Aug 11, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna (23) and center fielder Lane Thomas (35) and right fielder Dexter Fowler (25) celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
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As we move into the offseason, it’s time to look at what comes next for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Over the next few days, I will review all aspects of the roster that the team will be carrying into the offseason — who is leaving, who is returning, who is ascending from the minor leagues — and try to identify the true needs for the team. Of course, my takeaway will be my own opinion, but hopefully the breakdowns will be informative and allow you to form your own.
The final installment of the series takes us to the outfield.
Now, if you’ve been reading all the entries in this series you are probably thinking, “come on, dude, a mid-rotation starter is the only need?” I get it. But the roster is good and I just don’t see the team trading several youngish players in order to nab a superstar upgrade. Maybe I’m operating too much within the confines of how the team has operated in the past, but that is just me trying to be realistic. Expecting the Cardinals to have a dramatically different roster is wishful thinking. The team is free to rock the boat — wheel and deal — and bring in some studs. I’m good with that, but I don’t count on it.
Anyway, let’s get on with it. The outfield isn’t as simple as the other areas.
The Cardinals outfield was middling, at best, by most measures. Taking a quick look at OPS by position, Cardinals RF’s ranked 22nd in baseball (.752), the CF’s ranked 12th (.739), and LF’s ranked 12th (.786).
When he played, Harrison Bader was an elite defender, but his bat made it increasingly harder to put him in the lineup. A reset at Memphis spurred a brief hot streak, but old habits returned. There was always concern that his bat wouldn’t hold up as an everyday player, and those are proving to be valid. He looks more and more like a good 4th OF, to me.
Dexter Fowler had a nice bounceback season following a disastrous 2018, as he returned to being a slightly above average hitter and did fine in both RF and CF. I liked the willingness to play him in CF again, as I never understood why Mike Matheny took that option off the table in 2018. For a while, Fowler provided a spark in the leadoff spot, but he faded in September — hitting .183 with a .636 OPS and 78 wRC+ for the month.
Marcell Ozuna had monster stretches, but also disappeared for weeks at a time. His defense isn’t as bad as it often looks — he coves ground pretty well — but it was certainly an adventure at times. We tend to view his 2018 as a bad year and his 2019 as a significantly better season, when in actuality he posted a 107 wRC+ in ’18 and a 110 in ’19. His career wRC+ is 112. Other than his monster 2017, this is who is he is.
Jose Martinez is limited defensively and took a step back offensively, becoming oddly undisciplined for about half the season. His K% in the 1st half was 19.2%, in the 2nd half it was 28.7, including a 36% rate in September. Tyler O’Neill got very little opportunity, then received a great opportunity when Ozuna went on the IL, then he got hurt himself, then he got very little opportunity when he returned. He runs very well and can play all 3 OF spots, but his bat is still an unknown over a large sample. O’Neill was intriguing in 2018, but a full season later we have learned nothing more about him.
Randy Arozarena got very few chances after killing it at Memphis. He’s an exciting talent that could have used more looks. Lane Thomas was in a similar boat, finding very little playing time despite producing in every limited opportunity he received. Just when Thomas was beginning to gain traction and looked primed to steal playing time from Bader, he was hit by a pitch in the wrist, ending his season.
Tommy Edman can play the outfield, when needed — he should not be a regular — and Yairo Muñoz should only touch the outfield grass if he is chasing a pop-up for his 2B position.
Moving into 2020
Returning: Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Jose Martinez, Randy Arozarena
Free Agents: Marcell Ozuna
Other Internal Options: Jose Adolis Garcia, Dylan Carlson, Justin Williams
Let me start by addressing Ozuna. I think that the only scenario in which he returns to the club is if he accepts the qualifying offer. Now, I think there is a chance he does take that offer, but if he doesn’t then I believe he is gone. He is not as irreplaceable as you may initially think. I know, the offense was bad this year and taking away a 29 HR cleanup hitter seems counterproductive, but I think there is room to improve overall without him. If he does come back on a 1-year deal, cool, that gives them a known producer in LF.
