I was on the Meet Me at Musial podcast recently, and in the course of the discussion threw out the question of which three outfielders would make the most plate appearances for the Cardinals this year?
It’s a question that I don’t think has a clear answer. This is a team returning only ONE outfielder who played enough to qualify for a batting title last season. You could make a strong case for at least five and maybe even more of these guys. So let’s break down the options.
The lone player here to qualify for a batting title last season, the lone true veteran... Dexter Fowler is clearly slated for a starting position and would absolutely have to play himself out of it. That said, playing himself out of a starting spot is not out of the question.
In his three years as a Cardinal, Fowler has been pretty good, very bad and just a tick below average. ZiPS was pretty low on Fowler, projecting him for just 0.8 WAR over a full season. That feels a little low to me, but anything above the 1.8 he put up last year would seem unlikely as well.
Fowler has been streaky at times, but even so, he has a much longer track record than any of the others. I expect him to get a very long leash, not to mention the newfound ability to get some PAs as a DH. He would really have to tank hard to play himself out of a spot in 60 games.
Bader just barely slips into the definition of “incumbent,” having posted just over 400 PAs last season and even having been sent down to the minors. But he was the team’s primary starting center fielder for the last two seasons, and like Fowler, that spot is clearly his to lose this year.
Also like Fowler, Bader has demonstrated the ability to lose his position. Last year, after a strong April and a respectable May, he posted a 58 wRC+ in June and then a 23 wRC+ in July to earn himself a bus ride to Memphis. He of course returned and finished out the season, but with an overall wRC+ of 81 for the season, whether Bader can hit enough to remain in the lineup even with his superlative defense remains an open question.
But that superlative defense is the reason Bader would still be my #2 selection for most PAs this season. Speed doesn’t slump, and unless Bader comes out with the kind of 8-for-78 tailspin he had last July, his speed and defensive value should keep him in the lineup. ZiPS projects a 94 wRC+ for Bader, and even though that’s six points below league average, it’s enough to project average big league value overall when you consider the full package.
The Next Mans Up
BrO’Neill, BrO’Canada, Baron von Beefcastle, The Dense Pillar of Meat... Tyler O’Neill is leading the Cardinals in nicknames and it’s not particularly close. What he has yet to do is take the creativity his body and skills inspire and turn it into consistent production.
O’Neill is one year older and with a bit longer track record than Lane Thomas, so by all accounts he will get the first crack at regular duty in left field. He’s a former Top 100 prospect who the team gave up Marco Gonzales to acquire. While he’s shown the ability to perhaps fill-in in center, he’s a corner outfielder, primarily a left fielder, and spent his time in St. Louis over the past two seasons blocked by Marcell Ozuna. Clearly, he deserves a shot at a starting job.
In his only extended run of playing time last season, during the month of July, he posted a 116 wRC+ and hit 4 bombs. He also held his strikeout rate to 25%, compared to 35% over the full season.
O’Neill has earned a shot, and there’s reason to believe that if he’s given an extended run of playing time, he will produce. That said, he will need to significantly improve his strikeout rate, which is no easy task. I’m also growing a little concerned with how often O’Neill’s tremendous raw power manifests itself into actual, in-game power.
I have a real affinity for Lane Thomas, but I acknowledge it could well be the classic “Backup Quarterback” crush. Thomas put up some great numbers at the tail end of his minor league career and was excellent in extremely limited PAs last season before a pitch hit his wrist ended his season. But as for the question of whether he can produce on the reg... that is very much up in the air.
What I like about Thomas is that he is much more of a 5-tool-player than O’Neill. (We can argue about Contact. Maybe a 4-tool-player?) He and O’Neill actually displayed the fastest sprint speed on the club last season. But for Thomas, that speed also translates into making him a truly plus defender - including in CF.
So while O’Neill will get first crack at a starting job, I’m just a bit more confident in Thomas’ value over the long haul. Thomas has more ways to provide value and, in the event that Bader is injured or struggles, Thomas could also move into regular duty in Center.
The Top Prospect
Of all the weirdness in this, the weirdest season any of us will ever see (assuming we do see it), few things seem as uncertain as what a team will do with a top prospect.
In a normal season, a top prospect plays regularly in the minors until they are ready for everyday starting duty in the majors... or their service time has been sufficiently manipulated. What does a team do when there is no minor league?
I could see Dylan Carlson starting in LF for the Cardinals on Opening Day and playing there all season. I could also see them sending him to the Springfield camp, not to debut until 2021. Every scenario in between is on the table.
If I had to guess, my expectation is that the Cardinals will begin the season with Carlson in Springfield or on the non-roster taxi squad. A player only has to remain off the active roster for 7 days in this short season in order for the club to get an extra year of service time. Manipulation of that is gross and absolutely something the Player’s Union should fight in the next CBA, but I mean COME ON... if you’re the St. Louis Cardinals, don’t you trade seven days for a full year?
The good news for the #stlcards is that one of the six days in which they have to make up an excuse for Dylan Carlson not to be in the majors is an off day.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) July 15, 2020
The second off day is day seven. Then they start their first road divisional series of the year.
It was impossible to ignore Carlson in Spring Training and he’s continued to be a standout in summer camp. He is very much knocking at the door.
Whether or not Carlson gets a shot will come down to whether the Cardinals treat 2020 as the first 60 games of a season or the last 60. If it were the first 60 games of an ordinary season, I think Carlson would likely have spent most of that time in Memphis while O’Neill and Thomas got extended looks and Bader/Fowler demonstrated viability.
But I believe that 2020 is actually the last 60 games of a season. This is the home stretch of a pennant race and it’s time to pull out the stops. This is the point in a season where a team brings up that prized prospect... after seven days.
Tommy Edman - Is Edman in the outfield still a thing? It seems like once they added a Designated Hitter position, the need to play an infielder in the outfield vanished. I expect Edman to play every day, but it seems like it’s unlikely to be in the outfield now.
Justin Williams - A bit of a forgotten man, Williams is just 24 and his tools are prodigious. I watched a game in AAA where he launched two monstrous home runs and nailed a runner at 3rd with maybe the most impressive throw I’ve ever seen. Inconsistency and injury have been his obstacles, but especially with a 30-man roster to start the season, Williams should get at least a brief look and has the tools to turn that into an extended look.
Austin Dean - Outside of Fowler and Bader, which current Cardinal had the most Major League PAs as an outfielder last season? Austin Dean. He is a Quad-A player who has destroyed AAA but struggled against big league pitching. But at only 26, he certainly still has time to put that together. Like Williams, he has a shot to grab one of those extra bench spots and do something with it.
Brad Miller - My expectation is for Miller to get a good amount of playing time this season as a super-utility guy. That’s been his role in the past, and in the past he has logged most of his innings on the infield. I expect the same.
If I had to pick the three Cardinals I expect to log the most PAs in the outfield, I would go Fowler and Bader for reasons of incumbency, and for the third... Carlson. We know that when he comes up, he will play regularly. I expect that will be this season, approximately seven days after Opening Day.