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Sorting Through the Outfielders

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Decisions are coming, whether anyone wants them to or not.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

One of the major subplots of this Cardinal season has been the question of how the organisation has sorted through — or at least attempted to sort through — all the various permutations of outfield alignments possible given the pieces present. This, of course, really only sets the 2019 season in the exact same mold as seemingly every other Cardinal season of recent vintage; it seems impossible for a club to be madly digging through a suitcase full of outfielders every year, doubly impossible for that suitcase to contain a different batch of outfielders each season, and yet here we are.

Every year the Redbirds face a logjam of outfielders, and every year they try to figure out some way of getting them all playing time, while attempting to sort through the options, separating the wheat from the chaff, who to keep and who to let go, only to find the same conundrum facing them again the next spring. I would use the word Sisyphean, but honestly, to me the Cardinals’ outfield carousel feels less like the hopeless, unending, never-finished task of Greek myth and more like a cyclical trap, closer to the plot of Groundhog Day.

Even in the context of feeling like we’ve seen this story before over and over, though, it appears — to me at least — that the Redbirds are approaching a break point. Maybe not a crisis, exactly, since it isn’t as if they have some impending disaster coming, but a moment in which the club and its management will have to pick a plan, pick a course, and invest in a direction. The infield is relatively stable, if they want it to be; I have thoughts regarding how the offseason could, or maybe should, proceed in general, but that’s for another day, a day not smack dab in the middle of a pennant race. But the outfield feels like a real crossroads sort of moment, and a big part of the decision boils down to what happens right now, and over the last week and a half of the season, and what comes in October. So let’s dig through the pile of outfielders, and see if we can’t figure out how to make sense of the impending decisions.

The Now Decisions

These are players about whom the Cardinals will need to make a decision immediately. Whether these players are keepers is a decision that has to be made between now and, say, the Winter Meetings.

Marcell Ozuna

We’ll start off with the big one. For better or for worse, what the Cardinals decide to do with the Big Bear will have an enormous role in defining the upcoming offseason, and probably the next few seasons beyond. At his best, Ozuna is a legitimate middle of the order bat and a still-reasonable corner outfielder, though not the glove he once was. (The shoulder and accompanying throwing issues/power outage has to be mentioned as a concern going forward.)

It’s hard not to see Ozuna’s two seasons in red as somewhat of a disappointment. In 2017, his final season in Miami, he posted a 143 wRC+. In St. Louis, those numbers have been 107 and currently 112. I chronicled a while back just how impressive certain statistics Ozuna is putting up this year are, in terms of his plate discipline and power production, and it appears there’s some bad batted-ball fortune dragging his overall numbers down. Still, he’s not getting any younger, has shown lapses in his conditioning, has a somewhat worrisome shoulder issue, and has been worth approximately the same number of wins in two seasons with the Cardinals that he was in just his last year with the Marlins.

The front office and ownership are going to have to decide if Ozuna’s power in the middle of the lineup is worth some of the other, less positive aspects to his game. He won’t be cheap to bring back, and has not posted anything close to the .900+ OPS the Cards were hoping for when they acquired him. Still, he’s a safer bet to post an .800 OPS and throw up 25-30 or more home runs than someone like Tyler O’Neill. The decision on Ozuna will have huge ramifications for what the team does going forward.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler’s rebirth this season has been, to put it mildly, shocking. It’s also been enormously gratifying to see, given Fowler’s infectious personality and seeming universal acclaim from teammates and the like. His wRC+ in his nightmarish 2018 season was 63; this year it is a relatively robust 107. He’s no longer the hitter he was from 2014-’17, but he’s been solid. A .350 on-base percentage is not anything to turn up one’s nose at. He’s also looked more spry on defense this year, though he’s still not great in a corner and is also not getting any younger. (He’ll be 34 in March.)

