Here’s my latest look at an intriguing and important player or aspect of the 2021 Cardinals.
Today: The Outfield. And it’s a critical area for sure. Buckle up.
I’m obsessing over the Cardinals’ outfield. The situation fascinates me for a number of reasons, including the high-stakes nature of the gamble being made by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak.
Oh, and because the outfielders will largely determine the fate of the Cardinal offense for 2021.
This should be a skilled, stylish, exciting and entertaining outfield … one of the best in the majors — when playing defense.
The team’s optimism with this outfield could be delusional.
It could be delightful.
It’s all to be determined.
But in reaction to 2020 — and statistically the worst performance by a Cardinals’ outfield since the National League expanded in 1962 — the bosses decided to:
1–Decline to invest in a free-agent outfield bat that could give this offense a jolt
2–Trade the 13-year veteran Dexter Fowler to the Angels … and also pick up the tab for $12.75 million of Fowler’s $14.5 million salary for 2021.
3–Turn the outfield over to guys that are inexperienced, unproven or both. Guys that strike out about as often as I click my laptop’s keyboard.
Harrison Bader is set to start in center, with reigning Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill stationed in left field and top prospect Dylan Carlson on patrol in right field.
Lane Thomas will compete for playing time in all three spots. Rookie Justin Williams will have a chance to make the big-club roster. Austin Dean isn’t name-checked very often, but he’s on standby if other candidates flop. Tommy Edman could get some run in the outfield in 2021, but the Cardinals want him to be their regular second baseman. Not by default; they really want Edman at 2B.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I called last season’s mess the worst offensive performance by a Cards outfield during the expansion era.
Cardinals outfielders, including Fowler, combined to hit .211 with a .298 onbase percentage and .369 slugging pct. Their combined OPS was .662. And in park-adjusted runs created, the St. Louis outfield performed 18 percent below league average offensively.
The Cardinals have played 59 seasons since the NL expanded in ‘62, a year after the American League did the same.
And where did the 2020 Cardinals outfield rank offensively among those 59 STL teams?
Thanks for asking.
- 59th in batting average
- 59th in Isolated Power
- 59th in onbase percentage
- 59th in strikeout rate (26.4%)
- 57th in OPS
- 57th in park-adjusted runs created.
- 55th in slugging
Bader, O’Neill and Carlson don’t deserve full blame for the kaput outfield offense in 2020, but they did account for 48% of the plate appearances.
To juice the numbers for 2021, the Cardinals could have signed a LH platoon bat for the outfield … maybe a Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario or Kyle Schwarber. Or a switch-hitter such as Robbie Grossman. And I didn’t mention Michael Brantley or a couple of other dudes; the Cards weren’t going to spend that kind of money. But a stopgap? Sure. A one-year rental? Sure. Actually … NO. Didn’t happen.
Mozeliak is genuinely excited to see what the young outfielders will do with the large runway he’s put out there for them. The long runway that awaits them. They’ll either take off, or … well, you know.
“I do think there will be some competition in the outfield between now and the time we open (the regular season),” Mozeliak said earlier this week via Zoom conference. “I’m very comfortable with the depth, very comfortable with who could win or gain those opportunities in the outfield. But there will be competition out there and that’s good to see.”
I understand what the Cardinals are doing here.
I’ve written about it, talked about it. It’s a regular topic for me. Again, I am obsessed with this.
The Cardinals got burned (at least right away) after trading outfielder Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay after the 2019 season. They coveted Rays pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore and decided to move on from Arozarena despite giving him only 23 plate appearances after his promotion to the big leagues in ‘19. Arozarena became a breakout star for Tampa Bay during the 2020 postseason.
The Cardinals didn’t want to give away another Arozarena. Rather than keep young outfielders waiting for a turn as mediocre veterans received the bulk of the playing time, the Cardinals wanted to see what they had. And that requires a legit opportunity.
The Cardinals had only 58 regular-season games in a shortened 2020 schedule, and Mozeliak isn’t hung up on short-season batting stats.
“Baseball is played over a 162-game season and so the ebb and flow of what happens is the game you have to be patient with,” he said. “Using last year as sort of a sidebar conversation if you will over 58 games, you could look at maybe some of the higher performers last season … I’m not talking Cardinals, I’m talking baseball … and if you were to do a rolling average of what a year might look like, they may have just never had their downside. They peaked. Then there are other players that maybe didn’t get going and didn’t perform, and over the course of 162 they may have found a way to pick up. In other words, more regression to your mean.
“So when you look at this team, what do you want to see happen with your offense. Why do I think it might be better? (Nolan) Arenado, bringing him into the lineup, should make a difference. But I also think that when you look at our outfield we expect more production out of them. And I do think over a longer sample size, the 162 now, you’re going to see that type of production.
“And somebody like a Dylan Carlson, over a full season, is going to be a producer in our lineup. I actually like his style of baseball in that here’s someone that hits line drives, can hit the ball out of the ballpark. A lot of time you hear that saying ‘Keep turning that lineup over.’ And he’s the type of hitter that can do that.”
Carlson is 22, Bader is 26, and O’Neill, Thomas and Williams are 25. Bader has 1,050 MLB plate appearances so the Cardinals have a pretty good idea of his strengths and weaknesses. They are confident in Carlson, as they should be. Baseball scouts love his strike-zone awareness, line-drive swing, advanced maturity, good defense and switch-hitting flexibility.
O’Neill (450 MLB plate appearances) has serious plate-discipline issues. Thomas has barely played in the majors (84 PA.) Williams hits the ball hard, but has a long swing. Austin Dean, 27, has done little in the majors (.664 OPS in 318 PA.) But in 160 games at Triple A while in Miami’s system, Dean slugged .546 with a .944 OPS. Maybe the Cardinals are sticking with Dean because they remember what happened after trading Luke Voit to the NY Yankees.
Carlson is secure. He isn’t going anywhere — at least not for a long time. But the others have to show they belong and can make this a stronger team offensively.
“If I were sitting down talking to those five,” Mozeliak said, “I would say ‘This is a great opportunity. We’ve cleared the deck for you, try to take advantage of it.’ It’s something that we’ve been thinking about, trying to do, and we were able to accomplish that. So now, I think for them it should just be like, ‘you know, they’ve moved some things for us, and so let’s take advantage of it.’ ’’
I’m looking forward to seeing how all of this turns out. And the Cardinals, at least in theory, can always add a viable or even valuable outfield bat via trade later this season.
How will the “Mo Crew” do? The ZiPS forecasts aren’t promising. I’ll just show you the projected OPS and strikeout rate for each outfielder in 2021:
- Carlson: .741 … 25.4%
- Bader: .718 … 31.8%
- O’Neill: .726 … 34.1%
- Thomas: .646 … 29.7%
- Williams: .685 … 25.4%
- Dean: .753 … 20.5%
For context: over the past three seasons MLB outfielders combined for a .764 OPS and 22.8 percent strikeout rate.
The Cardinals’ front office has struggled and largely failed to solve the outfield puzzle. Could this be the year?
A lot is on the line for these outfielders in 2021.
And the credibility of management’s baseball judgment is in play as well.
I’m keeping an open mind — and preparing for an adventure.
Thanks for reading …
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.