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Transaction Analysis 7/29-30: Cardinals Option Harrison Bader, Will Recall Lane Thomas

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Amidst all the anticipation of watching who is moved in the days before the trade deadline, we have learned that the Cardinals have optioned CF Harrison Bader to Triple-A Memphis. According to Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, Lane Thomas will be recalled before Tuesday’s game against the Cubs. Bader’s usage has been a polarizing topic, while I will not necessarily take a stance here, I thought it would be useful to revisit the way in which Bader has been deployed by the Cards so far.

BADER TRAJECTORY

April

Awarded that job after the Tommy Pham trade last year, he was slated to be the starter there for the future. He started 13 of the club’s first 14 games in center this year, then the Cards sat him for the second game of the Cards’ series against Mexico on April 14th due to hamstring tightness. Tyler O’Neill started in center for two games while Bader rested before going on the 10-day IL himself with a right elbow problem. Dexter Fowler started the next game, then on April 17th, the Cards finally put Bader on the 10-day IL, retroactive to April 14th. Fowler handled the center field duties for the next six games until Bader was activated from the IL on April 24th.

This began the see-saw that we have seen with Bader and the center field job this year, as Bader did not get his job back immediately. Lane Thomas started in center the day of Bader’s activation, purportedly because it was a cold and rainy night, Fowler had a minor back problem and they wanted to be careful with Bader. But Fowler started the next three games until Bader finally got a start on April 29th. He started the next game as well, but we were also told that Fowler was resting because of the flu. At this point, Fowler and Jose Martinez were hitting reasonably well. Of the 30 games in March and April, Bader started 15.

May

Bader started the first three games of May with Fowler still resting. The second game was that getaway game against the Nationals on May 2nd when the Cards’ offense started to go in the tank. After five games in a row and three games in May, Fowler went back into the lineup at center on May 4th. From that point forward, Bader did not start a game until May 17th on the road at the Texas Rangers where the designated hitter was in play. He started every game that series, then towards the end of the month, Jose Martinez lost his starting right field job and Bader started the last five games of May. In all, Bader started 14 out of the 27 games.

June

When June rolled around, Bader was a full-time starter, starting in each of the club’s first 16 games before getting a rest along with several other regulars on June 19th. On June 22nd, Bader sat against a righthander, with Jose Martinez starting in right field for the fourth game in a row. On June 25th, Bader sat against a righthander and only started against lefties for the rest of the month. At this point, it looked like Jose Martinez had won the right field job back and Bader was being platooned. Still, Bader started 21 out of the 26 June games in center field.

July

The Cardinals started a series at Seattle in the beginning of July which featured the designated hitter again, and Bader started all three games. But when the Cards went to San Francisco Shildt sat Bader against the first two lefty starters of the series, only starting him in the final game, when he decided to rest Tyler O’Neill and put Jose Martinez in left field. That took us to the All-Star Break and to that point Bader started four of the six games in July. Since the break, however, it has been a different story, to say the least, but not at first. Bader started the first game after the break on July 12th against an Arizona lefty, but O’Neill also rested in the game with Martinez in left. Then from July 14th through July 16th, Jose Martinez was benched and Bader started three games in a row. At this point, Bader had started seven out of the first 10 July games and four out of the first five games after the break.

Then, on July 17th, Bader was benched, Jose Martinez was restored to the right field job, and Bader has only started two games since. Fowler started in center from July 17th through July 20th. Bader got a start on a day game in July 21st when several regulars were rested. Munoz mania then began and he started the next 2 games in center on July 22nd and 23rd. Fowler started the next three games, then fouled a ball off his foot. Munoz got the nod on July 27th and after a seven-day stint on the bench, Bader started the day game against Houston on July 28th. In all, Bader only started 10 out of the 23 July games so far, the first month that he has not started at least half the games (if you combine March and April). Out of the 105 games the Cards have played so far, Bader has started 60 games in center field, played center as a defensive replacement in an additional 24 games in which he did not start, and had a plate appearance in 30 games in which he did not start. He’s only sat completely in 15 games.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Everybody knows that Bader is an elite defender. He may be play the best centerfield defense in the National League, if not the entire game. This move, whether we agree with it or not, is about his offense. Currently, he’s sporting a slash line of .195/.309/.339 with a 73 wRC+, which, if that is all you focus on, is not good. As some people have pointed out in the comments in recent days, however, his surface numbers are a bit confounding when you compare some additional metrics from this year to last year.

BABIP: Down almost 100 points from .358 last year to .259 this year

Hard Hit %: Up from 30.8% last year to 35.8% this year

Barrel %: Up from 6.9% last year to 8% this year

Launch Angle: Identical at 12.5

Exit Velocity: Only slightly down from 86 to 85.7

xwOBA: Up from .295 last year to .307 this year

K%: Down from 29.3% last year to 28.3% this year

BB%: Up from 7.3% last year to 11.2% this year

A glance at these numbers indicates that at the plate, Bader has actually improved in several areas. Last year Bader outperformed his xwOBA (.327 wOBA to .295 xwOBA), and this year he has underperformed it (.284 wOBA to .307 xwOBA). The BABIP slump likely has a lot to do with it as well.

