First, a few words about Dexter Fowler’s time as a Cardinal to begin my latest Bern Baby Bern blog. I sincerely wish him well. Fowler is a good person who didn’t pay off as a hitter or defender. Before the 2017 season the Cardinals were well aware of the risk in signing a 31-year-old outfielder to a five-year contract for $82.5 million.
Was the Dexter Deal a total bust? Of course not. Fowler performed well in 2017, delivering one of the best offensive seasons of his career. (Highlighted by a .363 onbase percentage and .488 slugging pct.) He surged late in the 2019 season, just in time to make a difference in the Cards’ successful drive to win 91 games and the NL Central title.
The problem was inconsistency, a collapse of his offense as a righthanded hitter and a surprisingly weak showing as a leadoff man. During his four seasons in St. Louis, Fowler had a .671 OPS when he batted first in the lineup, and a .782 OPS when he hit in other spots.
Fowler already had lost ground defensively by the time he came to the Cardinals. No one should have been shocked by his difficulties afield.
Let’s go forward and take a look at the team’s largely young and mostly unproven outfield.
By trading Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels in a logical salary removal, the Cardinals opened more space and a land of opportunity in their outfield. In management’s hopeful vision, Busch Stadium will turn into a garden … a site where outfielders grow.
Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball ops John Mozeliak have frequently spoken of the team’s desire to give increased playing-time freedom to a group of maturing outfielders.
And with Fowler cleared out, we can glance at the new setup: left fielder Tyler O’Neill, center fielder Harrison Bader, and rookie right fielder Dylan Carlson. Others will be involved: Lane Thomas, Justin Williams and, when he isn’t playing second base, Tommy Edman.
Edman’s role isn’t as defined. He’s taking over at 2B for Kolten Wong. But given Edman’s plus-level defensive versatility, he’ll likely do some roaming in 2021: second base, third base, corner outfield, maybe a few shifts in center. A lot of that depends on how the other outfielders are doing. Another variable is Matt Carpenter; if he has a live bat he figures to get some turns at 2B, especially if there’s no DH.
For now, let’s focus on the outfield-only bunch: Bader (26 years old), O’Neill (25), Carlson (21), Thomas (24), Williams (24.)
Other than Bader, none are close to having 1,000 plate appearances on their big-league profile. Bader has 1,050 followed by O’Neill (450), Carlson (119), Thomas (84) and Williams (7).
They haven’t had much success offensively. But it doesn’t make much sense to make firm conclusions on any of these guys based on their sample sizes. Put it this way: Bader has accounted for 61.4 percent of the MLB plate appearances made by this in-development band.
For what it’s worth here are the combined MLB career stats of Bader, O’Neill, Carlson, Thomas and Williams — rolled into one profile to give us a peek into what the the Cardinals are working with:
- Games: 610
- MLB Plate Appearances: 1,710
- At-Bats: 1,517
- .229 batting average
- .307 onbase percentage
- .405 slugging percentage
- .712 OPS
- Home run rate: one every 25.2 at-bats.
- 30% strikeout rate.
- 8.4% walk rate
- Wins Above Replacement: 9.2 And 6.6 of that WAR belongs to Bader.
OK, what if we added Edman’s numbers into this statistical soup?
A little better:
- .242 batting avg
- .314 onbase
- .416 slug
- .730 OPS
- One HR every 27 at-bats
- 27% strikeout rate
- 7.7% walk rate
- 14.2 WAR (Edman has 5.0 WAR in his two seasons.)
Either way, this collective outfield is below average offensively. (But you knew that already. It’s early.) To gauge that, I used the splits tool at FanGraphs. Over the last three seasons MLB outfielders combined for a .255 batting average and .764 OPS. They struck out at a rate of 23.8% and banged a homer every 25.8 at-bats.
The other challenge will be hitting against RH pitching. Based on park-adjusted runs created — and 100 is league average — here is each young outfielder’s wRC+ in the big leagues vs. righthanders:
Thomas 108, Edman 100, O’Neill 94, Bader 83, Carlson 66
I didn’t include Williams, who has only seven MLB plate appearances. And Thomas (65 PA) and Carlson (105) haven’t batted against enough MLB righthanders to provide a meaningful sample.
I just wanted to give you the starting point.
