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To say that the Redbird Outfield is in a state of flux is an understatement. It has been that way since 2013. Underperforming players and constant lineup switches have caused much concern among Cardinal Nation.
The Cardinals have always had a reputation for excellent outfield play with Pepper Martin, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Bake McBride, Willie McGee, Bernard Gilkey, Vince Coleman, Matt Holiday, and Jimmy Edmonds, to name a few.
There have also been some great combinations as well. Musial, Slaughter and Terry Moore in 1948-1949. Brock, McBride, and Reggie Smith in 1974-1975 (the all .300 hitting outfield both years). 1985-1986 saw McGee, Coleman, and Andy VanSlyke. The 1993-1994 trio of Gilkey, Ray Lankford, and Marc Whiten was terrific. In 1998 Ron Gant, Brian Jordan, and Lankford combined for 82 HRs and 253 RBIs. Then in 2001-2002, Edmonds, Lankford, and JD Drew were pretty good together.
Where are we, and how did we get here?
The last reasonably solid outfield we had was probably the 2013 combo of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Jon Jay. In 2014 we had some promising youngsters with Peter Bourjos, Tommy Pham, and Oscar Taveras. The regulars were Holliday, Jay, and Allen Craig.
The tragic death of Oscar Taveras in the off-season left St Louis scrambling. In 2015 They quickly picked up Jason Hayward from Atlanta, but Holliday showed his age, and Bourjos was pretty much a sleepwalker. In Pham, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk, the trio of youngsters did their best to shore up the outfield and showed a ray of hope.
In 2016 Matt Holliday was back to form, and Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty seemed to be coming along. Supported by Tommy Pham and Jeremy Hazelbaker, the outfield looked to be in good hands. A year later, Holliday was gone, and the Cardinals brought in Dexter Fowler. While he and Pham had good years, Piscotty was a hot mess. Worrying about his mom suffering from ALS took an emotional toll that carried onto the field. Grichuk was relied on to fill in the gap, but it was not enough.
2018 saw the addition of Marcel Ozuna and the emergence of Harrison Bader. Ozuna had a so-so season considering the year before he was in the stratosphere. Pham struggled and was traded. Fowler had his worst season ever while battling depression.
The play of Harrison Bader and Tyler O'Neill was a shot in the arm, to be sure. 2019 Ozuna was more like his former self until he was out for a month with a broken hand. Dexter Fowler bounced back somewhat but was still lacking. Then there was Harrison Bader, who hit the sophomore slump from hell. Lane Thomas stepped up, and in 38 ABs, he had a .316/.409/.684 slash with 4 HRs and 12 RBIs, then a fractured wrist ended his season.
Randy Arozarena was next up and showed real promise in a handful of at-bats. That offseason, Ozuna turned down a qualifying offer, and Arozarena was traded along with Jose Martinez. This left the outfield up to Tyler O'Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dexter Fowler with Lane Thomas and the young hot prospect Dylan Carlson. Then in the middle of Spring Training, COVID-19 reared its ugly head.
All activity was ceased, which was unfortunate as we were starting to see good looks at Carlson and Thomas. Fowler and Bader had decent springs. When the season did start, it was only a week before things were halted for the Cardinals. Once they started again, they played an exhausting schedule with eleven doubleheaders in one month.
Lane Thomas caught a case of Covid and never did return to form. After a horrendous July (.091/.231/.182), Harrison Bader bounced back to hit .235 in August and .246 in Sept/Oct. His BABIP was .317 against LHP and slashed .360/.429/.800. From the other side, however, he hit .185/.309/.333 against RHP.
Fowler started well in July (.250/.294/.438), got hot in August (.286/.364/.510), then cooled way down in Sept and Oct (.120/.241/.120).
Carlson had a rough start going .176/.233/.265 in Aug, coming back with a .238/.283/.524 Sept/Oct. In his last 11 games, he hit .286/.333/.629 with 2 Hrs and 11 RBI.
Tyler O'Neill‘s 2020 was his worst year as a Cardinal, slashing a paltry .173/.261/.360. However, in approximately the same amount of ABs in 2020 (141) as in 2019 (129), his strikeout total dropped from 53 to 43, and his walks increased from 10 to 15. This should come as no surprise as he did a similar thing last year, dropping his strikeout total from 57 to 53 and increasing walks from 7 to 10. In other words, he is trending in the right direction.
