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The Cardinals’ Outfield Carousel Continues to Spin

The outfield remains an unsettled mess after the first week of the season.

San Diego Padres v St Louis Cardinals
How many starting outfielders can you spot in this joyous tableaux?
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It hasn’t been a great start to the season for the Cardinals. Obviously, it’s too early to worry too very much about anything; when you’ve played just over 5% of the season, what you see is every bit as liable to be noise as signal, and even if it’s real, there’s so much time left to try and correct it that running around yelling about the sky falling is not the most productive use of one’s time just yet.

All the same, it hasn’t been a ton of fun to watch so far. The bullpen was constructed in what looked like maybe the best way possible, with a big investment in a premium arm to go along with all the best, most talented high-strikeout weapons the organisation could rustle up. And yet, the Cards have still seen multiple leads evaporate already in the early going. Two weeks ago Bernie Miklasz was harrumphing about the Cards facing a crisis of legitimacy if they chose to focus on handedness instead of quality in the ‘pen; fast-forward to today and they’ve already had to banish Alex Reyes to the hinterlands for walking everything in sight and the same columnist is harrumphing about poor roster construction being responsible for left-handed hitters knocking the bullpen around. Plans look good, until suddenly they don’t.

The offense should be hugely improved by the addition of Paul Goldschmidt, the best hitter the Cardinals have had since Albert Pujols took his respect tour on the road. (Speaking of, I had mostly gotten over being pissed about the way Pujols and his wife left town, but him suddenly showing up recently complaining about how disrespected he felt during the contract negotiations is not helping me feel particularly warm and fuzzy toward a player I always admired more than liked anyway. Oh, well. At least I don’t have to hear about how Jesus wanted him to get that bigger contract at the moment.) They also brought in contact guru Jeff Albert from the Houston Astros over the offseason, with the narrative being he would help work some of the same magic with the Cards he did in Houston, leading to a club that made more contact, gave away fewer outs, and just generally hit better. Nine games in, the Redbirds are striking out at a shocking rate up near 30%, are well below league average in terms of wRC+, and are currently being lapped by all the truly good hitting teams. You know, like the Mariners. And Diamondbacks.

Of course, this is all small-sample theatre, and small samples can do wonky things all the time. For instance, Paul Goldschmidt right now is carrying a 135 wRC+. That sounds about right, right? I mean, if you had said to me on the eve of opening day that after the first three series of the season, Paul Goldschmidt would have a 135 wRC+, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. I mean, I would have blinked, because I’m a human being and have to blink occasionally, but it wouldn’t have been in disbelief that Goldy was putting up a line that’s in the neighbourhood of what we expected, if maybe a touch low even. Do you know what Paul Goldschmidt’s batting average on balls in play is right now, driving that 135 wRC+? It’s .111. He only has two hits on the season that haven’t left the ballpark. Weird shit happens over ~40 trips to the plate all the time.

So what I’m saying is that even though things feel a little rough right now, even at the team level we’re dealing with some really minute samples from which to be drawing conclusions. Kolten Wong is not Chase Utley, Paul Goldschmidt is not 2001 Mark McGwire, and Andrew Miller is not 2018 Greg Holland.

Okay, admittedly, I wish I were a little more certain about that last one.

There is, however, one area of the club where I think there is real, legitimate concern to be found, because what we’re seeing isn’t just poor performance, it’s poor performance that both could be seen coming, and is in many ways a continuation of what we watched happen last year.

I’m talking about the outfield, where things are not clearing up and coalescing. In fact, if anything, the outfield is looking murkier and murkier all the time.

To be fair, Harrison Bader has served as a bright spot in the outfield. Yes, he still looks like he’s always going to have platoon split issues, as even hitting as well as he has in the early going there are concerning things to be found in his profile against right-handed pitching. That being said, Bader is currently putting up a 138 wRC+, has been one of the Cards’ most patient hitters in the early going, and has hit for enough power against righties that he can absolutely hold his own well enough to start every day if his dominance against left-handers continues. He also still brings the defense and speed stuff that makes him unique amongst the Redbirds’ outfielders, so in general I’m not particularly concerned with Harrison Bader. If he gets 600 plate appearances, I feel like his floor is in the 2.5-3.0 win range.

If Bader has been a bright spot, though, it is perhaps mostly because he’s been so heavily surrounded by dark clouds so far in 2019. Center field has been mostly bright; the fields on either side are about as dark as things get.

