At the trade deadline, the Cardinals did something that no one expected. They traded Harrison Bader, their Gold Glove-winning starter at center field, to the New York Yankees.
Now, I’m on record (in spoken and written form) as a fan of this move. This particular iteration of the Cardinals was supposedly built on pitching and defense. The pitching, though, wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain, particularly in the starting rotation. The defense, likewise, was still excellent on the infield but rarely together in the outfield. (Blake did a good job dealing with that in his piece from yesterday.)
Part of that equation needed to change for the Cardinals to maximize their production in the limited amount of time remaining this season. With plantar fasciitis likely to keep Harrison Bader out of center field for the bulk of the playoff run, it made all the sense in the world to shift his glove out for Jordan Montgomery’s left arm. The Cardinals already saw the benefits of that, with Montgomery providing a more-than-solid start against the Yankees on Saturday.
Bader’s absence – first through injury and now through trade – has opened the right field spot for competition. Who has the best chance of grabbing it and keeping it for the last few months of the season? Who can help the most come playoff time?
Bader’s foot injury overlapped with Tyler O’Neil’s various ailments, Corey Dickerson’s IL stint, and Juan Yepez’s injury. The result has been a mostly hodge-podge outfield alignment, with no one taking control of the open playing time until the last few weeks. The only constant was Dylan Carlson sliding over in the center field.
Here’s how the playing time has landed:
Not every player on this list is a likely candidate to earn significant starts in right for the rest of the season. There might even be a few players who aren’t listed above who could find themselves in the role. Let’s take a look!
Nootbaar was penciled into the left-handed bench outfield spot for much of the offseason. When the DH was installed and Corey Dickerson signed, his place on the roster became a bit more tenuous. Despite a solid 100 wRC+ in 2021 and more-than-acceptable defense in the corners, he would have to earn his roster spot through performance early in the season.
He didn’t. His wRC+ in April was 29. In May it was -54. Ouch. He was needed a bit more in June and only provided a 66. Even with O’Neill and Dickerson battling injuries and ineffectiveness, that was not enough to hold off the slew of contenders for playing time and Nootbaar found himself up and down the I-55 shuttle.
Since then, however, the Noooooooooooot that the Cardinals expected has shown up. He produced a 186 wRC+ in July and a 110 in August. His second half wRC+ is 125. Combined, he now sits at a 99 wRC+ – exactly league average – with a .225/.313/.380 slash line and a .306 wOBA.
(Yes, that slash line doesn’t look pretty. And, yes, that’s league average in a year where offense remains down league-wide.)
While Nootbaar has never had much ability to hit for batting average, or a lot of power, he does have the ability to generate walks at a very good level. In the minor leagues, his lowest walk rate was 8.4%. His high was 14.5%. He carried BB rates over 12.4% in both AA and AAA. In his two MLB stints, he’s translated that well enough and has a career 11.3% walk rate in the majors.
Is there a spot in the lineup for a left-handed outfielder with a well-above-average walk rate, developing power, and solid defense? Absolutely! Nootbaar is probably a bench player going forward but asking him to start for relatively long stretches as an injury (or in this case trade) fill-in is perfectly fine.
Oli Marmol seems to agree as Nootbaar has gotten the majority of starts in place of Bader since his IL stint and has started in RF in every game the Cardinals have played since the trade deadline.
By moving on from Harrison Bader, the Cardinals displayed a willingness to also move away from their commitment to elite defense. How far are they willing to go?
I ask because Juan Yepez is not an outfielder. His primary position is probably third base and he was billed mostly as a DH and replacement 1b’man for Goldschmidt when he DH’ed. When Nootbaar couldn’t lock down LF in place of Dickerson and O’Neill, the Cardinals turned to Yepez for the outfield. The experiment hasn’t got that well.
He has 253 innings split between right and left fields and he’s produced a -7 OAA when he’s been out there.
As I said, Juan Yepez is not an outfielder. Kyle Reis once described him as “Jose Martinez in the outfield but he’s young so he could get better.” That’s holding up.
But like Martinez, Yepez can hit. He has a 112 wRC+ on the season, with a .254/.298/.459 line. Yepez’s hit tool is probably better than his batting averages suggest. He can use the whole field but most of his power comes to the pull side. He doesn’t walk much, with a below-average 6.1% rate on the season, but his rates were higher than that in the high minors. I expect his batting eye to improve as he moves forward.
Yepez excels at generating power from his swing. His max exit velocity is among the league’s best. Unfortunately, his average exit velocity is in the bottom third. How does something like that that happen? It goes back to that hit tool I mentioned. Yepez has one of the lower chase rates in the league. He swings a lot. He’s just a hair below average in whiff rate. That means he’s making contact on a lot of pitches around the edges of the zone and beyond, and it’s hard to drive those with any power.
When Yepez swings at pitches in the middle of the zone, really good things happen. When he swings at pitches on the edges or out of the zone, bad things happen.
Right now Yepez is still on the IL battling a right forearm strain. He’s expected to start a rehab assignment this week. If he comes back pounding the ball again, don’t rule him out for time in the outfield. But full-time starter? As I said, he’s not an outfielder. The DH awaits.
Donovan provided an important spark plug early in the season when Paul DeJong was relegated to Memphis and the Cardinals had not yet committed to adding Nolan Gorman to the active roster. During that time, Donovan played all over, logging defensive innings at 1b, 2b, 3b, SS, LF, and RF. Most of his defensive innings have come in the outfield where has 236 on the season.
