No area of the 2023 Cardinals is more intriguing than the outfield. The allocation of playing time is undetermined, and there are plenty of options available for manager Oli Marmol. There’s no true star in this group, but potential abounds.
Let’s introduce the candidates, and I’ll list them in order of most MLB playing time for the 2022 Cardinals …
— There’s Dylan Carlson, the talented 33rd overall selection in the 2016 MLB draft who stalled in 2022.
— We can’t exclude super–utility apparatus Brendan Donovan, who played six defensive positions as a rookie last season including 39 games and 287 innings in left or right field.
— Say hello again to the big fella, Tyler O’Neill, who hopes that a revised offseason training regimen will lead to less time on the IL and more time in the lineup.
— There’s Statcast star Lars Nootbaar, who suddenly emerged as a lineup force over the final three months of the 2022 season.
— We can’t forget about Juan Yepez, who slugged .447 as a rookie. In addition to serving as a DH and playing a little at first base and third base, he played 40 games in a corner-outfield spot in 2022.
— Don’t dismiss Alec Burleson, rated as the Cardinals’ sixth-best prospect by Baseball America.
— On the way to the show is No. 1 prospect Jordan Walker, the ballyhooed 20-year-old natural who is vying for a spot on the opening-day 26-man roster.
— Moises Gomez led the minors with 39 homers and a .624 slugging percentage last season and was added to STL’s 40-man roster.
— Former St. Louis prospect Oscar Mercado is back with the organization after playing 278 games in the majors and failing to establish himself offensively.
Now that we’ve introduced the contestants, I’ll present my first St. Louis Outfield Rankings for 2023. This is a fluid situation, so I’ll provide updates when warranted. I’ll try my best to make this a quick-read exercise.
No. 1, Lars Nootbaar
Over the final three months of 2022, Nootbaar ranked fourth among MLB outfielders (minimum 250 plate appearances) with a 152 wRC that translates to 52 percent above league average offensively. The only outfielders who exceeded that were Aaron Judge, Randy Arozarena and Juan Soto. Over that time Noot was third among big-league outfielders in OPS (.891), and Isolated Power (.263) and ranked sixth in slugging (.517) and onbase percentage (.374). His hitting spree included 12 homers, 13 doubles and three triples. And Nootbaar walked nearly as many times (41) as he struck out (43) which we don’t see very often.
Oh, and Nootbaar ranked ninth among MLB right fielders (for the season) with three defensive runs saved, and his arm was rated among the top six percent.
As a hitter Noot’s average exit velocity (97.1 mph) was among the top 10 percent in the majors, his barrel rate was in the top 15 percent, his hard-hit rate was in the top 20 percent, his sprint speed was in the top 26%, his walk rate (14.7%) was in the top two percent.
Two questions: (1) can he sustain this type of performance over an extended period of time? And (2) can he be an effective center fielder? Nootbaar was fine in center last season but played only 80 innings there.
No. 2, Tyler O’Neill
No question, his 2022 season was disappointing. A series of ailments kept him from playing in 41 percent of the team’s games and limited him to 383 plate appearances. I understand the frustration with O’Neill – but am puzzled by the increasing tendency to wave him off as a serious factor for 2023. I’m also surprised that so many people forget how much impact he has on the competition when he can stay in the lineup … which is why the idea of giving up on him is kooky.
O’Neill still finished a tick above average offensively last season with a 101 OPS+. And when he could play, O’Neill was among the best RBI men on the team, driving in a run (or runs) in 36.5 percent of his RBI opportunities. That was the fourth-best on the team behind Paul Goldschmidt (47%), Albert Pujols (42.6%) and Nolan Arenado (38.4.) O’Neill also had an excellent .897 OPS with runners in scoring position.
Remember, the more he plays the better he hits. So the key, obviously, is sturdy baseball health. Even with the stops-and-starts in his five seasons as a Cardinal, O’Neill’s .468 career slugging percentage ranks 16th in franchise history among 86 primary outfielders that made at least 1,000 career plate appearances for the Redbirds. And per OPS+, O’Neill is 17 percent above league average offensively for his career which ranks 24th among outfielders.
