Even though the Cardinals traded away Harrison Bader last summer, they are still dealing with a crowded outfield mix. That’s thanks to the emergence of young players like Alec Burleson and Jordan Walker. Those two joined Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson in the battle for playing time. That’s five guys for three spots, since infielder Nolan Gorman has been taking the designated hitter slot on most days, with Willson Contreras getting a couple of nods there as well when not catching.
The crowding evidently got to be a bit too much, as Walker was surprisingly optioned down to the minors this week. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently addressed the move, as relayed by John Denton of MLB.com (Twitter links). Mozeliak said the move was about getting some more consistency from this group, hoping that subtracting one member would make it easier for everyone to get into a good rhythm.
The results of this jockeying for playing time will have consequences for the club in the short term, as they are off to a rough 10-16 start and will need to gain ground in the coming months. There will also be long-term ramifications, since all of those players are still under club control next year. If the Cards find themselves outside the playoff picture in July, they could consider moving someone and still have plenty of options to fill the outfield. And , as we saw last year with the Bader deal, they could make a trade even when they are in contention. Those decisions will surely be based on how the individuals perform in the next few months, so let’s take a look at where things stand now.
O’Neill is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, turning 28 in June and having debuted in 2018. He has between four and five years of service time, meaning he can be controlled via arbitration for one more year before reaching free agency after the 2024 season.
He has shown the ability to be an excellent all-around player, especially in 2021. O’Neill hit 34 home runs that year and slashed .286/.352/.560 overall for a wRC+ of 144. He also stole 15 bases and was graded well for his glovework in left field, leading to a tally of 5.6 wins above replacement, per the calculations of FanGraphs. That currently stands out as a career year for O’Neill, who was slowed by injuries last year. He only got into 96 games and had a diminished .228/.308/.392 batting line (101 wRC+). This year, he’s hitting just .256/.318/.385 for a wRC+ of 98.
O’Neill and manager Oli Marmol got in a public spat earlier in the year when the latter accused the former of improper hustle and spoke to the media about it. O’Neill disagreed with the sentiment that he wasn’t giving his all and also didn’t seem to care for the issue being aired so openly. He was benched for one game but has been getting regular playing time since, seeming to suggest there’s no lingering ill will from the dust-up. He got some time in center field earlier in the year but has been back in left for the past couple of weeks.
Some observers have pointed to the fact that Bader was also criticized by Marmol for a lack of hustle last year, just about six weeks before he was flipped to the Yankees, therefore suggesting the writing is on the wall for O’Neill. That’s pure speculation, but O’Neill is the most logical trade candidate since he’s the oldest and closest to free agency. However, dealing him would be selling low unless he can regain some of that excellent form he showed a couple of years ago.
Nootbaar is in his third major league season but was frequently optioned in the first couple, meaning he’s played just 178 games thus far. He initially hovered around league average at the plate but has taken steps forward over the past year or so, seeming to thrive when he got more regular playing time. Bader went on the IL June 27 of last year with plantar fasciitis, moving Carlson over to center and opening right field for Nootbaar. Bader was then traded before even recovering from that ailment. Since that time, Nootbaar has walked almost as much as he’s been punched out, getting a free pass 17.2% of the time compared to an 18.4% strikeout rate. That’s led to a .244/.373/.478 batting line and a 141 wRC+. His strong results at the plate are backed up by Statcast, who ranked him in the 90th percentile last year in terms of average exit velocity, 80th in hard hit rate and 85th in barrel rate.
That strong work at the plate is accompanied by excellent glovework as well. Nootbaar has played all three outfield positions and has tallied two Outs Above Average, six Defensive Runs Saved and a 6.7 grade from Ultimate Zone Rating. In the comments from Mozeliak linked above, he said Nootbaar will be the regular center fielder going forward.
Nootbaar seems like a solid long-term piece for the Cardinals given his well-rounded contributions. He’s currently 25 years old and has between one and two years of service time. He won’t reach arbitration until after 2024 and isn’t slated for free agency until after 2027. Over the winter, both the Athletics (in Sean Murphy discussions) and Marlins (in Pablo Lopez talks) brought up Nootbaar as a target of interest, but the Cardinals rebuffed those overtures.
Unlike O’Neill and Nootbaar, Burleson has fewer dimensions to his game. His defense is generally considered subpar, even when limited to the corners, and Statcast pegs him in the 24th percentile in terms of sprint speed. He’s seen a bit of time at first base, dating back to last season.
The appeal of Burleson is his bat, which has the potential to hit for both contact and power. Outside of a brief debut in High-A in 2021, he’s generally been difficult to strike out both in the majors and the minors. He’s had only 134 major league plate appearances so far but has been punched out at just a 14.2% rate, well below this year’s 23% league average. He’s hit three home runs so far and currently has a line of .236/.295/.444. That’s just slightly above average, translating to a 104 wRC+, but that’s not bad for a player still getting his feet wet in the majors. He hit 20 home runs in 109 Triple-A games last year and slashed .331/.372/.532 (137 wRC+).
Burleson is just 24 years old and has less than a year of service, meaning he won’t qualify for arbitration until after 2025 and isn’t slated for free agency until 2028. He could be a long-term option in the corners for St. Louis, but he isn’t an exact match for their typical M.O. of placing an emphasis on defense.
Carlson was considered one of the top prospects in baseball not too long ago, with Baseball America having him in the top 10 league-wide in 2020 and 2021. He got regular playing time over the past two years and proved himself to be a serviceable player with average-ish hitting and defense. Carlson hit .253/.331/.412 for a wRC+ of 107 over 2021 and 2022, walking and striking out at roughly league average rates. All three of DRS, OAA and UZR considered his glovework average or slightly above.