Before the 2018 season, Marcell Ozuna was acquired to be the new best player on the Cardinals. Of course, that sounds a little funny now, given how things have gone for Marcell in St. Louis. He’s trying to go full Tino Martinez this year, after a supremely underwhelming — if also, to be fair, completely acceptable — 2018 campaign. Last year Ozuna was supposedly hampered by a shoulder injury, though honestly the timetable of when he was good vs when he was bad and how the injury did or did not change things about his offensive profile makes absolutely no sense. He had a procedure on the shoulder in the offseason, then showed up to spring training overweight and still with little apparent strength in the joint. To be fair, any surgical procedure has an associated amount of recovery, and Ozuna still working to come back in early spring training didn’t seem like a big concern.

However, it’s now the eighth of April, and Ozuna still can’t throw. He still looks heavy and slow. Worst of all, Ozuna, brought in to hit in the cleanup spot and be one of the primary drivers of the Cardinal offense, isn’t hitting. He is currently posting a wRC+ of just 52, and there’s really nothing in the profile to suggest Marcell is just getting unlucky right now. His BABIP is .300, his xwOBA is only .296 vs an actual wOBA of .289. It was encouraging to see him open up and drive a homer in Saturday’s loss to the Padres, but overall Ozuna simply isn’t driving the ball at all this season. His isolated slugging percentage in 2017, the increasingly-flukish-looking monster season which the Cardinals were hoping to see more of, was .237. In 2018, his ISO was .153. This season it’s .125. Worse yet, Ozuna’s exit velocity has fallen from 91.5 mph in 2018 to just 86.7 this year.

Want to know how Marcell Ozuna’s season is going? Consider this, from the player card page on Brooks Baseball relating to Ozuna:

“Against Fastballs (73 seen), he has had an aggressive approach at the plate (-0.02 c) with a disastrously high likelihood to swing and miss (36% whiff/swing).”

So...yeah. Aggressive and disastrously likely to swing and miss. Against fastballs, the pitch that you would generally hope opposing pitchers are too afraid to throw to your cleanup hitter.

In the bottom of the seventh yesterday, the Cardinals had men on second and third with two outs. They had just added an insurance run on a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly to push the score to 3-1. Marcell Ozuna strode to the plate. Now, this is essentially the situation you want. You have an opportunity to score a couple runs, two men in scoring position, and your cleanup hitter is coming up. Perfect. Even better, the pitcher on the mound was Aaron Loup, a lefty lacking overpowering stuff. A right-handed power hitter should be licking his chops at the prospect of an RBI situation with Aaron Loup on the mound.

What was the outcome of the at-bat? Ozuna struck out swinging. On a 92 mph fastball. Right down the middle. That is not what you want your cleanup hitter to do.

Just as bad as Ozuna in left is the situation in right field, where Dexter Fowler looks more or less like the same hitter he was last season, when his 62 wRC+ and -1.2 WAR made him one of the worst players in baseball. So far this season, Fowler is running a 56 wRC+, and an ISO of — wait for it — .040. To Fowler’s credit, he has been extremely selective so far this season, with a 16.1% walk rate and a .323 on-base percentage that has kept him from being a complete non-entity. His xwOBA this season is .342, compared to an actual wOBA of just .288, which reflects just how patient he has been at the plate. Getting on base when you’re not hitting is a skill, and a very important one at that.

The bad news? Well, besides the already bad news of an ISO of .040? Fowler’s average exit velocity this season is even worse than it was last year. In 2018 his average exit velocity was 85.3 mph. This year? A miserable 81.2 mph, which is in the bottom 4% of all baseball. For all the talk during spring training of the results just not matching the process, of Fowler’s contact quality looking much better than it did last year, here we are nine games into the season, looking at a guy with just as little power and impact in his bat as we saw in 2018. If Dexter Fowler were hitting baseballs on I-55, he might very well not get a speeding ticket.

The Cardinal offense in 2019 has the potential to be really good, I think. Between Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt at the top, the Cards have two of the best on-base guys in the game taking the most at-bats. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see Kolten Wong hit third for a while, at least until the magic powder wears off, just to get another lefty bat into the mix at the top, but moving players around in the lineup right now is really missing the point. The problem with the offense is that the cleanup hitter has no power, is striking out a third of the time, and Aaron Loup is throwing fastballs by him. The sixth hitter is doing some things very well in the batters’ box, swinging at fastballs and laying off the slow stuff, taking plenty of walks, but is making some of the worst contact imaginable. I hate to bring batting average into this discussion, but a .160 hitter with zero power is not going to help you win many games in the six hole. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Compounding the issue is the fact that neither Tyler O’Neill nor Jose Martinez have looked particularly good so far, though in each case we’re talking about not just tiny samples, but ludicrously tiny samples. O’Neill has fifteen plate appearances, while Cafecito has just seventeen. When the style manual dictates you spell out the number of plate appearances rather than using digits, it’s tough to draw any kind of conclusion whatsoever. Even so, neither player is exactly demanding more playing time at the moment, despite the very obvious need for someone, anyone, to take some playing time away from the current starters in the outfield corners.

