The St. Louis Cardinals are going to be without the ease of the designated hitter very soon. How should the team best utilize all of their outfielders?
With Marcell Ozuna sidelined to the injury list for who knows how long because of two broken fingers, Tyler O’Neill was called up from AAA Memphis to take his roster spot on the St. Louis Cardinals and has received all the starts so far in left field.
However, when the Cardinals cease playing with the luxury of the designated hitter beginning Friday, they may have an outfield battle again. Which of the four outfielders will play the three outfield positions? The four candidates seem to be Tyler O’Neill, José Martinez, Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler.
If you ‘re wondering about Yairo Munoz, Lane Thomas, or trying out Tommy Edman in the outfield, I get it. But right now Munoz is installed at third base for the slump/injured Matt Carpenter (who is starting to conjure up imaginings of Allen Craig to worried fans). Edman and Thomas, the rookies, have done some neat things. Still, manager Mike Shildt has been sticking with “the four” and that is understandable for the experience they bring to a team only three games back of the division leaders.
Tyler O’Neil has not really blossomed yet in his still very young career to the full potential that everyone believes he has. It is tempting to install him in left field and hope that his hitting-a-home-run-off-of-a-tee power will finally kick in and fill the void of those 20 first-half home runs of Ozuna.
But major league baseballs are pitched and not hit off a tee. O’Neill is especially strike-out prone with a greater than 50% rate. This can be very frustrating to watch if you’re a fan, especially if it comes at the expense of benching the veteran former All-Star, Fowler, the fielding game-changer, Bader, or the guy who has led the Cardinals in batting average every year with the at-bats he’s been given, including this year, Martinez.
The only ready alternative that would enable manager Shildt to bench Tyler O’NeilI is to play José Martinez in left.
Fans may not be familiar with the concept of Martinez in Left because early in his Cardinals career he was tried at first base, and later, Ozuna owned leftfield. But, recall, that leftfield is the least-challenging of the three outfield positions. That is why you saw guys like Matt Holliday and Matt Adams there. Martinez has already played five games in left this year.
The fact that Martinez is a left-field option was confirmed by this writer in an online chat with STLtoday.com writer Derrick Goold. I asked the question several weeks ago, “if Ozuna got hurt, who would slide over to left-field among Martinez, Fowler and Bader”. He confirmed it would be José.
Fowler is currently only hitting .244, but his wRC+ is third on the team. Plus the Cardinals are generally interested in having Fowler’s fat contract “play out” and I respect that even if I may not like it. To paraphrase a line from old gangster movies, “the contract plays”.
Fowler certainly would not be hurting us in the outfield defensively, as does a Martinez. O’Neill’s fielding is still an open question (although he has good speed, some of his routes seem less than desirable).
Although Fowler has reverted to hitting slightly better from the right side again this year, with Carpenter out of the lineup, the Cards are down to one lefthander and it might be useful to turn the “pitcher around” sometimes. The Brewers and Cubs are much deeper with lefthanded bats in their starting nine.
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Although Bader has shown the potential to completely mash when he gets hot, he has spent time on the injured list in 2019, and his offensive stats – including his rate stats – are markedly below both Fowler’s and Martinez’. It is tempting to send him to the bench to see what O’Neill can do with the consistent playing time that has been lavished on Bader.
Yet somehow the fan feels like “all is well” when Bader is roaming the pastures of centerfield.
He makes tougher outs look routine. He covers large swaths of the outfield with the agility of a mosquito. He can make up for a lot of the apparent lethargy of right fielder Fowler and apparent inadequacy of new left fielder Martinez. (I would love to see a “derby” set up where a batter took BP against Bader as a lone outfielder and keep score of what percentage of the balls Bader reached).
At the end of the day, I think it is O’Neill who must sit on Friday and become the pinch-hitter. I know that will be disappointing to some because part of the idea of calling up O’Neill was to finally get him some MLB repetitions.
But this can change quickly. If anyone of the three slumps, offensively or defensively, O’Neill could be back in the starting lineup in a heartbeat. With greater than a half of the season gone and the team in the divisional hunt, St. Louis Cardinals fans and manager Shildt are in no mood to allow players to “find themselves”, either at the plate or with the glove.
Whichever outfield clicks in the next two weeks – if one can click – it could be a preview of the starting outfield for 2020 in case Ozuna is allowed to walk in his free agency year to the American League.