St. Louis Cardinals: Where Does Harrison Bader Fit Into Team’s Future Plans?

Nov 5, 2016; Surprise, AZ, USA; West outfielder Harrison Bader of the St Louis Cardinals during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2016; Surprise, AZ, USA; West outfielder Harrison Bader of the St Louis Cardinals during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

In his first at-bat of 2017 Spring Training, St. Louis Cardinals prospect Harrison Bader made a strong impression with a sixth-inning, solo home run.

Harrison Bader, a Florida Gators alum who participated in the Arizona Fall League in the offseason, was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 MLB draft.

According to the 2017 MLB Pipeline rankings, Bader comes into the season as the Cardinals fifth-best prospect. It’s a strong recognition for a player who has worked his way up to the Memphis Redbirds, the organization’s AAA-affiliate, less than two years removed from college.

As the 22-year old continues to build hype with Spring Training opportunities, one challenge to consider is that he has only played in the outfield since college. Such a circumstance may have expedited his journey to the big leagues in the past, but the Cardinals have projected starting outfielders Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all under contract until at least 2021.

This arrangement puts the St. Louis Cardinals and Bader in a mutually-tough situation, one through which the team may soon make several tough decisions regarding the coveted prospect’s development.

Coming out of Spring Training, the likely scenario would be for Bader to start the season in the minors. Tommy Pham is nearly certain to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, and the team is experimenting with more experienced minor leaguers in Jordan Schafer and Jose Martinez to see if either could offer seasonal depth past the dirt diamond.

Initially, this plan could work in Bader’s favor as well, allowing him to work on areas of his game that may need long-term improvement. For instance, while compiling a .267/.335/.452 hitting line between two minor league affiliates last year, Bader struck out in nearly twenty-eight percent of his minor league at-bats last season.

Part of this trend could result in building more power and speed, as Bader was one of only two Cardinals minor leaguers to compile double-digit home runs and steals last year. However, his career minors walk ratio, nearly fifteen plate appearances per free pass, shows he still may need time to develop stronger plate discipline.

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Once the organization notices these improvements, the question becomes how can Bader contribute at a big-league level. Unless an immediate opportunity for starting time opens through an injury or prolonged slump of a starter, the Bronxville native would likely see a gradual transition into action that starts with base running and defensive specialist roles.

This breeding process has certainly helped some players find identities in recent history. Most recently, Jeremy Hazelbaker revitalized his career with a team-leading eleven pinch-hits in 2016. Former touted prospects like Allen Craig have also shown the ability to contribute with defensive versatility en route to World Series runs.

Finding some balance in between would be an ideal situation when Bader’s big league rookie campaign may come. It’s hard to tell if that time will come in 2017, and to an extent even harder to determine if it comes with the St. Louis Cardinals after all.

When the trading deadline comes around mid-season, St. Louis may be in position to make an upgrade. Not necessarily with the intent to move prospects, but more realistically to address organizational needs that could increase the Cardinals’ likelihood of a sixth postseason bid in seven years.

While St. Louis carries the pedigree to promote homegrown talent, the organization is no stranger to moving prospects either. The team has dealt minor leaguers in the likes of Rob Kaminsky and Charlie Tilson before recent deadlines, and opponents could request a prospect like Bader for whoever the Cardinals may be scouting.

Next: St. Louis Cardinals: Reviving Daniel Bard's Career

The route to the big leagues may hold uncertainties for Harrison Bader at the moment. However,  Spring Training offers an outlet through which he can continue to make an impression and may force St. Louis to examine the future at outfield sooner rather than later.