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Carlson in Center Reopens the Competition in Right

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Bader is heading to the IL. Carlson is heading to CF. That opens up a starting spot in right and new chances for John Nogowski and Justin Williams.

MLB: New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch reported on Wednesday that Cardinals’ center fielder Harrison Bader is experiencing persistent discomfort in his forearm and will miss four to six weeks. The slick-gloved outfielder had a platelet-rich injection into his forearm to encourage the area to heal.

It’s safe to assume that Bader will be out until mid-May with recovery and a rehab assignment. His absence has a trickle-down effect on the club’s likely Opening Day roster and lineup.

First, Dylan Carlson was all but named the starting center fielder by Manager Mike Shildt while Bader is out. While Carlson played all over the outfield in 2020, he saw the most innings in center. He recorded a +2 DRS and a +1.1 UZR at the position. That translates to a Bader-esque +17.8 UZR/150 (what his UZR would be if he played 150 games with the same level of performance.) While that UZR/150 is higher than anyone should hope for, the positive overall performance fits his defensive reputation, at least from sources I’ve come to trust.

Some prospect analysts have questioned whether Carlson can stick in center long term. At 6’2” and over 200 pounds with room to fill out his frame, there is concern that adding MLB bulk as he ages will subtract some footspeed, locking him into a corner outfield position. That might become an issue in 3-4 years, but it’s not right now. Based on his reputation and what he’s done so far, the club can plan on him playing at least average defense in center, with better odds that he is above average than below.

Long term, it might be best for the Cardinals if Carlson sees significant innings in center this season, even after Bader returns. Average hitters with average defense in center can rack up impressive production (fWAR) totals. It’s also easier to find productive hitters who can cover right field. We’ll look at examples of how this could work while Bader is out for both Carlson and his right field replacements.

Take Bader as the baseline. ZiPS’ projects Bader to have a 90 wRC+ (.306 wOBA) with a +9.1 DEF. That’s a below-average offensive projection with an upper-end defensive projection. In just 440 PAs, ZiPS has Bader locked in for 1.7 fWAR. Part of that assumes a platoon. Add another 160 PAs (which Bader is not going to get) and his fWAR would jump to a decent 2.3. A below-average offensive center fielder with very good defense is an overall average starter.

Now, look at the 2019 version of Jason Heyward. Heyward produced an exactly league-average 101 wRC+ (.326 wOBA) and slightly below average -4.7 DEF (-2.0 UZR). That combined for 2.0 fWAR in 589 PAs. Average offense + below-average defense = average starter over 600 PAs.

Now kick that up one step. Brett Gardner produced an above-average 115 wRC+ (.344 wOBA) and a close to average 2.5 DEF (1.3 UZR). The result? A really good 3.6 fWAR.

Carlson won’t be an elite defender in center. His ZiPS projection is just a 94 wRC+, based mostly on a 3-week slump last year and minor league translations. He’s a 1.4 fWAR player with that projection in right.

In center at 94 wRC+, he’s right around a 2 fWAR player.

His offensive skill set is significantly above a 94 wRC+. What happens if he has a 100 wRC+? 110? 120? 130? Just start adding WAR. At 115 wRC+ in center, Carlson is probably a 3.5 fWAR player. 125? He’s 2019 Ronaldo Acuna Jr. (126 wRC+ and 1.5 DEF) at 5.6 fWAR and an MVP candidate.

Could Carlson have a 125 wRC+ this season? Absolutely he could. I wouldn’t expect it but it's certainly within his skill range.

Could Bader? Almost certainly not.

All of that is a good reason to keep Carlson in center as long as his defense lets him stay there. When Bader returns, the club can get creative in working him into platoons, so long as his bat demands it. We know his glove will.

That creates opportunities in right field for players who have some intriguing offensive potential who might otherwise have been left off the roster. Let’s focus on two players: John Nogowski and Justin Williams.

Bader’s injury probably impacts John Nogowski’s playing time as much as anyone. He goes from likely member of the taxi squad to a potential starter in right field, where he projects as the club’s best offensive option.

