The St. Louis Cardinals need more production from their outfield. Heading into 2021, the only player who should be a lock is Dylan Carlson.
In 2020, the St. Louis Cardinals did not get much offensive production from their outfield. The outfield defense was phenomenal, but if there was any indicator of what the group contributed, the team’s outfield batted 7-8-9 most games.
Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals didn’t rank well when compared to other teams. By overall fWAR, the outfield defense did enough to put the Cardinals at 18th in the MLB, but by wRC+, the offense was 25th in the Majors. The only playoff team below the Cardinals were the Indians, and they were quickly dispatched by the Yankees in the Wild Card round.
Coming into the year, the Cardinals were committed to giving the young bats they had playing time to see what they could provide for the team. This really was focused on Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Harrison Bader. Dylan Carlson worked his way into the mix as well, with Dexter Fowler still keeping his spot in right field.
After all that, the entire group averaged just an 82 wRC+. While it may be unfair to say what I am about to say, I am still going to say it. The Cardinals can’t come into 2020 with this same outfield group. It would be unfair because of just a 60 game schedule on its own, but it’s even more unfair that the 60 game schedule over two months turned into 58 games with 53 of them coming in 44 days.
It’s not fair, but no outfielder should be set coming into 2021 other than Dylan Carlson.
Carlson came up after the 17-day COVID break and struggled mightily in his first stint with the club. Some of it had to do with him not getting any rest, but in his first 23 games (79 at-bats), Carlson batted just .162 with a .458 OPS. This led to him getting a quick 10-day reset at the Satellite Camp that was apparently just what the doctor ordered.
After his return, Carlson hit .278 with a .936 OPS in 12 games before the end of the season, finishing the year as the team’s cleanup hitter. Batting cleanup continued into the postseason where Carlson had four hits and four walks (only three strikeouts) in 14 plate appearances against the Padres.
Carlson’s overall line still doesn’t look good, but he proved after some struggle that he can get on a hot streak against MLB pitching. Carlson still has only played in 38 combined MLB games, so more struggles will likely happen at some point, but the 21-year-old showed enough to grab a starting outfield position for 2021.
Looking at everyone else in the outfield, the Cardinals have many paths they can take, even if some are more likely than others. Outside of Carlson, pretty much every outfielder could be traded, sent down, or started in 2021.
For Harrison Bader, I loved the pop he showed in 2020 with his .443 slugging percentage and overall offensive value with a 113 wRC+. The problem is that he still looked inept at times and that wRC+ was below 100 before the final series of the season. His defense was as good as ever, but if the offense doesn’t improve around him, Bader’s bat can’t hide out there.
We have no clue what the value is for a player like Bader, but I would bet the most likely option is to start him for 2021.
For Dexter Fowler, he had a great August, but then a terrible September brought down his season-long stat line. Fowler finished with a .233 average and just a .706 OPS. Heading into the final year of his contract at the age of 35 owed $16.5M, Fowler may be tough to move unless the team pays most of that.
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That is also a lot of money to pay a 4th outfielder, but Fowler can’t start if he is going to perform as he did in 2020. A trade isn’t out of the equation, but I’d expect Fowler gets the Jhonny Peralta treatment circa 2017. Peralta, also 35 and in the last year of his contract that year, was the starting shortstop out of the gate but was cut after 21 games when he batted just .204 with a .462 OPS.
I don’t see the Cardinals cutting Fowler, but I doubt they leave him with a large leash if he is named the starter in right field for 2021.
Tyler O’Neill led the Cardinals in homers with seven in 2020, but he hit just .173 with a 70 wRC+. He plays great defense and really did a lot to improve his approach at the plate, but ultimately, he didn’t perform. This leaves the window open for O’Neill to be traded (as much as I don’t want that to happen). O’Neill is stellar defensively in left field and is speedy as well.
I still believe he’s on the cusp of breaking out, but the team could certainly find a trade partner to take the slugger if they no longer see O’Neill as part of their long-term plans. The fact that O’Neill didn’t get a single postseason at-bat doesn’t bode well for his future here.
2020 was a bit of a lost season for Lane Thomas. After being part of the second group to contract COVID-19, Thomas appeared in just 18 games this year and didn’t do anything with his 40 at-bats (25 wRC+). I was personally never a huge Thomas fan, but at 25 he’s a bit old to stash in AAA. Thomas could be used as a cherry-on-top piece for a trade after his stellar 2019, but if not, he can’t be counted on for much more than a 4th-outfield role in 2021 at most.
The good thing for the Cardinals is that no matter what they decide to do, Carlson can play any outfield spot. That gives them a lot of room for creativity, it just depends on what other constraints they are working under.
There are plenty of outfielders available in free agency if the team decides to go that route. My favorite is Joc Pederson but we will see if the Cardinals dip their toes in that market at all. The outfield will be one of the biggest groups to watch for the Cardinals this winter.