The problem with Donovan in this argument is that he hasn’t seen the grass lately. Donovan last got a start in the outfield at Cincinnati on July 23. You have to go back to July 8 to find his previous outfield appearance. It’s hard to consider someone a likely candidate to start in right field when the player isn’t playing the outfield.
The stats above show the reason that’s happening. Since July 1, Donovan’s line is .215/.373/.215 with a 90 wRC+ and a .292 wOBA. That line represents the best and worst of what Donovan can do at the plate. At his best, Donovan can combine a solid hit tool with an elite batting eye. He has a 13.4% walk rate on the season. Even while he’s slumped, he’s maintained this. Since July 1, Donovan has walked over 15% of the time, which has enabled him to keep a wRC+ that’s near league average even with a horrendous-looking batting line and no power. Literally. During that sample size of just 83 PAs, Donovan has no extra-base hits.
Of course, that tiny sample has to be weighed against his season as a whole. Donovan still has a 129 wRC+ overall and has produced 1.4 fWAR in 292 PAs this season. He’s dependent on a higher-than-expected BABIP and that incredible walk rate, but he’s incredibly valuable as a play-anywhere utility player.
As a potential starter in right field, though? I would say no. Donovan will likely get some more time in the outfield, but he’s probably 4th in line
The lone veteran option in play for right field is Corey Dickerson. Dickerson has had a rough season; honestly, he’s having the kind of season that typically results in being designated for assignment and exiting the league.
What probably saved him was a calf issue that landed him on the IL just as his roster spot was most vulnerable. He recovered and rehabbed and returned to the team as a rejuvenated player. He has a .279/.319/.488 slash line with a 125 wRC+ since July 9th. Most of that has come from left field in place of Tyler O’Neill and from the DH position.
Dickerson’s value to the team is as a left-handed platoon hitter. On the season – which includes his horrendous start to the year – he has a 77 wRC+ against righties, with a 632 OPS and a .362 slug%. Is that great? Nope. But his line against righties since his return is much better: .282/.310/.513 with a 128 wRC+.
That level of production post-injury is hard to ignore. It’s likely that Dickerson has done what he needed to do to re-secure his roster spot and will definitely see some time in the outfield against righties going forward.
The wild card in this is prospect Alec Burleson, who has worked his way onto Top 100 prospects lists nationally with a spectacular performance in AAA. Burleson was drafted in the COVID 2020 season and made his professional debut just last season.
Burleson destroyed A+ with a .412 wOBA and a 153 wRC+ in ‘21. The club only kept him there for a little over a week before bumping him to AA. His first taste of advanced minor league pitching didn’t slow him much. He had a .288/.333/.488 line in Springfield, good for a 116 wRC+. He cranked 14 homers. Maybe the club should have left him there but they didn’t. He went up to Memphis to get a taste of AAA pitchers. There he had just an 81 wRC+ over the last two months of the season.
This year, now 23, Burleson returned to Memphis and proved he was ready for a second look at the level. In 390 AAA PAs, Burly has a .329/.372/.543 line with a 141 wRC+. He has 19 homers and a K rate under 15%. Fantastic.
STEAMER translates Burleson’s Memphis stats to a .270/.315/.443 slash line, good for a 115 wRC+. The kind of production is certainly intriguing. However, it’s just a translation; an expectation based on historical projections. As such, it’s not that much different than what Nootaar has provided since his return. Or what Yepez did when he was fully healthy. Or what Donovan can provide when he’s going. Even Dickerson against righties matches up well with what Burleson would likely do in a platoon situation.
That, plus the general roster situation, probably keeps Burly in AAA for the rest of the season, unless another injury creates space for him. It’s a tough situation because his performance and rapid rise has certainly earned him an MLB debut this season. There’s an opening for him, but not enough roster space. The same spot might be open next season, but how can the Cards give Burleson that job without even getting a look at him? And then there’s Jordan Walker, who is already getting time in the AA outfield and should be on his way to AAA soon. As they say, these things work themselves out. Still, Burleson has tons of potential and likely won’t see the lineup anytime soon.
So, who should get the job?
My money is on Nootbaar. Nootbaar is hot. He has that walk rate that he can fall back on. And the work he’s put into his swing has paid off in a bit more power. Plus, of all the players we’ve listed here, he provides the most defensive ability in the outfield.
As a lefty, he also provides something the Cardinals need, which is production potential against right-handed pitchers. Considering the lack of right-handed options, he should pretty much play out there every day. The most logical platoon option with Nootbaar is Yepez, but Yepez actually hits righties better than lefties. The best statistical option to platoon with Noot is probably Donovan, who has hit better against lefties than righties so far. Since Edman and DeJong would both be in the lineup against lefties, it would make sense to let Noot sit against lefties to give Donovan a chance to get more plate appearances. Since both players have a similar on-base-first style, the club wouldn’t even miss much production.
Meanwhile, Dickerson and Yepez can continue to split time at DH and battle for plate appearances with Albert Pujols. Donovan, when not spelling Nootbaar, should challenge DeJong and Edman for regular starts on the middle infield. It’s hard to argue with Edman’s defense – especially at SS – but I see little reason why DeJong should consistently start over Donovan, despite his relatively hot start in his return to the league.
The Cardinals should be able to expect league-average production from the right field spot now that Carlson has shifted to center. They even have the depth to survive any injuries that might take place.