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BenFred: Cardinals return to Plan A in outfield experiment, with encouraging results

BenFred: Cardinals return to Plan A in outfield experiment, with encouraging results

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For the second time in this month-old season, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak encountered a circumstance that stirred memories of a trade not made.

The first came in one of just two losses his team’s last 11 games, when Phillies starter Zack Wheeler burned through the Cardinals’ lineup while surrendering just one run in eight innings.

The second came when the Mets, Wheeler’s old team, arrived at Busch Stadium on Monday for the start of this homestand.

Had the Cardinals followed through on a trade that would have picked up Wheeler when the Mets were willing to move him as a trade-deadline rental in 2019, there would have been nothing stopping him from leaving via free agency and signing on with the Phillies or some other club after the 2019 postseason.

What would have been guaranteed, though, is that the Cardinals would have had to give up either Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill (and perhaps a prospect or two) to make the win-then move happen. Revisiting the decision, Mozeliak said Monday he remains glad the Cardinals and Mets stopped short, and not just because Wheeler would have been little help to the hitting-challenged Cardinals in their no-show appearance against the Nationals in the 2019 NLCS.

“A lot of the ways we try to build this team is about the future,” Mozeliak said. “When you are looking at those types of players, that have a very large upside, and they’re young, and they’re just a bit unproven. But given where we were and where we wanted to go, it just seemed a little rich for what we were willing to do at that time. Obviously. Or we would have made the deal. That guy (Wheeler) has a big arm. Sitting 98 (mph) after seven (innings) was pretty impressive. But, certainly glad that deal didn’t happen. Glad Bader and O’Neill are on our club.”

Monday’s 6-5 Cardinals win underscored that last line.

A Cardinals outfield experiment that fizzled its way through the first month of the season is beginning to bubble with production now. All it seemed to need was the availability of three main ingredients all together, all at once. Plus perhaps a reminder that, sometimes, the future takes a little longer to develop than both fans and front offices prefer.

For the first time this season, the three outfielders the Cardinals planned on starting together to start the season started their first game together here at Busch. It took 13 home games and a month of the calendar, but there they were beneath the Arch, spaced out in the checkered grass: Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center and Dylan Carlson in right.

Carlson, hitting second, scored the game’s first run with a first-inning sacrifice fly.

Bader, batting seventh, smacked a solo homer 450 feet in the second inning to even the score after the Mets countered.

O’Neill, hitting sixth, tagged the third-inning RBI double that sent the Cardinals ahead for good.

“We were excited to see the outfield we are currently playing,” Mozeliak said before the win, which sounded like a diplomatic way of saying the thrusting of rookie Justin Williams into an oversized role, the repurposing of second baseman Tommy Edman as an outfielder again to try to spark Matt Carpenter, and the assigning of Carlson to center field was what those early-season moves so often looked like — a series of Plan Bs while Bader and O’Neill healed.

For every impressive exit velocity Williams registered, there seemed to be a defensive lapse, a baserunning whoopsie or something worse waiting, such as that time he seemed to forget he had two strikes instead of one. He’s in the fourth outfielder role now, and it makes sense for his powerful left-handed swing. Especially if Bader’s noted struggles against righties return.

Others accomplished less than Williams, muddying their futures in the process.

Lane Thomas’ downward trend cost him his best chance yet. Austin Dean could not unlock the playing time riddle before he was optioned to Class AAA. John Nogowski couldn’t convince the Cardinals he could pass the outfield test before he got hurt. These names might not be gone for good, but their window of immediate opportunity has shut. It’s back to Plan A.

“In terms of when a player goes down, our strategy has always been, next man up,” Mozeliak said. “If someone takes advantage of that, that can put you in a peculiar spot. Having said that, the way we sort of envisioned this outfield is exactly what you are seeing now.”

Carlson continues to build his National League rookie of the year case some suggested I prematurely mentioned when he started with a bang in Cincinnati. The switch-hitter leads NL rookies in hits and is top-three on his team in RBIs.

Bader has two home runs in his first four games back from the forearm injury that derailed him at the end of spring training. Most importantly, one of those homers came against a righthanded pitcher. Bader averaged .185 with a .309 on-base percentage and a .333 slugging percentage against them in 81 at-bats during last year’s pandemic-shortened season.

O’Neill, who went from looking like he had a revelation at the plate during spring training to looking lost when the games started counting, managed to pull off a hard reset during his downtime at the alternate site after his groin injury. The guy you see now is the one we watched hit the ball all over Jupiter, the guy who lets his power help him instead of sabotage him. He’s been unlucky with health and inconsistent with success. He’s earning the chance to prove he can overcome both.

“You’re starting to see what we really thought we might be seeing a year ago,” Mozeliak said. “He’s handling the offspeed pitches better. He’s staying within himself. He’s not trying to do too much. But he still has that, just legitimate, raw power. When he centers a ball, it goes a long way. It’s an exciting skillset that seems to be coming together at just the right time.”

O’Neill, Bader and Carlson have started only four games together this season, and just this one at home. The Cardinals are 4-0 in those games. It’s enough evidence to make you want to see more. A more telling deadline looms. Will Mozeliak be happy Bader and O’Neill are on his club at this trade deadline?

Time to find out.

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