The outfield is A-OK
Tyler O’Neill has scuffled and dealt with injury following his breakout 2021 campaign. Harrison Bader very well may be shut down from baseball activities for the next few weeks. Among last year’s starting outfielders, only Dylan Carlson has been healthy and productive the bulk of this season, holding his own in both right and center fields and maintaining his above-average, if unsexy, numbers at the plate.
In a perfect world, last year’s breakout from this trio would have continued this season. And in that world, the Cardinals almost certainly would be in first place with the extra wins that continuation would have provided. In the real world, St. Louis has had to give opportunities on the grass to several even less experienced players, and they’ve held their own overall.
Lars Nootbaar made his MLB debut last season and was a fine fourth outfielder. His bat hasn’t been as strong this year, but he’s chipped in the occasional helpful hit. Juan Yepez, a born first baseman/designate hitter who currently is on the 10-day IL, is unlikely ever to be a strong defensive outfielder, but he’s given it a try, and his powerful bat has made him a solid contributor overall.
Brendan Donovan has been a revelation as a rookie. He’s made at least seven defensive appearances everywhere except center field and catcher, allowing the Cardinals to cover for injuries, provide rest days, and rotate players through the DH spot. Donovan is another player going against the long-standing St. Louis tradition of strong defensive play. But a player who gets on base a ton and is willing to wear whatever glove you give him is a big benefit to any team.
With those six young options, along with several more percolating up through the minor league system, the Cardinals have a glut of outfielders and only three spots to play them – plus DH, of course. Could this mean a Juan Soto trade gets completed by Tuesday afternoon? That certainly would be one way to thin the herd and consolidate resources and talent.
It also would significantly increase the payroll and take a big bite out of the farm system. And it’s not President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak’s style based on his history of in-season moves. Maybe this winter would be a better time to consider such a blockbuster – if Soto isn’t dealt to another team before then.
Regardless, the Cardinals have plenty of solid outfield options. Fans certainly have been disappointed by O’Neill and Bader falling back to earth compared to last season, and patience already is wearing thin for Carlson among some supporters. But the green grass of Busch Stadium III looks to be home to a productive crop of outfielders one way or another for a long time to come, even if none of them are transcendent superstars like Soto.