The injury to Harrison Bader at the end of Spring Training allowed Justin Williams to be the starting right fielder on Opening Day for the St. Louis Cardinals. This was a big opportunity for Williams as he had just six plate appearances with St. Louis prior to this season. However, he has struggled to hit the ball in his first three games (which is a tiny sample size). Additionally, Austin Dean has also struggled to hit in his first few plate appearances. Since these are the only other outfielders besides Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill on the roster, this presents a potential problem for the Cardinals if they do not heat up in the next couple of weeks.
To begin with, this is an incredibly small sample size, so it is difficult to identify anything from these numbers. However, right field appeared to be the weakest spot on the field for the Cardinals at the beginning of the season due to Williams’ lack of MLB experience and Dean’s lack of MLB success. Thus, it is likely that they will have a short leash, and if one of them cannot heat up soon, the Cardinals may turn to John Nogowksi or Lane Thomas as options to start in the outfield.
Justin Williams had a pair of pretty well hit balls on Opening Day as the 25-year-old recorded exit velocities of 100.5 and 96.3 on a pair of outs. Even though he did not reach base in the game, it was not a particularly bad start to the season. However, after not striking out in his first game, Williams has struck out in each of his last five plate appearances. This is likely the reason why Austin Dean started the first game against the Marlins, because Williams clearly needed a reset.
Once again, this is a very small sample size, and really anything can still happen at this stage of the season. However, the pressure is on for the right field combination of Williams and Dean (who is currently hitless with 4 Ks in 6 PAs) because John Nogowski had a strong spring and the organization has shown a willingness to experiment with him in left field.
Due to Williams’ recent history of striking out at a relatively high rate (26% in 2019 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels) and the jump in competition from the minor league to MLB, Williams might have a bit of a learning curve. Additionally, with Harrison Bader coming back in a few weeks, Dylan Carlson will likely be pushed to right field to open center for Bader. This means that the Cardinals may take a hot hand approach in order to try and maximize production from right field for such a short period of time.
This would make it possible that the team will give Nogowski a chance in left field soon if the results of right field do not improve. If this were to happen, then Tyler O’Neill would likely move to right field and Justin Williams would go to the bench.
With the strong spring that Nogowski had, as well as his history of hitting, walking, and not striking out in the minors, the Cardinals may be more willing to give him a chance until Bader returns. The positional fit is not exactly perfect as he is a natural first baseman without a ton of athleticism, but there is a chance that Nogowski would be able to play a decent left field, given his prowess at first base.
It is important to remember that the Cardinals have only played four games, but with a struggling pitching staff, and a limited amount of time until Bader returns, it would not be surprising to see the Cardinals turn away from Justin Williams in right field if he continues to struggle. This may be a mistake if Williams simply needs time in order to adjust to major league pitching and deliver on his promise. However, it would certainly be understandable, as the Cardinals need to score runs to make up for their depleted pitching staff, and Justin Williams will likely get benched in a few weeks anyways (when Bader returns).