Cardinals Outfield Watch: Harrison Bader Could Be Closer Than We Think

I’m breaking one of my own rules here: I’m getting carried away by something I’m watching in spring training. I usually throw out the Grapefruit League stats. When I see a prospect doing well in exhibition games, my reflex response is … calm down, it’s only a practice game, with bush-league pitchers and assorted mystery guests playing shortstop or right field.

Bernie Miklasz

I’ve seen the guys named Bryan Anderson, Brian Barden, and Bryan Augenstein create a spring buzz, and … what the hell happened to them? Where are they?

Exactly.

Harrison Bader seems different. He was a third-round draft choice in 2015, so the Cardinals obviously were enticed by his legitimate power potential. He displayed that power with a .497 slugging percentage and by hitting a homer every 19 at-bats in 356 plate appearances at Class AA Springfield last season in his first full year of pro ball. Bader was overmatched — but not crushed — when he made the jump to Class AAA Memphis last season, but that wasn’t surprising. Unless your name is Mike Trout, or maybe Albert Pujols, hitters have to adjust and grind through when initially confronted by a higher level of minor-league pitching.

This spring in Jupiter — I know, I know, it isn’t regular-season ball — the confidence flows naturally with Bader, an aspiring outfielder of 22 years old.  In his 27 at-bats through Wednesday, Bader was batting .370 with a .414 onbase percentage and .704 slug. He’s been fine defensively. He seems to have an aptitude for the game. And man, does he hit the ball hard.

Bader looks like a major-leaguer …

Wait; let me amend that sentence: Bader looks like he’ll be in the majors real soon.

There’s no need to rush it — even though I’m guilty of trying to rush Bader to the bigs.

Meanwhile …

If the Cardinals, as expected, carry 12 pitchers they’ll only have space for one backup outfielder. Yes, they could go into the season with 11 pitchers, but manager Mike Matheny prefers 12. The Cards could keep a fifth outfielder by trading another position player. The Cards could accommodate a fifth outfielder at the risk of losing effective utility weapon Greg Garcia; he’s out of options and must clear waivers before being sent to the minors? But why would the Cardinals do that? Garcia is a useful player, good at his assigned role.

So if there’s only one spot left in the outfield behind Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty it’s a competition between Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez.

Pham is struggling to make contact, whiffing 11 times in his first 34 at-bats. Last season Pham had an extreme K rate, 39 percent, in limited service for the Cardinals. I’ve been a Pham advocate, and he has talent, but he’s having a really rough spring, batting .206 with a .206 slug through Wednesday.

Martinez is doing nothing wrong, hitting .424 with a .500 OBP and .848 slug through Wednesday. Small sample, yes. Junky spring-training stats, yes. Mostly meaningless, yes. But if there’s a MLB paycheck up for grabs, Martinez is making a terrific case for it. Bonus: Martinez can help out at first base. And remember that Pham has an option remaining and can be placed in Memphis without waiver risk.

Can Pham bump Martinez? It’s possible.

Unlike Martinez, Pham can play center field. Unless Pham is in the house, the Cardinals would rely on Grichuk to move to center when Fowler has a day off, or if Fowler suffers an injury. But Grichuk tends to get beaten up. He can’t play center, or even left field, if he’s hurting.

It can be a mistake to hook all your decisions on spring-training numbers. Jeremy Hazelbaker did terrible things to Grapefruit League pitching a year ago, was invited to join the Cardinals, and went nuts in April. In his first month in the majors, Hazelbaker clobbered MLB pitchers for five homers, a .317 average, .683 slug and a 1.040 OPS. But over his final 153 plate appearances with the Cardinals, Hazelbaker batted .197 with a .387 slug.

It was a nice underdog story while it lasted. it And didn’t last long.

Is Martinez this year’s version of Hazelbaker? It’s possible. Career minor leaguer, good or great minor-league stats, gets a belated opportunity to audition in the majors, goes on a hitting spree, then fades.

At least Pham has the foundation of 358 major-league plate appearances. And Pham has a .333 OBP and .455 slug with the Cardinals, numbers that most teams would like from a fourth outfielder.

Maybe Pham will get another shot. Or maybe the Cardinals will stick with Martinez for as long as he’s barreling line drives.

And what about a trade? Over the winter GM John Mozeliak said he was looking for outfield depth.As you’ve noticed, Mozeliak still hasn’t added an outfielder. The GM still has time to make make a move — unless he’s changed his mind.

When you see H. Bader out there every day — launching rockets and showing that he can play all three OF spots — it’s tempting to believe he’s on a fast track to the big leagues. If Bader can get the best of Class AAA pitching, he’ll be in line for a promotion. Bader could provide depth for the Cardinals. Or he could be more than that, if Grichuk doesn’t hit or a starting outfielder goes on the disabled list.

It’s easy to come up with a theory, and this is mine: Mozeliak is biding his time, content to go with Pham or Martinez for a while, and is holding off on the outfield search. The GM isn’t anxious because he knows Bader is on the way to St. Louis, and could arrive well ahead of schedule.

I could be wrong, of course.

This could be nothing more than a springtime daydream.

And don’t even get me started on Magneuris Sierra.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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