It’s time for an updated version of the Cardinals’ outfielder rankings. My second edition of the spring. These are through Friday morning, March 10. All stats were through March 9.
1. Lars Nootbaar: I had him at the top spot in my first rankings, and there’s no reason to change that. Nootbaar has become an instant hit-sensation in Japan. In his first two games of the WBC, Nootbaar ignited Japan to wins over China and Korea by going 4 for 8 with two walks, four runs scored, a stolen base, and an RBI. He’s batting .500 with a .636 onbase percentage. Late Friday night (U.S. time) Nootbar started in center field and made a diving catch in Japan’s 13-4 takedown of Korea.
(By the way: Japan bruised former Cardinal pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim for four earned runs in two innings. And Cardinals shortstop Tommy Edman, batting leadoff for Korea, went 0 for 4 against Japan and is 1 for 8 through two games.)
Nootbaar was born to a Japanese mother and an American father of Dutch descent. He’s the first player for Team Japan to be born outside of the nation. Nootbaar has already become a huge celebrity in Japan. When he joined the Japan team at the pre-tournament camp, his teammates welcomed him by wearing T-shirts at practice with “Tacchan” written in Japanese — derived from his middle name, Tatsuji. The name was bestowed as a tribute to Nootbaar’s Japanese grandfather. Nootbaar was thrilled.
Nootbaar’s pepper-grinder routine – grind out those at-bats! – has caught on with Shohei Ohtani and his other WBC teammates.
Videos are popping up showing joyful Japanese Little League players doing the pepper-grinder gesture. When Nootbaar is out in public, he often draws an enthusiastic crowd of supporters who seek his autograph. Ohtani loves him.
There’s only one Ohtani, but Nootbaar may be the second most popular player in Japan these days. “The fans here have been amazing,” Nootbaar said during a postgame interview late Thursday.
The energetic Nootbaar made an impact on the Cardinals’ team culture in 2022, and now he’s doing the same for Japanese baseball. He even delivered a pregame pep talk to teammates before the win over Korea.
This is incredible.
Lars Nootbaar giving the pregame speech for Team Japan today is everything.
— Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) March 10, 2023
For Nootbaar the best part of playing for Japan is knowing that his grandfather, Tatsuji Enokida, is watching the games.
In an interview with the Japan Times, the 84-year-old Enokida said “I am proud to see Lars wearing the Japanese uniform. I hope he hits many home runs and helps Samurai Japan win the championship. I will be very happy if he plays a role in strengthening ties between Japan and the U.S. through baseball.”
Nootbaar is one of a kind. And he remains No. 1 in our outfield rankings.
2. Jordan Walker: St. Louis is waiting for him. Over the past seven days Walker is 7 for 14 (.500) with two homers, a double, and four RBI. He has four multi-hit games this spring. After the Cardinals defeated the Yankees 4-0 earlier this week, Walker was praised by New York ace Gerrit Cole for making smart adjustments from one at-bat to the next.
3. Dylan Carlson: even though it’s only the Grapefruit League, his early performance vs. RH pitching is a positive. Anything that bolsters Carlson’s confidence is a plus.
4. Tyler O’Neill: Before heading off to the WBC to join Team Canada, O’Neill was only 2 for 14 with four strikeouts for the Cardinals this spring. Canada will likely have a short stay in the WBC, and O’Neill can get back on track when he returns to Jupiter.
5. Brendan Donovan: He’s crushing it this spring with his added strength and remodeled swing that’s produced two home runs, a .750 slug and 1.194 OPS. As you know, he’ll see action at six positions this season including left field and right field. Even though others are likely to play a lot more outfield than Donovan, I want to include him in the outfielder rankings. If I knew that Donovan would be set for a substantial increase in outfield playing time in 2023, I’d rate him higher. But even if he’s just a part-time outfielder, Donovan makes the group better.
No. 6, and No. 7: We have a virtual tie between Juan Yepez and Alec Burleson. I feel comfortable ranking them this way because there isn’t much to separate them at this stage. They’ve combined for 41 at-bats this spring and each guy has only one extra-base hit – a double. We’re waiting for one of them to kick in. Time for the pepper grinder, fellas.
8. Moises Gomez: He’s had 23 at-bats and 10 have ended in a strikeout.
9. Mike Antico: In 2022 he split the season between High A and Double A and stole 67 bases. But his OPS (.739) wasn’t exciting, and his power has been off and on … though Antico did loft three homers in 40 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League after the season. This spring Antico is 3 for 11 with five strikeouts.
We know he can fly around the bases, seems to be a decent OBP guy, and is said to be skilled defensively. So Antico has attributes, and I can’t dismiss his power potential. In 2021 he slugged .489 while playing high-level college ball at Texas, then slugged .490 in his minor-league debut at low-A Palm Beach to cap the season. His power leveled off (.395 slug) during the 2022 regular season, but he rebounded for a .450 slug in the Arizona Fall League. Overall Antico has a .343 OBP and .412 slug during 170 games in the minors. We’ll learn a lot more about him in 2023.
10. Oscar Mercado: Quiet. He’s 0 for 9 with two strikeouts.
Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend…
Bernie invites you to listen to his 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 in this column were from 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.