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A plan for the Cardinals outfield

How should the Cardinals apportion playing time in the outfield?

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Cardinals had a normal outfield. They had three above average regulars with a capable fourth outfielder. And since this is a fairy tale, let’s also say they have a pretty good prospect waiting in AAA for when someone gets hurt. One day, this will not be a fairy tale. Today is not that day.

Fear not. Believe or not, what I just described does not accurately depict most MLB outfields. While the Cardinals do not have the ideal setup for an outfield, they do have some promise, some potential that they can hit that ideal. Or at the very least, come closer to realizing that ideal, to see how far away the Cardinals really are. Or how close.

That, in essence, is why Dexter Fowler was traded. Fowler does nothing to accomplish that ideal. Fowler is not particularly good at baseball anymore. He’s been bad at fielding for a while, and his bat has been steadily declining. You can now expect him to be both pretty bad at fielding and below average at hitting. He’s only signed for 2021 and there is zero hope the Cards would sign him beyond that. It was not a salary dump. It was a roster spot dump. They wanted that roster spot to go to someone who had even a modicum of potential towards achieving the ideal outfield.

It’s also, in somewhat of a roundabout way, further justification for letting Kolten Wong walk in favor of Tommy Edman (and Nolan Arenado). In theory, Wong as the starting 2B with Edman as the utility man is a great idea. In practice, Edman gets 120 starts in the outfield. Edman’s future is not in the outfield. It’s in the infield. So Edman playing LF does nothing to tell the Cardinals what the future outfield looks like either.

In order to get the best representation of what the future outfield looks like, you need to play the youngsters. One of these years, I will not have to write a post trying to decide the playing time of the outfielders in order to best maximize the knowledge the Cardinals have of each. But this is turning into an annual tradition.

Back in 2017, Tommy Pham was traded to make room, and Harrison Bader ended up getting a good, hard look. We now know what Harrison Bader is thanks to that decision, as ill-advised and ill-timed as that trade was. Actually, I don’t think trading Pham was ill-advised, just poorly executed and poorly timed. But anyway, we know what Bader is because of that. Bader is not a mystery. Literally every other outfielder on the team is. More playing time is the only way to solve the mystery.

Some mysteries are easier to solve than others, and two outfielders in particular are not that hard to solve. Which is why they will get the brunt of the playing time. Dylan Carlson, who was the #10 prospect in baseball prior to the 2020 season according to Baseball America, finished his 2020 with a 142 wRC+ in his last 11 games. Tyler O’Neill, who was the #36 prospect in baseball by BA before the 2019 season, has 1.9 career fWAR in 450 PAs, however we can’t really rely on the defensive numbers that led to that.

But... that’s the point. We need to find out how much we can use what has been his defensive numbers for the future. He has been the equivalent of a +13.3 fielder in the corners for his career. That is exceedingly unlikely to be his true talent, which is why his projections aren’t good. However, if he’s even +5, which is much less hard to believe, he’s still been a 1.5 WAR player per 600 PAs with vast improvements in K% and BB% each season he’s been in the big leagues. That player, with his prospect pedigree, is certainly worth an extended look.

I don’t really need to make the argument for Carlson. He stumbled out of the starting block, and after a two week break, made his first adjustment to the big leagues, and he destroyed the ball. He will continue to go through a series of struggles and adjustments, and only big league time can help him do that. I would guarantee, right now, O’Neill at least 400 PAs and Carlson 550 PAs. 400 PAs would give O’Neill 850 career PAs, and we should at least have a pretty good idea of what his bat is, if not necessarily his glove quite yet. Carlson, being 22, is a bit of a different story, but he just needs the reps. He might be below average, average, or a star, but 2021 is certainly not his last chance like it is O’Neill’s.

Bader, who is somewhat of the known commodity around here, is what he is. An excellent fielder, maybe the best centerfielder in the league, with a bad bat against right-handed pitchers and good one against left-handed pitchers. The goal should be to minimize the former and maximize the latter. Bader doesn’t need to platooned though. He’s not on a team where he should be platooned. I think Bader should be targeted for around 550 PAs. I think he should start most games.

With projected playing time, there’s a rule of thumb that each position gets about 700 PAs. In addition to that, there’s about 200-300 extra plate appearances for pinch-hitting and designated hitters. I am assuming there is no DH except interleague. As far as the PH and DH appearances go, Matt Carpenter will probably get first dibs, but after that, it’s all outfielders. I can’t really see the backup catcher or any infielder not named Carpenter really taking these extra plate appearances. So I’ll give 100 to Carpenter and 150 to the outfielders.

