The Cardinals’ Messy Outfield Situation

Last year’s Cardinals were successful. Thanks to a solid rotation, a good bullpen, and excellent defense and baserunning, St. Louis won the division and advanced to the NLCS. The Cardinals’ main weakness was at the plate, where they were mostly average. Excluding pitchers, the team’s wRC+ for the season was 100, and ranked 14th in the game. The team’s outfield was no exception; the group put up an identical 100 wRC+, which ranked 17th among major league outfields, with their 7.0 WAR occupying that same ranking. Despite allowing Marcell Ozuna to leave in free agency and trading Randy Arozarena and José Martínez to the Rays, the team still has a glut of outfielders competing for roles this spring. They have quantity and they might have quality as well, but sorting out playing time could be a mess.

The Cardinals have three players who accumulated at least 100 plate appearances in the outfield last season. Here’s how those players performed:

Cardinals Returning Outfielders in 2019
Player PA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR WAR/600
Dexter Fowler 574 103 -0.3 1.6 -8.6 1.5 1.6
Harrison Bader 406 81 0.7 -9.3 14.5 1.8 2.7
Tyler O’Neill 151 91 0.1 -1.7 -2.9 0 0

That trio probably doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Fowler had a bounce-back season, but with an average batting line and most of his time spent in a corner outfield spot, he was slightly below average overall and turns 34 years old before Opening Day. Bader saw his walk rate improve, but hitting in the eighth spot the majority of the time probably helps account for some of that uptick, and might have made Bader too passive. His overall numbers against righties last season were in line with his breakout 2018 at about 10% below league average, but his numbers against lefties plummeted, unusual given he has hit well against them his entire career, including in the minors. Despite Bader’s weak year at the plate, his fantastic defense makes him an above-average player. As for O’Neill, he struggled mightily as a pinch hitter last season; he put up a slightly above-average line as an outfielder and a 116 wRC+ in July in more regular starting duty before he injured his wrist. Given his somewhat inconsistent minor league history — sometimes crushing, sometimes hitting closer to average — it’s fair to say we still don’t know much about O’Neill’s abilities as a hitter against major league pitcher or how he might fare given extended playing time.

So the incumbents, if you want to call them that, consist of an aging, should-be fourth outfielder, a glove-first center fielder, and a 24-year-old with a lot of power and strikeouts who may or may not be capable of starting at an average to above-average level. The outfield situation is emblematic of an offseason that seems to have passed St. Louis by. The Cardinals do have other outfield options in camp, including one of the better prospects in baseball, Dylan Carlson. Here are the 2020 projection for Carlson and a few other options who are in the mix:

Cardinals 2020 Outfield Projections
Player PA OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR WAR/600
Harrison Bader 415 .320 .410 .310 -4.2 1 5.2 1.6 2.3
Dylan Carlson 273 .321 .425 .315 -1.6 -0.1 -0.7 0.7 1.5
Tommy Edman 308 .319 .414 .311 -2.8 1.4 2.4 0.7 1.4
Tyler O’Neill 457 .300 .459 .316 -2.2 0.9 -0.5 0.8 1.1
Dexter Fowler 546 .336 .399 .317 -2.1 0.2 -3.2 0.7 0.8
Lane Thomas 195 .302 .402 .300 -3.7 -0.2 0.4 0.2 0.6
Austin Dean 7 .318 .438 .319 0 0 -0.1 0 0
Justin Williams 7 .301 .396 .296 -0.2 0 0 0 0

Projections aren’t perfect, but they don’t paint a sunny picture for the Cardinals’ outfield. One of the better projected players is Tommy Edman, and he is a better fit on the infield; he’s likely to be more of a super-utility player this season, which would take him out of a starting role. While Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, and Justin Williams are in the mix for roster spots, Thomas has put up mostly average numbers in Triple-A, Dean is a 26-year-old with defensive issues, and Williams hasn’t been able to put the ball in the air consistently. That leaves four starters for three spots.

Bader plays center field so well, it’s tough to see him not getting the starting spot out there. While O’Neill, Fowler, and Carlson have all shown some ability to play center, those days are mostly behind Fowler, O’Neill has been a corner outfielder for most of his career between the majors and minors, and Carlson might not be a center fielder long-term, as Eric Longenhagen noted in his prospect write-up when he placed Carlson 39th on this year’s Top 100:

Carlson is an average runner and a large dude for a 20-year-old. His instincts in center field are okay, but not good enough to overcome long speed that typically falls short at the position. Because of where we have his arm strength graded, we think he fits in left field or at first base.

