It’s rather difficult to analyze the first six games of the St. Louis Cardinals season. Entering the season, I thought the first week was going to be tricky–three games each against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Atlanta Braves, two of the arguably five or so best teams in baseball, is not an easy task. And then they went 2-4 and the sky is falling.

The Cardinals have another tough opponent, though probably a less tough one, this weekend against the Milwaukee Brewers and then a true cupcake in the Colorado Rockies. The Cardinals are on pace to win 54 games–they are probably going to win more than 54 games. And despite this broadly poor pace, there have been some legitimately exciting revelations on the 2023 Cardinals. And Jordan Walker, who has a hit in every game so far, isn’t even one of them! Here are my top five.

#5–Dylan Carlson: Carlson hasn’t been outstanding in 2023–a 133 OPS+ is very good, but hardly the astronomical small sample size heroics one might expect in a post like this. But he has made a couple legitimately breathtaking defensive plays in center field, and his rebound from the ignominy of apparently barely cracking the Opening Day roster has been very promising. Dylan Carlson was inevitably going to get some playing time–the Cardinals’ outfield depth is extremely young, with its oldest member, Tyler O’Neill, residing in the dog house early in the season. But seeing him take advantage of these opportunities has been nice.

#4–Brendan Donovan: Maybe my well-established Donovan skepticism has gotten the best of me, but I just thought Spring Training was a fluke. I figured he would be fine to start the season, but two home runs in the first weekend of the season? Getting punched out on a truly heinous strike three call? Maybe he really is the new Matt Carpenter after all. Just have him take off his batting gloves and make some salsa and let’s find out for sure.

#3–Packy Naughton: As enjoyable as it has been to say his name in a maximally WEEI-caller voice, I can’t say I had sincere hopes for Packy Naughton at all. I was honestly a little bit surprised he even made the roster. But in 4 1/3 innings so far in 2023, he has been terrific. He had a terrific 2 1/3 bullpen-saving close out of a victory last Sunday, striking out two and allowing just one base runner and he struck out two in an inning of work the next day. He was less dominant on Wednesday, but still escaped his inning of work unscathed. Relievers are the most random position in baseball and yet we inevitably believe we understand what guys are. I don’t think I understood what Packy Naughton was.

#2–Nolan Gorman: The thing about being a top prospect is that unless you come up and are instantly Albert Pujols, it will be easy to set you aside and play with the new toy. Nolan Gorman was firmly solid last season–he hit a bunch of home runs and played competent second base defense–but with Jordan Walker arriving to town, Gorman went overlooked. But as designated hitter, he has torn the cover off of baseballs so far in 2023. Forget, if you are somehow able, his two mammoth home runs on Sunday–he has a .588 on-base percentage an a 1.588 OPS if you omit that day from his ledger. I’m not really sure where his future is–I can see worlds where he stays at DH, eventually replaces Paul Goldschmidt at first base, or settles in at second base. But barring an absolute haul, that future is going to be in St. Louis and that rules.

#1–Drew VerHagen: Not since Scott Rolen chose a walk-up song that was literally his phonetic surname (Limp Bizkit’s 2000 classic “Rollin'”) has someone chosen more apropos in-stadium music for himself than Drew VerHagen walking out to Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement”–besides the fact that it’s a really good song (which, no disrespect to a song that like every angsty white suburban sixth grader I enjoyed at the time, cannot be applied to Rolen’s), the lyric “Allow me to reintroduce myself” is particularly resonant for VerHagen. After his awful 2022 with the Cardinals, like most fans of the team, I had soured on Drew VerHagen and figured he only made the team out of Spring Training because the Cardinals did not want to admit their mistake. But his excellence in his three appearances with the 2023 team has made me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about the man (which, to be fair, wasn’t all that much). When he came into the game in a tight spot on Opening Day, I felt sick–he proceeded to escape unscathed and even strike out the previously (and subsequently) unbeatable George Springer. The next game, as the first man out of the pen, he struck out Matt Chapman and Danny Jansen and induced a fairly casual Brandon Belt ground ball. By the next day, I felt disappointed knowing that I likely wouldn’t get a chance to see him pitch in person. But then on April 4, against the Atlanta Braves, he struck out Orlando Arcia and Ronald Acuña Jr. swinging. I assumed entering the season that VerHagen would be gone by June–now I want to re-sign the guy. I’m probably going too far with it, but my expectations were so low that I couldn’t not rank him first.

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