MLB.com’s number four prospect Jordan Walker cracked the big league roster after torching the opposition this Spring. Still, the potential 40-homer-a-year threat is far from the only All-Star caliber option Oli Marmol has in his arsenal. Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, and Tyler O’Neill have all proven to be above-average starters at the major league level and will provide stiff competition for the 20-year-old as he enters his rookie campaign. With the opening day roster beginning to take shape, each minor league option and 40-man roster addition gives us a better idea of what to expect for the 2023 season, so it’s worth taking a deep dive into each candidate.
Talk about off-season improvements.
Breaking out last Summer, the El Segundo, CA native was a man on a mission this Winter, again attending Driveline’s hitting academy to bolster his bat speed. His time in the lab has paid off, as his average of 76.6 MPH during a recorded session would put him amongst the league’s highest echelon of power hitters.
MoCap PR for Lars Nootbaar this last week. Hitting this ball 109.2mph, up from 103.5 last offseason! @DrivelineBB @Joney93— Andrew Aydt (@AndrewAydt) January 2, 2023
Average Bat Speed during this session was 76.6mph pic.twitter.com/jtIVSxL0OC
Aside from his improved bat speed, Lars benefits from a more efficient approach, as he’s cleaned up his hip and torso rotations. Together, the two allow Nootbaar to elevate the ball more consistently and extrapolate as much of his 70-grade raw power as possible for optimal production.
It was clear that he had been working to overhaul his approach throughout the season. While struggling throughout early 2022, Nootbaar enjoyed a monster second half, slashing .257/.376/.514 over his final 266 plate appearances.
Nootbaar also suited up for Samurai Japan in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, leaving Miami with a chip and a new friend in tow.
Shohei Ohtani and Lars Nootbaar is turning into an all-time bromance. I’m gonna hate when it ends. pic.twitter.com/HxoBV2Kfm2— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) March 20, 2023
Nootbaar’s appearance in front of the world has seen him amass a near 2,000% increase in his Instagram followers this past month, attesting to the WBC’s ever-increasing presence on the international baseball stage.
Now that Lars is amongst the league’s most popular players, all eyes will be on him to see if he can combine his newfound fame with his ever-improving offensive profile to become one of the game’s most iconic players. Nootbaar is a shoo-in for one of the three starting jobs.
In 2021, Tyler O’Neill quickly became one of baseball’s best outfielders, uncorking 34 home runs on his way to a 5.6 fWAR campaign. He wasn’t quite able to build on this success in 2022, as shoulder and hamstring injuries cost him a large chunk of the season. Upon return from both IL stints, signs of rust were eminent, but he came on strong to register a 155 wRC+ over his final 68 plate appearances.
O’Neill’s 70-grade raw power/speed combination makes him a rising star. Throughout most of his career, Tyler’s approach and plate discipline have been a work in progress, though this past year saw vast improvements in his O-Swing% and Z-Contact% compared to his career averages; his 2022 values of 29.6% and 82.4%, respectively, hovered around the league mean.
Tyler will be a key bounce-back candidate to watch out for in 2023, although his injury history will cause durability concerns for team officials. O’Neill has traditionally been a left fielder as a major leaguer, but he currently projects to be the opening-day center fielder due to his quick reads and range.
Former top prospect Dylan Carlson has carefully elevated each aspect of his game throughout his major league career. Entering his third season, the former first-rounder is likely the least offensively sound of those mentioned.
His approach has seen steady progress, curtailing his K% to 19.3% in 2022 from 24.6% in 2021. Ideally, Dylan would be making solid contact more frequently; he has the raw power to go yard 20-25 times a season but will need to tweak his approach to further tap into his strength.
Walker’s inclusion on the 26-man roster could indicate that ops have reservations about Carlson’s offensive abilities with respect to his counterparts. I project him to move to start the season at a corner outfield spot, with O’Neill potentially patrolling center field to begin 2023. However, he could start without a specified defensive position while still accruing his plate appearances in a platoon role. Carlson’s unclear role despite a strong 2022 campaign attests to the Cardinals’ outfield depth.
Throughout the first half of Spring Training, top prospect Jordan Walker torched opposing pitchers to the tune of a 1.212 OPS before sustaining a shoulder injury. Despite this scare, his on-field performance and maturity through adversity were enough to earn him a spot in the majors entering 2023. Although his position remains unclear, Walker has experience playing third base and the outfield, the latter of which is where he’ll likely end up long-term.
Walker’s 80-grade raw power is his selling ticket- it’ll carry his profile early on while he cleans up his approach and breaking ball recognition. Jordan spent the entire 2022 season at double-A Springfield, posting a 128 wRC+. Despite this relative success, he was guilty of inducing a 45.5% ground ball rate, while most of his batted balls were hit below sixteen degrees. He’ll have to improve his barrel accuracy, but it should come with extended time in the bigs.
Jordan Walker blasts his first @MLBazFallLeague home run (and driving in teammate Tyler O'Neill)!— Cardinals Player Development (@CardsPlayerDev) October 8, 2022
103.1 MPH EV
423 FT. pic.twitter.com/SBlDIgshcA
It’ll be interesting to see where he plays in his rookie season. As aforementioned, Walker’s permanent home is presumably right field, but initially, he’ll move around the outfield and play some third base on a scheduled Nolan Arenado rest day. Jordan should be a staple in the Cardinals’ lineup for many years; it’s only a matter of time before he blossoms into one of baseball’s most feared hitters.
Other names to consider
The names I’ve already talked about should receive the most outfield reps in 2023, barring anything anomalous. Alec Burleson is a premium left-handed bench option who can platoon and play a serviceable corner outfield spot when needed. Juan Yepez was optioned to triple-A Memphis; should he return to the team in 2023, he’ll get some playing time given his considerable power.
Nothing needs to be said about Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan’s versatility on the diamond, with either being able to play every position 3-9 proficiently while still providing a league-average bat at minimum. Newly acquired swingman Taylor Motter made the team after a strong Spring and socking 20 round-trippers in limited time in triple-A last year; he’s primarily a shortstop, but he’s seen regular playing time in the outfield as a professional. Mosies Gomez broke out in 2022 after being let go by Tampa Bay. He’s not a plus defender or athlete by any stretch, but his thunderous power could earn him a promotion in 2023.
Like many contending teams, St. Louis has the luxury of deploying elite talent at any outfield position. This depth will provide them the safety net they need should any injuries arise, and should St. Louis require starting pitching as the trade deadline nears, it’s safe to say that the team will be dangling one of their many quality options to fill their needs. The coaching staff will have its hands full in designing the ultimate roster plan but will have no shortage of potential stars to choose from.
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