Even though he’s missed so much time with injuries, here’s where O’Neill ranks among MLB left fielders (minimum 900 plate appearances) over the last two seasons:
2nd in WAR, 6.9
2nd in stolen bases, 29
3rd in wRC+, 126
3rd in slugging, .491
3rd in OPS, .825
3rd in baserunning (per FanGraphs)
4th in home runs, 48
4th in Isolated Power,
5th in RBI, 138
O’Neill also won the Gold Glove in left field in 2020 and 2021.
O’Neill wants to take command in center field for 2023. If he does that, the outfield cards will be shuffled. And at some point we could see a starting outfield of Jordan Walker in left, O’Neill in center, and Nootbaar in right … with Dylan Carlson as the unofficial fourth outfielder. But most of the primary outfielders are interchangeable. Folks who fixate on three starters have to recalculate and adjust and understand that we’ll see a lot of outfield combos in 2023 — rather than a set threesome of “starters” in 2023.
And there are plenty of at-bats to distribute in the DH slot.
Many outfielders will be used.
Many outfielders will get plenty of at-bats.
No. 3, Dylan Carlson
Carlson had a strong second half in 2021, performing 27 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. He had three terrific months in 2022, providing offense that was 30 percent above league average from the start of May through the end of July. But he’s been unable to sustain traction or momentum because of irritating injuries and his problems against right-handed pitching. On the positive side of the ledger: (1) Carlson is still only 24 years old; (2) He ranked seventh among MLB center fielders last season in defensive runs saved; (3) he owns a career .317 batting average against lefty pitching with a .377 OBP and .492 slug. Carlson should be prominent in the outfield mix in 2023, but is he ready for a career liftoff? His playing time will depend on the answer. But he could lose ground to other outfielders in 2023 unless he can come through with a true breakout season.
No. 4, Brendan Donovan
I wasn’t sure where to put him, because I don’t know how much we’ll see him stationed in left field and right field. If Jordan Walker doesn’t make the big club out of spring training and spends a couple of months (or longer) at Triple A Memphis, then Donovan will probably have more turns on the outfield grass. As a rookie in 2022, Donovan ranked seventh in the majors in onbase percentage (.394) among 167 hitters that accrued at least 450 plate appearances. The only six MLB hitters with a higher onbase percentage were Aaron Judge, Freddie Freeman, Yordan Alvarez, Goldschmidt, Yandy Diaz and Juan Soto.
Donovan bats from the left side. But in 2022, he had a .389 OBP vs. RH pitching, and a .421 OBP vs. lefties. If Donovan can come close to repeating that, his essential OBP skill must stay in the lineup. The corner outfield is one of many stations he’ll occupy in 2023. How much? Well, that’s to be determined. The performance of other outfielders is a factor.
No. 5, Jordan Walker
Obviously one of the top prospects in baseball is capable of zooming up the list in future STL outfield rankings, but we don’t know when Walker will graduate to the majors. Could be at the start of the season. Could be in May or June or at the All-Star break. He’s never played above Double A, and we don’t know if Cardinals management would prefer giving him additional development time at Triple A. On the other hand, baseball headquarters might be eager to install Walker in the big leagues ASAP. I’m just saying: Walker’s abundant talent, intelligence and maturity transcends the No. 5 ranking on this list. But I’m in no rush to move him on up before he leaves the minor leagues behind, and we aren’t there yet. And the Cardinals have to be sure that he’s ready; they won’t put him on the big team just to have him sit on the bench. Once he’s here, he’ll play a lot.
Here’s what the Cardinals have in Walker: the No. 2 prospect in all of MLB according to Baseball Prospectus; the No. 4 overall MLB prospect at MLB Pipeline and at Baseball America; the No. 5 overall MLB prospect on Keith Law’s ratings at The Athletic.
Last season Walker spent the full season at Double A Springfield at age 20 and as the youngest hitter in the league batted .306 with a .388 OBP and .510 slug – plus 31 doubles and 19 home runs. He followed that with a .558 slug and .925 OPS in 21 games at the Arizona Fall League. Last season his hard-hit rate was crazy good, and his elite sprint speed was pretty remarkable for an athlete of his size.
Get ready, ‘cause here he comes. Just don’t ask me to pick the date of arrival.
