Things are up in the air and moving around in St. Louis – not in a Hindenberg kind of way, but it is unclear who will cover two outfield spots right now and that’s without considering the Nolan Arenado trade rumors. Most of their infield is stable – it’s a strength of the team – with Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Paul Goldschmidt covering three of the infield spots and three of the top four WAR spots for the St. Louis team in 2019. Tommy Edman mostly took over the third base spot and is the other guy in the top four for WAR from 2019, but could play the outfield if Matt Carpenter takes back third base in Spring Training. Since chaos can be fun, let’s explore the outfield possibilities for 2020 with the caveat that free agent moves (I’m looking at you Marcell Ozuna!) or a big trade could change everything.
Speaking of Marcell Ozuna, he is the 500 pound gorilla in the room, uh, outfield. The 29 year old slugging left fielder is still unsigned, but the noise in the media is that the Cardinals are still the most likely landing spot. Ozuna had what most would consider a down year with a wRC+ of 110, a WAR of 2.6, and a slash line of .243/.330/.474. Some interesting trends to consider – Ozuna swung at fewer pitches in 2019, hit the ball harder than ever, pulled the ball a lot more than in recent years, but had his lowest BABIP ever at .259 (career BABIP of .315). The low BABIP indicates that his batting average should rebound to around his career average of .273 with around 25 to 30 home runs (projections have him hitting 33 next year). Ozuna is a bit volatile with full season WAR numbers ranging from 1.5 to 5.0. That’s a median of around 2.7, which is about what you could expect unless he has one of those outlier years. He is a middle of the order bat and can feel like a superstar at times, but is probably just a really good regular if we are being realistic – possibly for another team. We will have to wait and see.
Center field is a glamorous spot in history where you get to watch Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Trout. The Cardinals have not historically had their best player in center field, although Curt Flood and Jim Edmonds were great players. Flood ranks ninth in WAR and Edmonds 17th for the Cards historically. Stan Musial and Enos “Country” Slaughter were primarily corner outfielders (ranked first and seventh respectively). Harrison Bader is the best bet to be the Cardinals guy in center in 2020 and, while he is fun to watch throw his body around and zip to and fro chasing down everything that flies through the air, 925 plate appearances say that dude might not hit enough to play everyday. Bader turns 26 early in the season and has one good offensive campaign (2018) and one sour one (2019). He strikes out too much (28.8% for his career) and although his walk rate climbed last year, there doesn’t seem to be enough power in his game to keep pitchers honest in spite of decent home run totals in the minors. He has been good for 12 homers in each of his two mostly full seasons but has averaged only 17 doubles in that same span for an ISO (isolated power) of .158 which is slightly below average. With his glove skills, the Cards would be happy if Bader could simply make fewer outs, get on base, and use his speed to turn some of those walks and singles into doubles by swiping a bag. He is 28 for 35 stealing bases in the majors (80% success rate) and his BABIP regressed quite a lot from 2018 where it was high (.358) to 2019 where it was quite low (.268) and one could reasonably expect it to fall somewhere in the middle. He slashed .205/.314/.366 last year “good” for a wRC+ of 81. His wRC+ in 2018 was 107 which is 7% above average so just a return to that would give the Cardinals a good starter in center field. If he can do something with the bat – really anything – that makes him even close to average, the Cardinals would be happy to leave him there for years to come. Bader was a Gold Glove finalist in 2019 and that is worth waiting another year for the bat to come around before turning him into a defensive replacement/fourth outfielder/Miami Marlin.
What is there that would buoy the spirits of St. Louis fans when they hear that Dexter Fowler might be the starting right fielder in 2020? Well, Fowler is still at least average with the bat as evidenced by his 103 wRC+ that was driven by his usual high walk rate (12.9% last year) and a bit of power (19 home runs). His defense drags him down to a WAR of 1.5 which is almost good enough to start in the majors on a good team, but not quite. The move from center to right should help defensively as the bar isn’t quite as high, although it is considerably higher for the bat. Fowler will turn 34 before the season, but should still be able to get close to his career slash line of .260/.359/.419 and be good for around 2.0 WAR if he experiences a positive regression in BABIP (2019: .290/Career: .327). It is clear that he isn’t worth his average annual salary of $16.5 million any more (that runs through 2021), but he can still be useful if used correctly. The Cards won’t be able to move Fowler’s contract so he will be with the team in some capacity and he will probably help more than he will hurt and maybe justify starting.
Keeping in mind that teams need to play three outfielders at a time, that Marcell Ozuna isn’t signed yet, and that Fowler and Bader aren’t locks to start, we still have potentially three starting spots to fill. Lane Thomas is an outfielder! Thomas received his first taste of major league pitching in 2019 and rather liked it. His numbers, while good, don’t represent his career minor league numbers so it would be wise to be cautious. Thomas boasts a career slash line of .252/.329/.421 in the minors, but has shown signs of coming into his power with 27 homers in 2018 and four long balls in 38 at bats in the majors last year. He is a center fielder and the scouts like his fielding just fine, so even if he doesn’t take someone’s starting spot, he would make a good fourth outfielder. Nothing really stands out with Thomas – good defense, speed, and arm with some raw power, but his hit tool is just ok. So if he can’t get to most of that raw power he seems like a fourth outfielder, albeit a pretty good one. He is 24 so some of that recent growth could be enough to turn him into a starter as soon as 2020.
