Before we look ahead to what’s next for Jordan Walker, let’s look back in time to another young St. Louis outfielder to show how the Cardinals have evolved. And in a good way.
Two springtimes ago, the Cardinals’ top outfield prospect was Justin Williams. Remember him? He had a pretty good spring training, and made the big club for the start of the regular season.
Dylan Carlson was ahead of Williams on the prospect list, yes. But for all intents and purposes, Carlson already was written in the 2021 lineup after making a positive impression during late-season duty in 2020. Carlson was a different situation than Williams. But “JW” was definitely a prospect, and Cardinals management believed he could be a plus talent who could produce power.
After hitting .160 and striking out 34 percent of the time for the 2021 Cardinals, Williams was demoted to Triple A Memphis in early June of the ‘21 season. He never returned to the Cardinals. He’s never reappeared in the majors. He plummeted to the Class A level in a season spent in Philadelphia’s minor-league system.
That was a long way down for a left-handed hitter who ranked third for most plate appearances by a St. Louis outfielder over the first two-plus months of the 2021 regular season.
In fairness to Williams, he wasn’t close to being in Walker’s orbit as a prospect. But the St. Louis front office believed Williams had left-handed power potential and coveted him in the trade that sent outfielder Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay at the 2018 trade deadline. In the swap the Cardinals received Williams and lefty reliever prospect Genesis Cabrera.
By 2021, the front office thought Williams was ready to challenge for a role on the MLB roster. He had a chance to make the team and stay there for two-plus months because of early injuries to center fielder Harrison Bader and left fielder Tyler O’Neill.
It didn’t work out. Though Carlson did an effective job in the early stages of the season, but the team’s outfield depth was abysmal. Williams was no solution and he played his final game as a Cardinal on June 2, 2021.
In the first three months of 2021, the STL outfield ranked 25th in the majors in OPS, and were tied for 26th in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+). The patchwork outfield unraveled. Williams wasn’t the answer, Lane Thomas wasn’t the answer, and Austin Dean wasn’t the answer.
The 2021 outfield kicked in offensively only after Bader and O’Neil healed up. (Bader’s recovery from a busted rib was the lengthiest absence.) But over the final three months of the regular season, with their starting outfield intact, the Cardinals had the No. 3 outfield offense in the majors per wRC+ and generated top-five rankings in batting average, onbase percentage, slugging, OPS and home runs. The outfield resurgence was the primary reason for a 91-win season and a spot in the NL wild-card game.
My gosh, look at how much has changed in two years. The Cardinals have gone from Justin Williams to Jordan Walker as their top outfield prospect in camp — among prospects ..that hadn’t played for the Cardinals.
And now? Other promising talents are trying to make an impression, but there aren’t enough outfield spots for all of them – though the DH spot could be an outlet.
If injuries hit the outfield again, there’s a stack of options to choose from including Walker, Alec Burleson, Juan Yepez and Moises Gomez. And super-utility dude Brendan Donovan will play at six different positions again, and he’ll be part of the outfield cast.
Question: Hey wait a minute, Bernie. Are you downplaying the possibility of Jordan Walker starting the regular season in left field, and becoming a fixture in the lineup?
Answer: No! … No! … No!
If the Cardinals had to make a decision today, Walker would be on the club. And he’d play just about every day. And he’d take over any number of key spots in the lineup.
The Cardinals entered 2023 spring training with O’Neill, Carlson and Lars Nootbaar as their presumptive outfield starters, but Walker is having a sensational spring training.
The mature, intelligent and confident 20-year-old is rearranging the thought process. The veteran Cardinals love him and respect his desire to learn and how he goes about his business. He’s made opponents take notice, jolting them into realizing that this is no ordinary rookie. This rookie already has a fearsome presence.
Question: What about giving Walker some time at Triple A Memphis? That way he won’t have to make the direct jump from Class AA to the majors and would have extra time to fine-tune his game. Promote him to St. Louis after a month or so.
Answer: Unless Walker suffers an injury or goes into a deep slump and seems lost at the plate, we can forget about that. If he continues to bash like this, you can’t hold him back. If Walker’s performance is worthy of a place in the majors, you have to let it ride … as in seeing Walker ride in on a red truck at Busch Stadium before the home opener.
Question: If Walker becomes a big-league starter by Opening Day, what does that mean for the starting outfield and the 26-man roster?
Answer: May I be flippant and say, “Who Cares?” I do feel that way. If Jordan Walker is ready for the majors, and the team is confident that he can become a generational talent, then you put him in the lineup. There’s no reason to stew about this.
