As regular readers know, Cardinals management frustrates me on several fronts. Not that anyone cares, especially the front office. There’s no reason for management to sweat. In 2023, the Cards will draw their 3 million-plus fans to Busch Stadium, slap around the competition in a mediocre division, score big numbers in their local broadcast ratings, and draw bustling crowds to Ballpark Village. It’s a failure-proof setup.
OK, now let’s talk about a front-office decision I’m aligned with for 2023. The baseball ops department is sticking with the plan to go with a starting outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar.
Others are lined up to patrol the outfield grass including No. 1 prospect Jordan Walker, young slugger Juan Yepez, and Alec Burleson. “Burly” didn’t do much at the plate late last season but his MLB debut consisted of just 48 at-bats which is pretty meaningless. I wouldn’t use such a small sample to predict his future.
Don’t forget Brendan Donovan. Last season the rookie won the first-ever National League Gold Glove awarded to a super-utility player, and his positional roaming included 37 games in a corner outfield spot.
I understand why the Cardinals – for the most part – have chosen to stay the course — with this outfield. Even with their injury issues and down seasons offensively in 2022, it makes little sense to give up on Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. And after seeing Lars Nootbaar perform at an elite level from early July until the end of the season, it would be absolutely crazy to reduce his role.
Hey, if you were in favor of giving free agent outfielder Andrew Benintendi five years and $75 million this offseason, good for you.
Among the outfielders that were eligible for free agency this offseason, the top two were inaccessible. Aaron Judge was out of play and re-upped with the Yankees at a total cost of $360 million over nine seasons. Brandon Nimmo wanted to stay with the Mets and did so on a new deal that pays $162 million over eight seasons.
The third-highest WAR (2.8) in the outfield free-agent class belonged to Benintendi. The White Sox will pay him at an average of $15 million per season through 2027.
Let’s compare Benintendi to the three presumptive outfield starters in St. Louis. Here’s the FanGraphs version of WAR for each player for the last two seasons combined:
* Nootbaar 3.3
I used the asterisk for a reason: over the past two years Benintendi had more than twice as many plate appearances (1,059) as Nootbaar (471.) If we prorate their WAR numbers over a 162-game season, Nootbaar has an average 3.2 WAR over the past two years; Benintendi averaged 2.8.
But … but … what about the injuries? Carlson and O’Neil … what about the injuries, Bernie?
Benintendi missed 33 days last season and has been out for 100 in-season days since the start of 2020. Ain’t exactly Cal Ripken Jr. on the endurance scale.
The Cardinals could have added a platoon bat for the outfield – I was in favor of that – and perhaps they’ll come to regret that. But if need be, they can always acquire an outfield bat to be named later in the summer of 2023.
Here’s why I support the John Mozeliak plan to go with the outfielders he already has:
1. Even if we factor in the injury problems with O’Neill, Carlson and Harrison Bader before Harry was traded to the Yankees last Aug. 2, the St. Louis outfield performed pretty well overall. Last season the Cardinals outfield was fifth in the majors with 11.0 fWAR. Bader was responsible for 1.5 WAR. But even if we subtracted that to adjust the STL outfield WAR to 9.5, that’s still a top-seven WAR among big-league outfield groups.
2. In 2021, Carlson and O’Neill were a huge part of a St. Louis outfield delegation that was third in the majors with 11.3 fWAR. Pretty impressive considering that Bader (68), O’Neill (43) and Carlson (10) combined for 121 days missed in 2021. That season Cardinal outfielders ranked in the bigs in batting average and were sixth in OPS, seventh in slugging and eighth in OBP. Nootbaar was a positive contributor late in the ‘21 season.
3. Of the returning outfielders for 2023, five finished above-average offensively in 2022. Using park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), with 100 being league average, here’s the rundown:
4. Are you sure you want to move on from Tyler O’Neill? Sure, the injuries are annoying but he’s spent all offseason working on his flexibility to give more elasticity to his hamstrings, neck, and other muscles. If he can stay on the field, watch out.
