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Lost Opportunities Create Unanswerable Questions in the Outfield

The Cardinals failure to provide playing time for developing outfielders in 2019 is creating uncertainty for 2020.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In a recent interview with KMOX, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak reiterated the stance that they have held all offseason: “We have a lot of young talent that needs to emerge and be given that opportunity and if that happens it should be an exciting year for us.”

The Cardinals, Mo claims, are not trying to “win the offseason” but are committed to improving from within by giving opportunities to its next class of emerging players. While this has implications all over the roster, it is most obvious in the outfield. According to reports, the club has inked Harrison Bader and his 81 wRC+ in 2019 into center field. Dexter Fowler, who is entering his age-34 season and provided just 101 wRC+ in 2019, is the sure starter in right. The club’s best outfielder in 2019 was Marcell Ozuna, but he was allowed to walk as a free agent. Rumors suggest the club remains interested in a return, but this interest seems dependent upon Ozuna’s market collapsing.

As the club currently stands, there is a wide-open hole as the left-field starter and no clear plug-and-play replacement on the roster. Injury, platoon splits, and age concerns mean significant innings should be available throughout the outfield. To fill these plate appearances, front office officials have consistently pointed to Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas. Behind them is late-season call-up Randy Arozarena and surging prospect Dylan Carlson. Between those four players, the Cardinals believe they can replace the highly productive Ozuna, provide quality depth in case of injury, and bring improvement to the offense as a whole.

The Cardinals have confidence that their young outfielders will reach these high expectations in 2020. And that’s odd. Because the Cardinals displayed almost no confidence in those same players in 2019.

Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Randy Arozarena received only 218 combined plate appearances in 2019. The organization’s top prospect, Dylan Carlson, progressed to AAA but the club was unwilling to add him to their 40-man roster. The club’s hope that these players can be productive regulars on a contending team is based almost entirely on scouting and internal projections, not on actual on-the-field performance.

This has had an obvious impact on the the Cardinals approach to the offseason, where the club has had conversations with short-term outfield options in trade and free agency but have not come close to making any commitments. Simply put, lost opportunities to properly prepare and evaluate their in-house outfield options in 2019 have created unanswerable questions for 2020.

The solution to this dilemma would have been simple: the Cardinals should have devoted playing time in 2019 to the outfielders they hoped would fill roles in 2020. Let’s consider how outfield playing time was allotted for the young outfielders in 2019 and see if we can come up with a better model for how the club should have handled them.

MLB: JUL 14 Diamondbacks at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tyler O’Neill - 151 PA’s, .262/.311/.411

Of the three outfielders we are considering, O’Neill has the highest pedigree and received the most plate appearances in 2019 — 151. O’Neill first appeared in 2018 where he was used primarily as a pinch hitter and occasional starter. With 142 plate appearances under his belt, he broke camp as the likely first-man-up at all three OF positions. That never materialized:

Mar. 28 - April 15: 14 appearances, 4 starts, 29 PA’s
Apr 16 - IL, ulnar nerve subluxation
April 26 - May 4: 7 appearances, 1 start, 10 PA’s
May 4 - Optioned to Memphis (no injury)
June 29 - Aug. 3: 25 appearances, 23 starts, 97 PA’s, .286/.330/.451
Aug. 3: IL, wrist sprain
Aug. 30 - Oct. 3: 14 appearances, 2 starts, 15 PA’s

From Opening Day through the end of June, O’Neill received just 39 PA’s. Part of his time was stolen to injury, but the slugging outfielder only missed the minimum before returning to the roster. In reality, Shildt simply preferred to play Jose Martinez. Mozeliak soon demoted O’Neill to AAA and abandoned him there until Marcell Ozuna’s injury forced a recall. When O’Neill finally received consistent playing time, he thrived, providing a .347 wOBA for the month of July. An unfortunate wrist sprain sent him back to the IL, but even when he was due to return, the club held him at AAA. O’Neill received just 15 PA’s for the remainder of the season and he did not make the postseason roster. His 2019 season ended up looking much like 2018: he flashed solid production during the rare and short stretches where he he received consistent playing time but he never had a chance to push his way into the lineup. Combined, O’Neill has just under 300 career plate appearances — 217 fewer than Yairo Munoz over the same time frame — and the nature of those PA’s presents an incomplete picture of his talents.

