Can the St. Louis Cardinals survive an awful offensive outfield?

There’s a reason the St. Louis Cardinals outfielders are batting at the bottom of the order…

The St. Louis Cardinals have a bad-hitting outfield. Historically bad. Who ever heard of outfielders batting seventh, eighth, and ninth in the order? That’s what occurred during the team’s first four games, with Dexter Fowler hitting seventh, Tyler O’Neill eighth, and Harrison Bader ninth. In Games 18 and 19, it was Fowler, rookie Dylan Carlson and Bader batting seventh, eighth and ninth against the Kansas City Royals.

Is it too early to bail on this baleful outfield? Sure. Carlson, hitting just .180 through 15 games, is just 21 and loaded with potential. Bader, 26, is hitting just .243 but has a .945 OPS. Fowler, 34, is hitting .260 through his first 16 games, which isn’t bad. O’Neill, 25, is hitting .154 with a .656 OPS, which is pretty awful, but he’s only had 64 plate appearances.

The Cardinals have won four of their last five through Wednesday night and have closed to within two games of the Cubs in the NL Central. This is a feel-good time for Redbird fans. But can this team continue to compete with so little production from their outfielders?

In their 11 World Series championship seasons, the Cards just once had an outfielder bat as low as seventh in the order, and that was back in 1934 when Ernie Orsatti hit two spots before the pitcher.

During the 2011 championship season, Jon Jay mostly batted second, Matt Holliday cleanup, and Lance Berkman fifth. In 2006, when the Cards won their 10th title, Chris Duncan hit second, Jim Edmonds cleanup and fifth and Juan Encarnacion fifth and sixth. The 1982 champs had Lonnie Smith at leadoff, George Hendrick at cleanup and rookie Willie McGee in the sixth spot.

Yes, the game has changed. The current Redbirds have a shortstop, Paul DeJong, who hit 30 homers a year ago. Second baseman Kolten Wong had the third-highest OPS (.784) on that 2019 team. Many of today’s teams have good batsmen, even sluggers, at traditionally weak-hitting positions, so it’s not unusual to see an outfielder or two shoved farther back in the lineup. But to have all three outfielders relegated to the bottom of the starting nine is troubling.

Manager Mike Shildt has good reason for batting his outfielders late in the lineup. A year ago, Fowler, O’Neill, and Bader had a combined WAR of just 3.8, which was less than the individual WARs of infielders Tommy Edman (3.9), Wong (5.2) and Paul DeJong (5.3). And most of that outfield WAR was generated by center fielder Bader (2.1), who hit a pathetic .205 with a .680 OPS but generated a 1.5 defensive WAR.

Right now Bader, who usually bats ninth, is the best all-around Redbird outfielder, but don’t expect a lot of heavy-hitting from the fourth-year pro. He’s just a .236 batter over his first 970 MLB plate appearances and strikes out three times more than he walks. In theory, he could cut down on the Ks, draw some more walks, and be more than just a defensive specialist, but don’t count on it.

Three years ago, Redbird fans kept waiting for 25-year-old Randall Grichuk to make more contact and draw more walks, but it never happened. Many players get incrementally better after age 25, but few reinvent themselves. If you’re a low-walk, high-strikeout player after nearly 1,000 PAs, you’re likely to stay that way.

Which brings us to O’Neill, who has even more of a Grichuk-like strikeout profile. In four St. Louis seasons, Grichuk compiled a 5.1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Through two-plus seasons, O’Neill has a 5.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That is more disturbing than his .245 career BA or .303 OBP. It’s hard to make an MLB living as an outfielder who doesn’t walk and strikes out constantly, although it’s possible. Right fielder Tony Armas, who played with the A’s, Red Sox and Angels from 1976-89, had a 4.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio but twice led the AL in home runs.

While Fowler has always been patient at the plate, his rising strikeout totals are concerning. For his career, he has averaged one strikeout for every 4.5 plate appearances, but last year he whiffed once every four times at bat. His fielding has also diminished. The fourth-highest-paid player on the Cardinals would likely ride the bench if the team had more promising outfield options.

As for Carlson, he could be outstanding someday, and that day could be soon. It makes sense to start him now because of his potential and because the alternatives are less than scintillating. But don’t expect too much too early. He’s just a kid.

The Cardinals could sure use Marcell Ozuna right now. Last year’s starting left-fielder, who signed with the Braves over the offseason, had a .936 OPS through 30 games. Bader had compiled a .945 OPS through 16 games but the other St. Louis outfielders were at .727 (Fowler), .656 (O’Neill) and .535 (Carlson) through Wednesday night.

Next: Jack Flaherty and Dexter Fowler take a stand

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Can a baseball team win without much hitting from its outfielders? Maybe, if the pitching is outstanding and/or the infielders hit like demons. But right now, the Redbirds need a boost, maybe a big boost, from their outfield trio to be a legitimate title contender.

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