Lars Nootbaar Could Be Budding Cardinals Star
ALSO: CAN MICHAEL HARRIS II FOLLOW TOP ROOKIE AWARD WITH MVP TROPHY?
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Did you know…
Jeff McNeil’s .426 Batting Average on Balls in Play (i.e., batting average without homers, so just looking at in-play balls the defense can try to get to) was not only the highest in the Majors last year but was well better than his strong .323 against standard infield defenses, according to MLB.com . . .
Albert Pujols had a lifetime .948 OPS as a pinch-hitter that was one point lower than his lifetime OPS as a first baseman . . .
Outfielder-first baseman Trey Mancini, who got a surprise two-year contract from the free-spending Cubs, could have helped the Mets or Braves even more . . .
New York Post columnist Joel Sherman complains that the Mets will lose too many key players when the World Baseball Classic in the middle of spring training . . .
If the Braves bring back four-time Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, they’ll have the world’s first all-Curacao DP combination (with Ozzie Albies) . . .
The Washington Nationals have drafted Juan Soto’s brother . . .
The 1975 switch from Bolivian horsehide baseballs to Eastern European cowhide saved each team about $2,000 . . .
Spencer Strider, runner-up to NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris, will lead the National League with 258 strikeouts (171 innings pitched), according to the Bill James Baseball Handbook.
Memes and all, Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar is Ready to be Breakout Star
By Josh Jacobs
It wasn’t all that long ago that St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder Lars Nootbaar was just another one of those Cardinals prospects who flew under everyone’s radar, but soon became a cult favorite among the fanbase. Now entering the 2023 season, Major League Baseball is taking notice of the potential Nootbaar possesses.
It’s no mistake that the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays were insistent on acquiring Nootbaar in any trades for a catcher earlier this off-season. The Cardinals remained reluctant to part with their budding star, leading them to pivot and sign catcher Willson Contreras. Their confidence in the 25-year-old is sky high, but Nootbaar’s fun-loving personality doesn’t let that get to his head.
“I am not on Twitter,” Nootbaar laughed. “That helps.”
Some fans around baseball shake their heads at the notion. Twitter has a funny way of polarizing the opinions of rising stars like Nootbaar. He was voted the fourth-best right-fielder in all of baseball in MLB Network’s fan voting, turning the conversation away from the warranted excitement to annoyance at another “overrated player.”
No, Nootbaar is not a top five right-fielder in today’s game, but taking a look at his peripherals and keeping in mind how many other teams wanted him this off-season in big-time deals, it is easy to see where the projections are coming from.
After struggling to begin the 2022 season and being demoted to Triple-A, Nootbaar game back to St. Louis with a transformed approach, slashing .240/.366/.480 with a 16.7 BB%, 16.7 K%, .364 wOBA, and 140 wRC+ over a 65-game stretch. On the season, he ranked in the 80th percentile or higher in xwOBA, xOBP, barrel percentage, average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, walk percentage, and chase rate. Nootbaar’s pitch selection is in elite company, and when he chooses to swing, he usually does a lot of damage.
What I find most interesting is that the signs for sustained success, and even improvement, are everywhere for the outfielder. Nootbaar ranked top 25 in wRC+ among those with 240 PA or more in the 2nd half of 2022, and yet, he had by far the lowest BABIP at .248. Nootbaar did not receive the “luck” that we tend to look for when poking holes in these sample sizes, and he coupled that with the kind of plate discipline that aids elite production.
Like his bat, Nootbaar showed off his defensive skills throughout the season, especially once he became an everyday player following the Harrison Bader trade. Nootbaar became the everyday right-fielder, showing elite arm strength and great range that will bring value to St. Louis in the grass as well.
What excites Cardinals fans the most may be Nootbaar’s status within the clubhouse. The outfielder has become a close friend of Nolan Arenado and consistently received praise and adoration from 2022 NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and baseball legend Albert Pujols. On a team that boasts a lot of young, up-and-coming talent, Nootbaar is one of the few who has solidified himself as an everyday player and core part of its future.
Remember, the Cardinals’ other outfield options includes the likes of Tyler O’Neill, who finished top-10 in MVP voting in 2021; Dylan Carlson, who was the No. 13 prospect in all of baseball in 2021 and finished top 3 in Rookie of the Year voting; and Jordan Walker, recently ranked the No. 4 prospect in baseball and expected by many to become a superstar in his own right.
And yet, it’s Lars Nootbaar that manager Oli Marmol and company expect to lead the outfield in 2023.
