At last year's trade deadline, the St. Louis Cardinals seemingly committed to Dylan Carlson to be the club's center fielder of the future, trading away Harrison Bader to clear room for him.
Then going into the winter, it was assumed to be an open competition between Carlson and Lars Nootbaar would be the Cardinals' starting center fielder. Nootbaar was the front-runner, but there was a chance he was moved to the corner outfield for Carlson to start in center.
Then came Spring Training, and Tyler O'Neill suddenly had the job. Then O'Neill struggles and gets hurt, and Nootbaar takes over. Carlson got a shot for a moment, then Nootbaar again. After injuries began to pile up, Tommy Edman got a run in center field, stole the Cardinals' hearts with his play, and cemented himself as the center fielder. Then Edman gets hurt, and now it's a revolving door all over again.
The Cardinals' biggest issue, far and away, is their pitching. They need major rotation upgrades and to rehaul their bullpen for 2024. But do not overlook how much of an issue center field has become for this team.
I am not someone that thinks the Cardinals made a mistake trading away Harrison Bader. Getting Jordan Montgomery for him and creating opportunists for Carlson and Nootbaar was the right choice. The issue the Cardinals have is self-inflicted, they cannot seem to land on a guy and give them a fair run.
The Cardinals have to commit to someone as their center fielder, or go out and acquire one
Maybe that is what they were finally doing here with Tommy Edman before his injury, but honestly, how many times since last July did we think "Oh, so now they finally have their center field plan" after they moved someone else to that position? I'm not convinced they wouldn't have shifted Edman away center at some point anyways.
I have actually really enjoyed Edman's defense out in center field. His arm is below average for the position, but overall, he's done a really nice job. The problem though is with his bat. For as much as some people say Carlson's bat isn't good enough this year, he's still been an above-league-average hitter, posting a 107 wRC+. Edman on the other hand has been 10% below league average at a 90 wRC+.
Long-term, Edman seems best situated to be the club's utility man off the bench, a guy you can plug in almost anywhere on the field on any given day. Brendan Donovan can do that as well, but he has to play every day with the strides he has taken this year. I don't think Edman should be guaranteed a starting spot anymore.
So why not Carlson in center field then? Well, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Cardinals do not value him as that. When he's been healthy, he's been either their fourth outfielder or relegated to the corner outfield spots in favor of O'Neill, Nootbaar, or Edman. At this point, I'd be surprised if Carlson is not dealt by the club.
Okay, so how about Lars Nootbaar? I could definitely see a scenario where Nootbaar is in center, Jordan Walker is in right field, and Brendan Donovan plays left field when the Cardinals put out their best lineup. But it also feels like the club would rather have Nootbaar in the corners with Walker. So I guess you put Nolan Gorman at DH and Donovan at second base?
Some have begun to suggest that the Cardinals' center fielder may need to come from outside the organization. Maybe they pursue a Cody Bellinger once again in free agency? Perhaps a reunion with Harrison Bader? Kevin Kiermaier has had a borderline All-Star season in Toronto, maybe he would be a fit? They could look to the trade market as well.
The center field is too important of a position to be in flux for a contending team. It's one thing if your "Plan A" is injured and you have to fill a gap, it's a whole other thing when you continue to yank around your center field options because you are not sure who you trust.
John Mozeliak is right to preach "Pitching, pitching, and more pitching" between now and Spring Training, but they also better be ready to solve their mess of a center field position if they want to be a contender next year.