When the St. Louis Cardinals traded Dexter Fowler, they did it with the stated goal of opening up more at-bats for their young outfielders. With Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Austin Dean, and Justin Williams are ready to play at the major league level, it is clear why the team was unable to guarantee at-bats for Fowler, and opted to get rid of him instead.
With this many young players, it is smart that the Cardinals are willing to give them all a chance in order to see what they have. This will help the team determine what its future outfield will look like as each of these six players should get a shot to seize a starting job.
Players like Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill have received a good amount of playing time with the Cardinals, but they are still questions about each player’s bat. Dylan Carlson is the Cardinals top prospect, but he struggled upon getting his feet wet in the majors last season. Austin Dean and Lane Thomas are also similar in that each player came over as a low-key acquistion, and neither has had enough time in St. Louis to lock down a role. However, while these all of these players have question marks, they have all spent more time in the majors than Justin Williams.
Williams has just seven MLB plate appearances to his name, and he has yet to tally a hit. That is likely to change in 2021 when he will likely be given more of a chance. It will be interesting to see how he does as well, because he has a mixed track record in the minors. He was impressive in the lower levels of the minors in 2013 and 2014. However, since that time, he has been a solid hitter. He performed well through Double-A before struggling with the Triple-A level. However, in 2019, he raked at Triple-A Memphis, even if some of his success was due to an abnormally high walk rate (13.4%) and unsustainable .439 BABIP. So, while Williams has experienced a good amount of success throughout his minor league career, he is tough to project.
To begin with, Williams does not draw a large amount of walks. Besides his 2019 jump in Memphis, Williams has posted walk rates of around 3% in 2016, 9% in 2017, and 6.5% in 2018. While it is possible that Williams will be able to draw a good amount of walks in the majors, it is unlikely due to his consistently low walk rates (2017 and 2019 are the only time when he has posted above a 6.5% walk rate). It is encouraging that his best years, in terms of walk rates and overall production, have come somewhat recently. However, his history does not suggest that anything above a 6.5-7% walk rate is likely for Williams, unless he has made some adjustments in 2020.
Another bad sign for Williams is that his strikeout rate has risen as he has been promoted through the minors. In 2016, Williams began the year at the A-Advanced level with a 12.8% strikeout rate. After that, he posted strikeout rates of 16.9% in Double-A (2017), 23.1% in Triple-A (2018), and then 26.1% in 2020 when he split time between Double-A and Triple-A.
This is not a great trend, and when combined with Williams’ limited potential for walks, it is clear that Williams will likely need to have strong on-contact results to be a productive hitter in the majors. What is encouraging is the fact that Williams has gained power as he has matured, and his best power outputs have come since reaching Double-A.
This is where Williams shows his promise. There is potential for a good amount of power in Williams’ bat, and if he can make enough contact and draw a few more walks than expected, then he could turn out to be a solid hitter. This is certainly possible, even though it is not likely. Part of the problem with projecting Justin Williams is that he had two weird years in 2017 and 2019 where he was really productive. The fact that this happened twice in the recent past gives hope that he could end up being a solid hitter. However, his unappealing strikeout and walk rates put a lot of pressure on his results on contact.
He is a left-handed bat, and the Cardinals might be more inclined to give him a chance because of that. This could help him receive playing time when Bader has a bad matchup. However, Williams still has a risky profile. Additionally, considering the amount of outfielders in front of him, it is entirely possible that the 25-year-old will get lost in the shuffle if he does not impress immediately when he receives a somewhat extended run in the lineup. Therefore, it is unlikely that Williams will be able to establish himself in St. Louis, and it appears more likely that Bader, Dylan Carlson, and either Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas will establish themselves as long term starters (barring an external acquisition).