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Why I’m Bullish On The Outfield

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Things aren’t nearly as scary as they seem.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The working title for this article was “The Outfield Is Fine. Probably”. I wanted a way to encapsulate the wide variety of outcomes our current stable of outfielders stands to produce, but the more I dug into the current situation the more my gut drove me towards somethings not quite so wishy-washy. So here I am, planting my flag on the optimistic side of the ledger. Come this time next year I might look like a genius. Or not. Yeah, probably not. But you’re saying there’s a chance...

As the roster currently stands, it seems like the Cardinals are done making major improvements heading into 2019. The addition of Andrew Miller makes for a full 40-man, with a very limited number of guys you’d say “yeah, bump him off and see what happens” about. Tyler Webb is one of those guys, I’d imagine, but I’m hard pressed to find another guy I can’t make a case to keep around. So any major move from here on out would require some 40-man acrobatics, perhaps some dealing of a guy like Edmundo Sosa or one of the Poncedeleon/Gomber/Gant crowd in a parallel move. But that's all probably pretty unlikely unless the piece coming in the door is a capital-p Piece. This feels like the 2019 roster.

Throw in the fact that Mozeliak has said the starting position players are already on the roster, and the fact that he’s also publicly stumping for a Fowler rebound, and the possibility of signing someone like Harper becomes a remote possibility. An MVP-caliber bat was added in Paul Goldschmidt, a (potentially) dominant lefty was added in Andrew Miller, and a versatile lefty bench bat was added in Drew Robinson. Will all these moves pan out? Your guess is as good as mine. Regardless, there’s still the general feeling that all these moves are not enough to move the team solidly into contender status, mainly because nothing was really done to upgrade the outfield. Fret not, my friends, because this outfield is going to be a substantial improvement on the 2018 version.

We’re going to see a full season of Harrison Bader in center.

A full season of Bader patrolling center is most exciting thing about to the 2019 outfield, to my eye. The speedster was absolutely electric in 2018, providing truly elite defense at a premium position to go along with terrific base running and an average-ish bat. He produced 3.5 fWAR in only 427 PA’s - prorate that to a full 600 PA’s and you’ve got a nearly 5-win player. Now he’s not gonna be a 5-win player in 2019, I don’t imagine, but there’s reason to believe that the projections haven’t caught up quite yet and his true value will fall somewhere in the middle. Steamer projects Bader for 2.1 fWAR in 538 PA’s, or 2.3 fWAR across 600 PA’s. His bat is projected at 92 wRC+, which feels about right, given his penchant to swing and miss and his right-left splits. Steamer is quite bearish on his base running and defensive value, however, dragging down his overall value. If you buy that Bader’s elite speed will continue to translate into substantial base running and defensive value, you’ve got another 3.5 WAR season in the tank (at least, maybe more).

The outfield is going to benefit from two big rebounds.

Now this is the major sticking point in the outfield, the area that generates the most debate. Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler disappointed in their own unique ways in the 2018, turning what was supposed to be one of the best outfields in the game into a maddeningly underperforming unit.

Ozuna’s 2018 was a big step down from his 2017, which created the feeling that the front office really whiffed on outfield upgrades last winter. Don’t get me wrong, Ozuna was incredibly frustrating at times during the 2018 campaign. But the Big Bear still managed to put up 2.7 fWAR, with a bum shoulder. That shoulder is now supposedly fixed, or will be fixed by the time play starts in Jupiter, opening the door for a major rebound in his walk year. I’m in the camp of believing that 2018 was his floor, and the 2019 version of Ozuna will be more in line with the player everyone thought we acquired from Miami.

Fowler...now this requires a lot more projection. There’s no way around the fact that 2018 was an unmitigated disaster for Dex. He started slow, clashed with Matheny, rebounded a bit when Shildt took over then lost the rest of his season to a foot injury. His contract is pretty much impossible to move at the moment, because of both the fact that its so underrated and the lack of teams that match up as trade partners. So let’s put on some rose colored glasses and assume that a full offseason of work will produce a Fowler more in line with his career norms. Steamer projects Fowler at 0.6 fWAR, a full 1.6 fWAR upgrade over last year. I believe his bat will creep back up towards above-average, even though his defense will likely remain cringey. He’s starting from rock bottom here, basically, with nowhere to go but up.

There’s considerable depth waiting in the wings, and some of the depth pieces might just be a lot better than we think.

Should Fowler fail to rebound, or should injuries plague the outfield, there’s considerable depth already on the 25-man or waiting down in Memphis. Tyler O’Neill is about as good of insurance as you can ask for, really because none of us have any idea what kind of player he’ll turn out to be. His light-tower power and above-average defense create an enviable floor, but also allow for a sky-high ceiling. Should someone falter, I’m more than comfortable letting O’Neill grip it and rip it.

Adolis Garcia comes with a salivating package of tools himself, and you’d be lying if you claimed to know exactly what kind of player he’ll turn out to be. His age, track record, and relative rawness create a very wide range of outcomes, but there’s at least a scenario where everything clicks and Garcia surprises mid-season.

There’s also a reality where the 2019 outfield goes the way of the 2018 bullpen, and the volatility of the group manifests itself in a magnificently colossal dumpster fire. That’s certainly one end of the spectrum. Me? I’m an optimistic guy, and I’m choosing to create a happy little reality for myself. This is quite a good outfield.