Before the season began, there were plenty of Cardinals fans excited to see Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Dylan Carlson in the outfield. Additionally, the Cardinals had Harrison Bader and Andrew Knizner ready to contribute to the MLB team. When an already weird season got even weirder once the Cardinals team experienced a COVID outbreak, it seemed likely that the team would rely heavily on its youth ranks. Then, Dexter Fowler experienced an injury that is likely to keep him out for the rest of the season. However, despite these circumstances, the team has not relied as heavily on its young players as could have been expected, and this may harm the team both in the short and the long term.
One of the problems has been an over-reliance on a 34-year-old Matt Carpenter who has received the fourth most plate appearances on the team (103). The Cardinals seem intent on Carpenter being in the lineup every day. This combined with the emergence of Brad Miller, means that Tommy Edman, who also must apparently play everyday, has been pushed to the outfield. This has meant less reps for the Cardinals young outfielders (O’Neill, Bader, Thomas, Carlson). In the short term this is bad because Carpenter is not hitting well (.289 wOBA), but this has longer term implications as well because it is important to identify the best of the young outfielders.
Carpenter has been a great player for the Cardinals over the course of his career, but it is clear that his best days are behind him. In fact, given his struggles at the plate last season and this season, it may even be fair to say that his days as a league average hitter are done as well. Thus, with Edman available to play third base, the Cardinals should be letting some combination of their young outfielders play everyday. Instead, with Edman playing in the outfield now, and Carpenter playing everyday at third base, the Cardinals only get to use two of their outfielders every day.
Dylan Carlson is the team’s top rated prospect. Tyler O’Neill has always had power and is now showing an improved approach. Lane Thomas impressed in a small sample size last year and Harrison Bader still plays elite defense and has had a few impressive games at the plate. It is fair to wonder how much more knowledge the Cardinals have really gained about their outfielders for next season. This is disappointing in a season with less games and an expanded playoff.
Additionally, Andrew Knizner is now 25 years old and has spent parts of the last two seasons in Triple-A. He is ready for MLB playing time, except the problem is that Yadier Molina plays nearly every game and when there is a double-header, Matt Wieters plays the second game. Knizner has shown plenty of hitting potential, and while his defense still needs some work, he has starting catcher potential. The Cardinals already traded one catcher of the future in Carson Kelly because he did not fit Molina’s time frame, so they need to evaluate their options with Knizner. The problem is that it is difficult to do so if he does not get any plate appearances. The catcher has received just 17 plate appearances all season, and in this limited sample, he has posted an average exit velocity of 94.1 mph. Due to this, it is possible, if not probable, that he would outperform Matt Wieters and help the team this season. If the Cardinals let him play and he impressed then he could either cement himself as the heir to Molina, or he could boost his trade value and help the Cardinals get a good return in a trade.
However, the Cardinals have not gained much more information on their players because they have not really given them consistent enough playing time. In a season such as this one, that is a missed opportunity that the Cardinals will likely regret next season.