St. Louis Cardinals: Who will protect Paul Goldschmidt in 2020?

ATLANTA, GA OCTOBER 09: St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (46) watches batting practice prior to the start of the National League Division Series game 5 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves on October 9th, 2019 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA OCTOBER 09: St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (46) watches batting practice prior to the start of the National League Division Series game 5 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves on October 9th, 2019 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

As the St. Louis Cardinals approach Spring Training, a cloudy picture still exists on who will protect Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup for 2020.

The question being asked by fans, media members, bloggers, and on podcasts is “who will protect Paul Goldschmidt in the batting order in 2020?” Depending on your outlook for the 2020 version of the St. Louis Cardinals, the options could be many or few. Regardless, the picture gets cloudy the closer you look at the available options.

Will the Cardinals and Marcell Ozuna meet in the middle and bring his big bat back to St. Louis? Could Matt Carpenter regain his 2018 form and be the protection for Goldschmidt? Maybe it will be Paul DeJong if he could reduce his strikeouts. How about Dexter Fowler? Or maybe it could be one of the young outfielders on the roster like Tyler O’Neill. Finally, is there a looming trade being considered?

In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to podcasts and read articles and blogs on who might be the protection for Goldschmidt for 2020. Everyone has an opinion, but no one seems to have a clear answer.

First, let’s look at a couple of free agency and trade rumors and get those out of the way.

Rumors and more Rumors

When Marcell Ozuna rejected the Cardinals qualifying offer in November, I wasn’t surprised. Even though Ozuna had publicly stated he would like to return to the Cardinals, the front office didn’t seem to show any urgency in negotiating with the 29-year old outfielder. With Ozuna likely looking for at least a four-year deal, the wary Cardinals weren’t biting and seemed to be looking at other options currently on the roster.

However, as the offseason has progressed, Ozuna is still not signed and reports are the Cardinals may still be in play for the services of his right-handed bat. If the Dominican Republic native would be willing to sign a one or two-year deal, then John Mozeliak and company could be enticed to bring him back.

If the Cardinals decide to bring back Ozuna, then the debate about who will protect Paul Goldschmidt in the cleanup spot is over and done. After he has the most experience in this slot than anyone else on the current roster.

As I write this, the Nolan Arenado to St. Louis trade rumors are burning hot. If the Cardinals should make a deal and grab the 28-year old third baseman, then the debate on whether to bring back Ozuna is over. Additionally, we’ll also know who will protect Paul Goldschmidt.

However, I just don’t believe the rumors the Cardinals are seriously pursuing Arenado. I also don’t believe Marcell Ozuna will be back. He’s looking for a 4-5 year deal and the Cardinals aren’t the least bit interested in giving him one.

I think the protection for Goldschmidt in 2020 will come from someone currently on the roster. Here are my most likely candidates.

Dexter Fowler

First, let’s move on from Dexter Fowler hitting leadoff. Even though this is what the Cardinals signed him to do, he’s never going to be an effective leadoff man. Yes, it’s where his career and Cardinal experience sits, but it just isn’t working out for there for the 33-year old outfielder.

Without Ozuna, Fowler would have to be considered an option at the four-hole for the Cardinals. I know it’s a stretch, but still, he would be an option. After all, he has demonstrated some power in his career.

During 2017, Fowler hit 18 homers, had 64 RBIs with a .851 OPS and a 122 OPS+ in only 118 games. Meanwhile, in 2019, he hit 19 homers, had 67 RBIs with a .754 OPS and a 98 OPS+ in 150 games (let’s just forget about Fowler’s 2018 season).

Although with somewhat limited games at the cleanup spot, Fowler has a career slash line of .340/.444/.500 with 3 homers and 23 RBIs in 54 games. As a Cardinal, Fowler’s best year in the cleanup spot was in 2017 where he had 80 plate appearances, with only 1 homer and 15 RBIs. Nevertheless, he had a .990 OPS and a 145 OPS+. It’s a stretch, but Fowler could find himself in the cleanup spot. Please don’t let him be the best option.

