Spring training is just about to enter the winding-down phase. The Cardinals open the regular season in a little more than two weeks.
That would be Thursday, March 26 at Cincinnati.
It’s a fine time to check on one area of interest. Of course, I am referring to the Cardinals outfield and management’s frequently stated objective to “give opportunities” to young players.
Thing is, John Mozeliak and associates haven’t really specified a particular land of opportunity. Will it be the Major Leagues? Is it going to happen in St. Louis, or will the Cardinals donate another young outfielder to Tampa Bay or Cleveland?
Or will the opportunity be presented in the minor leagues? Could be Triple A Memphis. We probably shouldn’t rule out Double A Springfield.
Anyway, I thought I’d offer the Cardinals’ Outfield Power Rankings based on how the candidates have performed this spring.
But do not be confused by the rankings. The rankings are not a prediction. This isn’t a case of the No. 1 guy being told to find a place to live in St. Louis. The jobs should be assigned on merit, but it doesn’t often work that way.
That familiar expression — “May the Best Man Win!’’ — doesn’t necessarily apply here. The Best Man, may be entering the fourth season of a five-year $82.5 million contract. The contract takes priority and offers. protection. The $82.5 Million Man is automatically The Best Man.
See how this works?
Hey, but what about performance? Doesn’t that count for anything?
Oh, goodness … do not be so naive. The $82.5 million commitment overrides performance.
If you sign him, you will play him. Period.
But shouldn’t the most impressive outfielder get the largest share of playing time for the Cardinals?
Answers: Not if his team is determined to play The $82,5 Million Outfielder. Not if the team can stash the impressive outfielder in the minors for a short time to delay his first crack at free agency by a year. (See: Kris Bryant and the 2015 Chicago Cubs.)
The Power Rankings, with all statistics through Monday:
1. Dylan Carlson: the top prospect has 10 hits, six walks, a .471 onbase percentage, 10 runs scored, and OPS of 1.006. Clearly the most impressive outfielder in Camp Jupiter. So he’s a lock for a spot in the Cards’ opening-day lineup, right?
Hell, no. Carlson isn’t The $82.5 Million Man. And there are long-term, contract-control considerations to keep in mind. (See: Kris Bryant and the 2015 Chicago Cubs.)
But I’m a nice person. And if the Cardinals need to justify putting Carlson at Memphis for a while, here’s the excuse: this switch-hitter has a low .686 OPS vs. right-handed pitching this spring.
Carlson needs work!
2. Tyler O’Neill: The brawny Canadian has drawn five walks, which has juiced his Grapefruit League onbase percentage to .428. His power-ball display includes two homers and a .560 slugging percentage. And O’Neill, who bats from the right side, has battered RH pitching for a 1.269 OPS.
I should mention that O’Neill has struck out 12 times in 32 plate appearances against all pitchers, left or right. Sorry to bring that up and besmirch the narrative. But that’s a strikeout rate of 37.5 percent.
3. Harrison Bader: His center-field defense saves runs. He’s excellent out there, and that’s an asset for a team that must maintain its strict form of run prevention. The Cardinals just want him to be a respectable hitter, and take smarter at-bats.
The good news: a .296 average, .441 OBP, and .481 slug.
The bad news: Bader, who bats right, is still having a hard time against RH pitching, batting .211 with a .263 slug. (But he has drawn a good number of walks, and has a .400 OBP vs. RH.)
The same news: 10 strikeouts in 34 plate appearances, or 29.4%.
4. Lane Thomas: Sort of a low-key camp. But he’s doing fine, if not great. The .233 batting average is offset by six walks and a .361 OBP. His two homers have helped generate a .467 slugging percentage. Thomas bats right, and both of his homers have been popped against RH pitching. Again, this is fine. But maybe we expected more?
5. Tommy Edman: Not sure what to put him, because he plays just about everything except pitcher, first base, catcher and the tuba. But Edman’s super-utility role as a rookie last season was a boost to a sickly offense; he slugged .500 and had an .850 OPS. Can he repeat that, or come close? The analysts are forecasting a downturn. We’ll see. Edman is batting .273 this spring, but without much power (at least so far.) And, of course, no walks.
I didn’t know where to put him on this list. If the Cardinals plan to use Edman in the outfield on a regular basis, I would have him rated higher.
6. Austin Dean: Don’t laugh. Don’t be a smart-ass like me. This refugee from the Miami Marlins is having a robust Grapefruit League performance — reminiscent of his destructive power hitting at the Triple A level in recent summers.
In 34 plate appearances Dean has a .394 OBP, is slugging .643, and has boosted his OPS to 1.037. Four doubles. Two homers. And this right-handed hitter has done his damage against RHP. Dean had strong late-season numbers for Miami in 2019.
When the Cardinals picked Dean up, management repeatedly touted him as a serious candidate for a spot on the 26-man roster. I was skeptical. But now I’ll turn this around with a question: If you tout a dude as a serious candidate, and he responds by ripping up pitching in exhibition play, then how would you possibly explain a decision to send him to Memphis? Just wondering.
7. Dexter Fowler: In his first 28 plate appearances he struck out 10 times … that’s 35.7 percent … and has two hits in 25 at-bats for an .080 average. Those stats explain why Fowler is ranked this low.
Two things: (A) he’s a veteran who says he uses spring training to fine-tune his swing; (B) he’s in the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays $82.5 million. And the Cardinals still owe him $33 million through 2021.
In other words: Fowler is in the lineup, no worries — and it wouldn’t matter if he went 0-for-40 this spring with 40 strikeouts. But maybe management’s investment will foster more positive reviews if Fowler gets off to a strong start when the real baseball games begin.
8. Justin Williams: management made sure to let every media person know that the team really, really, liked Williams. Keep an eye on this guy! He could win a job! Why? Because Williams bats from the left side … because he put up big power numbers (.608 slug) in 36 games at Memphis late last season. Williams is batting .120 this spring, but does have a couple of homers. The potential is there, but Williams needs plenty of at-bats, and he won’t get them unless the Cardinals.
9. Rangel Ravelo: He’s plugged along through 10 minor-league seasons. He’s a first baseman. A fine fellow. Beloved by Cardinals management. Manager Mike Shildt is a fan. The Cardinals love Rangel so much that they had a change of heart when he seemed bound for professional baseball in South Korea this past offseason. And they’ve given Ravelo a few turns in the corner outfield this spring. Ravelo had a .205 average and .665 OPS in 43 plate appearances for the Cardinals last season.
Obviously, I’m missing something here. And that does not matter. The Cardinals may reserve a bench spot for Ravelo, presumably based on his .500 slugging percentage in 20 at-bats as a pinch hitter last season. This spring Ravelo is batting .250 with a .712 OPS.
Thanks for reading …