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The potentially difficult outfield situation

The Cardinals have too many outfielders, but that’s not really the situation I’m referring to

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals
This photo has nothing to do with my article, but I just like the photo
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals are dealing with a potentially difficult situation. They have too many outfielders. Lars Nootbaar missed all but three games due to a minor injury which has helped the Cardinals evade the problem. With Nootbaar out, a Alec Burleson/Dylan Carlson platoon formed, and Tyler O’Neill and Jordan Walker have mostly played everyday with Carlson taking starts when they get a day off. Burleson fouled a ball off his shin and may very well delay this problem further with an injured list trip. And that’s not even mentioning Juan Yepez, currently in AAA, but who’s had 12 very good plate appearances to begin his season.

However that’s not the real problem. Or I should say that’s not the potentially difficult situation I am referring to. Having too many outfielders isn’t a real problem; it’s a good problem. So, there’s not a real good way to say what about to say that won’t get a portion of the fanbase mad and I am trying to avoid making people mad, but well sometimes the itch that I get when I write tells me I have to write it. And this potentially difficult situation is: The Cardinals have possibly put themselves into the situation where they are playing their 5th best OFer on an everyday basis.

This sounds like a reactionary take. Jordan Walker was just on a 12-game hitting streak and now that he’s struggled for a few games, he’s suddenly the 5th best option? First, I want to stress I think now that they’ve made the decision, he should stay up for the rest of April at the very least and probably a good portion of May. But I have always thought he shouldn’t have made the team out of spring training and I would point you to the article where I said that, but you were all were saved from that take thanks to me doing the top 20 prospects on this site. It would have been written if not for that, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t write it because it wouldn’t have made anybody happy.

But my argument was essentially summed up by this: There was only one reason Jordan Walker should make the team out of spring training and that was spring training. He did not dominate AA to the level where skipping seemed viable, his projection was a below average hitting line, and he just moved to the outfield. And in fact, his Springfield teammate Masyn Winn doing better than him in spring training actually made me more skeptical of his spring numbers because I knew there was no way Winn was MLB ready.

So now that I’ve established that, why exactly do I think Walker is maybe the 5th best OFer? In a word, defense. I did not expect him to be a good defender out of the gate, but I really did not expect him to be Jose Martinez out there. And two points I want to add to that: 1) he absolutely has been that bad and 2) he will not be that bad in the future. But what’s less clear is what future means in that second point. In a month? Late in the year? Next year?

You could maybe hide his defense except for the fact that Nolan Gorman is a thing and also you really do want to him to learn how to play the outfield. He needs outfield reps to do that. It is important in these discussions to remember he is 20-years-old and will grow more comfortable, but right now he looks like a fan stranded onto the field and is trying to catch flyballs. (And to be clear, I’m sure a fan would be much worse at catching flyballs unless that fan was a college outfielder recently; just visually, that’s how it appears)

Now, none of this would be a problem if the Cardinals had the equivalent of Pete Kozma as the alternative, but as I stated at the beginning of this article, they have too many outfielders. Dylan Carlson, in his career, is a 2.5 fWAR player per 600 PAs and the spring training narrative suggests he might improve as a player. Tyler O’Neill has been worth 3.7 fWAR per 600 PAs, and even in his down year last year, was still a 2 fWAR player per 600 PAs. His projection is about a win better than that in significantly less than 600 PAs. Lars Nootbaar was worth 2.7 fWAR in less than 400 PAs.

Alec Burleson has gotten off to a 118 wRC+ start, he had a 137 wRC+ in AAA (which was better than Walker’s wRC+ in AA) and has a rest of season 113 wRC+ projection. Doesn’t seem like anything he’s doing is out of line with what to expect from him. And the player I’m unwilling to say is better than Walker is Juan Yepez, but by the projections, he very easily is. Yepez is about as bad on defense as Walker with no upside, but he does have a 124 wRC+ ZiPS projection which I would take in a heartbeat from Walker.

