This is Part Two of my look at the confusing Cardinals’ outfield situation.
You can read Part I by clicking this link.
This piece won’t include speculation on potential trades. Because we have no idea what the Cardinals will do on that front. The possibilities are all over the place. So for the sake of my own sanity, I’m focusing on the outfielders who are here now. And I’m assuming that a few of them will be back in 2024. And it’s possible that we’ll see the Cardinals add an outfielder this coming offseason. One thing we know for sure: this organization LOVES to collect outfielders. But it also makes sense to begin the overdue streamlining process.
Since Oli Marmol took over as manager in 2022, the Cardinals have used 14 different fly catchers in the outfield. And 10 of the 14 have at least 160 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
The Cardinals outfield is like the two-lane road that narrows and funnels into one lane because of construction projects that never seem to end.
OK, what about 2024?
In no particular order, here are a few comments on each guy:
Jordan Walker: We know about the offense — it’s good, and on the way to being great. He’ll only get better. But thanks to the impactful coaching of Willie McGee, Walker is playing slightly above-average defense in right field this month. He’s been a plus defender over the past few weeks, with Walker significantly reducing the “minus” total in defensive runs saved. His jumps and his reads are much improved. He’ll be a good right fielder in 2024.
Tyler O’Neill: Because of frequent injuries and “load management” days, O’Neill has played in only 53.6 percent of the team’s games since the start of 2022. And he has only 23 homers and a .397 slugging percentage in 649 plate appearances. He makes $4.9 million this season and would be paid a higher salary if the Cardinals choose to keep him around for ’24. But haven’t they seen enough? Or maybe I should put it this way: haven’t they NOT seen him enough? It’s a ridiculous situation. The Cardinals have to move on. And I’m pretty sure they know this already.
Dylan Carlson: He plays a fine center field. But since the 2022 All-Star break, Carlson has been active for seven months of baseball — and he’s been below-average offensively in six of the seven. Since the 2022 All-Star break Carlson is 16 percent below league average offensively overall, and 33 percent below league average vs. right-handed pitching. His power has diminished at an alarming level and no one seems to know what to do about it. (I wish he would try batting exclusively from the right side. A more intelligent organization would have done this already.) Carlson’s batting line since the ’22 All-Star break is .213/.310/.333 with only eight home runs in 390 at-bats.
Brendan Donovan: I have to stretch this one out a bit. But I have some good stuff. Yes, I consider him as a contender for substantial playing time in left field next season when he returns from a surgical procedure on his right elbow. (He should be fine by spring training.) I’d have no problem with a regular outfield of Donovan in left, Nootbaar in center, and Walker in right — with Edman getting reps in CF when Marmol gets fidgety with his outfield combos. Over the last two seasons Donny has been credited with three defensive runs saved for his play in left. But his offense is the charmer; Donovan has performed at a rate of 21 percent above league average offensively in his one-plus seasons in the bigs. Already established as a reliable onbase source, Donovan added power this season after a hard-working offseason of retooling his swing. After a somewhat slow start, Donovan got the new swing in tune, and it really made a difference.
From the start of June until being shut down in late July, Donovan batted .315 with a .386 OBP and .473 slugging percentage. That’s good for an .859 OPS, and he was 40 percent above league average offensively over that time. Donovan, who bats left, really punished right-handed pitching with his revised swing, batting .343 with a .409 OBP, .537 slug and .947 OPS against them over his final two months. His rate of offense vs. righties was 62 percent above league average over those two months.
One other thing to note: Donovan still hit to all fields in 2023, but he really turned on his pull-side power. When pulling the ball (to right) as a rookie in 2022, Donovan batted .289 with a .465 slug and five homers. That’s good, sure. But check out his pull-side numbers on 2023: how about a .342 average and .711 slug? Donovan connected with a pull shot for 39 hits, and 46 percent of them went for extra bases – including 11 home runs. Wow.
For the season, among left-handed MLB hitters that had at least 180 plate appearances against RH pitchers, Donovan was tied for 11th in wRC+ (163), 13th in OPS (.955) and had a slugging percentage (.541) that matched Juan Soto’s. All of that plus a .313 average and .414 OBP.
Donovan looms as a very important bat for the Cardinals in 2024. He has a power-hitting dimension that’s more impressive than many people realize. And he just whams righty pitching. His enhanced launch angle is creating missiles.
Alec Burleson: Marmol loves him and that’s an important factor to remember. Burly has excellent contact skills and doesn’t strike out much. His surface numbers aren’t impressive — .244 average, .390 slugging percentage — but based on the quality of his contact and his ability to hit pitches on the sweet spot, Burleson should be batting .268 with a .433 slug. He doesn’t run well and must improve defensively.
Richie Palacios: He’s turned heads during a late-season audition, slugging .571 with five homers in 56 at-bats. He has good speed and plays capable defense. All of this is a small sample, but we have to think that the Cardinals’ baseball people will give him a close look next spring.
Lars Nootbaar: In 706 plate appearances since the 2022 All-Star break, Noot has a .370 OBP and .444 slug. He’s been 28 percent above league average offensively over that time (per wRC+) and has a ton of walks. When he doesn’t draw a walk, Nootbaar has 23 homers, 33 doubles and four triples in 588 at-bats. But fluke injuries have disrupted his consistency in 2023. He’s probably been too selective at the plate this season. And while that’s led to more walks and an OBP (.373) that’s 33 points higher than last year, his power has dropped. After slugging .488 last season his slug is .425 in 2023. (Though I must add that his expected slugging percentage is .445.) Nootbaar’s decreased hard-hit rate that’s gone from 46 percent in 2022 to 39% this season. He’s a very good player but may need to tweak his approach and swing. More than anything, Noot needs to stay in the lineup and let’s hope he has better injury luck in 2024.
Tommy Edman: He’s been an above-average center fielder, so he’ll be in the mix. How much? Well, that’s up to Oli Marmol. And a lot depends on Nootbaar’s defense in center. Edman of course (like Donovan) can be utilized at several positions. Marmol will have options. How much consideration will be given to offense? Edman has cooled off, falling to 11 percent above league average offensively (wRC+) after being seven percent above average last season. And he continues to struggle against RH pitching — 18 percent below league average against them, which matches his career low in a season.
Thanks again for reading!
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.