O’Neill is a two-time Gold Glover with very good speed. Among MLB outfielders that logged 800 or more plate appearances over the last two seasons (combined), here’s where O’Neill ranked in key categories:
wRC+: 11th at 130
Slugging: 7th at .500
OPS: 8th at .838
Homers: 10th, with 48
RBI: 12th, with 138
The numbers are more impressive when you consider that O’Neill ranked 35th in plate appearances (905) by MLB outfielders over the last two seasons. When he plays, he produces. O’Neill drove home 58 runs in 96 games last season. He was excellent when batting with runners in scoring position, hitting .299 with a .520 slug and .897 OPS.
5. I’m giving Carlson the benefit of the doubt. It must be difficult to hit the ball with authority or swing freely when you’re dealing with a sprained thumb and problematic wrist trouble. At his worst, Carlson still finished slightly above average (102 wRC+) in 2022.
Over a three-month stretch – May, June July – Carlson batted .273 with a .346 OBP and .459 slug for a .805 OPS. That translated to a 130 wRC+, which means he was 30 percent above league average in his 246 plate appearances during that time.
But the thumb pain surfaced and worsened, and the wrist continued to bother him, and here’s what happened from the start of August through the end of the season: a .206 average, .310 OBP, and .324 slug for a .634 OPS. He was 15 percent below league average offensively (wRC+) in 158 plate appearances.
From the second half of 2021 and through the end of July 2022, Carlson had a .329 OBP, .448 slug and .776 OPS and was 17 percent above league average per wRC+. After that, the injuries weakened his impact.
6. Nootbaar was outstanding last season after settling in for consistent playing time. In 257 plate appearances from July 11 through the end of the season Noot had a .374 OBP and .514 slug for a .888 OPS and a wRC+ that put him 53 percent above league average offensively. That’s not all. He hit a homer every 17.5 at-bats, walked at an elevated 16%, and struck out only 17 percent of the time.
Among MLB outfielders that had at least 240 plate appearances from July 11 on, Nootbaar ranked third in slugging, fourth in OPS, fourth in wRC+, seventh in homers, 7th in runs and eighth in OBP. He also had the fourth-highest walk rate and eighth–lowest strikeout rate.
7. Yepez shouldn’t get lost in all of the chatter about other outfielders. He made an instant impact as a rookie last season. And though Yepez began slumping in July and landed on the IL with a strained forearm, he finished with a .447 slugging percentage, 12 homers and 13 doubles in 253 at-bats and was 10 percent above league average offensively. He’s more of a DH-type but that doesn’t preclude some time at left field and right field.
8. I hope the Cardinals to save some room, and assure playing time, for Jordan Walker. Sometimes the hype is overblown and sets us up for disappointment, but Walker has a ton of positives going for him … not just his physical tools, but also his intelligence and maturity level. At age 20, Walker dominated during his first voyage in Double A baseball, then extended his exciting performance with 21 games in the Arizona Fall League. It would be absolutely ludicrous to block Walker from receiving a substantial opportunity at the big-league level in 2022. And the DH is in play for Walker and others.
9. I wouldn’t rule out Moises Gomez as a candidate for some big-league swings this season in an outfield-DH role. Last season, at age 23, splitting the year between Double A Springfield and Triple A Memphis, Gomez led all minor-league hitters with 39 home runs. He began the season at Springfield and had 23 homers and a .705 slugging percentage in 224 at-bats. After moving up a level in the promotion to Memphis, Gomez had 16 homers and a .541 slug in 218 at-bats. For the season, Gomez homered every 11.3 ABs. But I’ll pause to inform you that Gomez struck out in 34.7 percent of his 501 plate appearances last season. But if he can reduce the whiffs with extra developmental time at Memphis in 2023, we could see him in St. Louis next summer.
10. For what it’s worth, the outfielder projections for 2023 are positive. I don’t have the ZiPS forecast yet, so let’s go with the Steamer projections. I’ll use wRC+, to see how many Cardinal outfielders are forecast to hit above the 100 league average:
And the forecasts show good power numbers for O’Neill, Nootbar, and Yepez plus improved onbase percentage and slugging for Carlson.
That’s all for now. If the Cardinals make a move or two that would influence what I’ve just written about the potential 2023 outfield, I’ll circle back with an update.
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 Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, 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.