That means there are 800 PAs to give to the remaining outfielders. The remaining outfielders seem fairly likely to be fourth outfielders if things work out, less so if things don’t. They don’t seem particularly likely to become MLB starters on a good team. So I’d say these plate appearances should be based on merit to a certain extent. I will give specific plate appearances, but these should and probably will be subject to change as the season goes on.

I think among the crew of Austin Dean, Justin Williams, and Lane Thomas, it is completely fair to say Thomas and Williams are higher priority than Dean. I actually like Dean, as far as one can like a hopeful Jose Martinez clone, but the other two have more potential. Thomas for his speed and defense, Williams because, well he bats left-handed and actually has a shot of hitting right-handed pitching, which just about nobody else in this group is capable of doing - as of right now that is.

Thomas occupies a bit of an awkward space in fact. He is right-handed so he can be expected to be better against left-handed pitching. He’s probably good at defense, because of his speed but probably not elite, especially in center. And he has a below average bat at the moment. Anything I could use to describe Thomas, also essentially describes both Bader and O’Neill, but worse. There’s not a real obvious way to get him playing time.

Here’s the main problem. Bader is bad against right-handed pitching. Carlson is a switch hitter so he’s probably not. And O’Neill so far has shown reverse splits. He’s been better against RHP (94 wRC+ versus 81 wRC+). Now we’re dealing with just 82 PAs against LHP, so I don’t really believe in this. The way he’s better is somewhat fascinating though. He has nearly double the walk rate against LHP with a slightly lower K rate. And he has slightly more power than Jon Jay’s career ISO. He has an 81 wRC+ with a .347 BABIP. He has a 94 wRC+ against RHP with a .295 BABIP. Pretty weird, huh?

Anyway, O’Neill is a good, oh, five years or so away from me actually believing in those splits, but at the very least, they prove that there’s really no reason to sit O’Neill against RHP. (To explain my previous sentence, I do not believe in reverse splits until a rather large sample proves otherwise, which takes years thanks to only 25% of the league being LHP). So the obvious replacement for Bader would be Justin Williams. If he’s actually A Guy, he’s gonna be A Guy against RHP.

But again, this is tricky. Williams could look shockingly bad in his first 50 PAs, to the point where he needs to be DFA’d. That is not an implausible scenario. At the same time, it’s not really like there’s a whole lot in Lane’s profile that suggests he’s gonna be a thing either. He had one really good year, split between AA and AAA, and then he had 44 great plate appearances in the majors. There’s absolutely an easy way to talk yourself into Lane, but just looking at the stats, there’s really not much here to suggest you should give him a ton of chances.

So, I’d say the Cards should give them a solid 100 PAs each. Once they reach 100 PAs, re-assess. Ignore their stats until then. If there’s anything to latch onto in those first 100 PAs, continue giving them chances. If one of them is doing obviously better than the other, target that player for 400 PAs. If they are performing on a near equal basis, continue to split the playing time as evenly as possible until someone breaks ahead. And if they don’t, they both get about 325 PAs. If there’s an obvious loser, he’s either DFA’d (Williams), sent down (Thomas), or maybe he’s done enough to stay in the majors and he can get 250 PAs.

Unless there’s a good reason why O’Neill should get more than 400 PAs. That good reason would be, obviously, he performs well. But I would basically split Williams and Thomas’ plate appearances until one of them separates themselves, IF one of them separates themselves. Scale their PAs back based on O’Neill’s performance, but stick to the same rough gameplan.

The remaining plate appearances go to Austin Dean. Or possibly Justin Toerner or Lars Nootbar, who are crushing it in AAA. Their presence, I think, would probably require one or more of the current plan to fall flat on their face. Which is entirely possible, but there’s a set of events that needs to happen for them to be in the majors, and for projecting purposes, it’s not a safe bet.

So 550 to Bader, 550 to Carlson, and 400+ to O’Neill. Split the remaining 650 or so PAs between Williams and Thomas, dictate their PAs based on performance relative to the other, and give the remaining PAs to Dean. If something goes wrong, and there’s an outfielder who might be ready in AAA, call them up. Things might not work out, but at the very least, we’ll know what Tyler O’Neill is. And we’ll have roughly a half season of plate appearances on how to move forward on Thomas and Williams. And if we don’t, that player was probably terrible. And we’ll know that.

I am relatively optimistic on this outfield. And my main goal when the 2021 season is over, is simply to know what to do with the outfield going forward. O’Neill is a large part of that process. He either emerges as a starter, or not. The others could emerge as a starter, or not. The answers to these questions could give the Cardinals their future OF for the next few years or help them move on from this current group and plan for a different future. Either way, I want answers and playing time for the youngsters is the only way.