Center fielder Harrison Bader will be out for the next four to six weeks to soothe the flexor–tendon pain in his right arm.
As the Cardinals respond to losing Bader by moving their outfield pieces around, one question comes to mind: will rookie Justin Williams receive the largest share of playing time in right field?
Well, I hope so. I can’t think of a proper reason to escort JW to the bench or divert his improved left-handed swing to Triple A Memphis.
I mean, isn’t this supposed to be “The Year of Opportunity” for young Cardinals outfielders? Yes. Team management has repeatedly and persistently relayed that message to the fans and media. Have to find out about the young guys. Have to clear out space and let the boys play so they can show who they really are. The Year of Opportunity. Hey, the Cardinals will even trade Dexter Fowler to the Angels — and eat most of his $14.5 million salary for 2021 — just to give the kids a chance!
This is the reason why the front office declined to invest free-agent money on Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber, Eddie Rosario or some other LH outfield bat. They wouldn’t do that — not when there’s so much homegrown talent available for the Busch Stadium lawn.
Here’s why it’s natural to goi with Williams as the primary right fielder. At least for the early part of the season. If he struggles, and doesn’t show progress, if he’s sinking … then the Cardinals can reassess. They can give Williams time ro regroup. You know, like Dylan Carlson last year. When your entire outfield is unproven — hey, that’s how it goes. Ups and downs. But this is how the Cardinals wanted to do this. Inexperienced outfielders. Take that ride. Hold on tight.
— The Cardinals require a left-handed punch to take on RH pitching. We know this because their right-handed batters combined for a .245 average, .377 slug and .700 OPS over the last two seasons when encountering a RH pitcher. Or to put it another way: that’s a Bader composite; he has a .703 OPS over the past two years.
— The Cardinals have made sure to include Williams in any media discussion of the outfield plans. In interviews, if the name “Williams” doesn’t come up, John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. will make sure to do so. I was impressed in December when Mr. DeWitt appeared on my KFNS radio show and, without prompting, cited Williams’ high-speed exit velocity. The enthusiasm was evident. And if the Cardinals really like him that much, the decision-makers should follow their instincts.
— The front office was intrigued by Williams’ athleticism, multiple tools, the lefthanded power potential in the summer of 2018. That was part of their motivation for sending outfielder Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay for Williams and LH pitcher Genesis Cabrera at the trade deadline. Well, if you’ve traded for Williams, and invested developmental time in Williams, and noted his hard work to improve and his positive performance in spring training … then go ahead and play the man. It’s The Year Of Opportunity!
— Williams, 25, has refined and shortened his swing. And it shows. His statistics aren’t extraordinary, but he’s drawn some walks, gotten on base, displayed power, and struck out only five times in 38 plate appearances (14.%) Williams has a .733 OPS overall and a .752 OPS vs. right-handers.
— More on Williams vs. those right-handers: Obviously there was no minor-league season in 2020. But when Williams took on RH pitchers in 2019 at Memphis he posted a .352 OBP and .460 slug for .812 OPS. Williams had been mediocre against RH pitching in the lower minors. But ’19 was a year of significant progress in Triple A. At age 23.
— Williams has the highest average exit velocity (92.9 mph) among Cardinals hitters. This should please Bill DeWitt Jr.
— Good grief, remember the painful lesson of Randy Arozarena: the Cardinals gave the outfield prospect only 23 plate appearances late in the 2019 season. The failure to utilize Arozarena for a more comprehensive trial made absolutely no sense. The offense needed to be energized, but Arozarena mostly waited around to pinch hit or enter the game as a defensive replacement.
What a waste. Arozarena had crushed Triple A pitching (1.029 OPS) before his promotion. In his debut with the big club Arozarena didn’t have many at–bats to work with but flashed with a .391 OBP and .500 slug. Didn’t matter. Didn’t play much. From Aug. 14 to the end of the regular season Arozarena was handed only four starts in the outfield. And in those four starts he batted .308 with a .400 OBP and .538 slug.
Tampa Bay surely noticed. The Rays acquired Arozarena on Jan. 9, 2020, and y’all know the rest. Postseason Hero. These things can happen if you don’t give a gifted prospect a chance to ignite your offense and improve the team.
I’m not saying Williams is as talented as Arozarena. That isn’t the point. This is the point: you don’t know what you have until you give a young dude the chance to take a job and run with it.
The lesson of Arozarena is why Mozeliak made the decision to prioritize the team’s young outfielders in 2021.