Matt Carpenter

Whether you like it or not, the formerly beloved Matt Carpenter is an option minus a Marcell Ozuna. Any player who has hit over 20 homers four times in his career, with an OPS of .835 and an OPS+ of 126 would seem to be a candidate to protect Paul Goldschmidt.

The problem with Matt Carpenter is most of his production has come at the leadoff spot and not in the middle of the order. In fact, the 34-year-old left-handed bat has only played in seven games in his career where he hit in the fourth spot.

Carpenter seems to hit better either, further up in the lineup (leadoff) or in the 6th or 7th spot. He has an OPS of .864 in the leadoff spot and a .923 OPS in the 7th spot.

Of course, 2019 was a disaster for Matt Carpenter, which lowered his career numbers across the board. Nevertheless, the former 13th round draft pick would get consideration by Mike Shildt and company to bat behind Goldschmidt.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong would be the one most of us would like to see as the successor to Marcell Ozuna. Mainly because the 26-year-old right-handed bat has considerable experience hitting in the three and five-spot in the lineup. During his short three-year career with the Cardinals, he has hit 25, 19, and 30 homers, most of those coming when he has batted in the three or five-spot.

The problem with DeJong is after a stellar rookie season in 2017 where he hit a slash line of .285/.325/.532 with 25 homers and 65 RBIs in only 108 games, he has seen his offensive numbers drop significantly.

For instance, his OPS+ dropped from 121 in 2017 to 97 in 2019. He also seen his batting average go from .285 to .233, his OPS drop from .857 to .762, and his SLG from .532 to .444.

DeJong has also shown a much weaker second half vs first half in his three-year career. His batting average (.269 vs .236), OBP (.340 vs .300), SLG (.473 vs ..461), OPS ( .814 vs .762), and strikeouts (166 vs 230) reflect his second-half struggles.

Tyler O’Neill

The 24-year old O’Neill is many fans favorite to take over the cleanup spot, or at least get a fair chance at the job. That’s understandable, in his two-year career he has 14 homers, 39 RBIs and an OPS+ of 101 in only 121 games.

More from St Louis Cardinals News

The St. Louis Cardinals have used O’Neill in several batting spots in the lineup, but most of his experience has been in the fourth, fifth, and ninth positions. Thus far, he has had the most success hitting cleanup in his short and limited career.

The right-handed O’Neill has a slash line of .279/.295/.558 with 7 homers and 15 RBIs in 23 games at the four-hole. At the five-hole, he has a slash line of .256/.301/.385 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs in 23 games. In the ninth spot in the order, he has a slash line of .244/.320/.489 with 3 homers and 10 RBIs in 46 games.

Although O’Neill has the least experience between Fowler, Carpenter, and DeJong, he does have more of an upside than the other three. His build and power potential makes him the ideal cleanup man.

So who will protect Paul Goldschmidt?

I think on the current roster, the answer is Paul DeJong. Why? He has the most experience and success in hitting in the middle of the order, even though it’s based only on three years.

Also, since DeJong typically with his stronger first half of the season vs the second half, having him in the cleanup spot coming out of Spring Training may serve lineup the best. His batting average, SLG, OPS, and strikeouts in the first half, all seem to point toward this move.

Tyler O’Neill would be my second choice, but his experience just isn’t enough to give him the cleanup role. Even if he has a good Spring Training, I would still prefer putting O’Neill in the fifth spot to start the season.

As the season develops and if DeJong falters, then maybe look toward O’Neill or even someone else. Of course, there is always the trade deadline in July if needed to address the issue.

Infield Outs Above Average with Nolan Arenado. dark. Next

This picture for the middle of the order is cloudy going into Spring Training, but this is where it will have to be settled. I’m not entirely comfortable with these options, but I believe John Mozeliak and the front office would say differently.