MLB: AUG 11 Pirates at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lane Thomas - .316/.409/.684 in 44 PA’s

April 17 - 26: 7 appearances, 11 PA’s
May 22 - 29: 2 appearances, 0 PA’s
June 29 - July 5: 2 appearances, 3 PA’s
July 20 - August 30: 23 appearances, 3 starts, 30 PA’s

Mozeliak can’t stop talking about how much the club likes Lane Thomas. Indeed, Thomas has received more verbal accolades this winter than the more established O’Neill. Yet, Thomas received three call-ups from April 17 - July 5 and only earned 14 PA’s. Infielders Yairo Munoz and Tommy Edman consistently received OF time ahead of him. In July, when Matt Carpenter hit the IL and Tommy Edman settled in at 3b, Thomas finally worked his way into the playing rotation. He received 3 starts and 30 plate appearances over a month long period before an injury shut him down. Both Mozeliak and Shildt have acknowledged that the club planned for him to be a significant contributor for the stretch run. If the club liked him so much for the stretch run, why was he completely ignored earlier in the season?

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Randy Arozarena - .300/.391/.500 in 23 PA’s

Aug. 12: Added to 40-Man roster
Aug. 12 - 20: 3 appearances, 2 starts, 8 PA’s
Aug. 20: Optioned to Memphis (no injury)
Sep. 3 - 29: 16 appearances, 2 starts, 15 PA’s

All Randy Arozarena did last season was hit. His monster season at AAA received notice from fans and there were daily cries to give Arozarena a shot in place of the struggling Harrison Bader and uninspiring play of Dexter Fowler. In need of a spark after failing to make any significant additions at the trade deadline, the club finally added the Cuban center fielder to the 40-man roster. He earned 2 starts and 8 PA’s in two weeks before heading back down until rosters expanded. Arozarena had 15 more plate appearances — for 23 total — through the end of the season, and his speed and defense landed him on the postseason roster.

Finding Opportunities for Playing Time in the Outfield

In total, Cardinals outfielders appeared in 556 games (486 available starts) and received 2083 plate appearances. The outfield playing time breaks down like this (stats are only for the outfield and do not include pinch hitting or stats accumulated at infield positions):

2019 Outfield Playing Time & Stats

Dexter Fowler 137 563 .236 .323 101
Marcell Ozuna 129 548 .244 .338 110
Harrison Bader 117 395 .208 .297 84
Jose Martinez 78 297 .279 .330 105
Tyler O'Neill 40 134 .280 .326 103
Yairo Munoz 18 52 .250 .267 64
Tommy Edman 12 43 .268 .319 98
Lane Thomas 17 31 .308 .393 147
Randy Arozarena 7 18 .267 .369 131
Drew Robinson 1 2 .000 .000 -100
TOTAL 556 2083 .244 .323 101

This chart reveals some obvious areas where the club could have gained more playing time for their three developing outfielders. The first is to cut the PA’s devoted to non-OF’ers. There is really no excusing Shildt’s decision to start Munoz in the OF. If Shildt wanted to keep him fresh, he should have done so by giving DeJong (who started 156 games) a periodic day off. Plenty of playing time was available for Tommy Edman on the infield in place of Matt Carpenter. Keeping these two infielders out of the grass gains 95 plate appearances for the young outfielders.

