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Cardinals outfielders need to hit 'reset button' in 2021

Cardinals outfielders need to hit 'reset button' in 2021

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After being asked what he looked forward to in spring training, Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader talked Sunday about hitting the “reset button.”

Bader, speaking during a Zoom panel discussion of outfielders and coaches at the team’s Winter Warm-Up, said, “There’s a window in this game. Every season is a clean slate. You take everything you’ve learned from years past— good, bad, whatever it is — and you just use it as fuel.

“I’m excited to press the reset button and . . . just compete. That’s all there is to it.”

Other than making the expanded playoffs, there weren’t many areas of their game that the Cardinals were satisfied with last season. That goes from their 18-day coronavirus quarantine to playing a “million doubleheaders,” as left fielder Tyler O’Neill put it, to their .234 team batting average (11th in the National League) to their .694 OPS (14th in the league).

The good news was that the Cardinals’ .234 team average led all NL Central Division teams, which brought up the final five teams in the league statistics as Milwaukee batted .223, Chicago and Pittsburgh .220 and Cincinnati .212. All but Pittsburgh somehow made the playoffs.

The Cardinals’ outfield was particularly ineffective. Bader ranked 30th in outfielders’ OPS (.779) and Dexter Fowler was 42nd (.706). Gold Glover Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson were 61st and 62nd, respectively, and Lane Thomas was 83rd, with none of the trio batting above .200.

Given that Tommy Edman, the nominal second baseman, started 19 games in the outfield and that the Cardinals as of yet have made no additions to their club at the major-league level, all but 34 1/3 innings played in the outfield last season by departed Rangel Ravelo still are represented on the club.

Not that Bader necessarily meant the term in this fashion, but a “reset” certainly would be in order.

Hitting coach Jeff Albert, while not offering alibis, noted that the practice schedules last year often were disrupted by the coronavirus protocols mandated by Major League Baseball as everyone dealt with the virus.

“One thing that I really appreciated about our group was that there aren’t excuse makers,” said Albert, who will be starting his third season as the club’s lead hitting coach. “There aren’t guys who are complaining. We have a very solution-based group. But we had one (batting) cage taken away and put on a main concourse. We had to individualize time slots. We could only have a few guys in the cage at a time, so there were a bunch of constraints that we had.

“But this group really took ownership of what they were doing and how they were doing it.”

Until they get to Jupiter, Florida, next month, Albert said a number of players have been employing the WIN Reality virtual baseball concept at home.

“Anything that we can do to work on pitch recognition and plate discipline,” said Albert, “hopefully helps us take a step in the right direction.”

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals’ outfielders mostly were exemplary. O’Neill earned a Gold Glove, Bader was a strong candidate for one, Carlson held his own at three positions and Fowler continued to become more comfortable in right field. This, despite the fact that outfielders took few fly balls before a game because there often was no batting practice on the field.

Coach Willie McGee, who is planning on returning to the dugout this season after going back to California last summer when he didn’t feel comfortable relative to his health during the pandemic, said every Cardinals outfielder could play left, center and right fields “and I’ve never been around a group like that, even in my playing days with the Yankees’ (farm system) and all the way up. I’ve never been around so many multi-skilled outfielders on a club.

“We’re very fortunate to have this much ability . . . and to have guys that can just play ‘lights out.’ It’s fun watching them and they’re good students. They listen but they’ll have questions if I don’t come at them right, especially Dex,” McGee said, smiling.

McGee said he especially is looking forward this spring to “growing these outfielders and taking them to the next level — if there is a next level. If there is, we’re going to find it.”

One of the outfielders who had just a sniff of big-league action in 2020 was Justin Williams, who holds some value because he is a lefthanded hitter and possesses a strong, right-field arm. Williams, who also played football and basketball in his youth, said he chose his current lot for an unusual reason.

“The constant failure,” Williams said. “The constant search for success that made me drop everything else and just play baseball.”

Baseball’s “failure” rate is such that even the best hitters fail about seven times out of 10. Failing eight times out of 10, as the Cardinals’ outfielders roughly did last year, isn’t likely to be considered acceptable.

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