty: A popular thing among those who do not believe in Jack Flaherty is to claim that his second half of 2019 was an aberration, a stance with which I don’t even necessarily disagree. Since 2020, Jack Flaherty has pitched 154 2/3 innings with a 3.90 ERA. Is this great? No, it sure isn’t. But it’s fine! Flaherty has a ton of upside, but even his downside when healthy appears to be “MLB-quality pitcher”.

Starting Pitcher–Adam Wainwright: Am I worried about Adam Wainwright, that all of the fears I had for Albert Pujols entering 2022 will manifest in the form of Adam Wainwright’s swan song? You bet I am. But I don’t care if he can’t throw the ball all the way to home plate–I’m not the second-greatest pitcher in franchise history, coming off yet another strong year, not get a chance to prove me wrong. He’s going to start Opening Day, which probably isn’t the “correct” move but is the deserved one.

Starting Pitcher–Steven Matz: Year One of the Steven Matz contract was not particularly inspiring, but I’m also not quite ready to relegate him to bullpen duty (though he looked quite good in the role last year!). Despite his awful 2022 ERA, his peripherals were decent, including a downright good 3.15 xFIP. Ultimately, the problem with the Cardinals’ rotation is a lack of front-line talent, not a lack of depth. They’re swimming in depth.

Closer–Ryan Helsley: While it would be a tremendous troll to try to justify relegating the defending National League Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year finalist over his playoff struggles, I’m going to go ahead and say he should probably close a bunch on the 2023 Cardinals. I don’t expect Ryan Helsley to be his Hoffman-caliber level again, but I also would be astonished over any circumstances where his regular presence in the bullpen is sincerely questioned.

Reliever–Giovanny Gallegos: Unless the pitch clock really gets to him, Gallegos is a safe bet for high-leverage Cardinals innings. Gallegos had a perfectly nice 2022; he was the expected closer heir apparent, but it’s more that Ryan Helsley earned the role than that Giovanny Gallegos lost it.

Reliever–Andre Pallante: I keep forgetting how good Andre Pallante was last year. He probably won’t pitch into the super high leverage roles, but he sported a 3.17 ERA in a season spent primarily in the bullpen but with ten starts, making Pallante an underrated candidate for spot starts. Pallante isn’t as exciting as some of the other guys due to his relatively low strikeout rates, but his dazzling competence matters for the Cardinals.

Reliever–Jordan Hicks: Unlike Pallante, I don’t think the Jordan Hicks Starter Experiment is going to resume in any way beyond maybe as an opener. I remain terrified of Jordan’s lack of control, but it’s hard to imagine the pending free agent with a 105 mile-per-hour fastball not at least getting a chance to figure things out in 2023.

Reliever–Chris Stratton: Did you know Chris Stratton was third among current St. Louis Cardinals pitchers in wins last season? Miles Mikolas got 12, Adam Wainwright had 11, and somehow, Chris Stratton won ten, including five with the Cardinals! That’s so weird! Anyway, his win total very much does not matter, but as a Cardinal, Stratton had a sub-3 ERA and FIP last season. I’m not sure how much I believe in him but the veteran has earned the chance to begin the season in St. Louis with a chance to prove his worth.

Reliever–Génesis Cabrera: The arbitration-stage lefty is my top lefty for the bullpen thanks to his strong 2020 and his solid 2021–his 2022 admittedly left a lot to be desired. But I also just have a really hard time believing that a guy who struck out 10.2 batters per nine fell all the way down to 6.4 as a reflection of his true talent. He does still have one option year left, but I’d rather avoid burning it if he is able to figure things out relatively quickly.

Reliever–Zack Thompson: The more exciting lefty on my roster is Zack Thompson, with the primary argument against him being that this would keep him from being able to stretch out in the minors. But I’d prefer Matthew Liberatore in that role and can see Thompson as a legitimate bullpen star if he maintains his 2022 success–in 34 2/3 innings, Thompson had a 2.08 ERA and while his FIP suggests that Thompson got lucky, it was still sub-4. Thompson still has two option years remaining and I’m not afraid to use one, but I’m also happy to let Zack Thompson cook.

Reliever–Jake Woodford: Ultimately it came down to Woodford or Drew VerHagen, the former having just one option year left and the latter having zero. I don’t like the idea of just losing Drew VerHagen, despite his awful 6+ ERA and FIP last season, but I also don’t see him being claimed. Woodford, on the other hand, had good results last year–a 2.23 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 48 1/3 innings. Look, do I think his 0.19 HR/9 rate and a 4.47 K/9 rate are sustainable for big-league success? I do not–I think Woodford is basically Dakota Hudson. But Hudson has three option years left and I’d rather see what the Cardinals can figure out with him in Memphis. The same goes for Matthew Liberatore, about whom I am more optimistic in the long term but who could still use some seasoning. Thus I go with Woodford.

Do you disagree with my picks for the roster? Go ahead and post them in the comments section–I may or may not read them, I don’t know.

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