Greetings. I haven’t done a St. Louis Outfield Ranking since halfway through spring training, so it’s time for an update. This set of rankings is a tricky exercise because of injuries to Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson and the spat between Tyler O’Neill and manager Oli Marmol. I think it’s fair to look at playing time as one of the leading factors but have made an exception in one case.
All stats used here do not include Wednesday’s STL vs. COL series finale in Denver.
1. Jordan Walker. He’s been a marvel. A 20-year-old who made a stately leap from Double A baseball to the big leagues. I don’t care much about his high-ground ball rate, or his early (and only occasional) trouble with changeups, curves and cutters. The rookie is batting .326, slugging .512 and hitting the ball hard with vicious consistency. He’ll polish up with his defense in right field; he’s a newbie out there. Walker doesn’t walk much (2.2%) and I think it will help him to draw more of them. Eleven games into his career, Walker is making history with an 11-game hitting streak and has an OPS+ that makes him 38 percent above league average offensively. Early on, Walker is hardly being schooled by top-level MLB pitchers. In 25 at-bats against pitchers that have a 3.50 ERA or better, Walker is 8 for 25 (.320) with a homer, five RBI and an .850 OPS. And though Walker hits from the side, his OPS against RH pitchers (.880) is slightly higher than his OPS (.875) against lefties.
2. Alec Burleson: The big rookie, age 24, is living up to the expectations set by manager Marmol and the front office. He’s batting .308 with a good OBP and .615 slug, and has performed 59% above league average offensively per OPS+. Among the St. Louis regulars, only Jordan Walker has a higher hard-hit rate (54.9%) than Burleson (54.5%). He has elite rate stats for average exit velocity and sweet-spot contact. In Burleson the Cardinals have added another highly capable left-handed batter to join Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar and Brendan Donovan. Burly is one of the reasons why the Cardinals are slightly improved from 2022 in their effectiveness against righty pitching.
3. Dylan Carlson: He had only 21 plate appearances and is sidelined after experiencing neck spasms while making a successful diving catch Monday at Coors Field. But Carlson’s center-field defense is terrific, and the switch-hitter has improved against right-handed, posting a wRC+ against them that’s 20 percent above league average. Carlson scores well in hard-contact rate (53%) and that should lead to more power. That’s important. Though he’s hitting .300, Carlson has a below-average .350 slugging percentage. Can he stay healthy? And over a sustained period of time, will he put up better numbers against RH pitching?
4. Lars Nootbaar: He suffered a thumb injury in the first game of the season and has only been to the plate only six times. But Lars deserves the benefit of the doubt because of his excellence over the final three months of last season. A refresher: over his final 73 games and 263 plate appearances, Nootbaar was a plate-discipline and power-hitting machine. He posted a 16.7 percent walk rate, struck out only 17% of the time and posted a .373 onbase percentage. On the power side, he slugged .514, pounding out 14 doubles, three triples and 12 homers. Lars spent the offseason on a mission to improve his swing to hit the ball even harder and get more “launch” for enhanced power through the air. The Cardinals miss his energy. I fully expect Nootbaar to move up in the rankings when he resumes play and begins making an impact with his hitting and defense.
5. Tyler O’Neill: I still think Marmol was wrong to embarrass O’Neill with stinging comments about a lack of effort, but that’s over for now and O’Neill has a chance to get the Last Word. As I keep saying, O’Neill must hit with authority and put up the kind of power numbers he delivered in 2021. So far? Not happening. Going into Wednesday’s game, O’Neill hadn’t homered since Opening Day and had a dreadful .258 slugging percentage in his last 10 games. In 37 plate appearances before Wednesday, O’Neill had an OPS+ that left him 25 percent below league average offensively. He’s failed to impress as a center fielder or baserunner. Only Tyler can change the perception of himself. If the Cardinals have a notion of dealing O’Neill, a poor showing only decreased his trade value. But he’s one strong week from making everybody view him more favorably. UPDATE: O’Neill smashed a 461-foot homer into the forest beyond center field at Coors Field in his first at-bat Wednesday. Is he plugged in? That would be good for the Cardinals.
6. Juan Yepez: Nice home run on Tuesday at Coors Field. And Yepez is batting .333 (4 for 12) since being called up from Triple A Memphis as an injury replacement for Nootbaar. I’m not dismissing Yepez, but it seems likely he’ll go back to Memphis when Nootbaar returns. Unless the Cardinals trade O’Neill, how will Yepez work his way into a regular outfield rotation? He’s gone through some ruts offensively since making his MLB debut in early May of 2022. But we shouldn’t forget that he has a .453 slugging percentage in 286 big-league plate appearances for the Cardinals and has homered every 20 at-bats. Yepez came through for the Cards in Game 1 of the playoff series against the Phillies, coming off the bench in the bottom of the seventh to trigger a two-run pinch homer that gave the Redbirds a 2-0 lead and a win expectancy of 88 percent. If Cards closer Ryan Helsley hadn’t imploded in the ninth, Yepez would have been the hero of Game 1. We’ll be seeing him. He’d be a good DH.
Thanks for reading…
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All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Statcast, Baseball Reference and Bill James Online.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.