No. 6, Juan Yepez
I mentioned the .447 slugging percentage in his rookie season. But that doesn’t guarantee anything. Yepez was slugging .500 as of July 7 of last year. But he went into a deep slump, got hurt, was stowed at Memphis and slugged .268 over his final 20 regular-season games. Yepez hit only one homer in his last 75 at-bats, but came off the bench in the 7th inning to loft a huge two-run that lifted the Cards to a 2-0 lead over the Phillies in Game 1 of the 2022 wild-card series. (Unhappy ending for the locals, though.) Yepez will have an opportunity to make his case for playing time, but I don’t know if that will lead to a busy role as a corner outfielder. DH might be his home.
No. 7, Alec Burleson
In 53 plate appearances for the Cardinals late last season he batted only .188. I throw that out because it means nothing in assessing his long-term outlook as a big-league hitter. That said, the Cardinals were hoping that Burleson would have early success, make a positive impression, turn some heads, and earn a spot on the postseason roster. It obviously didn’t happen for him. Sure, it was a very small opportunity, but “Burly” could have taken advantage of his first chance to get a head start for 2023. It’s difficult to see where he fits in terms of his next MLB opportunity. If Jordan is destined to begin his 2023 at Triple A Memphis, Burleson has a shot to hit his way onto STL’s opening 26-man roster with a robust display of offense during the spring exhibition games.
Here’s the most recent scouting report from Baseball America:
“Burleson’s profile is heavily driven by his ability to hit for both average and power. He’s a career .300 hitter in the minors, and while he hit just .188 for St. Louis, he also struck out just 17% of the time. Burleson’s swing is geared for contact, with a flatter bat path that is adept at spraying a high rate of line drives to all fields. He’s a plus bat-to-ball hitter who runs high in-zone contact rates. Burleson’s approach borders on aggressive, and he’s prone to expanding the zone. His stout, 6-foot-2, 212-pound build has natural strength. His ability to muscle the ball manifests in his batted-ball data, with an average Triple-A exit velocity of 89.7 mph in 2022. While Burleson gets to above-average power in games, he never gets out of his line-drive focused approach and swing. Defensively, Burleson is limited to a corner, where his range and route-running are fringy. His arm is average but is strong enough to project to left or right field.
“The Future: Bat-driven corner-outfield prospects who are hit over power aren’t the most attractive profiles. Regardless, Burleson has performed dating back to his amateur days. He is a potential everyday corner outfielder capable of hitting at the top half of a lineup.”
No. 8, Moises Gomez
His power is damn impressive. After Tampa Bay gave up on Gomez because of his chronic strikeout problem, he improved his hitting approach by ditching a leg kick. That cut down on his lunging, helped him see the incoming pitches better, and enabled Gomez to become a more physically balanced hitter at the plate. That said, he still struck out 34.5 percent of the time in a 2022 season split between Double A and Triple A. The Cardinals’ front office is captivated by Gomez, and he’ll likely make his major-league debut in 2023. Could be as a DH. Could be as an outfielder if others flop and create an opportunity for him. But at this point it’s virtually impossible to predict a role – or playing time for him – this soon in the 2023 cycle. But at age 24, Gomez has plenty of time to find his place in the Cardinal universe.
No. 9, Oscar Mercado
The right-handed hitting outfielder can play all three positions on the lawn and has been a plus defender at each spot. The Cardinals drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft, traded him to Cleveland in late July 2018, and signed him this past November after Philadelphia granted him free agency.
Mercado, 28, never lived up to his promise in the majors. In 267 games with the Guardians and (briefly) Phillies, he batted .235 with a .289 OBP and .388 slug. Per OPS+, Mercado has performed 20 percent below league average offensively in the majors. But Mercado plays good defense, runs well, doesn’t strike out much, and has some pop. He’s 24 percent below league average offensively during his career when facing RH pitching, but did slug .455 against them last season. He’ll be on standby at Triple A Memphis and can provide major-league depth for the Cardinals to cover for injuries or other negative developments. Hey, if Daniel DeLuzio could make it to the big leagues and appear in the postseason for the Cardinals last season, then the gate figures to be open for Mercado.
Finally: I won’t put him on the outfield rankings right now, but keep an eye on Matt Koperniak, age 25. This left-handed hitter is a high-OBP guy with solid power who played at three different levels of the STL system in 2021. Last season, in 108 combined games for Springfield and Memphis, Koperniak batted .291 with a .365 OBP and .443 slug.
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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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball America, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.