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Sorting through the crowded outfield for playing time

An attempt to solve the playing time issue for the Cardinals outfield.

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As of now, the Cardinals appear to be headed into spring training with the basic intention of playing the young guys in the outfield. There is of course the rumor that Marcell Ozuna will re-sign and there are two older guys in the way, but at least one young guy has to start every game if the 40 man roster doesn’t change. And while Jose Martinez may get an annoying amount of playing time, he’s not going to be a regular starter, so at least two young guys will play a lot.

What I’m going to try to do is map out an ideal playing time for the field, with as realistic a estimate as I can get. And by that I mean, I’m going to try to work with the assumptions of how Mike Shildt will play the OF, at least on a playing time basis. I’m also going to have to assume that there are no changes to the 40 man roster between now and then, although that’s not really possible in my opinion. The Cardinals have both Rangel Ravelo and Jose Martinez performing the same basic function, and Ravelo has no minor league options left. So they’re basically going to need to either trade Martinez or DFA Ravelo. It makes no sense to carry both on an MLB roster.

It’s worth pointing out that now we have a 26 man roster, and I would use that spot for an extra batter. Teams usually do not need more than seven men in the bullpen. And we have a Memphis shuttle if you do. Feel free to send down the extra batter in cases where an extra pitcher is needed. It’s just that usually you don’t need the extra pitcher. And one possible route for that extra batter is a sixth outfielder, since I would make Jose Martinez a pinch-hitter and pinch-hitter only ideally.

So with that in mind, I’m going to form my ideal playing time for the outfielders. Let’s start with Dexter Fowler, who I would perhaps play less than Mike Shildt will, but I’ll try to get as close to Shildt playing time as possible to make this more realistic. Fowler has sort of a weird trend recently, in that historically he’s been better against LHP, but since he’s been a Cardinal, he’s been better against RHP. I assume this is noise though since last year his 107 wRC+ against RHP came with a .310 BABIP, while his 88 wRC+ against LHP came with a .247 BABIP, not to mention a better walk rate and lower K rate.

So I wouldn’t necessarily pick my spots with Fowler based on handedness actually. I’m going to guess 450 PAs on the season for Fowler. Six of his eleven seasons has come with 30 PAs of 500, and when you take into account possible underperformance, the players behind him, his age, and his injury history, I’m willing to bet it dips below that.

For Harrison Bader, it would be easiest to just write him in the starting lineup every possible day, but due to his struggles against RHP and wanting to play the players behind him in the depth chart, I will not do that. For me, he starts against every LHP, and against every mediocre or worse RHP. Any RHP better than that come on a case-by-case basis. I’m giving him 550 PAs, and the 100 or so PAs I give to someone else will probably be against the Max Scherzer type pitchers.

That leaves roughly 1,100 PAs for the other outfielders. As I said, I’m making Jose Martinez a pinch-hitter. As near as I can tell, the Cardinals only play seven games on the road against an AL team, and they appear to be a lucky three teams if you’re Jose. The Red Sox are three of them and they have four lefties in their starting rotation, while the Royals have two and the Blue Jays have one. I think you can put him at DH for probably four games here. He would also get some getaway games, and hopefully those happen to come against a LHP. I’ll give him 100 PH PAs, and then the rest of the 200 PAs I give him are coming in getaway lineups and very sparse spot starts. So he only takes 80 of the OF appearances.

It’s here where it becomes apparent how difficult it will be to get everyone playing time. Injuries could solve this conundrum, but there are 1,020 PAs to decide between for Tyler O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson, who will probably be a factor by the end of the year. O’Neill is in his make or break year so he definitely gets first dibs at this. You just kind of have to make him the regular starter for the first two months at least. I’m not saying you have to play him literally every day, but mostly. Anyway, I’m giving O’Neill 400 PAs on the season, even though it seems like he’s unlikely to reach that number. If he’s good in those first two months, he definitely plays more, if he tanks, he plays less.

Also apparent when deciding this? Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena are... kind of the same? Small, right-handed, good defense. They are different players - the good version of Thomas will have more power and walk more while the good version of Arozarena will hit for a higher average and steal bases. I see no reason to believe one is better than the other on defense due to Thomas being 16th on the sprint speed leaderboard, right in line with Bader, with Arozarena very close by at 28th.

Due to this, I don’t think you can have both players on the roster at the same time, at least if everyone else is healthy. Arozarena had the better 2019, is the better prospect, and has the better Steamer projection, so he gets the nod for now. But I can see the argument for Thomas as the better bench player. Assuming O’Neill is starting, he provides power that the rest of the bench just doesn’t have, and it’s not like Arozarena has either speed or defense on him either. Arozarena has average and OBP skills over him, but his OBP skills are more fine than elite. And also I assume projections still factor in pre-2018 performance for Thomas, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but he has been a much different player than he used to be, and I can see how maybe projection systems would underrate him.

Between the two of them, they get 250 PAs. I’m not going to bother getting more specific than that, because a large factor in their playing time will be 1) spring training performance 2) if one of them gets off to a hot start 3) injuries whether incurred by them or others 4) possible trades 5) Tyler O’Neill’s performance specifically and 6) when Dylan Carlson is ready. Because once Carlson is ready, playing time becomes very, very difficult if you haven’t already separated yourself at the MLB level.

That leaves 370 PAs to go between Edman, Williams, Carlson. When estimating playing time, you give 700 to every position that isn’t pitcher or catcher, plus an additional 300 that will be mostly pinch-hitting and DHs. We’ve already given 100 to Jose for that. So we have 570 PAs for the remaining players. (For my sanity, I’m ignoring the sixth infielder and backup catcher) And Edman will probably play a fair amount in the infield. He’s presumably got every LHP start at 3B for Carpenter and should spot start for DeJong and Wong a good amount. Plus if literally anyone gets injured in the IF, he’s in the infield at all times. Perhaps too low, but I’m only going 150 for Edman, with the rest of his playing time in the infield.

That leaves 420 PAs and.... pretty much all of that is going to Carlson. I attempted this exercise thinking it was solvable, but the truth is that there are way, way, way, way too many different factors at play here, and things will change with more data that I don’t have. And I shortchanged Justin Williams, but he sure makes more sense on the bench than Thomas or Arozarena. Until Carlson is ready, the Cardinals would have a very right-handed heavy outfield, and it’d be nice to have a lefty. He just seems to have an easier route to playing time if on the roster than Thomas/Arozarena to me, since between Bader/O’Neill/Fowler/Martinez, you don’t really need another guy to start against LHP, whereas if a RHP is bad against LHP, the Cardinals don’t really have anyone to put there.

Anyway, when spelled out like this, it seems like a trade is inevitable. Because this is pretty ridiculous. I will also add though that it’s probably not as bad as it seems. Jose Martinez seems rather unlikely to last as a Cardinal beyond 2020 and Fowler is at best only here for two more years and probably not a starter by the end of those two years. You can probably pencil in spots for Bader and Carlson for the foreseeable future, but the rest? Essentially a free-for-all. I just hope the Cardinals can pick the right young guys. And to that I say, good luck.