Harrison Bader has claimed the Cardinals centerfield job, per Derrick Goold, Benjamin Hochman, Rick Hummel and Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. If manager Mike Shildt decides to go with the dibs system this spring, Bader will be in excellent shape. Otherwise, he’s going to have to hit to stay the everyday man in center.
President of Baseball Ops John Mozeliak specifically mentioned a desire to see Bader become an “all-fields hitter,” while acknowledging that his offensive floor to remain a starter is lower than most in the game because of his elite defensive abilities. The .650 OPS he finished with in 2019 isn’t going to cut it – thought it’s worth noting that even with the .205/.314/.366 batting line, Bader put together a 2.0 bWAR season in 128 games.
The final note on Bader is that while the Cardinals have a handful of outfield options, none are suited specifically for center quite like him. That said, prospect Dylan Carlson, whom the Cardinals view as part of the 2020 picture, has spent a decent 43 percent of his minor league starts in center. The 21-year-old Carlson tore through the upper levels of the minors last year, hitting .292/.372/.542 across Double-A and Triple-A as a 20-year-old. Also mentioned, Lane Thomas – acquired in 2017 from the Blue Jays for international spending money – as a possibility for at-bats in center should Bader continue to struggle with the outside breaking ball.
Thomas, 24, played a total of 68 innings in center for the Cardinals in 2019, tearing it up in 44 plate appearances with a .316/.409/.684 small sample burst. In Fangraphs’ January prospect update, Thomas landed as the #8 ranked prospect in the Cardinals system, while Carlson came in at #2, behind only Nolan Gorman.
Along with Bader, Thomas, and Carlson, Tommy Edman looks like a fan favorite in the making, and he figures to get most of his playing time in the outfield while the Cardinals wait to see if Matt Carpenter bounces back. Even if Carpenter moves full time to the bench at some point, veteran Dexter Fowler enjoyed a bounce back season (of sorts) in 2019, tellingly appearing in 150 games as a clearly trusted veteran.
Read between the lines and it’s hard see how a reunion with Marcell Ozuna makes sense. That said, the Cardinals seem to be at least considering it. Speculatively speaking, the ongoing engagement could signal a willingness on Ozuna’s part to settle for a short-term pact.
Despite the outfielder’s interest in returning, the article notes that Mozeliak declined to answer when asked whether he has remained in touch with the 29-year-old. The Cardinals have enough coverage in the outfield to let Ozuna walk and feel okay about their depth. Besides the five potential outfielders mentioned above (Bader, Thomas, Carlson, Edman, Fowler), the Cardinals can also call on Rangel Ravelo, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, or the recently acquired Austin Dean for outfield at-bats. If there’s a potential weakness in the Cardinals outfield, it’s depth in centerfield, where Ozuna does not help anyhow. Even there, depth is hardly a weakness. Bader and Carlson have immense potential while Fowler provides a veteran floor (though he’s more of a week-by-week stopgap at this point of his career).
Furthermore, payroll estimators peg the Cardinals opening day payroll somewhere between $162MM and $167MM. The low end of that spectrum would match last year’s opening day payroll, which was a franchise all-time high. That doesn’t paint a welcoming environment for a new Ozuna contract. Nor does it, before you ask, make the acquisition of Nolan Arenado’s $26MM contract seem at that likely. That said, if there’s any takeaway from the 500-or-so words above, it’s that Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch have an eye for contrivance in roster building.