Buster Olney of ESPN continued his top ten lists, completing each outfield position over the last three days. His rankings include St. Louis Cardinals at each outfield position.
The St. Louis Cardinals stated a goal to get more athletic and improve defensively this offseason. However, the only notable position player addition was Dexter Fowler. While this leaves questions on the infield, it should make the Cardinals outfield one of the best in the league, both offensively and defensively.
Buster Olney listed his ranking of the best players at each outfield position, including a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder in each. Following, I review his ranking of Randal Grichuk, Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty.
St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Randal Grichuk earned an honorable mention in Olney’s list (ESPN Insider) at his new position. Olney notes that this year could be a make-or-break season for the young player. While “the Cardinals have believed in his talent, his power and his speed,” Grichuk has struggled with inconsistencies since debuting in 2014.
These struggles continued in 2016, a season which saw Grichuk hit .240/.289/.480 and included two demotions to Memphis. However, owing to his power, Grichuk posted a 102 wRC+, which is slightly above average, despite such poor average and on-base numbers.
Due to his high strikeout rate and consequent reliance on a high BABIP and ISO, Grichuk is a streaky hitter. He has stretches where he looks like a great hitter. Following his return to the MLB in August, Grichuk hit for a 131 wRC+ through the end of the year.
He also has periods where he looks completely incompetent. In the twelve games preceding his second demotion to Memphis, he managed a negative 7 wRC+. Over 26 games before his first demotion to Memphis, he hit for a 67 wRC+ and was even worse in the second half of this stretch.
Defensively, Grichuk was slightly below average in his first season as the everyday center fielder. The acquisition of Fowler pushes Grichuk to full-time left field, and his defense in left should rate above average. The St. Louis Cardinals are certainly confident that this position change will improve the overall outfield defense.
Next, the St. Louis Cardinals newly-acquired Dexter Fowler ranks 7th in Olney’s list of top centerfielders (ESPN Insider). Olney comments on Fowler’s patience at the plate, as his 4.41 pitches per plate appearance ranked fourth highest among all qualified hitters last season. For reference, Matt Carpenter, lauded by Cardinals fans for his patience, ranked 15th in this category, seeing 4.21 pitches per plate appearance.
For his career, Fowler has been an extremely consistent hitter. He has posted a wRC+ of 106 or better every season since 2011. This is in large part thanks to high elite walk rate, which has never been lower than 11.3%. Additionally, he has stolen 11 or more bases in every full season of his career. His quality bat, on-base ability, and speed will help the Cardinals manufacture more runs without the long-ball in 2016.
Fowler posted a positive UZR for the first time over a full season in 2016. While many credit this to his deeper positioning last year, it was not far off Fowler’s recent defensive performance. In two of his three seasons prior to 2016, Fowler rated only slightly below average in centerfield. The exception was a terrible rating during his only season in Houston, noted for its unconventional outfield dimensions.
If Fowler can maintain essentially average defense in centerfield while being flanked by Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, the overall outfield defense will improve.
Lastly, Stephen Piscotty is ranked 8th among the best right fielders by Olney (ESPN Insider). Olney suggests that Piscotty might benefit most by hitting in front of Matt Carpenter in the St. Louis Cardinals lineup, presumably in the second spot of the order. His OPS from the two-spot was more than 100 points better than when he hit anywhere else.
However, it is more likely that Piscotty hits cleanup next year, the spot where he received his most plate appearances in 2016. While he might lack the tradition power associated with the position, his .372 career average with RISP should make him one of the Cardinals best run producers.
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Piscotty notched 85 RBI last season, which serves as a benchmark to clear in 2017. With Fowler and Carpenter ahead of him in the lineup, Piscotty will have plenty of opportunity to pass this milestone.
Defensively, Piscotty shows potential upside as a strong defender. His 9.9 RngR (range runs above average) ranked 3rd among seventeen qualified right fielders in 2016. Additionally, his 3.3 UZR ranked 9th among the same group. However, his arm rated worst among qualified right fielders in 2016 as runners repeatedly tested his arm and were successful.
The good news regarding Piscotty’s arm is that he owned the most improved throwing arm in 2016, according to Statcast, adding 7.7 MPH from 2015. If he can continue building his arm strength, the only question regarding his arm will be accuracy.
While the St. Louis Cardinals lack a star-caliber player in the outfield, they feature an above average player at each position. Fowler and Piscotty both have stable floors, while Grichuk arguably has the highest ceiling. Based on this balance, the Cardinals will have one of the top overall outfields in the MLB for 2017.