The question at this point isn’t really whether Dexter Fowler belongs on a big league roster anymore, which last season was very much in doubt. The question is whether the Cardinals need the roster space more than they need Fowler’s production going forward. Personally, I would argue they do, with so many useful-looking players hanging about looking for opportunities. However, trading Fowler would be potentially complicated, and the organisation would have to pay a fair amount of the freight to move him at this point, most likely. Fowler is, as things stand now, roughly an average player, no longer the force on the bases capable of adding half a win a year with his legs, who costs $18 million a year. How much of that the Cardinals would need to eat is unclear to me, but they may have to bite that bullet if they want to move on to the next group of outfielders and look toward the future.

Jose Martinez

Hey, remember when Jose Martinez was getting a ton of playing time? That was weird, right?

Hey, remember when Jose Martinez was a certifiably awesome hitter for like two years in a row? That was cool, right? Yeah, I miss that too.

At this point, Martinez feels like a man without a home on this team, even in the pinch-hitting sort of role. He has been a below-average hitter overall this season, largely due to his turning back into the grounder machine he was in the minor leagues, before he got to St. Louis and seemingly changed his approach to get the ball in the air. Given Martinez’s serious limitations in the outfield and on the bases, it seems hard to see the Cardinals rostering him again next year. He’s still interesting as a bench bat, but much less now than he was before. He is also still very affordable, though, so it’s possible he could stick as a 26th man on next year’s roster. On the other hand, his spot on the bench could very easily go to a Rangel Ravelo or John Nogowski, so I have a strong suspicion Cafecito will not be part of the 2020 club.

The Soon Decisions

No, you don’t have to make up your mind now. But, you know, maybe by the end of 2020 you’d like to have some clarity. These are not pressing issues, but players the club needs to figure out roles for and future value in the near term.

Harrison Bader

This is where the really important decisions begin, I believe. Or maybe not the really important decisions, but the really important outcomes. There may be no player on the 2020 Cardinals who will have more of an impact on their future outlook than Harrison Bader.

In 2018, Bader appeared in 138 games and collected 427 plate appearances. The games show a lot of late-inning defensive replacement work and the like, so let’s focus on the PAs. We’re talking about a little over two-thirds of a season in terms of playing time, and in that little over two-thirds of a season Harrison was worth 3.6 wins above replacement. He was a slightly above-average hitter (107 wRC+), a sublime baserunner (+7.6 runs), and a supreme defender in center field (+11 DRS in 615 innings). He played some right field as well, at a remarkably high rate, but that’s more or less irrelevant going forward, I think. If Harrison Bader is playing, he’s in center field.

This year, things have not gone nearly as well. Bader has played 879 innings in the outfield, all of them in center, and he has still been a remarkable defender. He’s a +11 again by DRS, so not quite as good as last year (though still phenomenal), and UZR/150 actually thinks he’s been a bit better even, going from +20.1 runs in 2018 to +22.3 this year. The error bars on defensive metrics are large, as most of us know, so we’ll just take those numbers as all pointing in a similar direction, ignore a couple runs here and there, and conclude that Harrison Bader is one of the very best, if not the best, defensive center fielders in the game.

It’s on the offensive side where things have gone wrong. Where 2018 Bader was an averageish hitter, 2019 Bader has been bad. His current wRC+ is 81, and that’s actually up from where it was prior to his demotion to work on his swing. He has improved his plate approach this year, with a much higher walk rate, but he continues to have huge contact issues for someone with modest power. In addition, his BABIP fell 85 points from 2018 to 2019, and when your value was largely being propped up by an extremely high BABIP, that’s a recipe for problems. He has also, bizarrely, been a much worse baserunner this year, sitting exactly neutral in terms of value, which is hard to imagine from a player with his speed.

All in all, Bader has collected 392 plate appearances this season, or just 35 fewer than last year. And in that time, he has produced just 1.6 wins, or less than half of last year’s output. If we prorate Bader’s 2018 performance to a full 600-650 PA season, he is nearly a five win player. If we do the same thing with his 2019 numbers, he’s more like a two and a half win player. (I.e. the same kind of average or just above player the Cardinals produce in droves, and end up having to trade away because you’re still only allowed to play so many guys at once.)

