If you are a regular Viva el Birdos reader, I feel like chances are you have a pretty good idea who Harrison Bader is.
That’s not some sort of elitism, either; I’m not suggesting that he readers of things like this column are really better informed. What I would suggest is that reading about the talent bubbling from below in the minors has an effect all its own of putting those names into the ether, such that even a reader who doesn’t particularly care who Harrison Bader is probably still knows who Harrison Bader is. (I also would actually suggest readers of things like this column are better informed, but I prefer not to insult the rest of the fan base if at all possible.)
Harrison Bader is, in case you aren’t aware, the Cardinals’ top outfield prospect currently, and the top positional prospect overall. There could be a debate over that second point, I suppose, given the level of talent Delvin Perez possesses, or the proximity and positional value of Carson Kelly, but when my prospect rankings come out sometime this December, Bader’s name will be near the top, and will, in fact, be the first position player named. (Or would be, if you were reading from one to whatever; given I’ll be doing it in reverse order again this year, he’ll technically be the last position player named. But stop trying to trip me up with technicalities, damn it!)
The point of this column, though, is not to give a scouting report on Bader, nor to compare him to other players that may be found on the top prospect lists that will flood the internet over the next couple months. Rather, the purpose of this column is to ask a more philosophical question. We’ve heard John Mozeliak and the Cardinals are focused on improving the outfield defensively, most likely by way of attempting to acquire, by hook or by crook, a center fielder to replace Randal Grichuk. The question is this: should Harrison Bader — and by extension, Harrison Bader’s future position/contributions — affect what options the Cards pursue?
A little context, by way of numbers: Bader was brilliant last season at Double A Springfield, posting a 143 wRC+ over 356 plate appearances. His line was heavily skewed toward power as he put up a .214 ISO; that ability to hit the ball hard and consistently create damage on contact more than made up for the fact his plate discipline numbers were really not very good. He struck out 26% of the time, while walking just 7.0%. That speaks to a fairly aggressive, fairly raw approach, but the thunder in the bat is real, and he hit the ball so consistently hard that what appears to be an elevated .349 batting average on balls in play actually felt just about right to me watching him.
The bad news — well, beyond the already bad news of Bader’s iffy on-base skills — is that once he was promoted to Memphis, things went south pretty fast for the former Florida Gator. His walk rate barely changed, and his strikeout rate actually fell slightly — to 23.6%, which is still scary — but Bader’s biggest positive point as a hitter, power on contact, largely deserted him. His isolated slugging fell from .214 to just .122, and his BABIP dropped over 50 points to .292. Nor did that feel flukily low; I watched quite a lot of Bader last year at both Springfield and Memphis, and Triple A pitching simply proved too crafty for him. He wasn’t overmatched by superior stuff; rather, he expanded his zone and got himself out when confronted with superior guile.
Following the season, Bader headed off to the Arizona Fall League, where he played a decided second fiddle among Redbird hitting prospects to Carson Kelly’s remarkable run, but still gained a measure of redemption. The power didn’t really show up in a big way in the desert, as Bader posted just a .127 ISO, but facing the best prospects in the minors, he cut his strikeouts substantially, to 16.3%. He still didn’t walk much, but the fact he made more contact against some of the best pitching he’s likely seen to date was encouraging.
So what we have is a player who succeeded at the Double A level, struggled a bit to adjust at Triple A, and then showed solidly in the AFL. In other words, Harrison Bader looks to be something like half a season away from really pushing hard for a major league promotion.
Harrison Bader has also, for the most part, played center field in the minors, with generally positive reviews. It’s somewhat of a work in progress, because he didn’t play center in college, largely due to the presence of Buddy Reed, who is a legitimate 70 fielder. For whatever it may be worth, Aaron Rowand, former Gold Glove center fielder and manager of the Desert Dogs this fall, both worked extensively with Bader on his technique in center and gave good reviews. But, tough to say how heavily one should weight that.
To my eye, Bader looked solid in center this season, to the point I would suggest he should be something like an average defender out there. He has the speed I think he could potentially be a tick or two better, but I wouldn’t put a grader higher than 50 on him right now.
So here’s the question: if the Cardinals have a player fairly close to the big leagues, who profiles pretty similarly to Randal Grichuk (with actually a little less pure swing and miss in his game, I believe), and who might very well be able to occupy center field at a similar level to Grichuk — if not a little better — should they really consider that piece when trying to fill the outfield this offseason?
In other words, if I told you that, by midseason this year, the Cardinals have a pretty good chance of having a replacement for Randal on the roster, would that affect your opinion of the offseason priorities? Would you be more likely to search for an upgrade on the infield? Prioritise a big bat in left, with the idea that you could have a league-minimum average player in center on the way?
Here’s another question: does the proximity of Bader to the majors make you consider at all the possibility of making Grichuk available as part of any trade packages? Or is a bird in the hand just too valuable, no matter how similar a bird might be hiding in that bush over there?
I don’t have a ton of quantitative analysis on this matter or anything this morning; it’s more a thought exercise. There are enough questions about Bader’s approach that he’s not a slam dunk to be a productive major leaguer, but he’s also close enough and has shown enough in the way of big league tools there’s a pretty good chance he contributes in some fashion. It’s hard to say his ceiling is really any higher than the vast majority of the Cards’ current roster, though; at his best he probably falls into that same 2-3 win range that we find so frustratingly difficult to improve upon.
In the past, the Cardinals have been very hesitant to block internal products with outside acquisitions if they felt fairly confident in the internal options. We saw it when they decided to move Carlos Martinez into the rotation; steering clear of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester felt almost as much about keeping a rotation spot open for El Gallo as it did a conservative avoidance of big-money pitching contracts. They moved Allen Craig both to save Mike Matheny from himself and to make room for Oscar Taveras to get a real opportunity. Now, Taveras was a different level of prospect from Harrison Bader, but he also didn’t play a premium position out there, at all.
So how much, for you, would the presence of a near-term contributor factor into your offseason plans for the outfield? I can’t decide what I think, to be honest. If anything, I’m very tempted to say I would be more willing to deal Grichuk, both because I might have a replacement on the way and because his profile still worries me, but I’m also not particularly comfortable exposing myself to Tommy Pham being my starter (due to injury concerns, mostly, not because I don’t like Pham.)
Just a light thought exercise for a rainy day in November, as we all gear up for the Thanksgiving holiday. Hope everyone has a wonderful holiday, and travel safe if you’re traveling.