Hypothetically, what would a team do if they had eight outfielders in their organization who deserved to be in the major leagues in some capacity? We may find an answer with the Cardinals. Technically speaking, this doesn’t apply to the Cardinals. Not yet anyway. Honestly, it will probably never actually apply to the Cardinals, what with probable trades and the likelihood of at least one of them just not being cut out for the majors. But theoretically, it could and it could happen as quickly as next season.
Right now, if the Cardinals were a rebuilding team and each outfielder was in the system by themselves - assume late career Alex Rios is the one blocking them to take an unnecessary shot at the Royals - I think six of them would be starting for that rebuilding team right now. The other two are a little further away. Hell, five of them would be given a starting spot on a good team with an open OF spot.
On its own, I thought this could be a problem. There are three obvious starters who don’t leave any room for the prospects to emerge. Tommy Pham is under team control until 2022. Dexter Fowler until 2021. Marcell Ozuna is only under contract for two years, but for those two years, there is literally no room whatsoever for any of these guys to start regularly. If any one of the three MLB starters got injured for an extended length of time, there’s a pretty good chance Jose Martinez moves to the outfield so that both Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko can start at the same time and Matt Carpenter can play 1B. (That would be my move anyway)
But then I looked deeper. I looked at where each respective player was at in their minor league career and wondered how long exactly could we keep them from the MLB. Call it the Carson Kelly problem. Or the Jack Flaherty problem. This is a strangely common problem for the Cardinals apparently.
I am going to make four assumptions that I think are reasonable. The first is that Dexter Fowler will play out the length of his contract. He has a no trade clause. I think there is a possibility that he will get traded, but I’m just going to assume he won’t, because if he gets traded, this logjam isn’t really a problem anymore.
The second assumption is that Ozuna is gone after two years. I just don’t see the Cardinals trying to sign him with all these league minimum OFers waiting to prove themselves. Now, if the Cardinals trade Fowler and Fowler agrees for whatever reason, I think Ozuna signing with the Cardinals is more likely. I don’t see Ozuna and Fowler both on the team in 2020 though, one way or the other. You could basically combine these two assumptions into one: the Cardinals will only have two of Pham, Fowler, and Ozuna in 2020. And Pham isn’t leaving.
The third assumption is that one of the five outfielders behind the starting three gets traded. Just one. Much like Fowler getting traded, I could certainly see a scenario where more than one of them is traded, I just don’t think it’s an assumption I’m comfortable making.
My last assumption is that one the four not traded Cardinals - and forgive me for using this term - is a “bust.” One of them just can’t hack it in the majors. Obviously the smart money here is on Oscar Mercado, him being the lowest ranked prospect, and the guy who’s had literally one good offensive season. But it could be any of the five. Again, you could combine these last two assumptions. If everyone can hack it in the majors - and I don’t know how you’d prove that since there’s not enough room for everyone - two are probably getting traded.
With those assumptions out of the way, it’s also important to note the durability of the Cardinals starting three. There’s Pham, and I will not say another word about it, but you guys know exactly what I’m talking about. Even if (redacted ——--—), Pham is a guy who will probably sit 15-20 games just based off rest and minor injuries (like whatever happened to him in the dugout last night).
Fowler has sort of an under the radar injury history. He has been the primary centerfielder of whatever team’s he’s on since about 2010 (until this season.) He’s also been either the leadoff hitter or the #2 hitter in 83.7% of his career PAs. He has exceeded 140 games played just twice in his career and has had more than 550 PAs just three times. His 118 games played and 491 PAs last year was a little low for his career, but not too far out of normal for him. He’s also getting older.
My point is that, without doing anything, there’s quite a few available PAs despite three starters who will rarely sit when perfectly healthy. That’s not even taking into account the fact that a regular fourth outfielder will get roughly 200 PAs if they were behind three guys who never got hurt. You could probably give two players out of the five rather significant MLB exposure over the next two years. A major injury to someone would give a third significant playing time maybe, but obviously that’s not an ideal scenario. Plus, as I mentioned, the smart thing to do would be to make sure we don’t have to watch Martinez field first or watch Carpenter make me feel like my arm is in pain every time he throws and put Martinez in the OF if a major injury happened.
As of now, it looks like those two players are Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill. Bader has almost played well enough that you could lock him onto the MLB roster for the rest of the year. That is admittedly a preposterous thing to say 16 games into his 2018 season, but he has looked impressive to me. The second player is more up for grabs. O’Neill is hitless through eight plate appearances, but 1) it’s eight plate appearances and 2) look no further than Bader to know that sometimes guys as young as O’Neill may take a little bit to get used to MLB pitching. He also hasn’t look overmatched like Yairo Munoz looked in his short stint.
Anyway, if two guys get significant exposure to the MLB over the next two years, that means the other three will not. Well, it depends on O’Neill really and which one of the five gets traded. I said I assume one would get traded and I will also add that I assume it will happen by the trading deadline of this year. I don’t know who or what for, but I don’t see a scenario where all five stay with the team at the end of the year.