Harrison Bader will absolutely be on the 2020 Cardinals. There’s a question about whether he will come 2021, though, I think. He is obviously the best center field defender the club has had since at least Jim Edmonds — and if the numbers are to be believed, likely longer than that — and any club looking to build around run prevention as a winning strategy has to see rostering Bader as a serious win. However, if Bader’s bat is more 2019 than 2018, it’s worth asking the question whether he really is the best option to man the position long term.

Tyler O’Neill

You know what’s interesting? Harrison Bader is really fast, right? Of course he is. We all know that. But do you know who on the Cardinals is faster? Tyler O’Neill. According to Statcast, in 2019 Bader has averaged 29.6 feet per second in spring speed. Tyler O’Neill has registered 29.9 ft/sec, making him the fastest player on the team. I’m not saying give Tyler O’Neill the center field job now because he’s faster, I’m just saying we should all remember that O’Neill is a superlative athlete in his own right, and capable of doing some very interesting things on the field even when not hitting dingers.

The thing is, it’s been sort of a lost year for the Canadian strongman. A wrist injury chewed up a chunk of his season, and he’s only collected a little over 300 plate appearances in total between Memphis and St. Louis. More than the injury, though, this kind of season is the downside of the old saw about never having too many good players, etc. This is what happens when logjams are not addressed: opportunities cannot be found. Tyler O’Neill has played about half a season in 2019, has struggled to ever get anything resembling regular playing time, and the Cardinals (as well as the rest of us), are really no closer to having a good handle on what O’Neill is going to be at the major league level. Certainly, he took a step back this season from his extraordinary 2018 Memphis campaign, in which he got his K:BB ratio down to a very manageable 2:1 and posted a 170 wRC+ as a result, but at no point in times this season has he ever been able to get a long stretch of consistent starts. His last start in a game came on the first of September, and that was the only start he has made since returning from the wrist injury.

The longest stretch Tyler has been able to really claim this year in which he was given something like starter’s playing time came the last two and a half weeks of July. From the 13th through the 31st of July, O’Neill played in seventeen games. He started all but one of them. Over that time, in 66 plate appearances, his strikeout rate was 24.2%, his isolated slugging was .222, and he posted a wRC+ of 123. He did not walk, admittedly (4.5% BB), but it’s fair to wonder if a player trying desperately to make an impression is going to be able to be patient at the plate.

This is how players get overlooked. They don’t get chances, and when they do they may not make the immediate impression they’re hoping for, largely because they’re trying so hard to make it. We don’t know how good Tyler O’Neill, major league outfielder, is going to be. Clearly he has contact issues, and maybe those contact issues prove too great an obstacle to overcome. But he’s also the fastest player on the team, has the most raw power of any player on the team, a plus throwing arm, and at times has looked like a plus or better corner outfielder, capable of playing center without embarrassing himself. At some point in time the Cardinals need to figure out what they have in O’Neill, before they trade him away and some other organisation gets a crack at unlocking the incredible talent he possesses.

Lane Thomas

The Cardinals have four incredible fast players. Three are outfielders, and one is a second baseman masquerading as a third baseman and occasional outfielder. Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Tommy Edman all average better than 29.4 ft/sec in sprint speed. The fourth member of that group? Lane Thomas.

It doesn’t take much more than a quick look to establish that Lane Thomas can do a little bit of everything. He has power, can play center field at a reasonable level, has plus speed, will steal bases, can hit a little bit. He also struggles with plate discipline (stop me if you’ve heard this before), and that hurts his ability to get to all those other tools.

In an ideal world, Lane Thomas is basically the backup outfielder to whatever group the Cardinals construct from all their various options. He would seem to be a fantastic fourth outfielder, able to play all three positions and bring that speed/power combo off the bench whenever needed, but he doesn’t have quite the upside of many of the other options. He’s solid in center, but isn’t saving double digit runs a year like Harrison Bader. He has good pop, but cannot hit a ball out of Yellowstone like Tyler O’Neill. He’s a decent hitter, but isn’t the line drive machine Randy Arozarena is at his best. And that’s without mentioning Dylan Carlson, who we’ll get to in a bit but is easily the best bet of the bunch to be a superstar.