Are we really surprised, though? It always seems to be those pesky Cardinals that rise from low-ceiling youngsters to household names (see Matt Carpenter and Tommy Edman). Walker will take a lot of the spotlight once he debuts in St. Louis, and for good reason, but it’s Nootbaar St. Louis is counting on most this coming season.
Does this mean Nootbaar will be an MVP candidate and full-fledged superstar in 2023? That’s probably straying too far into that Twitterverse there. But I do think baseball fans should expect to see Nootbaar in All-Star conversations this season, hitting at the top of one of the best lineups in all of baseball, and building upon the promise that fans and baseball executives alike are salivating over.
And let’s just be honest, he’s got one of the best names in all of baseball. Lars Nootbaar, meme-worthy for sure, but don’t sleep on the budding star in the process.
Josh Jacobs is the Site Expert at Redbird Rants, a FanSided Affiliate that covers the St. Louis Cardinals. You can find him on Twitter @joshjacoMLB and keep up with his Cardinals’ coverage over at www.redbirdrants.com
If He Wins MVP Honors, Michael Harris II Will Join Elite Company
By Dan Schlossberg
Cal Ripken, Jr. did it first: Rookie of the Year one year and MVP the next.
The future Hall of Famer did it while playing for the Baltimore Orioles in 1982 and 1983. Ryan Howard (Phillies) followed suit in 2006, winning the MVP trophy a year after taking top rookie honors and becoming the first National Leaguer to do that.
Then there was Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Rookie of the Year in 2007 and American League MVP in 2008. Kris Bryant also did it, taking the rookie trophy while with the 2015 Cubs and NL MVP honors the following season.
Now Michael Harris II, center-fielder for the Atlanta Braves, has a chance to join that distinguished group [and let’s not forget Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 as the only men to be MVP and Rookie of the Year at the same time!].
Harris, who turns 22 during spring training, was the youngest player in the majors when the Braves promoted him from Double-A Mississippi last May. They needed his speed and defense in center field and considered any offense he might produce to be just a bonus.
The Atlanta native gave them a lot more, convincing the club to respond with an eight-year, $72 million contract extension after only 71 major-league games.
He not only finished with a .297 average, 19 homers, and 20 stolen bases but an .845 OPS (above the league average of .712). He hit his stride in August as he gained confidence and experience, posting an OPS of .990, but had a slight letdown in September, finishing with a still-strong .838 mark.
Originally positioned at the bottom of the batting order, the 6-foot, 195-pound left-handed hitter worked his way up, hitting near the top by season’s end.
This year, he’ll probably bat second, between right-handed hitters Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Austin Riley, with fellow lefty Matt Olson cleaning up. That is clearly the strongest top-of-the-lineup in the NL East — and possibly the entire National League.
Harris, a high school pitcher who learned the nuances of center-field play from former Gold Glove winner and fellow Atlantan Marquis Grissom, should have won the Gold Glove himself. Only his late-spring call-up worked against him.
His jumps, his throws, his routes, and his instincts are the best the Braves have had in the middle garden since the heyday of Hall of Fame contender Andruw Jones. And all Andruw did was win 10 Gold Gloves in a row — a rare feat also performed by Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Ken Griffey, Jr., plus future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki.
At the plate, Harris II needs to show more patience. More walks equals more steals and therefore more runs. Braves batting coach Kevin Seitzer will be spending long hours with him in the batting cage at North Port, FL this spring.
Harris II already hits the ball hard and often up the middle, confounding defenses. His main weakness is a tendency to chase off-speed pitches out of the zone. It’s a youthful mistake that can be corrected.
He’ll be more confident too, even though he was obviously under pressure performing in a Truist Park packed with friends, relatives, and former neighbors. The new contract should help his confidence too.
Harris II hit 15 of his 19 homers on the road last year, with a .965 OPS out of Atlanta, but don’t expect that to happen again. His home park is certainly conducive to home runs.
Like Jones, Harris II makes tough plays look easy. He’s likely to be an All-Star and Gold Glove recipient for many years to come.
And don’t rule out a few MVP trophies — perhaps as soon as this season. He’s that good. Maybe even the second coming of Acuña.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, Memories & Dreams, Sports Collectors Digest, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and many other outlets. His e.mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I recently talked with K.B. about where he is physically, and mentally, and he told me he feels great. His off-season workouts were not compromised and he’s encouraged that he’ll be exactly where he needs to be a month from now.”
— Colorado manager Bud Black on oft-injured slugger and former MVP Kris Bryant
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