It’s time for another spin on the Cardinals’ outfield carousel, so take a ride with me.
It’s getting late in Camp Jupiter. The regular-season opener at good ol’ Cincinnati is a week from Thursday. April 1 isn’t a fool’s day, unless you’re striking out.
The number of at-bats is dwindling. The opportunity to make a positive, late-bid impression is fading but still possible.
And remember: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
(Those words of wisdom brought to you by Duke Ellington … not Duke Snider.)
All Grapefruit statistics through Sunday unless otherwise noted.
TYLER O’NEILL: Muscles is flaunting his power again. A batting average of .394. An onbase percentage of .412. A slugging percentage of .667. He’s pumped his OPS (1.078) to weight-room levels. And now for the only question that matters: Is this just another tease? It isn’t hype to say that O’Neill has displayed a more mature, intelligent approach to hitting. He’s ripped baseballs to all fields. He isn’t swinging for the fences, isn’t aiming to raze fences. This is good. And as the nags correctly remind us, It’s Only Spring Training!
And Bro’Neill’s skeptics have pieces of evidence to submit to the court: coming into Monday he was 1 for 9 with 5 strikeouts in his last three games. He has only one walk and 11 strikeouts. His strikeout rate for spring ball has inflated to 32.3%. This is the obligatory notice about small sample sizes. But with O’Neill, people will see what they want to see depending on their bias.
Bottom line: It’s been an encouraging spring-forward type of camp for O’Neill. But check back in a few days. If he keeps whiffing, tickets to the Theater of Overreaction will quickly sell out.
DYLAN CARLSON: Not that there was any reason for concern, but he’s on point now, reaffirming his status as a starting outfielder and likely impact bat. But will he be starting in right field, or center? Carlson is a switch-hitter, but his left side does more damage. In 17 plate appearances vs. RHP this spring, Carlson has a .429 OBP and .588 slug. Sliver sample and all of that. But in 423 plate appearances in a 2019 season split between Double A Springfield and Triple A Memphis, Carlson cranked on RHP for a .299 average, .381 OBP, and .551 slug. With 18 homers and 26 doubles.
Just wondering: if Carlson performs well offensively from here on out, does he get a shot to bat second, fourth or fifth in the lineup and really make an impact? Or will he have to sit at the kids’ table? As I type this Carlson is 2 for 2 with a homer against Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara. He’s driven in both Cardinals’ runs. But this is an in-progress report; the game goes on.
HARRISON BADER: “Harry” — as manager Mike Shildt calls him — entered Monday’s game against the Marlins with three hits in 25 at-bats. And against RHP, Bader was 1 for 15 with five strikeouts. (Update: Bader went 0 for 2 early on in Monday’s game. vs. Miami’s RH starter, Alcantara.) If the bat remains dormant and becomes a severe liability instead of being stuck at the usual average or below-average, how much value will Shildt place on Bader’s defense? As we know, Carlson can play center. Lane Thomas can play center. There are alternatives. That said, I’d be surprised if Bader isn’t the starting center fielder when the real baseball gets underway. If so, we’ll see what he can do. (I just shrugged.)
LANE THOMAS: Got off to a helluva start in the Grapefruit League proceedings but it didn’t hold; going into Monday Thomas was 1 for 14 with five strikeouts since March 7. The droop has lowered his average to .250 with a .296 OBP and .333 slug. And overall the righthanded-hitting Thomas is 1 for 11 with five strikeouts against RHP. Thomas didn’t have much of a problem handling RH pitching during his last two seasons in the minors; he had an .854 OPS against them in ‘18, and an .837 OPS vs. the rights in ‘19. Thomas can play. This is the distress of spring training. Guys who aren’t fixtures have to give the club a reason for excitement, but the opportunities are limited. Thomas figures to open the season with the big club unless the Cards decide to go with four outfielders — with Justin Williams as the No. 4. Every time I write about these situations the same thought comes to mind: isn’t it silly to base roster decisions on such a skimpy number of at-bats?
JUSTIN WILLIAMS: We’ve noted Carlson’s switch-hitting profile and strength from the left side. But Williams would give the Cardinals a pure LH hitter, and that’s a factor considering that MLB hitters will face RH pitchers in around 75% of their at-bats during the season. During his time in the minors Williams didn’t exactly mash RH pitching along the way — until 2019. In 139 plate appearances for Memphis that season Williams hit .292 with a .898 OPS. This spring he’s 5 for 16 against righties (.313) with an .853 OPS. Having Williams as an outfield option makes sense. Dude hits the ball hard.
The situation is complicated. Is Williams out of minor-league options? The answer is forthcoming from an arbitrator … any day now? Who the heck knows? No rush, or anything. Teams only have to set their rosters.
(Basically: the option debate stems from last year’s shortened season, and whether it should count for — or against — a player’s number of remaining options. As it pertains to option rules, was 2020 a full season, even if it fell short of the required 90 days? That’s the question.)
This is a big deal. If Williams has only three options, the Cardinals could lose him on waivers if they attempt to send him to Memphis. I’d be very surprised if they made that gamble. Williams is still only 25, and he has tools. And that left-handed swing. But if Williams is declared a fourth-option player, and the Cardinals want to get him more at-bats at Memphis, they wouldn’t risk losing him by dispatching him there. This decision obviously impacts the construction of the Cards roster. Mostly the makeup of the bench — four or five players — and the size of the pitching staff.
AUSTIN DEAN: The math doesn’t add up. Despite the high strikeout total (nine), he started the week with a .333 average and a .763 OPS. There’s some power in Dean’s swing, but if he had to bomb away to make the big club, that hasn’t happened. If the Cardinals carry four outfielders, Dean won’t be here. But even if they carry five outfielders, it won’t be easy to set the 26-man roster.
Thanks for reading…
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