Jose Martinez’s usage is another obvious place for gains. Shildt gave Martinez 561 innings mostly in RF where he provided a horrendous -9 DRS. The best way to maximize Martinez’s abilities was to limit his outfield exposure and emphasize his role as a pinch hitter. If we cut Martinez’s outfield plate appearances in half, we gain 149 PA’s for others. Some pinch hit appearances that were given to O’Neill or Thomas — worthless in assessing their future playability — could now go back to Martinez, leaving him with between 275-300 PA’s on the season.

With nearly 250 plate appearances gained, we’ve already created significant space. Still, we can go further. Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader simply did not provide enough offense to justify the playing time devoted to them. Fowler, at age 33, appeared in the second most games of his career and by far the most he’s seen in a season with the Cardinals. Fowler also struggled to an 88 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, something Thomas or O’Neill would have surely eclipsed. Bader, likewise, received nearly 400 PA’s while struggling to an 81 overall wRC+. In my revised playing time allotment, I’m suggesting a palatable 10% cut in outfield plate appearances for both players.

Following the revisions I suggest, this is the resulting 2019 outfield sorted by PA’s and normalized to the same number of actual PA’s from 2019:

2019 Revised OF Playing Time

Name PA Change New PA
Name PA Change New PA
Marcell Ozuna 548 0% 548
Dexter Fowler 563 -10% 507
Harrison Bader 395 -10% 356
Tyler O'Neill 134 193% 259
Lane Thomas 31 484% 150
Jose Martinez 297 -50% 149
Randy Arozarena 18 +97 115
Yairo Munoz 52 -100% 0
Tommy Edman 43 -100% 0
Drew Robinson 2 -100% 0
TOTAL 2083 0% 2083

259 plate appearances for Tyler O’Neill, 150 for Lane Thomas, and 115 for Randy Arozarena is still not enough to gain accurate statistical projections for any of the three players in 2020. That said, if the Cardinals had used the following plan, they would at least have a better idea of the production those players could provide if given more PA’s. They would know if one or all of those players truly were capable of replacing Ozuna. The players themselves would have more exposure to MLB pitching and have a clearer picture of the kinds of adjustments they will need to make to survive in the majors.

League Championship Series - Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

When looking for the benefit of finding playing time for developing players, look no further than what the club did with Tommy Edman. When Matt Carpenter’s ineffectiveness and injury created an opening for Edman, the Cardinals took advantage of it, giving him a robust 350 plate appearances, even with the more experienced Yairo Munoz on the roster. The Cardinals were rewarded for their aggressive approach when Edman produced 3.2 fWAR. Heading into 2020, Mozeliak and the front office have outlined a plan for Edman to provide support for Carpenter, DeJong, and Wong as the club’s do-everything utility player. Some time in the outfield is also possible, though that would significantly weaken infield depth.

The plan is a good one and it is only possible because the club saw his strengths and flaws firsthand. Consider also that despite his incredible rookie season and relatively high number of plate appearances, the club still isn’t prepared to give him a starting role.

Such a role does exist in the outfield, but none of the young outfielders were afforded even half the opportunities that Edman received, despite the injuries and struggles of the starters and the pending reality of Ozuna’s exit. To put it bluntly, the Cardinals done messed up, and it has left them in a position of unnecessary uncertainty.

Maybe Ozuna falls to the Cards on a one-year deal. Maybe the current crop of outfield prospects develop into stars. Who knows? The Cardinals don’t and that’s a problem.

Addendum: What about Carlson, you might ask? When considering Carlson’s role for 2020, might I suggest to the Cardinals that they give the young prospect the same treatment they gave Edman in 2019. Maybe the kid will burst out in spring and make this whole conversation moot. Awesome! I’m here for that. More likely, a slower approach is warranted. Regardless of what happens with the outfield alignment, the Cardinals should plan now to give Carlson at least 350 PA’s, a large chunk of which should come in center. To make plans for 2021 and beyond, the club has to know what Carlson is capable of, regardless of how the rest of the outfielders are performing.