The starting outfielders for the St. Louis Cardinals in September of 2018 are Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader, and Jose Martinez. Tyler O’Neill is in the mix as a fourth outfielder and Yairo Munoz factors in there somewhere. If you somehow gained the ability to go back in time to spring training of 2017, picture the reaction of your past self to learning of this news. (Hell 2018 Spring Training would also be a little disconcerted by this) You would probably think something went terribly wrong.
Ozuna was a 104 wRC+ hitter who was changing positions from CF to LF, which would not be perceived as a particularly great sign. Martinez was coming off a hot spring training, but there was really no reason to believe he’d be a starting caliber outfielder based off a hot month in March. Bader could be interpreted as a good sign, or it could be interpreted as playing a prospect because the season is lost. I would not have even known who O’Neill or Munoz were and I’d be VERY confused about Munoz in particular once I learned.
All of which is to say: shit has sure changed in the outfield.
This isn’t a 2018 specific thing either. It feels like the Cardinals have seemingly had the outfield locked up, only for the picture to change dramatically over the course of a year for a while now. Let’s take us back to a more innocent time: 2014. At the beginning of 2014, it looked like the Cardinals had a very clear future for their outfield. Matt Holliday was locked up for three more years and did not look like he was slowing down. The Cardinals appeared ready to replace a down season from Jon Jay with Peter Bourjos as the CF of the next two years. Allen Craig was locked up until 2018. And Oscar Taveras was a top five prospect in baseball who would be here for... sigh... years to come.
The Holliday part went as planned. Jay’s offense returned to pre-2013 levels and he emerged as the starter at CF quickly. Craig fell off a cliff and was traded midseason. It was not hard to imagine Craig being traded before his deal was over, but to be traded THAT year would have been inconceivable before 2014. The prospect of the future lost his future in an unfortunate accident. 2014 went very differently than what we expected at the beginning of the season.
In the spring training of 2015, the Cardinals reconfigured their outfield. Holliday was the plan for left field for the next two years. Jay, having reemerged in 2014, was the starting center fielder again and under team control for another year after. The Cardinals traded for Jason Heyward to fill the Taveras shaped hole, hopefully beyond 2015. Randal Grichuk had also became an interesting prospect and a potential replacement for either Jay or Holliday, depending on how his defense looked.
Holliday’s age caught up with him and he got hurt. Jay got hurt and wasn’t good when he was healthy. Heyward’s season went as well as planned, despite a shaky start. Grichuk became better than we ever expected, though due to some seriously unsustainable numbers. Stephen Piscotty, who didn’t really even to seem to be a factor at the beginning of the year, had a very good 1st half at Memphis and quickly became a long-term option when he replaced Holliday. Tommy Pham had 173 great plate appearances, making him also look like a possible option for 2016. Bourjos, despite all the injuries, pretty much remained the 5th outfielder throughout the season.
Then Heyward signed with the Cubs. The Cardinals responded by throwing a bunch of might be good players to replace him. Holliday was still the plan at LF. CF appeared to be Grichuk’s job to lose. Piscotty would take over at RF. If this plan didn’t work, they had Brandon Moss being capable of playing a corner outfield spot, Pham in the minors, and uh, Jeremy Hazelbaker making the major league roster. Again if 2016 you told 2015 you that Hazelbaker would end up starting 38 games, well you’d probably respond with “Who the hell is that?” but after, you’d probably say “WHY?” Also Kolten Wong started 11 games. Yes, that happened. In just a couple seasons, right field went from Craig to Taveras to Heyward to Piscotty. My thought for center was Bourjos to Jay to Grichuk. Left field was always Holliday, but Holliday was not always healthy.
Going into 2017, the changes appeared to be quite simple. Dexter Fowler replaced Holliday. Grichuk would move to left field and Fowler would man center and otherwise the outfield future looked the same. Early in April, Piscotty signed a long-term deal with the Cardinals, thus locking up two of the three starters for at least five years. Pham seemed likely to make the roster as a potential 4th outfielder. Then Pham got sent to AAA in favor of Jose Martinez, who at the time, looked like a Hazelbaker clone. The same Hazelbaker the Cardinals were willing to let go after his surprising 2016.
Alas, eventually Pham got promoted and pretty much became the everyday starter immediately. Even optimistic believers in Pham did not see that coming. Fowler and Piscotty had injury-plagued seasons which caused Grichuk to still essentially see playing time similar to a platooned starter and Martinez the playing time of a super sub. Pham’s All-Star caliber season had complicated the OF future once again, with at least one member needing to be the odd man out.
Then on December 14 later that year, the OF picture once again changed dramatically. On the same day, Piscotty got traded to the Oakland A’s and the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna. Piscotty, who had less than a year earlier signed a 5-year deal, was now out of the OF picture. Pham, who did not make the Opening Day roster despite Matt Adams quickly getting starts in left, was now the plan for CF. Fowler moved positions but remained the constant from 2017.
You know the rest of the story. Fowler had a very, very down year, slowly ceding his playing time to Bader. Ozuna has remained the starter for all but the 10 days he was on the disabled list. Pham was traded midseason and another seemingly multi-year starter did not last on the Cards. Martinez failed so badly at first base and his bat is so good that he ended up becoming a starter in the OFer, which was sort of unimaginable at the beginning of the year due to the crazy OF depth.
It’s not just the major league outlook either. At the beginning of the season, Ozuna-Pham-Fowler was the plan with the 4th OF flipping between Bader and O’Neill. It seemed like the plan was to have Bader and O’Neill shuttle back-and-forth between Memphis and St. Louis. Waiting in the wings was Oscar Mercado, Randy Arozarena, and Jose Adolis Garcia, all in Memphis and all with the potential to make a major league impact.
Cut to: six months later. Bader ended up performing so well, he was never sent down. Mercado was traded for prospects farther away, Arozarena has time but had a pretty disappointing season in AAA, and JAG will be a 26-year-old prospect coming off a 95 wRC+ season in AAA. I did not expect the random minor leaguer the Cardinals traded for last year that generated no headlines to seemingly be more likely to factor in the Cardinals major league plans than those three guys. I’m talking about Lane Thomas.
So will I be making this same post in September of next year? Given the information I have, I don’t really expect to, but honestly I would have said the same thing in every past September. Acquiring a new RF, whether by trade or signing, would not be enough, because I somewhat expect that to happen. Similarly, if Ozuna is replaced for 2020, I also wouldn’t consider that a shocking development, because I fully expect it to happen. But if Lane Thomas usurps Bader as the new CF of the future? Uh yeah, I would be kind of shocked by that.