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Cards Sign Dickerson: Finding Playing Time for Everyone

Dickerson’s signing adds depth to the outfield and DH. But how much will he cut into playing time for Yepez and Noot?

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday afternoon, the Cardinals likely completed the offensive side of their offseason, locking in platoon outfielder Corey Dickerson to a one-year, $5M deal.

It’s a deal that Cardinals fans largely met with muted applause. The club made it clear that they were seeking more options to throw against righthanded pitchers and the desire to utilize more platoon matchups.

The advent of the DH in the National League provides one more opportunity for that to happen. It’s also a place where bench players and youngsters can cut their teeth in the lineup under controlled situations.

Today, I want to take a hard look at what the Dickerson signing means for young players like Lars Nootbaar and Juan Yepez. If there is one criticism of adding a veteran player on the downside of his career to the roster, it’s that it takes playing time away from young, rising players.

We have recent examples of this happening. Tyler O’Neill struggled to get more than 150 plate appearances in his first two seasons. He was stuck behind an aging veteran in Dexter Fowler and the underperforming Marcel Ozuna. He didn’t get full-time PAs until the COVID shortened 2020 season and wasn’t able to break out until age 26.

We could also point to Randy Arozarena, who never received much consideration for a bench role because of veterans ahead of him in the pecking order. He ended up traded and has done well for the Rays.

Does Dickerson create a similar situation for Lars Nootbaar and Juan Yepez? What about Nolan Gorman? Brendan Donovan?

There’s a simple way to find out: we count PAs. And then start dividing them up to see what we have!

Let’s start with where Dickerson is likely to see most of his time: Designated Hitter. Last year, the Cardinals gave 293 PAs to pitchers out of the ninth spot in the lineup. The DH’s arrival brings approximately 700 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projections, that are likely to be distributed in platoon roles.

Dickerson would serve as the left side of that platoon. He has consistently been better than league average against righties, including last season:

Dickerson’s DH dancing partner will likely be right-handed power prospect, Juan Yepez. Yepez did not display much of a platoon split last season, but according to Baseball Reference, he was slightly better against righties than lefties. He had a 990 OPS against righties and just a 904 OPS against lefties.

So, Yepez can crush lefties. And hit righties, which is useful if Dickerson finds himself in the outfield. All this is theoretical, though. Can he translate that production to the majors? Dickerson provides a bit of insurance if he can’t. And allows Yepez to ease into the majors without the pressure of producing as a full-time starter.

Marmol – not Shildt! – will probably also work Nootbaar into the DH and use it to spell other regulars. That has little impact on the playing time question. Every time a regular starter like Tyler O’Neill or Paul Goldschmidt gets a day off at DH, Yepez, Dickerson, or Noot will get PAs in the field.

Even though the starting outfield is largely set, there will be PAs from TON, Bader, and Carlson to distribute as well. Here ZiPS projection system proves very helpful, as Dan Szymborski’s supercomputer can project playing time based on previous usage and injury history. Here are its projections:

Tyler O’Neill – 554 out of 700.
Harrison Bader – 441 out of 700.
Dylan Carlson – 632 out of 700.

Bader and TON have been prone to injury. Carlson has been a pillar of health. Add it up and we can project another 473 PAs going to bench players from the outfield.

How will those divide up? Dickerson is not a guy that has to stay off the field. He’s been a league average defensive outfielder throughout his career by OAA, DRS, and UZR, including last year. Lars Nootbaar probably remains the primary replacement outfielder and his ability to play some centerfield will be important as Bader still hasn’t put together a full, healthy season. Juan Yepez also owns an outfielder’s glove but I’ll be pretty happy if he never uses it.

So, these extra outfield PAs are probably going primarily to Nootbaar with some to Dickerson.

And elsewhere? Yepez could see spot starts at both 1b and 3b. Goldschmidt averages close to 700 PAs per season. Depth Charts has him at 672 at 1b. Let’s assume he takes 5 days off throughout the season, and we’ll give Yepez another 30 PAs. We’ll give him 10 PAs from 3rd base, too.

Lastly, the DH doesn’t completely do away with strategic substitutions. The Cardinals say they want to do a better job of playing matchups against pitchers. It would be smart to use Dickerson or Nootbaar in pinch hitting situations late in games when, for example, Harrison Bader is facing a tough right-handed hitter. Or Yepez as a pinch hitter when Paul DeJong is facing a tough lefty. DeJong has a reverse platoon split.

