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BenFred: Betting on left-handed hitting youth feels better if Cardinals add free-agent catcher

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Cardinals beat Reds in 11, 1-0

The Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt is mobbed by teammates Andrew Knizner (who scored the winning run), Lars Nootbaar and Nolan Gorman after Goldschmidt reached on a fielder's choice with a throwing error by the Reds' Nick Senzel to end the game in 11 innings on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, the second game of a doubleheader at Busch Stadium.

SAN DIEGO — Well, so much for all of those dots that got connected when social media started buzzing due to a video that showed Cody Bellinger working on his swing at Oklahoma State, the offseason home base of Matt Holliday.

Could the Cardinals Hall of Famer turned Cardinals bench coach have been working with a former National League MVP turned future Cardinal?

Not so fast.

It turned out Holliday, who like Bellinger was repped by super agent Scott Boras, was actually assisting a future rival.


Bellinger on Tuesday, while the Cardinals were still playing catcher waiting games, signed a one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Maybe he turns into a bounce-back star in Chicago, where depending on which reports you believe could be home to a National League Central team that cares about winning again.

Or, maybe the speedy center fielder flops once more, like he did the past two seasons with the Dodgers, while everything from a problematic shoulder to a questioned work ethic was critiqued.

The notion of adding the southpaw swinger on a one-year deal was compelling — until the real price became known.

Boras was aiming for $20 million for the 27-year-old’s prove-it season. No way, some scoffed at the winter meetings, when Boras hopped on his platform to make his annual sales pitch. Hours later, Bellinger came pretty close to Boras’ target. The sound you heard was applause from guys like Matt Carpenter, Michael Brantley, Joey Gallo, Michael Conforto and other members of this offseason’s small and somewhat shaky group of veteran left-handed hitters who could see their next deals positively impacted by Bellinger’s.

No one likes spending the Cardinals’ money more than yours truly. The sooner the Cardinals pull themselves out of the Sean Murphy trade waiting game and cut the winning check for slugging free-agent catcher Willson Contreras, the better, in my opinion. Overspend to get it done if needed. But similar to how I felt about this offseason rush to throw money at “proven” relievers who could fall apart by the All-Star break, I’m starting to cool on the notion the Cardinals absolutely must land a veteran left-handed bat from outside the organization.

Skyrocketing prices are not the sole reason.

It’s not exactly guaranteed the Cardinals, considering the realistic range they would be shopping in for this need, could guarantee more production from an outside addition than what they could produce from within.

“That’s something we are still debating,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Tuesday night.

“Can you go get a left-handed bat?” manager Oli Marmol had said earlier. “Absolutely. That’s part of the conversation, but it’s also, what can we count on with what we have? You have certain guys that can step up into the role.”

After listening to both Tuesday, the Cardinals sound pretty optimistic their young left-handed hitting options have a decent chance of helping even out a lineup that leans right and tends to struggle against right-handed pitching.

There are some reasons to buy what they’re selling, especially when considering the high-priced alternatives.

• Marmol and Mozeliak both mentioned left-handed hitting Lars Nootbaar as an everyday outfielder. Over 290 at-bats last season, the 25-year-old produced an adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (126 OPS+) that was 26 percentage points above league average. “I think he’s emerged,” Mozeliak said. “He’s going to get a lot of at-bats.”

• Marmol reminded left-handed production can be expected from second base, where Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman can share time. Donovan, 25, joined Nootbaar in producing an adjusted OPS that was 26 points above league average. Gorman, still just 22, gave the Cardinals reasons to be optimistic about his range and ability to turn double plays at second, and is dedicating his offseason to cutting down strikeouts, drilling down on plate discipline, and being able to reach the top of the zone and do damage there.

“That’s being addressed as we speak,” Marmol said. “But I think him settling in a little bit can also help.”

• Marmol and Mozeliak both named 24-year-old left-handed hitter Alec Burleson as someone who could benefit from a clearer lane left open for a role. He had just 48 mostly quiet major league at-bats last season. In 432 at-bats at Class AAA, he averaged .331 and slugged .532. “You look at how he performed at the minor leagues,” Mozeliak said. “A quick rise and a lot of success, even at Triple-A, for such a young player. You bring him to the big leagues, and it didn’t go as maybe you hoped or envisioned. But there are a lot of people who would argue he is still the hitter we think he’s going to be.”

The internal discussion and debate will continue. A trade for a catcher, if that’s how the Cardinals add their most critical piece, could tap into the left-handed hitting options and increase the need for an addition from the outside. Signing a free-agent catcher who does real damage at the plate, like Contreras, could keep the intriguing young players on the roster, improve the lineup that needs proven production and make betting on youth feel much better.

“Very few people are Albert Pujols, where the moment they get their chance, they never look back,” Mozeliak said. “That’s a rarity. But I feel like some of these younger guys, they are trying to understand how to make adjustments, how to do it at the highest level. That’s always where you have that debate. Is it just easier to go get someone who has done it before, who has experience being a role player?”

Even the left-handed hitting role players’ salaries are soaring this offseason.

The Cardinals are not short on cash, but it might be better to invest it elsewhere.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss recent comments made by Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

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