The Cardinals outfield is still a bit unsettled for the future and that makes 2020 such an important season for the Cardinals three starting outfielders. There are questions about each outfielder’s long term potential. The 34-year-old Dexter Fowler will see his contract expire after the 2021 season, Tyler O’Neill must improve his plate discipline to become capable of consistently tapping into his plus power, and Harrison Bader has had his share of struggles at the plate. If Dexter Fowler declines even more at the plate then he may lose his starting job next season, while Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill must solve their own problems if they want to keep their starting jobs in the outfield.
With Dylan Carlson ready to debut this season at the earliest, it seems that he will have one outfield spot reserved for himself. This means that the three starting outfielders this season are competing for two outfield spots next season. The most logical solution seems to be moving Dexter Fowler to the bench for his age 35 season. However, if Harrison Bader does not learn how to hit offspeed pitches, then they may be more value in starting Fowler and using Bader as a late game defensive replacement. However, if O’Neill does not fix his approach at the plate then Bader may be able to provide more value. Which of these outfielders will have starting jobs next season is one of the key questions that can be answered by this season. Additionally, if they all continue to struggle then Lane Thomas may get his shot to claim a starting job, and Justin Williams may even get a chance as well.
This puts plenty of pressure on these starting outfielders to perform. This combined with the fact that their 2020 production seems to be more unpredictable makes it a good decision for Mike Shildt to bat them 7th, 8th, and 9th. If these hitters can produce well at the plate, then the Cardinals could have a strong lineup from 1 to 9. However, if they struggle, then other players may get a chance to establish themselves.
So far, the early returns are strong for Tyler O’Neill while Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader are still struggling. In just ten plate appearances, O’Neill has cut his chase rate in half, from 35.7% in 2019 to 17.6% so far in 2020. If he can continue this trend over the course of the entire season, then he could develop into a dangerous hitter this season. Plate discipline is O’Neill’s biggest weakness, and he appears to have improved this season. Dexter Fowler has not hit well in his first ten appearances, as a home run is the only reason that his wOBA is as high as .291. Other than his home run, Fowler has struck out four times and when he has connected with the ball it has generally been weak contact (83.4 mph average exit velocity). Additionally, Bader has yet to record a hit in two games and was replaced by Lane Thomas for Dakota Hudson’s start. The reason behind this decision may be that outfield defense is less important with Dakota Hudson and his nearly 57% groundball rate on the mound. This could mean that Shildt is worried about Bader’s offensive potential so he is going to play Lane Thomas occasionally instead of Bader. This move could also have been Shildt simply rotating outfielders to get Lane Thomas some playing time.
It is still early, so it is impossible to draw any conclusions about these players. However, Tyler O’Neill’s improved plate discipline in the first three games is encouraging. O’Neill, as well as Bader and Fowler, will be looking to perform as well as possible so they can help the team this year, as well as lock down a starting role next year with Dylan Carlson waiting in the wings.