You start your best three outfielders. Let’s just say, hypothetically, Dylan Carlson is used as a fourth outfielder. I don’t see the problem. That’s a good thing. And he’d still play a lot, especially against lefty pitchers. He’s punished lefties in his MLB career, batting .317 and posting a wRC+ that’s 42 percent above league average offensively.
But if the Cardinals are committed to Walker and don’t overreact to any potential struggles between now and the and the start of the regular season, Walker will be out there, likely in left field, as the starter.
Which essentially means fewer at-bats for Carlson and O’Neill. But if healthy, O’Neill will likely play more than Carlson, and the Cardinals envision a max-offense alignment of Walker (LF), O’Neill (CF) and Nootbaar (RF.) If that happens, Carlson will be situated as a valuable swing man who can play all three outfield positions.
Some injury-related issues are inevitable, so there’s a lot of work to go around. And that could apply to Yepez and Burleson. But I’m not sitting here on March 6, trying to fit every player-position spot on the roster for Opening Day.
It’s too soon, and the Cardinals who aren’t competing in the World Baseball Classic will have plenty of swings to make their push. These things tend to sort out – naturally – over time.
Question: What’s the key factor in setting the outfield?
Injuries always matter. But offensively it may come down to performance vs. right-handed pitching because the Cardinals will face RH pitchers around 75 percent of the time in 2023.
That’s been a weak area for Carlson.
Using wRC+ as a measure – 100 is league average – here’s what I’m referring to.
* O’Neill: career 120 wRC+ vs. RHP. That’s 20 percent above league average, though he did slip to slightly below average vs. RHP last season.
* Nootbaar: 13 percent above league vs. RHP for his career, and was 20% better than average against them last season.
* Yepez: as a rookie, 13 percent above league average vs. RH pitchers last season. I should note this as well: during his first two months in the majors, Yepez hammered righties for a .542 slugging percentage and was 43 percent above league average offensively. But pitchers adjusted, Yepez suffered a forearm strain, and his numbers dropped. In his final 72 plate appearances of the regular season, he batted .179, slugged .299 and performed 46 percent below league average. He bounced back with that huge two-run home run against the Phillies in Game 1 of the wild-card series. That big blow may have been a reset for Yepez.
* Donovan: as a rookie last season, he was 29 points above average vs. right-handers.
* Carlson: 91 career wRC+ vs. righthanders. That’s nine percent below league average. Last season Carlson was 17 percent below average against RHP.
* Burleson: I don’t attach much meaning to his MLB stats last season because he had only 45 at-bats vs. RH pitching, hitting .178. That sample is insufficient. And the rookie never got comfortable in his MLB debut, which is hardly uncommon. But for whatever it’s worth, last season at Memphis Burleson rocked right-handed pitching for a .313 average, .356 OBP and .492 slug for a .869 OPS.
I don’t see room for both Yepez and Burleson unless the DH is a strong factor in the decision-making process. And even then — not sure. But I think it’s safe to say that both will play for the Cardinals in 2023. Yepez could have an edge. Burleson is strictly a corner outfielder. In 2022, Yepez played left field, right field, first base and third base. He isn’t exactly graceful in the field, but Yepez brings versatility that gives manager Oli Marmol flexibility in setting matchups. Marmol also thinks highly of Burleson, and loves the big man’s swing. So there’s that.
OK, let’s return to the Main Event.
In the starting lineup for the Cardinals at age 20.
A big-leaguer at age 20.
Is it time? Is it real, or fantasy? Do we believe? Or are we rushing to conclusions after Walker’s blazing start in Grapefruit League action?
Through his first seven games and 21 at-bats through Sunday, Walker was hitting .429 with three homers, three doubles and nine hits. His slugging percentage was 1.000. And it’s true; Wallet has created the kind of buzz in camp that’s reminiscent of the rookie Albert Pujols in 2001.
“We’re a handful of games in and there’s still a lot of camp left,” Marmol said to reporters over the weekend. “But if it’s a matter of if he’s showing well and showing that he can hold his own at the big league level at the moment? Yeah, he’s showing that he’s capable.”
That’s the most important part. So don’t worry about Jordan Walker, the outfield and how the Cardinals will set up for the regular season. If you want to worry about something, just about 100 percent of your focus should be on the team’s starting pitching.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. We recorded a fresh pod on Monday, March 6. Give it a listen.
All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.
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.