There was plenty of hope and uncertainty surrounding the Cardinals’ outfield entering the 2020 season. However, now that the season is over, there is less hope and just as much uncertainty as questions about who will man the outfield in 2021 and beyond still remain. The lone bright spot is Dylan Carlson who improved down the stretch and showed why he is the team’s top prospect. However, outside of the Carlson, it is unclear who will play a part in the Cardinals future and who will not. There was plenty of hype around Tyler O’Neill entering the season, and he began the year on a hot streak, but he eventually cooled off and finished the season with a .171 batting average and 70 wRC+. Harrison Bader, on the other hand, went through a hot streak later in the season, but struggled for much of the rest of the year. His 113 wRC+ was solid, but it remains to be seen if he can consistently be a productive hitter or if he simply experiences brief but powerful hot streaks. Lane Thomas also did not see many plate appearances and even when he played he was unproductive. Justin Williams and Austin Dean also received less than 10 plate appearances each which prevented them from making any kind of impact.
Dylan Carlson was far from perfect in his debut season in the majors; however, he demonstrated his ability to hit ball as well as his advanced approach at the plate. The nearly 22-year-old outfielder posted just a 65 wRC+ over the course of the season (119 PAs), but his numbers improved significantly after he was called up for the second time. Carlson batted just .176 with a home run and three doubles in his first 73 plate appreances. However, in his final 46 plate appearances he raised his batting average to .238 while hitting a pair of homeruns and four doubles and a triple.
It seems likely that he will be given a starting job in St. Louis next season where he can continue to improve against MLB pitching. However, the question is: what position will he play and who will he share an outfield with? Tyler O’Neill has good speed and strong defense, as does Harrison Bader. Additionally, O’Neill has more raw power, but he also struggles to hit the ball. Bader can struggle with strikeouts too, but he has a higher walk rate. Each player has a high ceiling if they could each figure out how to hit the ball consistently. However, since neither player has been able to, the Cardinals may look to find somebody who can. Additionally, Dexter Fowler also has one year left on his contract and the Cardinals may be ready to move him to the bench in his final season. However, there are concerns about starting any of the trio of Fowler, Bader, and O’Neill, yet the Cardinals do not seem to have a plan or a desire to replace them.
An external acquisition would seem to be helpful, but it would be unwise to hand out a five year contract to a 30-year-old outfielder again. Thus, it may simply be a minor acquisition by the Cardinals that reshapes the team’s outfield, or the organization may decide to give O’Neill and Bader another year to start in the outfield. Neither of these options are too exciting and they do not seem likely to improve the team.
The best thing that the Cardinals may consider is making a trade to acquire a strong outfielder to play with Carlson and whoever is left. This is probably the smart move for the team, as Bader and O’Neill are simply too similar to each other and each has their fair share of struggles. Trading one of Bader or O’Neill, if not both would give the Cardinals enough ammo to make a trade while still improving the lineup without compromising the team’s future or depth too much. If this were to happen, then the team would need to decide which outfielder they value more. However, it this were to happen, I would expect the team to choose Bader as he has been a starter for three seasons now and at least seems able to provide enough value as a player even when he is struggling to hit. If this is the case, it is not too difficult to see Bader playing center field, while Dylan Carlson and a solid external acquisition man the corners.
There is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the team’s outfield. However, what is certain is that the Cardinals need to improve their lineup, and they especially need to improve the offensive output of their outfield. Part of this improvement should come from the maturation of Carlson, and potentially the improvement of Bader or O’Neill. However, the other part of this improvement needs to come from outside the organization, and likely, the trade market.