There are very good defensive players in this set. Subtracting Fowler is a net plus for the outfield defense. O’Neill has won a Gold Glove in left, and Bader plays cold-caliber defense in center. Carlson, a Top 20 MB prospect, can handle center but is particularly strong in a corner spot. We saw his arm last season. Wow.
Carlson is a genuine talent with a disciplined hitting approach and plus (if not intimidating) power. He should develop into a lineup fixture. But how soon?
Thomas impressed in his brief MLB trial in 2019. Bader is good against LH pitching. O’Neill has booming power, inadequate plate discipline and a bit of a reverse platoon split. (Though he bats RH, O’Neill is 13 percent better vs. righty pitchers than lefties.)
Williams is the only LH-only batter; his statcast data, especially exit velocity, intrigues the Cardinals. Edman was dynamic offensively as a rookie in 2019 — 23 percent above league average — but finished 10 percent below average in ‘20.
Many are suggesting that the Cardinals go out and supplement this young crew by acquiring or signing a LH-hitting outfielder to supply a platoon option. I don’t disagree, but I’d be a little surprised to see it happen — only because DeWitt and Mozeliak are so enthusiastic about turning their young outfielders loose. (Then again, after the stunning Nolan Arenado trade … all bets are off!)
“Opportunity tells you, ultimately, what a player’s going to be,” DeWitt told me earlier this offseason. “We’ve been in a position where, talking about the outfield, we’ve had a number of outfielders and there hasn’t been, particularly with the young guys (a situation of) ‘Put me out there and let me play a full season, and then let me play next season.’
“We haven’t had that so much because we’re trying to win, and if someone gets hot you want to play them. We’ve had a number of them. There are only three spots in the outfield and you can’t play five outfielders. And I think that’s part of the dilemma here.
“We know that guys like Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and others have performed exceptionally well in Triple A and through the minors coming up. And you show progression there, into the major leagues. But there aren’t many players who pop into the major leagues and just turn it on right away.
“So patience and time is helpful. And I think that’s part of what we need to do in the future. This coming year and in the future. We need to put guys out there who we think have the talent and let ‘em play and see what we have.”
Weeks in advance of the Fowler trade, DeWitt offered a take on each of the projected starting outfielders:
Carlson: “He’s done everything you could ask of a player coming through the system. First round draft choice out of high school, moved up the ladder pretty quickly, lit it up in Double A and Triple A. He got an opportunity (with the Cardinals) and struggled a little bit early and then went down to Springfield, kind of regrouped, came back, and was everything we could hope for. We have high hopes for Dylan Carlson, and we have three spots in the outfield and certainly we can count on him for one of them.”
Bader: “He actually had a better year than you might (think.) His OPS was pretty strong given his defensive metrics. He has a lot of talent, and he certainly has the capability (to get better offensively.) He hits the ball hard, he’s an elite outfielder, he’s a great base runner, has elite speed. A lot of tools.”
O’Neill: “Tyler O’Neill is still viewed as a big talent. And until you continue to play him, we’re not going to know.”
Thomas: “He impressed us in Triple A. And we had a glimpse of what he’s capable of doing (in the majors) in 2019. Now it’s a matter of staying healthy.”
(Note: Thomas broke a hand in 2019 and was weakened by Covid last season. But in 2019 he had a 1.093 OPS in 44 plate appearances.)
Justin Williams: “Another talent. He has elite exit velocity when he makes contact, and had a big year in Triple A.”
This is why the Cardinals were willing to absorb $12.75 million of the guaranteed $14.5 million owed to Fowler in 2021. They needed his outfield space for younger outfielders, and were willing to pay the real estate tax to get it done. It was impossible to give Fowler 350 to 450 plate appearances here — and also tend to the garden.
DeWitt and Mozeliak may be right about these younger outfielders. They may be wrong. But they need to find out. They must find out. The Cardinals haven’t forgotten the lesson of Randy Arozarena. He never received anything close to a full opportunity in St. Louis before the Cards traded him to Tampa Bay to become an instant postseason star. That can’t happen again.
If it helps the Cardinals cultivate a new and exciting outfield by moving Fowler out of there, it’s worth the price of paying the Angels to take him.
Thanks for reading …
Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. Listen to the show or show podcast online at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your preferred app store.