One of the most influential trends in the development of modern civilization was that of job specialization. Essentially, agricultural innovations resulted in a food surplus that rendered the need for the entirety of populations to perform the same task obsolete. The personnel at their disposal was identical either way; rather, this was a question of how to most effectively use a finite labor pool to meet society’s evolving needs. Utility, defined in its adjective form as “useful, especially through being able to perform several functions,” became a valuable trait to possess.
Now that, in conjunction with this article’s headline, you know where I’m going with this,
[insert smooth as silk segue into discussing baseball in 2019].
You are most likely already aware of where St. Louis stands entering the offseason. To take the proverbial next step, the club needs more offensive firepower than it enjoyed this past season, but Cardinals brass has indicated that they may be unwilling to add much in terms of a payroll already checking in at around $160 million. Moreover, their two bleakest positional projections lie in the corner outfield. Left and right field are projected to combine for 2.4 wins above replacement (WAR) next year, per FanGraphs’ depth charts.
Take out Marcell Ozuna’s–who Jon Heyman reports is “very unlikely” to accept the qualifying offer–production, and the Cardinals’ collective wRC+ from these two spots was just 102, or two percent above league average at the plate, in 2019. Given the strong possibility that Ozuna has taken his last at-bat in a Cardinals uniform, a free agent market in which the only other outfielders that even broke the top 20 of FanGraphs’ rankings were Nick Castellanos (11) and Yasiel Puig (18) behind Ozuna at seven, and the callousness of reality precluding a trade for Mookie Betts, St. Louis is banking on its in-house options to shoulder the burden.
Assuming Harrison Bader is in line to receive the lion’s share of playing time in center field, that leaves Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, and Dylan Carlson as the frontrunners to hold down the fort in left and right. That said, what if one of the Cardinals’ candidates for infield playing time entered the outfield mix as well?
As Ben Clemens wrote over the weekend, there is reason to believe that Tommy Edman is capable of maintaining at least some semblance of his 2019 success going forward. If you consider him one of your top, let’s say, five or six, position players, then you would presumably want him in the lineup on a regular basis. However, the four Cardinals position players with the highest WAR/600 plate appearances (going by the Steamer projections system) are, in descending order, Paul DeJong, Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, and Matt Carpenter–all infielders. Edman could–and likely will–serve as the chief utility infielder, amassing somewhere in the ballpark of 300-500 plate appearances, but it begs the question of whether or not he is most valuable in this role when the outfield presents so many question marks.
We saw this arrangement at times in the postseason, with Edman sliding over to right field while the aforementioned four manned the infield. One presupposition to this idea would be that the Cardinals have four infielders they reliably trust in full-time starting positions, particularly Carpenter at third base coming off a down year. (That’s unless the Cardinals did the highly improbably and dealt Carpenter, using the cleared salary space to add a third baseman vis a vis Josh Donaldson.) The uncertainty with Carpenter in specific provides appeal to having Edman available as a utility infielder. Another option is a platoon between Carpenter and a right-handed outfield bat while Edman plays the accommodating position on any given night.
The primary drawbacks are twofold: 1) allotting significant outfield time to Edman leaves Yairo Muñoz, fresh off a sub-replacement level season, as the main backup infielder; 2) this would slide Edman considerably down the defensive scale. He will inevitably regress offensively, but the batting threshold to be a productive corner outfielder is higher than for an infielder (with the exception of first base).
This effectively boils down to a comparison between Edman and the Young Outfield Options™️ we have heard so much talk of. Have ample faith in the latter, and there isn’t much need to consider the former for the outfield. If that isn’t the case, then it becomes a more intriguing prospect. Realistically, this is more likely to be the type of switch made midseason to account for over or underperforming players than the initial plan entering Spring Training. Either way, it is apparent the Cardinals possess a valuable trait that should allow them to avoid static playing time arrangements: utility.