So what does it mean for 2021?
First, Dexter Fowler is gone after being traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Since the Cardinals are paying most of his remaining 1-year contract, this is not a salary dump. It is a roster clearing move. It’s the only outfield move that made sense. The other four outfielders are all either arbitration-eligible or pre-arb, which means that the team has more years of control and more options than with a guy in his contract's final year. Especially when it comes to Thomas and Carlson, all four youngsters have shown some promise and have at least some time before free agency (Bader 2024, O'Neill 2025, Thomas 2026, and Carlson 2027).
Second, it means that unless there is just a can't miss deal out there, we will be looking at a youth movement in the outfield much like we have seen in the pitching staff.
Third, with the trade for Nolan Arenado, a BIG BAT to add to Goldschmidt is now there so St. Louis can look at giving the youngsters the proper opportunity to excel. If I were to pencil in a lineup, I would have to say, LF O'Neill, CF Bader, and RF Carlson, with Lance Thomas as the 4th outfielder. Also, you have guys like Austin Dean and Justin Williams that can get a shot as well. In 2020 Tommy Edman spent time in the outfield as well, but with the departure of Kolten Wong, Edman is the new second baseman and will not see any outfield time.
What about getting a seasoned bat to add to the young guns?
Adding an outfielder at this point is unless. It would only reverse the situation you created with the Fowler trade. As far as free agents go, guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Josh Reddick, and Brett Gardner are all on the backside of 34. Then the next tier down would be Jackie Bradley Jr., Johnathan Villar, and Nomar Mazara. None would be considered someone to build around.
However, Mazara is a lefthanded bat with a .259/.318/.426 slash line and can give you 20 HRs with about 80 RBIs. He is 25 and would fit in with the youth and has five years of MLB experience. He would come with a $3-$5M per year deal. He also is a right fielder who is ideally where Dylan Carlson will be playing.
Anyone we get at this point would have to be a significant upgrade, such as we got with the Arenado trade. However, after that little bit of highway robbery, I think other teams will be playing it close to the vest with Mozeliak and company.
What can these kids do? What should we expect?
Now we come to the crux of most of the angst in Cardinal fandom. First, I would caution against setting a high bar. Not saying that the kids can't play to a high level, but we have to realize the one with the most MLB experience is Harrison Bader. So let's start with the "old" guy.
Harrison Bader - There were high hopes when he came out of AAA after hitting .283/.347/.469 and driving in 55 runs. His Strikeout rate was about 27%. If we would have seen those numbers with the big club, I don't think fans would mind. With an MLB strikeout rate of over 33%, a lifetime slash of .234/.322/.399, and only 97 RBIs in 1050 PAs, it is hard to be positive. But there is his Gold Glove worthy defense, and if enough offense can be found, then he might have a spot. No doubt he will be pushed by Thomas and Williams for a starting job. He struggles against RHP, so If Williams or Thomas can excel there, he could be a platoon guy/late-inning defensive replacement.
Tyler O'Neill needs more consistent at-bats. He has shown big-time power. And at least in 2018 and ‘19, a decent average in the .250-.260 range. His bug-a-boo was the K-rate in 2018. It was 43.8%. It dropped to 37.5% in 2019 and down to 30.9% last year. So if anything, he is trending the right way. His 2020 slash line of .173/.261/.360 is not indicative of what he can do. He made contact on balls that he probably should have taken in his desire to put more bat on the ball instead of swing and miss. I think you will see him make better contact in 2021, plus he can play defense. He is as good in LF defensively as Bader is in CF and has the Gold Glove to back it up. I don't think the organization is ready to give up on him, and by all rights, they shouldn't
Lane Thomas- It’s no secret I LOVE this guy. Fully healthy, I expect him to take off as he did in 2019 when he slashed .316/.409/.684 with 4 HRs and 12 RBIs in just 44 PAs over 34 games. He is good with the leather and has speed with a better than average arm. Coming up in the Toronto organization, he was primarily a center fielder and played some second and third base. After moving to the Cardinals, it has been all outfield, with center field being the focus. He has good pop in his bat, probably the 20ish HR range. Like Bader, though, Thomas has issues with RHP, something that if he can get better at, his chances are very good in securing playing time.
Still, time left for the landscape to change, but to use an MLB phrase from 2019, let the kids play!