Since the Cardinals fell apart in their LCS loss at San Diego, we’ve been making a list and checking it twice … or more accurately, checking it two thousand times. We’re searching for a name attached to a bat. Or two names/bats.
Who would the Cardinals sign or acquire to invigorate a dull offense?
Preferably a left-handed bat with power.
Better yet, an imposing lefthanded hitter that can play the outfield.
We’ve thrown names around including Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, Eddie Rosario, David Dahl (already signed) Michael Brantley. We’ve sorted through infielder-outfielder utility-tool types (Jurickson Profar) but the fan-media focus is definitely on a LH bat for the outfield.
There’s another possibility: the Cardinals do nothing.
What if the Cardinals passed on nominated candidates and stayed with the plan to go with their younger outfielders? (Plus one “old” outfielder. With hazy revenue forecasts on the 2021 horizon — and management’s apparent reluctance to spend — we could be looking at another season of the same outfield cast: Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, Dexter Fowler, Lane Thomas, and Justin Williams. (I don’t have to put Austin Dean on this list, do I?)
Other than Fowler, who turns age 35 in March, this is an inexperienced bunch. Among the outfielders cited here, only one (Bader) has at least 1,000 big-league plate appearances. Here’s a look at each player’s age (as of July 1, 2021) plus regular-season MLB games and plate appearances:
Fowler, 35 … Games 1,453 … PA 5,881
Bader, 27 … Games 348 … PA 1,050
O’Neill, 26 … Games 171 … PA 450
Thomas, 25 … Games 52 … PA 84
Carlson, 22 … Games 35 … PA 119
Williams, 27 … Games 4 … PA 7
(I suppose we could see Tommy Edman roaming the outfield in 2020, but unless the Cardinals come up with a different choice to succeed Kolten Wong, then Edman must be viewed as the starting second baseman for 2021. For the record. Edman, 26, has 147 games and 576 PA in the majors.)
I’m not predicting that the Cardinals will go with what they have — January should be a busier month in the free-agent market — but chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. recently shared his thinking during a guest turn on my KFNS radio show.
“Opportunity tells you, ultimately, what a player’s going to be,” DeWitt said. “We’ve been in a position where, talking about the outfield, we’ve had a number of outfielders and there hasn’t been, particularly with the young guys (a situation of) ‘Put me out there and let me play a full season, and then let me play next season.’ We haven’t had that so much because we’re trying to win, and if someone gets hot you want to play them. We’ve had a number of them.
“There are only three spots in the outfield and you can’t play five outfielders. And I think that’s part of the dilemma here. We know that guys like Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and others have performed exceptionally well in Triple A and through the minors coming up. And you show progression there, into the major leagues. But there aren’t many players who pop into the major leagues and just turn it on right away. So patience and time is helpful. And I think that’s part of what we need to do in the future. This coming year and in the future. We need to put guys out there who we think have the talent and let ‘em play and see what we have.”
The Cardinals are considering the plusses of staying the current outfield group in 2021. Let them perform, reevaluate each outfielders’ performance after the ‘21 season, and reconfigure as necessary in the planning for 2022. All MLB teams will have more cost certainty going into 2022, so it may be reasonable for the Cardinals to take a more comprehensive look at their outfielders this coming season, and wait to reset and invest for ‘22.
“Well, I think that’s a good point,” DeWitt said.
This much is certain: Carlson will be an outfield fixture.
“We do have a number of outfielders, and now of course we have Dylan Carlson,” DeWitt said. “He’s done everything you could ask of a player coming through the system. First round draft choice out of high school, moved up the ladder pretty quickly, lit it up in Double A and Triple A. He got an opportunity (with the Cardinals) and struggled a little bit early and then went down to Springfield, kind of regrouped, came back, and was everything we could hope for. We have high hopes for Dylan Carlson, and we have three spots in the outfield and certainly we can count on him for one of them.”
DeWitt briefly reviewed other in-house outfield candidates and concluded: “It’s a juggling act. If we were a below .500 team and didn’t have a chance, we would just figure to play all the young guys and see what we have and develop. But we’ve never been in that position. We’ve always wanted to win, and we want to win again this year. I know (manager Mike Shildt) is going to play the players he thinks are going to help him win, which is the right move. But having said that, I think this coming year, we’re going to learn a lot more about the younger outfielders. Particularly if we play a full schedule which I hope we do.”
