A little more than a year ago, the Cardinals were watching wonderful all-around play from their outfielders and were looking at a gleaming future. They were seemingly set for years to come.
Left fielder Tyler O’Neill was having a monstrous break-out season offensively, highlighted by 34 homers, a .560 slugging percentage, .912 OPS and his second consecutive Gold Glove award.
Center fielder Harrison Bader was on the way to his best year in the bigs and would finish with 16 homers, 50 RBI, a .460 slug, 15 steals and his first Gold Glove.
In his first full MLB season, right fielder Dylan Carlson overcame a slow start to put up 18 homers, 31 doubles, 65 RBI, a .343 onbase percentage and .437 slug.
They peaked during the second half of the 2021 season. Using park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), all three were above average offensively after the All-Star break, led by O’Neill at +56 percent, Carlson at +27%, and Bader at +17%.
Their individual performances gave the Cardinals one of the top offenses among MLB outfields during the second half of the season, with their outfield group ranking 2nd in batting average (.287), 4th in onbase percentage (.350), 2nd in slugging (.518), 4th in OPS (.868), 4th in homers (45) and 4th in RBI (125.)
And now look …
Bader is gone, traded to the Yankees earlier this week for starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery. Bader became expendable after a sharp downturn on offense, a lingering foot injury, and his 107 in-season days spent on the OL since the start of 2021.
Carlson’s emergence as a plus defender in center field made it easier for the Cardinals to commit to him there and move Bader’s remaining $6.5 million in salary owed through 2023. But Carlson has been up and down offensively and his hitting numbers have dropped in virtually every meaningful categories since last season – including a 16-point decrease in adjusted runs created. But there’s still time for “DC” to crank it up.
O’Neill is experiencing a glaring decline in performance in 2022, with only five home runs, a .360 slug, and .650 OPS in 202 at-bats. O’Neill’s decrease in power-ball offense is massive. Last season he was 48 percent above league average in OPS+ but is 13% below standard this season. Equally troubling is the frustrating sequence of injuries that’s caused O’Neill to miss 44 in-season days in 2022. He missed 24 days with injuries in 2021, and has missed 131 days since making his Cardinal debut in 2018.
Other outfielders have pumped offense into the lineup – especially Juan Yepez – and Lars Nootbaar and Corey Dickerson have heated up. But it isn’t the same as having a top-five outfield offense that featured two Gold Glove winners in 2021.
That 2021 vision of a formidable all-purpose outfield is fading. Which leads to an obvious question: now what? I don’t know, and that’s up to the Cardinals to decide. But excluding Carlson’s ownership of center field, two spots could be up for grabs in 2023.
-– O’Neill is the key here. On one hand, we saw his immense talent on full display last season, and he received MVP votes because of it. But after an encouraging start to his Cardinal career – a .500 slugging percentage in 2018 at age 23 – O’Neill has been below average offensively in 2019, 2020 and (so far) 2022. O’Neill is being paid $3.4 million this season and has two more years to go before becoming eligible for free agency in 2025. I doubt that the Cardinals would move on from him after this season, but his salary cost will continue to rise. Can he stay healthy? Can he rebound and finish strong in 2022? Have the Cardinals lost confidence in him? But even if O’Neill rallies during the remainder of the season, will he struggle again next season? And will he spend even more time on the IL. These are reasonable questions.
— Juan Yepez, 24, has 11 homers, 10 doubles and a .459 slugging percentage in 209 at-bats in his first MLB season. But he’s cost the Cardinal pitchers four runs with his shaky defense in the corner-outfield spots, and profiles as more of a DH going forward … but with at least some duty in RF, LF, and at the corners of the infield.
— Nootbaar has talent and athleticism, and he’s trying to make a case for a more significant role. Going into Thursday’s doubleheader, Nootbaar had hit .390 with a 1.163 OPS and plenty of power in 50 plate appearances since July 5. Nootbaar has as many homers (5) as O’Neill this season – but in 89 fewer at-bats. And his slugging percentage is 56 points higher than O’Neill’s. Another plus for Noot: he’s an above-average defender in left field and right field. And even though he’s logged only 36 MLB innings in center, he’s handled the task with no problems. His strong arm deters runners from trying to advance extra bases.
UPDATE: Nootbar was at it again Thursday afternoon, tying the game 3-3 with a sac fly, then delivering the walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth … Cardinals 4, Cubs 3 in the first of two games at Busch Stadium. With this win, and a third straight loss by the Brewers at Pittsburgh, the Cardinals trail the Crew by only one game in the NL Central — and can cut that lead to a half-game by beating the Cubs tonight.
— The Cardinals recently moved their No. 1 prospect, Jordan Walker, to the outfield and will use him in all three spots. This was a smart – and belated – decision. Walker was drafted as a corner infielder, but the positions are filled by two All-Stars in St. Louis. (Dudes named Arenado and Goldschmidt.) Walker, only 20, has excelled at Double A Springfield with a .300 average, .384 OBP, .505 and .888 OPS. He’s the No. 7 overall prospect in the majors. We will see him in The Lou next season. And we’ll probably be seeing him at a corner-outfield place.
— Assuming that Alec Burleson actually exists – how can we be sure? – perhaps the Cardinals will acknowledge his presence and provide an opportunity later this season or in 2023. Burleson, a second-round draft choice in 2020, soon will turn 24 years old. The corner outfielder, who bats left, is having a strong season at Triple A Memphis. In 86 games Burly is batting .337 with a .941 OPS and 18 doubles, 19 homers and 73 RBI. The big man makes excellent contact, striking out on only 15% of his plate appearances. He could also be an offseason trade candidate. Who knows?
— Another intriguing outfield prospect is Moises Gomez, age 23. He played the first two-thirds of the season at Double A Springfield before moving up to Triple A Memphis. Overall Gomez has 29 homers and a .642 slugging percentage and a 1.022 OPS. The Cardinals were opportunistic in signing Gomez after Tampa Bay let him go. Warning: Gomez has struck out 127 times in 361 plate appearances for a strikeout rate of 35%.
— Corey Dickerson, 33, has been hitting well lately with a .313 average and .971 OPS in his last 52 plate appearances. But he’s here on a one-year contract and I’d be really surprised to see him back with the Cards next season. But depending how Dickerson does the rest of the way in 2022, I suppose it’s premature to rule him out entirely. And he certainly can contribute over STL’s final 58 games of the ‘22 campaign.
The Cardinals obviously have internal candidates for playing time this year and to fill a major role as soon as 2023. Especially Walker. The Cards could also search for outfield talent in the offseason free-agent market, and a trade is another way to go. After declining to give Washington a premium assortment of young talent to acquire outfielder Juan Soto, the Cardinals have the prospects to make deals.
Thanks for reading …
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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.