We’ll just call that another 50 PAs as a strategic pinch hitter out there from positions we haven’t already accounted for.

Now to the math: How many PAs do we have to divvy between the bench players? 700 at DH + 473 OF + 40 in the INF + 50 strategic PH = 1263 PAs.

I could probably wrap this article up right there. Divide those 1263 PAs between the three players and each one gets 421 PAs. That’s excellent PA totals for young role players!

It took O’Neill 3 seasons to get to 450 PAs. Tommy Edman got 349 as a rookie in 2019. Harrison Bader got 92 his first season and 427 the next year. Paul DeJong got 443.

The problem is that those PAs won’t just get split down the middle between the three players. Platoon splits, after all, aren’t 50/50 arrangements.

Last year, the Cardinals had 6001 total plate appearances as a team. Only 1245 of those came against left-handed pitchers – roughly 21%. That’s the lowest percentage of left-handers faced in baseball. By quite a bit. Next in line is Atlanta at 1461 and the Brewers at 1541. The Reds and Cubs are also in the bottom third. Pittsburgh is in the bottom half.

It looks like two things are going on. First, other teams know that the Cardinals were weak against right-handed pitchers, so they kept their lefties in the bullpen and loaded up on righties. Second, it looks like the NL Central was just a little light on lefties on their rosters period.

Regardless, that probably throws more PAs Dickerson’s way and steals some from Yepez. Looking around at other teams, I think a 70-30 division would be about the median lefty-righty split for teams throughout baseball.

Depth Charts gives 70 DH PAs to players that aren’t Dickerson, Yepez, and Nootbaar. That leaves 633 to divide between the three players. I think 85% of those go to the Dickerson-Yepez platoon, leaving 95 DH PAs for Nootbaar.

If we apply the 70-30 split to the remaining PAs, Dickerson would get 378 of those. Yepez would get 160.

Now the OF. Noot and Dickerson are the primary backup outfielders, with Noot likely being first in line. They’re both lefties, so there’s not platooning here. Just ability. Let’s give Noot a 60-40 advantage in OF PAs.

That gives Noot another 283 PAs and Dickerson 190.

Those PAs in the outfield to replace injured or resting OF’ers will push Yepez into the lineup at DH even against righties. So, let’s cut half of Dickerson’s OF PAs out of his DH totals and give them back to Yepez. Quasi-math! (It’s an old reference, but some of you might remember). That’s another 95 going to Yepez.

Now, Yepez gets the 40 INF PAs because the other two can’t play there. And let’s have them split the 50 strategic sub PAs – 17 apiece.

What are the final totals?

Dickerson: 283 DH + 190 OF + 17 PH = 490 PA
Nootbaar: 283 OF + 95 DH + 17 PH = 395 PA
Yepez: 255 DH + 40 INF + 17 PH = 312 PA

That’s a great total for Nootbaar. Yepez feels a little on the light side, but that’s primarily because I applied a pretty strict platoon. As a righty who has hit righties well in the minors, Yepez can push against Dickerson’s PAs if he can translate his MiLB production to the majors.

That’s the key to this whole question. The PAs are there. Who will earn them?

This is why I like the signing. The Cardinals have relied almost exclusively on major league depth over the past few seasons. It’s really burned them at times. (Justin Williams anyone? Scott Hurst? Lane Thomas?)

This year, they’ve loaded up on the bench and in the bullpen, which will enable them to better weather the storms of a 162 game season, even if it pushes youngsters back a little. Injuries almost always clear a path for players to show their talent.

And what about Gorman and Donovan? As infielders, the Dickerson signing doesn’t affect them much. Donovan and Gorman’s best chance at significant PAs will depend on much weaker parts of the lineup than OF: 2b and SS. If performance and/or injury create the opportunity, Donovan or Gorman, or both could find significant PAs available to them without even touching the scenario laid out for Dickerson, Yepez, and Noot.

In other words, there are plenty of PAs to go around. And while Dickerson is not going to have a huge impact offensively, he’ll spread the depth around a little without cutting too deeply into playing time for the young players.