I’m significantly less concerned about his bat from a win now perspective, but there are still some short-term concerns. He has one walk in his first 63 PAs. He has a 27 K% to pair with it. While he hits the ball very hard, most of it is on the ground. I’m not entirely sure what his xwOBA will be after yesterday’s game, but it was .312 so he’s not really getting unlucky in arriving at a 91 wRC+. He’s not getting lucky either, so that’s good at least.

I hate pointing out his batting numbers because I am genuinely not concerned about it. The problem with his defense is it puts soooo much pressure on his bat being good RIGHT now. If he’s an average hitter, he’s a bad player most likely. He’s been a below replacement player so far! Every outfielder I’ve mentioned so far, with the exception of maybe Yepez for similar defensive reasons, looks like an average or better outfielder.

And this is where it gets potentially awkward. The Cardinals may have jumped the gun in assuming he was ready for the big leagues. His bat is probably ready for the big leagues and it’s worth the growing pains of this year. In what feels like a cruel irony, the Cardinals really could have started him in AAA and then claimed he needed to work on his defense. Few would have believed it, especially if he tore up AAA, but that fake excuse would actually be a legit reason in this instance.

I could run the WAR numbers for you, but I’m not going to bore you with that, but use a teammate of his as an example: Juan Yepez. Yepez had a 109 wRC+ last season. We should all be thrilled if a 20-year-old who skipped AAA did that this year. His projection by the way was a 94 wRC+. Walker’s 80th percentile projection by ZiPS was a 109 OPS+. Like I don’t think you guys understand how good of an outcome that would be. Well, Yepez was worth 0.2 fWAR last season. Now Walker is probably better than Yepez in the outfield even now and definitely has upside on defense in a way Yepez doesn’t, but like he’s going to have to take a huge, huge, huge leap on defense really quickly or he’s the 5th best option, as I said.

But I’m not advocating for him to get sent down now that they’ve committed to him in the big leagues. The error bars on projections for minor leaguers is higher than an established major leaguer. Plus, you need to give Walker a chance to adjust. The great hitters adjust. His bat really could be that good that his defense won’t matter. Pitchers have recognized that he’ll swing at a lot and it’s up to Walker to be a bit more selective.

Do I have a point to all this? I suppose my point is that the Cardinals have to be considering “when do we have to make a decision on this?” How far back are they in the standings? Who is healthy? Do we see improvement from Walker as the season goes on? And to what extent has he improved, because yes he will improve on defense, but are we talking run-of-the-mill bad defender or let me take a Xanax when a ball is hit to him bad? What are the odds he can still get 1st or 2nd in ROY (I’d bet money a 2 WAR Jordan Walker is getting 1st or 2nd over a 3 WAR guy with positive defensive numbers, for instance)

And none of this would be as much of a problem if the Cardinals didn’t get off to a phenomonally slow start. The Brewers have a 4-game head start on the Cardinals. That isn’t a huge deal, but it’s not nothing. But if, say, the Cardinals are in 1st on May 12th and Brandon Woodruff is still out, I’d say they can afford the growing pains of Walker. So many factors to consider, but it is something that needs to be considered.

If this feels like an indictment on Walker, it is not. If anything, it’s on the Cardinals. Walker is doing as well as can be reasonably expected. He just moved to the outfield! There was no reason to think he was going to be good defensively right away! He had a 128 wRC+ in AA, which was worse than Dylan Carlson and Oscar Taveras, two players who did not skip AAA and who had rough starts to their careers. Because baseball is incredibly hard and it won’t be the strangest thing if a 20-year-old isn’t immediately great. But I know that’s how people will interpret this.

There are certain articles that I know won’t go over well and I don’t really want to write them, but I have been cursed or blessed with this writing compulsion and sometimes that compulsion has a “hot” take or an unpopular opinion, and my brain just shuts off all other things to write about and well here we are.