When the Cardinals open their 2020 season in Cincinnati on March 26, five of the positions in the starting lineup seem certain, barring injury.
Yadier Molina will be catching, Paul Goldschmidt will be at first, Kolten Wong at second and Paul DeJong at shortstop. All are in the midst of multi-year contracts. Jack Flaherty, who will be in his third big-league season, will be pitching.
As you no doubt have deduced, three of the remaining four positions are outfield spots. The most recent outfield alignment the Cardinals started was, from left to right, Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader and Jose Martinez, on Tuesday night in the fourth and, regrettably for the Cardinals, final game of the National League Championship Series.
It is quite possible that none of those three will be in the starting outfield on March 26, but let’s examine the possibilities .
The need for change, considerable change, can be found in the regular-season statistics.
In left field, manned mostly by Ozuna, the Cardinals ranked 11th out of 15 teams in the league in batting average at .252 and eighth in OPS (on-base percentage, plus slugging) at .794.
Center field, patrolled mostly by Bader, was the least productive part of the Cardinals’ outfield, as those who played there ranked 13th in batting average at .230 and eighth in OPS at .717.
Right field, where Dexter Fowler played the most, wasn’t much better. Eleventh in batting average at .250 and 11th in OPS at .713.
The Cardinals tried some 20 different outfield combinations this year, and it might surprise you which trio had the best won-lost record for at least 10 games played together. That was, from left to right, the trio of Tyler O’Neill, Fowler and Martinez, which was 7-4.
O’Neill made only two starts after July 29 because of a left wrist strain and a minor league rehab. Manager Mike Shildt also pretty much rode the same lineup, with the exception of Matt Carpenter getting time in September, and O’Neill basically was invisible as the Cardinals stormed to the Central Division title.
In 141 at-bats for the season, O’Neill had five homers and 16 runs batted in and batted .262, playing acceptably in left field. So, basically, we don’t really know if he can play or not. But, when he has played, the team has won. The O’Neill-Bader-Fowler combination was 5-3.
As for the combinations involving Ozuna, the best was the closing combination of Ozuna-Bader-Martinez at 11-7.
The opening-day combination of Ozuna-Bader-Fowler was 32-29. An Ozuna-Fowler-Martinez trio played together 29 times but had a losing mark at 14-15. The Ozuna-Fowler-Tommy Edman combo was 8-6.
Altogether, the Cardinals had nine different players start games in the outfield. That number does not include first baseman Rangel Ravelo, who played some left field at Memphis; right fielder Adolis Garcia, who hit 32 homers at Memphis; and switch-hitting Dylan Carlson, the Texas League Player of the Year who also starred in a late promotion to Memphis. It must be noted that Garcia also had a horrendous strikeout-walk ratio of 159-22.
Of the aforementioned players, there is not a true lefthanded-hitting player in the bunch, although Fowler and Edman are switch-hitters like Carlson. The Cardinals need a lefthanded hitter, either at third base if they have given up on Carpenter, or in the outfield, but a switch-hitter with power like Carlson could mitigate that deficiency somewhat.
Here is a look at the Cardinals’ current outfield and the prospects for those players being here next year:
A true cleanup hitter who delivered 29 homers and 89 runs batted in while missing 5½ weeks with a hand injury but also went 12 for 100 in one late-season stretch and finished with a .243 batting average. He burst out in the division series but wasn’t really a factor offensively in the championship series although he had a defensive issue or two. He will be a free agent.
The Cardinals no doubt will extend him a qualifying offer for one year, which will be $17.8 million, so they can receive a high draft pick if they lose him to another team. But would they offer him a long-term deal? He is coming up on 29 years old so should have some prime years left.
The Cardinals clearly need a reliable cleanup man behind Goldschmidt, and for the most part Ozuna was that. The rap is that the front office is concerned that he didn’t work hard enough last offseason after belated shoulder surgery and consequently might wonder about his potential work ethic if given a long-term deal. Also, there was that dropoff at the end of the year. He may not be back.
Never really did seem to buy into the Cardinals’ hitting philosophy, perhaps concerned more with launch angles. Can’t hit .205 and maintain a regular job no matter how many starry defensive plays he makes. He doesn’t necessarily figure as a regular — at least for now.
Good hit, no field. One of the best pinch hitters, statistically, of all time. He’ll be here and could play once in a while when it’s doubtful he would have too many chances in the field. Like Monday, when he had none. Not like Tuesday, when he hesitated in approaching the first ball hit in his area and it dropped at his feet in the seven-run Washington first inning.
Probably better suited to corner outfielding in right, rather than in center, where it might have taken a lot of him at age 33 to patrol the extra area. Batted just .183 in September and was worse in the postseason, getting only two hits in 33 at-bats (.061) and no hits in the NLCS. Probably best served as a fourth outfielder but who could play a lot as a switch-hitter. He is one of the few on the team who can cadge a walk.
He will play somewhere, whether it’s right field, where he made several good plays in the playoffs, or at third base, where he made several other good plays. Turned up in center fielder for the first time when Shildt began running low on players in the last game, and the first ball in the eighth inning was hit to deep center by Ryan Zimmerman, where Edman retreated to make an easy catch.
He had three hits in his first spring training game and then got hurt. After coming back from Memphis for the third time, he was batting .316 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 38 at-bats and then was hit in the right hand by a pitch. He would have played plenty in the playoffs, either in center or as a late-game fill-in because he appears to be a strong defender. Could be a regular next year, although 38 at-bats isn’t much to go on.
He had a spectacular year at Springfield and Memphis but had only 20 at-bats with the Cardinals. He hit .300 and stole three bases besides swiping another in the championship series. The organization thought enough of him to put him on the postseason roster because of his speed and ability to play all three outfield positions. But he received little shot offensively. Should get a long look in the spring and could stick as extra outfielder.
The Cardinals were 3-0 when he started in left field, with Fowler and Martinez as the other outfielders. He plays most of the infield positions, too, can hit and can run. Probably needs to be used more next year off the bench.
Probably trade bait, but the club wins more often than not when he plays and it’s hard to dismiss that. The rub, though, is that just when he starts playing well, he gets hurt. And he gets hurt a lot.
We won’t be having this question next year at this time. Carlson will be a big-league regular by then and likely far before that. Is he a regular on March 26? TBD.