Nogowski had a 136 wRC+ and a ridiculous .384 wOBA in 2018 in AA Springfield as a 25-year-old first baseman. He followed that in the hitting crazy 2019 PCL with a 122 wRC+ (which is weighted to league average) and a .387 wOBA. He can really draw walks. Nogowski hasn’t had a BB% below 11.3% in any level above A+. He does not strike out. He has high contact ability – with averages ranging from .295 to .345 while in the Cardinals organization. His power has emerged, too, with double-digit home runs in both Springfield and Memphis.

Defensive expectations should be low but he is not Matt Adams in the outfield. Knowing his future was likely in a utility role, Nogowski has been working in the outfield over the past few springs.

ZiPS has him pegged for a 93 wRC+ and a .311 wOBA. This seems a bit low in my eyes but Szymborski still has him outproducing Bader, Justin Williams, and Lane Thomas. The problem with Nogowski’s projections is that they can’t fully credit him for his increased power in the high minors. Outside of his rookie campaign in ’14, Nogowski consistently had a SLUG% below .400 until he reached AA. His slug% in Springfield was .463. In Memphis (in the juiced ball year), was .476.

Which is the real Nogowski?

He’s probably not a .460+ slugger in the majors. But is he just a .375 slugger, as ZiPS projects? I don’t think so. If the rest of Nogowski’s projection proves true – a .259/.339 BA/OBP – then I suspect he’ll outperform that slug% projection by 25-50 points. A .259/.339/.415 line from an injury-replacement corner outfielder is just fine.

Then there is Justin Williams, who has been smoking the ball this spring. Williams provides value off the bench as the Cardinals’ only pure lefty outfielder. He has a 60 (on an 80 scale) raw power grade despite only having one stop in the minors with double-digit home runs. It’s an oddity that is easily explained by the extreme batted ball data in the early part of his professional career. Williams routinely had ground ball rates above 60% and as high as 70.5% in the low minors.

Williams has worked hard to change both his swing and his batted ball results. Here are a few examples from different angles:

I know the GIF is stylized, but you can see the swing path well enough. It’s quick and smooth. That was an inside pitch that Williams was able to turn on and drive deep into the corner at a high exit velocity (over 108). Take a look at this highlight on a pitch that Williams took up the middle:

The remnants of Williams’ old swing are still present. The results, though, have changed. Here, he took a ball off the end of the bat back up the middle for a hard-hit line drive. 3-4 years ago, that pitch was probably a ground ball pulled to the second baseman.

If Williams can keep the ball off the ground – which he’s done in the high minors – and continue to draw more walks – which he’s done in the high minors – then he has the chance to be a productive player – which he’s been in the high minors.

Williams’ minor league stat sheet is all over the place, but in ’17 he produced a 145 wRC+ in AA with Tampa. In ’18 – still just 22 years old – he had a 95 wRC+ in his first run through AAA. In ’19 during an injury-filled campaign with the Redbirds, he had a 152 wRC+ in 119 PAs.

Some production is there. So are questions. That leads to a sketchy ZiPS projection of just an 80 wRC+ and .292 wOBA. I’ve outlined how he can top that. This spring, he’s shown the ability to make those necessary changes. The Cardinals need the improved version of Williams to add versatility to their roster depth and help limit Bader and O’Neill’s exposure against tough righties.

Are Nogowski and Williams long-term answers in RF? No. For a month, though, the club could do worse. Their presence, plus Lane Thomas, might give the Cardinals more options when Bader does return. If nothing else, the club will get a better look at some of their fringe major leaguers.

I would like to see the Cardinals start Nogowski a couple of times per week if his defense looks acceptable. I would like to see them regularly sit Tyler O’Neill and give Williams a chance against righties with tough breaking pitches. Thomas, meanwhile, should get plenty of looks too, though he has the worst projections of all the players mentioned in this article. He who hits plays until Bader returns. Then Bader will need to hit, too.