However, I will note that for the moment: O’Neill and the three guys in Memphis still have work to do. For 2018, you could very plausibly keep them all in AAA without feeling like they’re only down because of what’s in front of them. Let’s start with the recently promoted O’Neill. He has less of a track record than you’d think. With the Mariners AAA team, he showed great power, but otherwise wasn’t all that impressive. He had a 106 wRC+ with a .295 BABIP. He got traded to Memphis, hit 12 homers in 37 games and still only had a 110 wRC+, partially due to a .266 BABIP but also due to walking half as much as he did for the first half of the season.
This season, he played in 12 games in Memphis. He’s been amazing in those twelves games, but 12 games shouldn’t be enough to overwhelm his marginally above average hitting in 557 PAs last season. I did say that you could plausibly keep all four guys down in AAA all year, buuuut I’ll backtrack on that statement with O’Neill. He has probably a great half season of AAA before you start feeling like a promotion is absolutely necessary. He’s already in the MLB, so obviously that’s not going to happen, but he will probably be back to Memphis somewhat soon.
I’ve already knocked Mercado once and I’ll get one more out of the way. It’s really unfortunate that he happens to be the other OFer on the 40 man roster. Here’s why. He did not hit a single lick in the minors until last season. His minor league high wRC+ was 86 in single A. Last year, in Springfield - the place where Daniel Descalso had a 151 wRC+ - he finally had his first good hitting season. He was willing to strike out a bit more to gain more power, and his BABIP jumped to .348. He finished the year with a 114 wRC+ in 120 games.
Now, whether you believe in Mercado or not - honestly I don’t have a strong opinion for or against him - that’s a guy who should be in AAA all year. He has changed his approach so this is not exactly what I would call an accurate measurement, but his MLB ZiPS projection is 62. Mercado strikes me either as the guy who gets called up and pulls a Magneuris Sierra, performing well in the MLB in a short stint and then getting traded because of it, or he’ll be an improved version of Shane Robinson for the Cards. If you knew my opinion of Sugar Shane, you’d know that was high praise even though it doesn’t sound like it.
Then there’s Adolis Garcia, who comes with an interesting wrinkle. The rest of the outfielders I will talk about are 23. In theory, they could “waste” away in the minors for the next two seasons and still be 25 once Ozuna or Fowler leaves. Garcia turned 25 in March. He’s not a late bloomer, but a Cuban defector who signed with the Cardinals before last season. So his age isn’t a negative for that reason, but it does mean he sort of comes with a clock. That clock is his trade value, not necessarily the Cardinals obligation to promote him. A 25-year-old Adolis Garcia has more value than a 26-year-old version of him and I’m not sure a 27-year-old Garcia would have any trade value at all if he was still stuck in AAA. That is not to suggest they need to trade him, but the Cards seem to have a “wait and see” approach to which outfielder they will trade and not an intention to trade any specific outfielder, and that’s harder when one of them is 25.
Due to his age and situation, he’s probably similar to O’Neill. I said above that a great half season from O’Neill would compel you to promote him, and that’s probably also true of Garcia. He does only have 57 career games at AAA so obviously the Cardinals have a little bit of time. He has a .400 BABIP to get his 120 wRC+ in his 17 games. He only had a 4.8 BB% last season in a larger (but still small) sample. So he’s by no means ready to be promoted at this moment. I would wait until his plate discipline numbers (7.6 BB%, 27.3 K%) get better before I even thought of promoting him, despite his good performance (.300/.354/.500).
Lastly, it could be argued Randy Arozarena could also use a full season in AAA. In fact, he was sort of aggressively promoted to Memphis in the first place. He only played in 51 games in Springfield last season. It’s weird that he had more power in Palm Beach, but maybe that’s just the grind of a long season. (Another weird stat: he got hit by a pitch 12 times in just 70 games in High A. He walked 13 times.)
My “solution” to the outfield “problem” is rather simple then. Trade one of them at the trading deadline. Give enough PAs to O’Neill, Bader, and perhaps Garcia (though honestly one of these three is likely to get traded if any of the five do) over the next two seasons to see if any of them can replace Ozuna (or Fowler) as the starter and if one of the others can function as a good fourth outfielder. A third outfielder might emerge as a fifth outfielder if you’re confident he’s not MLB starter material.
This will be an interesting season for the future of the Cardinals outfield. It’s very unlikely all of them emerge from 2018 with good seasons, but it’s also unlikely none of them have a good season, especially with the hot start from four of the five prospects (and it’s not like Arozarena is having a bad season either). Memphis unexpectedly has another outfielder knocking on their door in Lane Thomas. The Blue Jays gave up on him for who knows what reason, but he’s 22 and destroying everything in his path in AA at the moment. Dylan Carlson is repeated single A at 19-years-old and making a strong case to skip Palm Beach and go straight to AA soon (Edit: looks like he has already been promoted to Palm Beach so I was wrong), especially with Palm Beach’s tough hitting environment.
I have no idea how the Cardinals will handle this ridiculous depth, but I’m both fascinated and excited to find out.