If Tyler O’Neill gets to all of his raw power he will be one of those scary, yet frustrating, Randal Grichuk type hitters – a former Cardinal – with 30 plus homers and an average around .240. Projections have O’Neill hitting 22-24 homers with an average around .237 next season. He already has four seasons worth of minor league at bats and 140 homers, so around 35 a season – the power is quite real. His slash line of .271/.343/.529 doesn’t quite show his struggles to control the strike zone. In 293 major league plate appearances, the 24 year old has a walk rate of only 5.8% to go with a strikeout rate of 37.5%, which just doesn’t work. What that might mean is that O’Neill will have an OBP under .300, which in spite of his power makes him a fringe starter at best even if he is hitting 30 plus home runs a year – wait – you mean like Randal Grichuk?! For O’Neill to stick he has to get the K rate under 30% and the walk rate closer to 10% while keeping the power. If I had a dollar for every guy who needed to walk more and strike out less to make it… That said, if Ozuna leaves then it opens up left field for O’Neill to at least get a real shot to stick. With power like his, someone will give O’Neill a chance (like Randal Grichuk).
Tommy Edman opened some eyes last year. A sixth round pick and mainly a shortstop in the minors, Edman took the third base job away from the struggling Matt Carpenter. He did it gradually throughout the season because he hit and showed power and speed, with 11 homers and 15 steals in 349 plate appearances. Edman also played some outfield, which is why I am talking about him here – also because if the Cardinals trade for or sign a third baseman then Edman has nowhere to play on the infield. The speed isn’t a surprise, but the power is. Between two levels, Edman took the ball over the fence 18 times in 2019 – the first time he has reached double digits in his professional career. Edman is one of those players who seems to have pretty high BABIPs every season, so while there should be a little regression from his .346 BABIP of 2019, it isn’t likely to dip to .280 or anything. As much as I enjoy players like Edman, I don’t expect him to repeat his 123 wRC+ in spite of how hard he plays or how much he hustles. I hope I’m wrong because the world needs more players like Thomas Hyunsu Edman. I expect him to settle in as a 400 plate appearance utility guy in the mold of a Ben Zobrist, or a starter if the Cards don’t pull the trigger on a trade for a star third baseman (and Carpenter doesn’t experience a revival). If Edman starts, I would imagine he gets to 2.0 WAR based mostly on his glove and base running ability, but he could surprise and best his 3.2 WAR of 2019 if he continues to improve with the bat, drawing more walks so can get on base and use his above average speed. His minor league career slash line is .286/.353/.415 so it isn’t like he can’t hit. I could also imagine Edman taking over in right field and giving the Cardinals an improved outfield defense, but a few things have to happen for him to start in a corner outfield spot, like Ozuna signing elsewhere, a trade for a third baseman, and Dexter Fowler showing even more decline in Spring Training.
Probably the most exciting outfield prospect in the organization is also the youngest mentioned in this article. Dylan Carlson is only 21 but made it to triple-A last season after breaking out at double-A Springfield. While it is possible that Carlson could make the parent club out of Spring Training, it is more likely that the Cardinals would at least start his season at triple-A so Carlson could solidify his gains from his breakout season. They have plenty of options and are looking to compete in 2020, so they don’t need to push him after only 72 at bats in triple-A. Carlson will probably make it a tough decision for the team – his slash line at two stops last year was .292/.372/.542 with 26 homers and 20 steals thrown in. Carlson is probably a corner outfielder (who can play center) when he arrives, but he will be a good defender who has power, can run a bit, and controls the strike zone better than some of the other youngsters in this article. In the long term, Carlson is the pony upon which to lay your wagers.
Making a prediction about the starting outfield for the Cardinals at this point is just pulling stuff out of a hat, but here is a hat right here. I have Ozuna signing with the Cards and starting in left. I would imagine St. Louis wants to see if Bader can hit enough for them to run him out there in center every game and help out their pitching staff. I’d love to see one of the young guys start in right, but I expect Fowler to get the nod with Edman at third or getting starts at almost everywhere except catcher, first base, or pitcher. Lane Thomas would then be the 4th outfielder or take over for Bader if he hits his way back to the minors. I don’t think O’Neill will take the job away (and he has one minor league option left) from anyone so Fowler has to bomb and Ozuna has to sign elsewhere for him to make the opening day roster. Carlson is a dark horse for this season, but he opened some eyes in 2019 with his breakout and is the shiniest of shiny things moving forward. St. Louis cleared some of the logjam in the outfield this offseason but there are still a lot of moving parts that need a chance to show if they have value moving forward. Get your tickets to Spring Training so you can watch it all unfold before the season starts.