PITTSBURGH — The Cardinals spent the last several years clearing the way for three earmarked outfielders to emerge this season as everyday outfielders and offensive answers only to find themselves late this season, due to injury and performance, back where they began, with a rotating cast and questions.
That’s not likely to change in the playoffs.
Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill, a two-time Gold Glove winner at that position, has not made the strides necessary so far this week to prove his health and be on the active roster for Friday’s postseason opener at Busch Stadium. Out for almost a month with a Grade 1 tear of his hamstring, O’Neill has yet to make the quick twitch, sharp burst moves required in the outfield or out of the batter’s box, and the Cardinals believe the calendar offers little room for his return by Friday morning’s deadline for a wild-card series roster.
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“We would need him to play the field and feel confident enough to do it well and it would be unfair to do it if he’s not able to be explosive,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “That’s part of his game. Runway is getting closer.”
That leaves the Cardinals on the eve of the postseason where they’ve spent so much of the season — swapping and switching and rotating outfielders for the trio that starts, and rarely is that the trio that finishes.
The Cardinals started rookie Alec Burleson in left, Dylan Carlson in center, and Lars Nootbaar in right field to open Tuesday’s game. By the third inning, Ben DeLuzio had taken over in center field and nudged Nootbaar and Carlson to new corners. The opening three was the 41st different arrangement used by the Cardinals this season, according to research by historian Tom Orf.
Seven different players have made at least 30 starts in the outfield.
Only one, Carlson, has made more than 90.
“We’ve mixed and matched as best we’ve felt possible as far as just matchups and combinations of that opportunity, rest, all of the above,” Marmol said. “And given ourselves the best shot to score runs and save runs late, but it’s rotated quite a bit. It’s changed quite a bit.”
And despite those changes and the prolonged slumps and injuries of advertised starters, the Cardinals have maintained above-average production, in total, from the outfield. The outfield as a group has hit .245 with a .319 on-base percentage, a .403 slugging percentage and a .722 OPS. Those all rank in the middle third and ahead of the average production for outfielders. The Cardinals’ outfielders’ .722 OPS combined ranks 11th in the majors, according to FanGraphs.com, and their 107 Weighted Runs Created ranks ninth, with 100 being average.
The Cardinals planned to open the season with O’Neill in left, Carlson in right, and Gold Glove-winner Harrison Bader in center. O’Neill has been limited by injuries to 87 starts. Bader made 65 starts before an injury and then surprise trade to the New York Yankees. Nootbaar has emerged in the second half as the Cardinals’ most consistent outfielder with a .368 on-base percentage, a .861 OPS, and almost as many walks (41) as strikeouts (43) in his past 67 games.
Nootbaar’s ability to play all three outfield positions makes him the fixture and allows Marmol to move him and other pieces around based on the opponent, the opposing pitcher’s handedness, and the mix of pitches and movement on those pitches.
The matchups can get granular.
Marmol was asked if the decision might be simpler. With a best-of-three series at Busch Stadium, is the choice siding with the best outfield defense for covering the wide expanse as well as the Arch carved in the grass?
“You can’t win zero-zero,” Marmol said. “So it depends. We’ve chosen offense over defense at times this year. Our offense has produced at a good level. So, yeah, it’s a really good conversation, one that I’m not talking in circles. I don’t know yet. We’re going to take the next couple of days to really figure out what it needs to look like.”
Arenado feels ‘a lot better’
While taking groundballs Monday afternoon, Nolan Arenado “felt a little grab” in his quadriceps muscle and opted not to press it because of the cold weather. Arenado missed a second consecutive game Tuesday, though his manager stressed that if the Cardinals were playing Game 1 of a playoff series, Arenado would be in the lineup and batting cleanup. Arenado continued to take batting practice Tuesday, and he’ll be a game-time decision to start in the regular season finale Wednesday afternoon.
Arenado called his absence from the lineup “completely precautionary” and that he “woke up feeling a lot better” on Tuesday.
Final farewell gifts
Before Tuesday’s game, the Pittsburgh Pirates presented retiring Cardinals greats Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina with two of the bases they’ve circled so often at PNC Park. Pujols, who has more home runs at the riverside ballpark than any active Pirate, and Molina, who made his big-league debut in Pittsburgh, were gifted official bases on which a local artist had painted their likenesses. Each painting also includes the Clemente Bridge.
The Pirates had former starter Oliver Perez, the first pitcher to face Molina in the majors, present the gift to the longtime Cardinals catcher. All-Star first baseman Sean Casey presented Pujols with the base. Members of the Clemente family were also present.
Throughout the second half of the season, opposing teams often presented Molina and Pujols with gifts during their final visits to ballparks. The Cardinals received number placards from the hand-operated scoreboards at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Coors Field. They received stadium seats at Nationals Park, Georgia peaches in Atlanta, embroidered golf bags at Dodger Stadium, donations to their charities from Milwaukee and the Mets, and personalized surfboards from San Diego.
Pujols said he’s thinking about putting together a public display of the items and the awards he’s won through his career. He devoured the peaches in a few days, though.
The Cardinals entered Tuesday’s game with 64 errors as a team and on the brink of setting a new club record for the fewest in a single season. The previous low for a full season was 66 in 2019. … As far as advanced metrics go, the Cardinals are set to pull of a hat trick not seen in baseball since the 2011 Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals have three players with a Wins Above Replacement of at least 6.0: Paul Goldschmidt (7.9), Arenado (7.9), and Tommy Edman (6.3). The Red Sox had Dustin Pedroia (8.0), Jacoby Ellsbury (8.3), and Adrian Gonzalez (6.9). … In the third inning, Paul DeJong singled to center for the 500th base hit of his career.