I have comments:
1. Shildt can only play the outfielders he has. In other words, if the Cardinals don’t bring in a veteran outfielder to recharge the offense, the choices are limited to the names we’ve talked about here.
2. Payroll politics? The Cardinals will pay Fowler $16.5 million in 2021, which is the final installment of a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Using the wRC+ metric as our guide, Fowler was 22 percent above league average offensively in 2017, terrible in 2018, three percent above average in 2019, and five percent below average in 2020. If the ‘21 version of Fowler is healthy and average at best in performance, will he receive a starter’s share of playing time? What happens if Fowler is below average? Will he still get the at-bats that should be given to young players with upside?
3. Or to put this another way: Unless the young outfielders are written into the lineup on a fairly regular basis, you can’t properly analyze them. And we’ll be going around in circles again next winter. If Carlson and Fowler see extensive action, they’ll occupy two of the three spots. Carlson needs to play and play and play. If Fowler can’t stay healthy, it won’t matter as much. If Fowler produces, then Shildt wouldn’t be wrong to use him. But if Fowler is a replacement-level player (or worse), it would be ludicrous to keep him in the lineup at the expense of a developing outfielder. FYI: over the last two seasons combined, Fowler is barely above replacement level, with an average WAR of 0.75. Over the last three seasons combined, Fowler barely reaches replacement-level status, with a total WAR of 0.4. Do you see where I’m going with this?
4. O’Neill is an interesting case, and that’s an understatement My sense is that many Cardinals fans are weary of the buildup — the frequent mentions of his immense power potential. I get it. In his 450 MLB plate appearances spread over three seasons, O’Neill has slugged .422 and carries a 34 percent strikeout rate. MLB’s non-pitcher slugging percentage is .430 over that time with a 22% strikeout rate. A below-average slugger with an awful strikeout rate is not part of the formula for having a burly offense. But O’Neill is averaging only 150 plate appearances per season as a Cardinal. He’s never had more than 157 PA in a season. That’s the proverbial small sample size, and it’s stupid to use that to make conclusive judgments. He runs very well and won a gold glove for defense in 2020. O’Neill may never emerge as a consistent power source. But should we ridicule the Cardinals for wanting to see more of O’Neill before they move from him? I don’t think so.
5. Lane Thomas? I don’t know. And that’s the problem … dude has fewer than 100 big-league plate appearances — so how would we know?
6. Justin WIlliams is a LH bat, and DeWitt noted JW’s impressive exit velocity “when he makes contact.” Williams has an overall 29 percent strikeout rate in the minors. But that rate was lower (22%) during his time in Triple A with the Rays and Cardinals. And there’s been an uptick in his walk rate. (This is a difficult puzzle, eh?)
7. About Bader: I’ve been yapping about this a lot lately, so excuse me for doing it again. In two of his last three seasons Bader has been an above average hitter based on wRC+. And when he started games over the past three seasons, Bader had an an average OPS of .771 — including .814 last season. Over those same three seasons, the MLB-wide OPS for center fielders was .736. I’m aware of Bader’s flaws including a too-high strikeout rate and his ineffectiveness vs. RH pitching. (Bader is 12 percent below league average offensively vs. RHP in his last three seasons.) But here’s the part that too many people miss, at least in my opinion: if the Cardinals had done a more astute job of installing more good hitters throughout their overall lineup and in the corner outfield spots, we wouldn’t be woofing over Bader’s offense. As a gold glove caliber center fielder who saves runs for his pitching staff, Bader is a valuable presence in CF. In that context, if you want to bellow about the St. Louis offense, center field is one of the last places you’d look.
8. Do I think a significant percentage of Cardinals fans would back a plan to stay with the same outfielders? No way. It is up to DeWitt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak to factor that in. If this outfield group comes through in 2021, it will mitigate the public-relations problem.
9. As for my opinion: the Cardinals need an upgrade, and its up to the front office to navigate the outfield labyrinth and come up with a solution. Unless, of course, they secure a notable bat upgrade at another position. If the National League uses a DH in 2021, the Cardinals have another way to propel the offense.
The last word goes to DeWItt.
“Fortunately our farm system, and our draft and developing players has been strong throughout the years,” he said. “And without that it’s really hard for any club to compete. I’m excited about we currently have (in) our young players, recent drafts. And you never know when a player can step up and do something that maybe you don’t expect them to do, and all of a sudden you take off. I fully believe we’ll have a competitive team this coming year, and hopefully we can win a division and make the playoffs and that’s our goal every year.”
Thanks for reading …