All of this, of course, is nothing new for the Cardinals. As much talent as they have had come through the pipeline in the outfield over the past several years, they seem almost completely unable to find an arrangement of players that works out there. They signed Dexter Fowler to be their leadoff hitter and play center field; his defense was brought up, multiple times, in the Hague and his bat has largely evaporated. They traded for Marcell Ozuna to clean up and play gold glove defense in left field; he can’t throw, immediately lost fifteen home runs from 2017-’18, and has become a staple of the fat player picture genre. It hurts even more that the Cardinals made the move they thought they had to make, only to see the Marlins then move Christian Yelich later that same offseason after claiming they wouldn’t, and see Yelich then turn into the best player in the National League for the Brewers.

The Cards traded Tommy Pham to make room for Harrison Bader, and while Bader has been just fine, it’s impossible not to think how much better the team would look right now with Pham standing in either outfield corner instead of the guys who are there. They moved Fowler to a corner to make room for Pham, who was so incredible in 2017, then tanked in 2018 once he actually had the job. He rebounded after being traded to Tampa; maybe the Cards should have just paid someone to insult Tommy literally every day when he walked into the locker room to keep him angry.

Pham largely displaced Randal Grichuk, who never did really improve, but always had those days here and there that tantalised. Grichuk has a contract extension now with Toronto, which seems strange to me. Don’t get me wrong; Randal Grichuk is...fine. But he doesn’t seem to me like the sort of player a team serious about competing really worries about locking in. Grichuk to me feels like he should be starting in right field for a rebuilding West Coast team, for the next ten years, and then retire when no one is looking.

Grichuk was the moderately more successful trade piece picked up in exchange for David Freese, along with all-world defender Peter Bourjos, who unfortunately seemed to hit his physical decline about midway through his first year in St. Louis. Leg injuries killed Bourjos’s defense and speed, his bat was never good enough to carry him without those secondary skills, and he was supplanted by the Lamborghini, or the Jaguar King, or whatever it was everyone liked to call IAMRANDAL lol godbless.

I won’t fault the Cardinals for moving Stephen Piscotty, ever; there were factors beyond just what was happening on the field, and even if Stephen goes on to be a Hall of Famer I will always feel good about the fact he spent the last months of his mother’s life home in the Bay Area. Others can complain about the trade if they like. I will not.

Let’s face it: the Cardinals have been struggling to find an outfield that works since 2014, essentially. Allen Craig’s career ended, Oscar Taveras made a terrible choice, and Matt Holliday got old. They filled the gap in 2015 by trading for Jason Heyward, only to watch him walk away to win a title in Chi-town the next year. It’s been a nonstop carousel of promising candidates and talented rookies and good, smart trades and signings ever since, absolutely none of which have actually worked.

And now here we are in 2019, watching the carousel continuing to spin. Dexter Fowler is under contract for two more seasons after this, and looks done. Marcell Ozuna cost the organisation two very good pitching prospects, has taken virtually every at-bat of his Cardinal career in the cleanup spot, and has been an enormous disappointment. Tyler O’Neill could hit 50 homers, but might also strike out 200 times. Jose Martinez can hit all day long (well, most days), but sucks on defense no matter where you try to hide him. Harrison Bader looks more like a keeper every day, but still looks utterly helpless about 40% of the time when a right-handed pitcher throws him a slider. Dylan Carlson is in Double A, looking like the next Great White Hope for the club, hopefully ready to take over for Ozuna in 2020, but who knows if he’ll be able to break this cycle. Justin Williams is left-handed and strong as a mule, but also nearly that dumb, having broken his hand punching a television in the offseason. Lane Thomas probably deserves a shot at some point, and I don’t have a pithy thing to say about him, unfortunately.

It’s all bad news for an organisation that is looking for some consistency, looking to lock in a core for the next few years to get themselves back into postseason play after a three-year drought. The Cardinals of 2019 have what looks like one of the best infields in the game, at least potentially, but the outfield still has an unsettled feel, a lack of production, and a future that is a huge question mark. If the Cardinals are going to get where they want to go this season, something has to change in the outfield.

Cue the calliope music.