Here’s what Mozeliak had to say in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports:
“OK, and so we have this group of outfielders, and Randy was certainly part of it, but we weren’t able to create at-bats for them at the major-league level. And, so that’s why we had to clean the playing field a little bit, and that’s partially why we had to move Dexter (Fowler) off this club, because we just didn’t want to get into another position or have another year go by where the (Tyler) O’Neills of the world, maybe a Lane Thomas or Justin Williams, don’t get tested at this level, and then we don’t know. And then, either we’d have to move the player because we’re out of options, or we’re left with just, we don’t know, and move them. And so that’s really what I was trying to articulate is, we don’t want to have to make a mistake because we weren’t able to create opportunity.”
— Bader won’t be back anytime soon. He was their starter in center but isn’t the starter now. Bader is on the Injured List, and the Cardinals have one less outfielder to take up space. And if you want to look at it another way, they have two fewer outfielders in play. Fowler (traded) and Bader (injured.)
That’s even more of a reason to go with Williams. The opportunity for playing time is wide open. The Cardinals can keep Williams busy without displacing another outfielder. The traffic jam has eased. Williams already had moved ahead of other candidates. Yet another reason to start him in right.
So, is this still “The Year of Opportunity?”
I think so. But you never quite know with the Cardinals. And that is especially true with outfielders. Let’s just say that their evaluations tend to be off target. Think of it this way: if young Cardinals outfielders were young NFL quarterbacks, the Cards would be the team with Mitchell Trubisky instead of the team with Patrick Mahomes. They’d have Josh Rosen instead of Lamar Jackson.
These are no-good reasons for holding Williams back:
— To get Matt Carpenter at-bats by frequently moving Tommy Edman to right field. I could be wrong, but would any of you be surprised if this happens?
— Because the Cardinals need a lefthanded-swinging threat on the bench for matchups and Williams fits that role. Once again, it seems like all roads lead to Carpenter Avenue. Just because you insist on keeping Carpenter around, it doesn’t mean you should weaken another position by reserving Williams for a pinch-hit, spot-start role.
— Sorry to pile on, but I thought the 2021 campaign was supposed to be about creating opportunities for young outfielders … not creating lineup windows for a great dude who also happens to be 35 years old, coming off two decline-phase seasons, and is 1 for 33 with 13 strikeouts this spring.
— Continuing to fixate on Austin Dean. Look, I have nothing against Dean. But after 318 plate appearances in the majors — all but seven with the Marlins — the man’s OPS is .664. And this spring Dean has struck out 34 percent of the time. If Dean is the solution to a problem, then why didn’t the Cardinals turn to him last season? Remember, the 2020 Cards outfield turned in the worst performance (offensively) by a Cardinals outfield since the NL expanded in 1962. And last year the Cardinals were weakened by Covid-19; the virus pretty much ruined the season for Lane Thomas. Despite the terrible numbers by their outfielders and the personnel challenges caused by Covid, the Cardinals utilized Deam for seven plate appearances. Seven. They needed Dean in 2020 a helluva lot more than they need him now.
— I don’t want to mix the apples and oranges, but let’s talk about John Nogowski. If the Cardinals insist on taking a fifth outfielder into the regular season, Nogowski would be a more creative and compelling choice. He’s a polished hitter with more career walks than strikeouts. And he’s a right-handed batter who hits RH pitchers with no problem. He doesn’t have much experience playing outfielder, but they’ve been using him in left field.
— If the Cardinals think Nogowski can handle LF — the easiest defensive position — Tyler O’Neill can move to right field when Nogowski makes starts. Using a right-handed hitter against the opponent’s LH starting pitcher makes sense. Platooning Williams and a right-handed hitter is the smart thing to do, and the Cardinals will see RH pitching in about 75 percent of their at-bats. Even in a platoon system, Williams would get plenty of regular playing time.
On Friday manager Mike Shildt was asked about the Bader injury creating a playing-time opportunity.
Here’s the answer and maybe one of you can decipher it for me:
“Harrison going down created multiple opportunities for multiple people with different roles,” Shildt said. “Specific to Justin it creates opportunity for him and we’ll still evaluate what that looks like. Clearly we’ll declare and move forward with how that plays out. Absolutely, the guy’s a left-handed hitter, he’s got a chance to be a nice at-bat whether it’s in a lineup on whatever day that looks like for a matchup. Or come off the bench.
“So yeah there’s clearly some value to it. What we’re looking for is no different than what we’re looking for in all our players. Looking for guys that embrace the competition, take their best at-bat they can every day, understand they have to play situational baseball, play good defense, and be a good teammate. And be with us throughout what’s taking place to contend. That’s no different than anybody else.”
With all due respect to Shildty, he was playing dodgeball there. Many words were used to say very little. He stayed in a safe space. There was no real hint of a commitment.
Not yet, anyway.
There’s still time.
We’ll see what the Cardinals come up with.
We’ll learn some things — including the difference between truth and spin.
We’ll see if the Cardinals go with a Trubisky.
Or go with the kind of young, talented, improving outfielder that fits very, very well in The Year Of Opportunity.
Thanks for reading and have a nice weekend.