So if we put Bader in center at least most of the time, there are two starting spot for Carlson, Fowler, and O’Neill. The projections say Carlson is the better outfielder of the three, and his prospect status indicates his ceiling is probably higher as well. There are going to be some service time considerations; Carlson could be held down in the minors for a few weeks to gain an extra year of service time, though that’s not a tactic that has been used by the Cardinals in the past. Carlson is not yet on the 40-man roster, but that’s an obstacle easily overcome.

A neutral evaluation of the three players would give Carlson one of the remaining corner spots, creating a toss-up between O’Neill and Fowler. While spring stats aren’t indicative of talent level (given the small sample size of plate appearances and the potential disparity in opponents’ skill levels), it should be noted that none of the play so far this spring has served to change the order of the projections, with O’Neill and Carlson producing and Fowler not. It’s reasonable for the Cardinals to want to actually see what they might have in O’Neill; while perhaps less reasonable to play Fowler due to his contract status, it is something that teams do all the time. It’s possible those two factors might be enough to keep Carlson in the minors.

Carlson isn’t a sure thing, but his projections make him out to be a clear rung ahead of the other potential outfielders. The “path of least resistance” so often used by the Cardinals would put the veteran in one corner outfield spot and the young, but uncertain talent already on the 40-man ahead of a top prospect with a high floor. But the Cardinals as a team already have a pretty high floor. It’s the ceiling that is in issue. If the club is going to beat their 82-win projection this season, the outfield provides the biggest opportunity. The outfielder with the lowest ceiling also makes the most money. Dexter Fowler would make a solid fourth outfielder for the Cardinals as the team looks to see just how good a young outfield of Bader, O’Neill, and Carlson could be, but that’s a tough conversation to have with a veteran whose been starting for more than a decade. It’s a bit messy, but in order for the Cardinals to see what they have, they have to play the most promising players who project to have the best performance.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

52 Comments
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hombremomentomember
2 years ago

I pray every night that something clicks for Tyler O’Neill. Something about a Canadian kid with a 585 pound squat-lift being one of the fastest people in baseball is so mesmerizing to me. Sadly, the letter K exists, and O’Neill suffers at his hands.

T Dubbsmember
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I was really surprised to see his sprint speed be so high when I did a search. He doesn’t play that fast. Shoot his “Spd” or Speed score was only 3.1 last year. Good for 11th on the Cardinals last year for players with at least 100 ABs. I get speed score was one of the older sabermetrics and has become outdated, but that is a poor score.

hombremomentomember
2 years ago
Reply to  T Dubbs

Zack Wheat was insanely fast, but his steals don’t reflect that. Albert Pujols is notably slow, but his career high in steals (16) is only 5 under that of Wheat’s (21). He might not PLAY with speed, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have it, just like Ichiro with power.

gtagomorimember
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I’m convinced Ichiro could have been a Mookie Betts type if he hadn’t been so focused on batting average.

Lanidrac
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

To be fair, Pujols was only a little below average in foot speed during the first half of his career.

However, stolen bases are a highly flawed determination of speed anyway, since a good baserunner like Yadier Molina can swipe several bags a year by picking the right spots despite being one of the slowest runners in the league.

sadtrombonemember
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I feel like there are a few guys who rip through the minors, seem to have solved their K issues, and then they start striking out so badly in MLB that even when they go back down they can’t seem to stop. I don’t understand what happens, but the same thing happened to AJ Reed, and probably other guys too that I’m forgetting. It’s like they catch the strikeout bug in the majors and then even when they go back down it’s worse than when they were coming up.

It’s probably just random variation, that it happens to 1 in 100 prospects and I’m just noticing these ones. But it’s still weird when it happens.

gtagomorimember
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s not that weird. For some odd reason the NL spent an entire half season throwing fastballs at Matt Kemp a couple of years ago. The result was a surprise allstar appearance. Then they all remembered he couldn’t hit anything with a jump in it. The result: an NRI pipe dream this season.

And this was for an established player whose weaknesses were well known ahead of time

Kyle Sharamitaromember
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I remember when Eno did that article a year or two ago talking about the small list of players that were in the top 10% of sprint speed, arm speed, and exit velocity. Tyler made that list, and I always think about that. The dude has tools, that is for sure

Lanidrac
2 years ago

So does Randal Grichuk, but he can never make enough contact to be more than a mediocre starter or good 4th outfielder.

bernardgilkeyhasapossemember
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

He really is about as interesting as baseballists get. Seems like a good dude, too.

Lanidrac
2 years ago
Reply to  hombremomento

Sigh, we used to pray for the same thing with Randal Grichuk, as well. Hopefully, things work out better for O’Neill.