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My Thoughts on the Cardinals Outfield

The Cardinals outfield was the third best unit in baseball just two years ago. This year it’s below average. I give my thoughts on how it got here and where to go next.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

I have a much shorter stream of consciousness, conversation starter, open thread-esque article for you all today. It’ll be a little lighter on data, instead offering my general thoughts on the St. Louis Cardinals outfield, how we got here, and how the team should move forward. (If you’re looking for a longer, more detailed article, I wrote about Richie Palacios on Sunday.)

The latest Tyler O’Neill injury news got me thinking about the Cardinals’ outfield again and, boy, has it taken some twists and turns this year. At the start of Spring Training, I, and probably most other fans, assumed the outfield would be Dylan Carlson in center field, Tyler O’Neill in left, and Lars Nootbaar in right. Then came the reports that O’Neill and Nootbaar would get chances to play center field.

And then Jordan Walker started mashing. What seemed like a pretty clear cut outfield trio with well defined positions quickly because an outfield with a lot of ambiguity. Sometimes an ambiguous outfield is a bad thing because it means that a team doesn’t have 3 truly good outfielders. But sometimes it’s a good thing because it means a team has more than 3 truly good outfielders.

In the case of the Cardinals, I believed the latter.

After all, at the time, Tyler O’Neill was just one year removed from a 5.5 fWAR season, the Lars Nootbaar hype train had already left the station, and Dylan Carlson had just looked really good in center field. Throw in a top prospect and certified raker into the mix and there’s you’re four good outfielders. And your good kind of ambiguity.

But yet the Cardinals’ outfield has been decidedly below average. As a whole, the unit ranks 15th in wRC+ and 20th in fWAR. It’s not a good group. That doesn’t mean the players in it don’t have upside. They do. In fact, they have plenty of it.

But there’s downside too. Tyler O’Neill has an extensive injury history. There were (and still are questions) about Carlson’s ability to impact the baseball and to hit right-handed pitching. Jordan Walker had very little outfield experience. All of these things matter too.

So what happened? Well, just the worst case scenario. Tyler O’Neill hasn’t stayed healthy, Carlson’s bat didn’t answer any questions and he got hurt, and Jordan Walker’s defense was downright terrible (but is getting better). Add it up and we have a bad outfield that has seen plenty of change throughout the season.

As I said earlier, I expected the outfield alignment to be O’Neill, Carlson, and Nootbaar at the start of the season. That quickly became O’Neill, Nootbaar, and Walker with a heavy dose of Alec Burleson. There have been plenty of other combinations throughout the season but now, with Carlson and O’Neill on the IL, Richie Palacios has stepped in.

The thing is, it’s normal for an outfield to go through lots of different permutations throughout a season. The problem for the Cardinals is that they don’t have a consistent and reliable trio of outfielders for next year’s roster.

Lars Nootbaar is now the guy in the outfield and he’ll be flanked by Jordan Walker. But who is the third outfielder? Tyler O’Neill? I would think not. Everything about the Cardinals messaging around him tells me they’re ready to move on. I could be totally off but that’s simply the sense I get. So how about Dylan Carlson? Are the Cardinals really going to trust him to be a starter next year? Probably not.

And Alec Burleson and Richie Palacios haven’t done nearly enough to be considered starters. Maybe the Cardinals keep both O’Neill and Carlson and hope that one of them emerges and becomes a reliable starter but that isn’t the route I would go nor do I expect the Cardinals to go that route.

Rather, this means that they should look to bring in a starting outfielder in the offseason, and one who can play with Nootbaar and Walker.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Acquiring a centerfielder should be a priority for the Cardinals this offseason. The Cardinals could try to grab a corner outfielder and leave center field for Nootbaar but I would much prefer the Cardinals grab a good defender at a premium position instead of leaving the position to an average defender.

Of course, this all depends on the market. The Cardinals should be looking for the best value they can find. That means the best talent at the best price (Note: that doesn’t necessarily mean a cheap player). That may be a centerfielder and it may be a corner outfielder but my preference is for the team to grab a true centerfielder.

That may be a tall task considering how many pitchers they need to acquire but this isn’t an area of the team that should be forgotten about, especially if the team decides to move on from either or both of O’Neill and Carlson.

The Cardinals defense has slipped this year. There’s many factors behind that, not the least of which is the inclusion of Jordan Walker in the every day lineup, and that should give the Cardinals all the more reason to look for a true plus defender up the middle. Having someone who can confidently cover a ton of ground not only helps the pitching staff but could also be a huge boost to an outfield that already has a negative defender and an average to slightly above average defender.

So while a lot of the focus for the coming offseason will be on the pitching, and the coaching staff to a lesser extent, don’t forget about the Cardinals need for an outfielder, and, particularly, one who can play a good center field.

If the Cardinals want to keep one of Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson, that’s great but neither should be penciled into a starting job without competition being added to the roster.

Thanks for reading.