(5) - Jordan Walker, Tyler O'Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson
The moment we've all been waiting for. Before Spring Training, the narrative around Jordan Walker was "hold your horses, the guy is not going to make this Opening Day roster' from a lot of Cardinals' pundits. To be fair, with the crowded outfield group, it made sense that they'd hold off on Walker, so much so I even wrote some reasons why before camp got underway. But right now, it's almost impossible to see a way that Walker is not starting Opening Day for the Cardinals.
Walker is destroying the baseball this spring, posting a .429/.429/.857 slash line with 3 HR and 7 RBI. The 20-year-old is not only mashing at the plate but he's shown his ability on the base paths and shown major strides defensively in the outfield. Walker came into camp ready to force the Cardinals to put him on the Opening Day roster, and he is blowing even the most optimistic fan's expectations away.
With Walker and Lars Nootbaar locking down the corner outfield spots, the center field position comes down to Tyler O'Neill and Dylan Carlson. The early buzz centered on O'Neill's push for the job during camp, while Carlson has begun to show improvements against right-handed pitching at the plate as well. So far though, I don't think either player has seperated themselves to this point in camp, and so at this point, I would say the job goes to the higher-upside player in O'Neill.
Again, this is an Opening Day roster projection, not who will be the Cardinals starting center fielder all year long. I believe if the competition is close, the club will give the at-bats to O'Neill with the kind of ceiling he has offensively, paired with Gold Glove-level defense from left field that he is translating into great defense in center. If this is the case, I would assume that Carlson still retains a starting role against left-handed pitching early in the season, and will get opportunities to win the job back if O'Neill struggles.
I mentioned early that Yepez was scratched from the infielders list, and I actually would make a bold take that Yepez misses the Opening Day roster this year if Walker makes the Opening Day roster. Yepez, to this point in camp, has not been good defensively, and I struggle to see how he gets consistent playing time if that is the case with Walker's presence. There are too many other guys who need at-bats at DH, so I would see Alec Burleson making the roster to start the year, as he can slot in at DH or play either of the corner outfield positions or first base at a higher level than Yepez. Plus, he gives the Cardinals another left-handed option for the lineup. If Burleson struggles, Yepez would be right back in St. Louis.