There is a line when it comes to outfielders that would be worth acquiring. Essentially, they need to be as good or better than Ozuna. If the team is willing to let Ozuna walk, then replacing him with someone worse is not a good investment. On the free agent market, only a few OF’s reside above that line. Nick Castellanos, Yasiel Puig, Corey Dickerson, and Avisail Garcia. Offensively, Puig and Garcia are generally the same hitter as Ozuna. I’ll mention Dickerson in a moment. Last is Castellanos, who promoted himself well with a torrid stretch in Chicago. Castellanos would be a nice — expensive — bat in the lineup, but he is worse defensively than Ozuna. What is telling about Castellanos, for me, is that an offensively challenged team reportedly had no interest in him at the trade deadline, when the Cubs picked him up for a very modest return. I just don’t think they want him.
As I searched for a need in the outfield, I landed on the idea of a lefthanded hitting veteran that is not necessarily being counted on to be a regular starter, but is solid enough that you would be comfortable starting him if a regular was hurt or under-performing badly. On the free agent market, that player is Corey Dickerson, former Pirate. However, that circled me back to the Cardinals’ roster, where I found that they already have that player.
It’s Dexter Fowler.
I don’t believe Fowler is an everyday player anymore . All respect to him for raising his game back up, but he was still decidedly average. He profiles well as a part-time starter and 4th OF that provides a left-handed bat off the bench and a steady replacement if another outfield get hurt.
2019 showed me that Harrison Bader should not be in the lineup every day. He is an extra OF, pinch runner, and stud defensive replacement. Jose Martinez is best suited as a bench bat with rare starts in the field.
So, I have basically said that none of the 3 regular OF’s from 2019 should be back as starters in 2020.
I’m buying in on Lane Thomas. Thomas has done nothing but improve since joining the Cardinals organization in 2017. He has power, speed and is a good defender in CF. Randy Arozarena should also be receiving a long look for the CF job. Open up the competition for CF. At worst, you have Bader as the floor, with the others providing upside.
Dylan Carlson. The Cardinals top prospect just finished 2019 as the Texas League MVP. He then ripped up Memphis with a 1.099 OPS over an 18 game stretch to close out the year. He currently rates as the 24th best prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. He just turned 21 and has performed at every level despite being one of the youngest players in the league. I think he should have been up in August — change my mind — but he wasn’t. He should be opening the season with the big club and playing either LF or CF. Preferably LF with a true CF next to him, but if Ozuna returns, CF may be his temporary home.
Tyler O’Neill still intrigues me. His power is obvious and he has had solid stretches in the few times he has actually gotten an extend run as a starter. He has a lot of swing an miss in his game, and that is something that I believe gets compounded when he is coming off the bench as a pinch hitter. I want to see what happens when he is given a long leash. I think his only way into the lineup is if Ozuna leaves, though. Ideally, he plays on the big end of a 60/40 split with Fowler in RF.
What I Think They SHOULD Do:
Flip the script.
Let Ozuna walk and make Fowler and Bader role players. Open up the opportunity and let O’Neill, Carlson, Thomas, and Randy show whether they are legit future pieces or not. For once, actually find out what they have in these young outfielders, instead of blocking them with veterans and then trading them at low value.
Give me that athletic Carlson, Thomas/Randy, O’Neill outfield all day. I’m tired of every ball in the corner taking an hour to get back to the infield.
What I Think They WILL Do:
Let Ozuna walk and commit to Fowler as a starter in RF. They will open up a competition for the other spots, with the hope that Carlson seizes a spot. CF will Bader’s to lose, and he likely wins it because pitchers don’t game plan the same way in spring training games, so his offense will look good in Grapefruit League play (even if it is likely fool’s gold).
Offseason Need: Change.
The place to upgrade the offense is with change in the outfield, so alter the look. They have too many OF’s and need to learn what they have in them, so use them. Replace Ozuna with a composite of Carlson and O’Neill. Fowler and Bader are the baseline to repeat 2019, play the upside.
If they are able to acquire an OF that is better than Ozuna — most likely through trade — then that is great. I encourage that. Mostly, they need to treat the outfield like a blank canvas where all roles are at-large.
Thanks for reading.
Thanks to FanGraphs for the stats, Spotrac for the free agent tracker.
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