When you consider these factors along with his defense, there is a strong case that Bader should actually be starting. Nonetheless, he has been benched, and having been benched, the Cards have finally concluded that the best way for Bader to get out of his slump (he’s 8 for his last 78) is for him to get plate appearances every day in AAA. If they’re not going to start him at least against lefthanded pitching, it’s hard to argue to just leave him up in the majors to serve as a defensive replacement only on a 4-man bench. He does have 2 option years remaining, and I think most would agree that he needs regular trips to the plate somewhere, and if it’s not going to be with the big club, it needs to be in the minors.

WHY NOT RANDY AROZARENA?

Many are calling for the promotion of Randy Arozarena to take Bader’s place. Randy is red hot, having just hit for the cycle at AAA Memphis recently, and is running a .367/.439/.572 slash line in 42 games with a 149 wRC+ in a pitcher’s park. Like it or not, one reason he’s not being elevated at this time is because he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is full at the moment, and we’re fresh out of 60-day IL moves to make to remove somebody. Now there are a few obvious DFA candidates, and Arozarena will have to be added to the 40-man roster this November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft anyway. Many clubs have purchased the contract of players in Arozarena’s position at least in September before the draft when the active rosters expand to 40 players so they can get a month look-see when it won’t necessarily cost another player a job. So why not do it now?

I am just speculating here, but I highly doubt it has anything to do with not wanting to start his clock. Adding him now wouldn’t make him an arbitration-eligible Super Two or eligible for free agency earlier than he otherwise would be. If he’s not on the 40-man roster, it makes him a more attractive trade chip if the Cards wished to go that route, because if a team didn’t want to start him, it wouldn’t have to burn one of his 3 option years this year. Still, I think the real reason is that the Cardinals might want to keep him, and they’re not committed to starting him over Fowler in center field. We can debate that until the cows come home, but if the club feels that way, then it makes sense not to want to have him disrupt his hot streak in Memphis by sitting on the major league bench. That of course raises the question of why, if Lane Thomas is still a prospect, would they want him to languish on the major league bench instead of starting every day in Memphis to work on his contact issues. Then you circle back to the position that someone has to come up here to replace Bader, Thomas is on the 40-man roster and Arozarena is not. It may not be a satisfying answer, but those twin issues are the likely explanation, right or wrong.

LANE THOMAS

Thomas’s year has been interesting to say the least. After a breakout season last year where he hit 27 HR across 2 levels, this year has been a down year. When he wasn’t up in the majors on his short stints, he started 70 games in the outfield for Memphis. Initially slated to be the center fielder, Drew Robinson started playing a bunch of center field when he was healthy with Thomas moved to left field. Lately, Arozarena has been playing center field under orders from the front office, with Thomas again moved to left field. Out of his 70 outfield starts, 36 have come in center, with 32 in left and three in right.

Early in the year when Thomas was recalled on April 17th, he was running a gaudy 21.3% walk rate, which fueled a .383 OBP. Other than that, he wasn’t hitting at all. Since that time, his numbers have normalized to a .268/.352/.460. His walk rate has gone down to 10.5%, but that is still the highest it has been since he played in A ball for the Blue Jays organization in 2016. His BABIP is likely unsustainable at .343, and Fangraphs’ wRC+ figure—which I’m told is adjusted for league but not park—is below average at 96. He has run similar BABIPs in past minor league stops, but the longest a BABIP like that lasted for him was when he ran a .342 BABIP for 73 games in 2017 in Class A-Advanced. His ISO is down from last year, but he has still maintained a strong slugging percentage, as 29 of his 71 hits have gone for extra bases, with 10 HR. The one thing the club hoped would improve has not improved, and that is his K%, which has gone up 3% from last year from right around 23% to right around 26%. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether he has enough power to run a K rate that high.

In an ideal world, Thomas would play every day in Memphis, but if it’s not going to be Arozarena, Thomas had to be the pick. Drew Robinson and Justin Williams are both on the Memphis 7-day IL. Adolis Garcia is the only other healthy outfielder on the 40-man, and he has severe contact issues. He would rather take poison than take a walk, as evidenced by his 3% BB rate compared with his 30% K rate. Because of that problem, his slash line is .240/.283/.478 with a 74 wRC+. You have to like his 23 HR, and he does lead Memphis in runs scored, HR, RBI, and tied with Lane Thomas for the lead in steals. Although his power is intriguing for a bench job, it would probably be a bad deal with his contact issues.

CARDINALS BENCH FOR THE CHICAGO SERIES

With Thomas added, there are 3 known bench jobs: Andrew Knizner, Rangel Ravelo and Lane Thomas. Tommy Edman or Yairo Munoz will have the other bench job, depending on the club’s feelings and fetish for Munoz. All of this of course assumes that Fowler will be back in the lineup at center field after resting his sore foot for three days. If he’s not, then all bets are off, and for all we know we could see Munoz back out there in center again.