Obviously there’s no need to be in a rush making a decision as to what role Lane Thomas will have on your team long term, but depending on how other decisions shake out he could very well be in line for significant playing time as soon as 2020. He’ll also use his second minor league option next year, so it isn’t as if you can keep him in limbo forever.

Justin Williams

Speaking of guys in limbo, Justin Williams had one of the stranger seasons I think we’ve seen in recent memory this year. He started the season very late, the victim of a self-inflicted hand injury suffered while punching a television. When he did get started, he was sent to Double A and sucked. Bad. A .193/.246/.263 line and 43 wRC+ is not going to make you any friends, particularly when people in the organisation might already be disinclined to give you a chance because you, you know, broke your hand punching a television.

But then a funny thing happened. After being terrible at Double A, Williams was pushed back up to Triple A, where he had played in 2018, and suddenly he was awesome. (Actually, he was bumped up, hit the injured list again for about three weeks, and then came back and was awesome.) In 119 plate appearances with Memphis, he hit .353/.437/.608, good for a 152 wRC+. Even in the crazed offensive environs of the Pacific Coast League in 2019, Williams was a beast. Admittedly, much of his offensive value came courtesy of a .439 BABIP, but it wasn’t all batted ball luck. He walked 13.4% of the time. His ISO was .255. He hit seven homers in those hundred or so at-bats, basically a ~35 home run per year rate. In other words, Justin Williams looked for all the world like a top prospect for about a month or so at the end of what was otherwise a lost season. How I’m supposed to make sense of that in putting together the offseason prospect lists is really beyond me.

In a way, Williams would seem to be competing most directly in the short term with Lane Thomas for fourth outfielder status. He cannot play center field the way Thomas can, but the Cardinals have three players already mentioned on this list and one to come who can, so that shouldn’t matter much. What Williams has that basically no one else does is a left-handed bat, and some serious potential with that bat. He struck out a lot this season, but he also walked far more than ever before, and seemed to be hunting for pitches to drive more than simply trying to make contact. He still puts the ball on the ground too much, but also just posted a .255 ISO this year in Triple A.

One of the tougher issues facing the Cardinals in terms of making a decision about Williams is the fact he has only one minor league option remaining at this point. Because of the way injured lists work during the offseason, the Cards had to put him on the major league IL and then option him to the minors, thus burning his second of three options. He can move freely up and down in 2020, but that will likely be the last time.

Williams’s left-handed stick makes him an intriguing option off the bench in the near future. If the Redbird outfield in 2020 to begin was something like Bader/O’Neill/Randy Arozarena, Williams would seem an ideal fourth outfield/bench bat option to hit from the other side of the plate and take corner time to the tune of ~450 plate appearances or so. Then again, the level of confidence it would take to hand him that job? Almost certainly not present. Spring training is going to be extremely important for Williams next year, as it could go a long way toward convincing the organisation what sort of future role he could have with the team.

The Further Off Decisions

These are longer-term concerns and decisions, but not so far off that we’re talking about prospects years away. Call them 2021 decisions if you like, though I think these players are likely to have more clarity sooner than that.

Randy Arozarena

I’ll be honest: I think the Cardinals have really wasted Randy Arozarena this year. I understand why; it’s incredibly hard in a pennant race to turn away from players doing a perfectly fine job at their positions to try out an untested rookie for any appreciable amount of playing time. Even so, Arozarena was one of the hottest hitters on the planet for much of this season in the minors, and once he came up to the big leagues all that momentum was killed dead, dead, dead. It was disappointing, even if it was also understandable.

Here’s the thing about Randy Arozarena: he may not be seen as having the highest upside, largely because physically he’s not all that imposing, but I disagree with that assessment. This is a player who does everything on a baseball field, does almost all of it very well (I don’t understand why a player with his speed seems to suck at stealing bases), and can flat-out hit. He was a .300/.400/.500 hitter at both Double and Triple A this year, and is still only 24. That may not seem especially young, but considering Arozarena lost a significant chunk of time to the process of defecting from Cuba, his rise through the minors has been relatively fast.

