The St. Louis Cardinals are enduring a trying season. They are 51-51 with 60 games left to play. Injuries to the rotation have tested the team’s depth. The offense has been inconsistent. The bullpen has faltered, largely due to absorbing too many innings. Their playoff chances are low as they trail the Milwaukee Brewers by nine games. However, one bright spot for the Cardinals has been the outfield, especially of late.
The Cardinals Outfield
It’s no secret the Cardinals have traded away a number of promising outfielders in recent years. The system was deep with potential, but unproven, talent. The fanbase erupts with frustration every time one of these traded players performs well elsewhere. Oscar Mercado, Randy Arozarena, and Adolis Garcia roam the outfield at Busch Stadium in an alternate universe for a very different Cardinals team. Or perhaps Mercado is the fourth outfielder with Randal Grichuk playing every day. And then of course there is the complicated case of Tommy Pham. The club paid a hefty haul of prospects for Marcell Ozuna and then failed to extend his contract. In short, the team could be deploying any number of combinations of those players. They’ve all experienced enough success in other cities to keep the faithful second guessing the vision of the front office.
The frustration with the outfield reached a high point early in the year, when injuries forced a largely ineffective Justin Williams into a regular role. When an injury to Williams removed him as an option, the Cardinals turned to Tommy Edman in right field. Where was the parade of high-ceiling outfielders? With little evidence that the regulars were anything other than unproven assets, patience ran thin.
Health Leads to Production
Harrison Bader may be the hottest outfielder in baseball right now. Since July 4th, Bader has a batting average of .400 and an OPS of 1.143 with seven doubles and four home runs. He has a 1.257 OPS in 12 games since the All-Star Break. He’s driving the ball and producing runs at an elite clip. Bader has raised his season slash from .208/.287/.390 on July 1st to .293/.359/.533. All of which would lead the team if he had enough qualifying at-bats. Meanwhile, his defense remains excellent.
Tyler O’Neill has developed into a significant offensive threat. He leads the team in WAR this season at 2.9. His 2.2 oWAR trails only Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. Although he has cooled a bit of late, his OPS of .8 is the best on the team outside of Bader. His 17 home runs on the year are tied for second on the team. His slugging percentage of .511 would place him in the top ten among outfielders if he qualified. O’Neill won a Gold Glove last year and patrols left field with ease.
Not to be outdone, Dylan Carlson is in the conversation for Rookie of the Year in 2021. Considering the injuries to the rest of the outfield, his durability may be his greatest strength. He’s played in 100 of the team’s 102 games this year. And what has he done during those games? He’s among the league leaders in outfield assists, leads all rookies with 95 hits, and has scored 52 runs. Perhaps he shouldn’t be batting lead off for the team, but he has been serviceable in the role considering the performance of others this year.
Cardinals Outfield in 2022 and Beyond
The planned starters for the Cardinals’ outfield have played a total off 33 games together this year. They are 20-13 in those games and sub-.500 in games where one or more are missing. If the group can stay healthy moving forward, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Both Carlson and O’Neill are not yet arbitration eligible. Bader will not be a free agent until 2024. The Cardinals have significant money coming off the books this offseason and a variety of needs across the team. Outside of adding a veteran bench bat, upgrading the outfield shouldn’t be a priority–assuming they continue to outproduce most of the outfielders they’ve traded away.
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