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Should the Cardinals Take a Shot on Hunter Renfroe?

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MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Tampa Bay Rays Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, November 20th, the Rays DFA’d Hunter Renfroe. This was an interesting move as Renfroe was a key piece in a somewhat high profile trade that the Rays made in December. However, while Renfroe has a history of power and defense, he did not meet his expectations in Tampa Bay. That, along with a surplus of solid outfielders, led to the Rays decision to DFA Renfroe instead of pay him a projected $3.5 million via arbitration.

While Renfroe had a bad year in 2020, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that he will bounce back in 2021 and become a valuable outfielder. To begin with, Renfroe had improved every single year between 2017 and 2019. The slugging outfielder became a regular in San Diego in 2017 and posted an ISO of .236 to go with a walk to strikeout ratio of 0.19. However, in 2018 Renfroe hit for more power (.256 ISO) while walking more and striking out less (0.28 BB/K). Then, in 2019, Renfore took another step and raised his ISO to .273 while walking more and striking out more, but still raising his BB/K to 0.30. Renfroe’s problem has always shown problems with striking out too much and not walking enough which limits his ability to get on base. However, he has shown improvement with his plate discipline every year (including 2020 when he posted a BB/K of 0.38), and also boasts immense power (85 home runs in three seasons with the Padres).

The fact that Renfroe improved his power output and plate discipline every year until 2020 is promising. If he could return to being a power hitter who draws enough walks to get on base at a decent clip, then he could be a low cost buy acquisition with a very high ceiling. Additionally, what adds to his high ceiling is his defense. Renfroe’s defense improved vastly every season before 2020 as he went from 0 defensive runs saved in 2017 to 23 in 2019 while his UZR/150 improved from -7.9 to 13.1 in the same time.

It is important to note Renfroe’s abilities and improvements before the 2020 season, because last season was not kind to him. The slugger posted a career low 76 wRC+ while hitting well below the Mendoza line (.156) and losing his prowess in the field (-1 DRS, -5.8 UZR/150). While this is obviously not great, it has significantly lowered his price as he can now be cheaply acquired. Also, there are reasons to believe that 2020 was a fluke and that the real Renfroe will return in 2021.

To begin with, the fact that Renfroe seemed to be trending up before 2020 is a good sign and it shows that he might have more improvements to make. Additionally, his poor hitting last year is due to a number of factors which are likely to change in 2021. To begin with, Renfroe posted a career low BABIP of .141. This is excessively low, even for someone who averaged a .262 BABIP from 2017 to 2019. Due to this, it is likely that poor batted ball luck played a role in Renfroe’s decline at the plate. However, his contact profile also likely contributed to Renfroe’s low BABIP. When Renfroe hit the ball between 2017 and 2019, it was put on the ground just 37.2% of the time. However, his groundball rate rose to 41.9% in 2020. To make things worse, Renfroe hit the ball to the opposite field 27.9% of the time. This is significantly more than his previous career high of 20.3% in 2017. This combination of an increased groundball rate as well as an increased opposite field rate is not ideal for a slugging outfielder who hit 33 home runs in 2019.

Renfroe is somebody who needs to hit the ball in the air, and hit it to his pull side if he wants to maximize his power. The good news is that Renfroe had improved both his pull percentage and his fly ball percentage every year from 2017 (43.8 Pull%, 26.1 FB%) to 2019 (53.4 Pull%, 32.9 FB%). Before 2020, Renfroe seemed to be on the right track. He was improving his plate discipline and he knew what his contact profile needed to look like in order to maximize his power. Therefore, if Renfroe can simply change his contact profile back to what it was in San Diego, then he will be a much more productive hitter than he was in 2020. Considering that his fly ball rate in 2020 (24.4%) was lower than it was in each of the previous three seasons, this is a bet worth taking.

This kind of a player should be appealing to a Cardinals team that lacked offensive production from it’s outfield in 2020. There is no guarantee that Renfroe returns to being a productive hitter, but his 2020 numbers seem to a be a fluke when compared to the rest of his career. Therefore, the Cardinals have an opportunity to acquire a power hitting outfield with improving plate discipline and the potential to be a well above average fielder for a relatively small amount of money. It is clear that the Cardinals are trying to save money, but this is a good bet for a cheap upgrade in the outfield.

The Cardinals do have Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, Dexter Fowler on the roster, but that should not stop them from pursuing a potential offensive upgrade. Carlson seems to be the best hitter of this group, but it is still early in his career and nothing is certain. However, the other three options are not too exciting offensively. There is always potential that O’Neill and Bader figure things out at the plate; however, the Cardinals have been presented with an option to help the offense if that does happen. Additionally, with the potential that the universal DH is permanent, the Cardinals outfield depth should not stop them from pursuing Renfroe.

A power bat in the outfield that draws enough walks and has the potential to be a well above average fielder is something that the Cardinals should pursue. Also, the fact that he can be acquired on the cheap makes him a logical target for the Cardinals, who appear to be cutting payroll. Therefore, if the team is looking for a cheap potential upgrade to the lineup, it is unlikely that there will be a better option.