Arozarena is a hard-contact machine, with the only downside being his swing is not really geared for all that much power. He’ll put up solid ISOs, I think, but it’s going to be more doubles and triples and not a ton of over-the-fence pop. He has plus speed (28.2 ft/sec sprint speed), plays an outstanding corner outfield spot, can handle center just fine, and has one of the stronger throwing arms in the organisation. I think he walks 9-11% of the time. I think he keeps his strikeout rate below 20%. I think he hits .290+ and slugs close to .500. In short, I think Randy Arozarena could be an all-around star level player if he gets the opportunity. There is also, of course, a chance that everything comes up 10-15% worse than I think is possible, and he ends up a fifth outfield type because all-around excellence is more like all-around averageness, but that’s a chance I think the organisation should take.

Arozarena has two more options, the same as Lane Thomas. I do not expect him to open the 2020 season in the big leagues, much as I would like him to, because I don’t think the club will clear enough space and opportunity for these players. Bader will obviously be on the team. Fowler will probably be here as well, much as I think they should find a way to move on. If there is only one starting job available and maybe bench bat time, I just don’t see Arozarena sticking on the roster. Again, this is the real downside of roster crunches, when you just can’t find the space to evaluate talented players.

Dylan Carlson

And finally, we have the outfielder around which much of the next couple year’s decision-making will revolve, for good or for ill. Of all the players listed here, Dylan Carlson is by far the one most likely to become a star, though obviously any player becoming a star is, by nature of the game, rather unlikely. Still, Carlson absolutely dominated Double A this season at just 20 years old, and then proceeded to lay waste to Triple A, albeit in an unsustainable way, late in the year.

Dylan Carlson has all the qualities of a potential star player, and when the time comes for him to ascend to the big leagues, space will need to be made. This is not Harrison Bader coming up as a possible fourth outfield and then, as it becomes clear he’s awesome at at least one thing, getting more and more playing time. This is a guy you build around (well, hopefully, at least), and maybe don’t make a bunch of plans to block in the near future.

The thing is, as good as Carlson could be, and as exciting as it is to have a player like this on the horizon, I hope you can appreciate looking at the rest of this column just how complicated the picture around him is. As I said, when Carlson is ready to go you make room for him, full stop. But the problem is all the other decisions that need to be made in addition to that, and how much playing time will be needed to sort through the options and make those decisions.

If I could wave a magic wand and make things go the way I want, the Cardinals’ starting outfield by the second half of 2020 would be Arozarena, Bader, and Carlson left to right, with Justin Williams on the bench as a lefty pinch-hitting option and fourth outfielder. In my head, that’s the alignment that produces the most long term, and also gives the club an airtight outfield defense. But where is Tyler O’Neill in that alignment? I have no idea, honestly. I feel like that is the group that offers the best balance of contributions, but at the same time I cannot say I don’t feel like O’Neill deserves 400+ at-bats of solid playing time to see what he is one way or the other. Lane Thomas isn’t in my group either, despite being a solid center fielder and a reasonable hitter, seemingly an ideal option to take fourth outfielder ABs. I’ve traded Dexter Fowler, paying a chunk of his salary, just to open up space. Jose Martinez is gone to an AL club where he doesn’t have to play the field to get at-bats. The Big Bear is getting big paid, but by someone else. My ideal world has upside, but basically no safety net. I’ve had to deal away multiple pieces from the top of the pile to get to the players I believe in most. The problem is, what if that doesn’t work? If I give myself no safety net, what happens if it goes wrong?

This, then, is the challenge the Cardinals face over the next eighteen months. They need to figure out the outfield puzzle, and do so with a relative amount of urgency. If they make a mistake, though, things could go awry in a hurry. That’s why I fully expect they will do completely the opposite of what I would do, and rather than going with the players I believe in most, they’ll work their way through the whole list, one piece at a time, and wait for failures and attrition to create opportunity. They will play it safe, hang on to their sure things, and work the margins to try and get value to shake loose. It isn’t the way I would do it, for sure, but it’s probably the way to avoid ever going 70-92. Which is something the Cardinals have to be far, far more afraid of than I do, since my job doesn’t depend on it.