THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals have used seven outfielders in 24 games. And this doesn’t include Juan Yepez, who was on the team for a while, serving as an injury sub for Lars Nootbaar.
Manager Oli Marmol has used 12 different outfield combinations in the 24 games. And since Nootbaar returned from a thumb injury on April 15, Marmol has deployed six different outfield configurations in 10 games.
There’s a three-part problem: (1) Too many outfielders; (2) not enough at-bats to spread around; (3) insufficient offense from the outfield crew.
Nootbaar has done well since coming back from the IL, and is 52 percent league average offensively per adjusted runs created. Nootbaar draws many walks to fuel his .442 onbase percentage. He has two homers in 32 at-bats and is slugging .469. Nootbaar is real. Barring injury, he’ll be an outfield fixture this season.
Rookie Jordan Walker got off to a hot start, went into a slump, began to turn it around, and then was pulled from the lineup to spend two days working with hitting coach Turner Ward on a swing change to lower his ground-ball rate, and elevate his fly-ball percentage for more power. Walker is around league average offensively, but pitchers have been getting the best of him lately. Since the end of his record-tying 12-game hitting streak, Walker is batting .192. But he’s in a different category – never having played above Double A ball before this season – and patience is a must.
Tyler O’Neill can’t gain traction. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up … just depends on day to day, or week to week. You just don’t know what to expect from him. But add it all up, and O’Neill has two homers and six RBI in 77 plate appearances and is four percent league average offensively per adjusted runs created. His slugging percentage is barely above .400. But he’s batting only .241 with a lethargic .345 slug over his last nine games.
Rookie Alec Burleson is slumping, hitting .200 with little power in 49 plate appearances in his last 13 games.
Dylan Carlson had two hits against the Giants in Tuesday’s loss, but both came against lefty pitchers. He’s traditionally strong against lefties and weak against righthanders. The problem: the Cards have faced righty pitchers in 80 percent of their plate appearances. Carlson is batting .182 with an anemic .242 slugging percentages against righties, so it makes little sense to use him when opponents start right-handed pitchers.
Since Nootbaar returned on April 15, here’s how manager Oli Marmol has distributed the outfielder plate appearances:
37 for Nootbaar
27 for O’Neill
24 for Walker
22 for Carlson
17 for Burleson.
(Two notes: Burleson has another 17 plate appearances as a DH during this time, and Brendan Donovan has also played some outfield this season – but not much.)
So you can see where Marmol is generally headed with this: all-in on Nootbaar, with the rest of the at-bats split between O’Neill, Walker, Carlson and Burleson.
Even with Nootbaar pumping up the team’s OBP and slugging, the remixed outfield hasn’t produced all that much since Noot’s April 15 return.
During the 10-game period with Nootbaar reinstalled in the lineup, the St. Louis outfield group is batting .229 with a Lars-injected .333 OBP and a mediocre .344 slugging percentage. Collectively the outfielders are 16 percent below average since April 15 in offensively per adjusted runs created. And they’ve homered twice in 110 plate appearances.
Marmol has a challenging set of circumstances.
— The outfielders need to do a better job offensively. But only Nootbaar is delivering impact, and the other outfielders are struggling for consistency and more impressive numbers.
— How can the lurching outfielders raise their performance quality when they’re in and out of the lineup? Platoon baseball is nothing new, and Marmol believes in it. But O’Neill and the younger hitters that are in a funk or lacking in confidence would benefit from playing as much as possible. It’s their only way back to where they want to be offensively. But that isn’t feasible these days.
– During his career, the more O’Neill plays the more he does offensively. I’ve done a file on this before; his most productive offense appears in the months when he plays on a near-daily basis. And his best season, 2021 took root when he had a career high 537 plate appearances. O’Neill homered 34 times, drove in 80 runs, slugged. .560 and had an OPS+ that was 50 percent above league average in ‘21. Will the Cardinals ever see him do that again? Not if he’s on the bench too often.
– Carlson hasn’t delivered much offense since the start of the 2022 season, and it hurts the team to use him against right-handed pitchers. But how can he sharpen up and revive his offense if he’s limited to facing lefties? Again, the Cardinals don’t see many lefties. Would Carlson benefit from some time in the minors and having a chance to get three or four at bats every day?
– If Walker is in the big leagues, it’s imperative to have him in the lineup. He can’t develop and improve and figure out major-league pitchers by sitting in the dugout three or four days per week. Marmol has to be patient and endure Walker’s slumps. And he has no choice to go another way as long as the rookie is on the big club. Or, he could regroup at Triple A Memphis.
In an ideal scenario, the Cardinals would be pitching great and turning the season around. And if the team can start winning a lot of games, it would give Marmol a chance to keep working on the tricky outfield puzzle.
Marmol doesn’t have that luxury. The Cardinals are under intense pressure to win now, and it’s a bad time to have an in-season outfielder tryout camp. It’s a bad time to be experimenting with outfield combinations. Unless the Cardinals trade O’Neill or Carlson or demote Carlson to the minors, this quandary will remain.
If all of these fellows were putting up good offensive numbers, there would be nothing to worry about. But only Nootbaar is performing above average.
Under the current front office, the outfield herd is still going around in circles, and something has to change. Management has a history of clogging up the outfield, hoping to find a miracle combination and fearing another failure. And Marmol has to handle a tricky situation. It isn’t fair. But it is reality. And some hard decisions must be made. For now? Play your best outfield and stick with it for a while. It probably would help to thin the herd.
UPDATE: The Cardinals have sent Jordan Walker to Triple A Memphis.
Thanks for reading …
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.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.