Bernie on the Cardinals: Is There A Star Outfielder In The House? Pick a Card.

The Cardinals seem to be doubling down on their intention to give young outfielders an opportunity to play in 2020.

Not that this is anything new, per se. Agree or disagree with the outlook offered by president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch, but management has been pretty upfront about declaring its thinking on this.

And that’s especially true now that left fielder Marcell Ozuna has rejected the Cardinals’ qualifying offer and is a virtual certainty to sign elsewhere as a free agent.

Whether you want to use OPS+ or wRC+ as the measure, Ozuna was slightly above average offensively in his two seasons with the Cardinals. And frankly too many media/fans overrated Ozuna’s value simply because he was the best of a mediocre lot. His stats were solid, but nothing particularly special — and stood out only because so many other guys did worse.

Ozuna gave the Cardinals just under 1,200 plate appearances over the past two seasons combined. And despite Ozuna’s fine if unspectacular contributions, Cards outfielders as a group ranked 15th in the majors in wRC+ (two percent above league average) across 2018-2019. They were 19th with a .746 OPS, and 21st in slugging percentage (.417.)

Ozuna, of course, played exclusively in left field. So if we just sort of remove LF from our exam and pare it down to offensive production from center field and right field (combined) over the past two seasons, the Cardinals ranked 16th in wRC+ (at 2% percent below average), 22nd in OPS (.726) and 27th in slugging (.396) in CF-RF numbers.

The Cards’ outfield was run-of-the-mill offensively in 2018-2019 with Ozuna batting cleanup … so what the hell will this look like without him?

It’s not easy to fill your optimism to the brim.

As an aside: this doesn’t necessarily mean the Cardinals will stay out of the marketplace — trade or free agency — but if part of the goal was lowering expectations, the front office is succeeding. I’ll just go ahead and wait to be surprised if this team makes a significant or even short-term move to boost the offense in time for next season.

And if we want to be pragmatic, well …

Truth is, the Cardinals have so many outfielders in their employ, at some point they have to make some tough choices instead of dawdling and delaying.They can’t continue hoarding young outfielders. They have too many. And they collected so many unproven guys, it’s like having duplicate copies of nondescript baseball trading cards.

Are any of these dudes good?

Will any of these outfielders develop into franchise pieces?

Or even above-average lineup regulars?

All-Stars?

Is there an elite young outfielder in the house, or just the next stack of recycled Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty types — with the occasional Tommy Pham stopping by to excel for a while?

As Mozeliak told the Post-Dispatch this week: “In essence, we have to figure out what we exactly have.”

The “prospect” tag has been cheapened or at least devalued around these parts, especially when we’re talking about outfielders. That’s because the Cardinals still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

And not to be cold about this, but Oscar Taveras died in October 2014. And his passing can no longer be cited as an excuse. It’s been five years. By the end of next season, it will be nearly six years.

Sure, the Cardinals had big plans for Taveras. They planned around him too. Taveras was their designated franchise-foundation outfielder. But we can’t assume the best-case scenario. We can’t assume that Taveras would have come through to fulfill the substantial hype. The early looks in 2014 weren’t encouraging; he couldn’t hit fastballs. And that’s beside the point; the Cardinals have had plenty of time to fill the roster void.

The Cardinals have used so many outfielders, it’s easy to forget about a few. But to the best of recollection — and my search engine — the list since the start of the 2015 includes:

Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Jason Heyward, Pham, Grichuk, Piscotty, Ozuna, Harrison Bader, Jose Martinez, Brandon Moss, Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Mags Sierra, Lane Thomas, Yairo Munoz, Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena. I suppose I should include Tommy Edman in there.

I didn’t put prospect Oscar Mercado on the list because the Cardinals traded him to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2018 — on the same day that dealt Pham to Tampa Bay. Mercado faded a bit but slugged .443 as rookie starter for the Indians last season. And as a member of the Rays, Pham has an .870 OPS and is 36 percent above league average offensively in wRC+.

Anyway …

The point is, the Cardinals have made mistakes in assessing their outfield talent, and that decreases my confidence in their ability to choose — and regularly play — the right outfielders going forward.

As of now, heading deeper into the offseason, their pool of outfielders looks like this: Fowler, Bader, Martinez, O’Neill, Thomas and Arozarena. The super-utility weapon, Edman, will be in the mix when he isn’t playing third base or second.

The touted prospect Dylan Carlson should take the stage at some point in 2020. Justin Williams — a LH bat acquired in the Pham deal — is being talked up by Cardinals’ management. (He’s a lesser prospect than the switch-hitting Carlson) A. Garcia may have a shot, but the Cardinals him stored at Class AAA Memphis all of last season at age 26. And he had a weak .299 OBP to go with .517 slugging percentage.

“We like a lot of our young outfielders, and we want to give them an opportunity,” Girsch told Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch. “At some point in order to give young players opportunities there might not be clarity (in the lineup). In a perfect world, where we would have an All-Star at every position and total clarity, yeah. But, are we comfortable going in with the guys that we have and letting them battle it out in spring training and throughout the season? Yeah. We’re excited about the group and feel like there’s a lot of potential there.”

Best of luck in sorting this pile of baseball cards.

Is there a future star in there?

And if there is a star, can the Cardinals identify him?

Thanks for reading … and have a wonderful weekend.

–Bernie