He’s been the one most squeezed by the logjam so far, only starting 10 of the club’s 26 games. The part-time role hasn’t suited him, as he’s hitting just .250/.308/.333 on the season for a wRC+ of 83. Perhaps he is the player with the most to gain from Walker’s demotion, as he will hopefully get some more trips to the plate and get into a better groove. He’s 24 years old but has between two and three years of service time already. He’s on pace to qualify for arbitration this winter and reach free agency in the 2026-27 offseason.
Walker parlayed a hot spring into an Opening Day roster spot despite being just 20 years old, turning 21 in May. He stayed hot to start the season, getting a hit in his first 12 games while slashing .319/.360/.489. He cooled off a bit from there, hitting just .192/.250/.231 since then. That latter line is a tiny sample of eight games, but the club still felt the best decision for everyone involved was for him to get regular at-bats in the minors and to spread his playing time around to the others. Between both of those stretches, he only walked in 3.8% of his trips to the plate.
Walker is still one of the best prospects in the game and will no doubt be back at some point. An injury to one of the other outfielders would quickly make space for him. He was on track to earn a full year of service this year but could wind up shy of that, depending how long he’s down on the farm.
Yepez has mashed in the minors over the past few years, hitting .252/.343/.487 in Double-A and .281/.362/.575 in Triple-A. He’s seemingly capable of carrying that over to the big leagues as well, having hit .257/.297/.453 for a wRC+ of 111 in 286 plate appearances. The problem is that he’s not considered a strong runner or defender. He could be a useful bat-first player in a corner spot, but the Cards have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at first and third, in addition to the crowded outfield mix. Yepez is 25 years old and still has a couple of option years, meaning the Cards can keep him as a depth piece for quite a while if they so choose.
Gomez isn’t considered a great runner or defender, nor does he have strong bat-to-ball skills. His standout tool is his power. Gomez hit 39 home runs last year in 120 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but also struck out in 34.7% of his plate appearances. He was added to the 40-man roster at season’s end to prevent him from reaching minor league free agency but is off to a slow start this year. Through 20 Triple-A games, he’s cut his strikeout rate to 24.7% but has gone deep just once and is walking just 4.7% of the time. His .234/.282/.351 batting line amounts to a wRC+ of 58.
There’s plenty of talent amid these options and it seems entirely possible that a trade will be on the table this summer, whether the Cardinals climb back into contention or not. They could easily move one of these players for some pitching, just like they did with Bader last year, and still have good options for filling out the lineup card every night. The club’s front office has just over three months to decide how to play it.
“HERE WE GO AROUND IN CIRCLES”
Will it fly like a bird up in the skys?
Billy Preston was one of the few whose Afro rivaled Oscar Gamble.
So true. Loved Gamble’s big fro.
Great read, guys
Carlson is the best defensive centerfielder. I’d like to see him get more consistent playing time. I think the bat will come around if he does.
Weird I’d put him behind Oneill and noot defensively, I think he’s only ok at the corners. Numbers may tell a different story, not a cards fan, but live in town, so I give them the eye test a couple days a week out of boredom
The numbers do tell another story. He’s also hitting better than Burleson over his last 7 games. Stop saying performance decides playing time unless it does. I know about the splits. They will never improve unless Carlson is allowed to bat left handed once in a while.
Agree. Carlson needs to be in center when he is in the lineup. The O’Neill experiment in cf was a waste of time. Keep Noot in right. Show some consistency.
Consistency is exactly what I’d like to see.
The Cards organization is beginning to resemble the White Sox organization.
Not really. The Cardinals are actually successfully at churning out players and being competitive year in and year out. The White Sox are not good at either of those things
True, they are not as dysfunctional in as many ways, as the Chisox.
Harrison Bader has around 100 million reasons to look forward to free agency.
Sid Bream Speed Demon
Another dumb comment. Muted.
c’mon ace – -you were doing so well with coming up with new material…no need to beat this dead horse ..find a new annoying plea for attention
This is like the football team that has a QB controversy. It doesn’t mean you have two good QB’s it means you don’t have one.
It’s like when Green Bay had no quarterbacks except Farve and Rogers or when SF had Montana and Young. I could go on and on but I think you get the point.
Actually, I’m not sure your point could go much further than these two examples. Maybe Rivers and Breese? Your point is valid, I guess I may be a bit jaded by local college football teams who have “an open competition” in the spring. It seems those competitions rarely produce a solid outcome.
Staubach and White at Dallas. Bledsoe and Brady in New England.. Mark Bulger and Kurt Warner with the Rams. I could go on but you get the point. Sometimes there are two good choices instead of playing the best of two poor options.
Instead of shuffling these guys around, Mo needs to actually make a decision on who to keep and trade the others while their stock is high for some pitching talent. Having six starter quality outfielders does nothing for you when pitching is a glaring issue.
LOL, how true link. But comon, don’t help out the Cards front office.
Cardinals should look into making a trade with Cleveland. They seem to churn out pitchers at an astounding rate, and I’m sure Cleveland could use one bopper to give some slugging to a contact-heavy lineup.
I think the Cards should float an high offer for Bieber now and beat the crowd. Which farm arm(s) go in the deal the tough part. Can’t help the what ifs from Alcântara and Gallen trade for Ozuna.
If you don’t play these guys regularly teams will look at them as 4th OF types or platoon bats and offer accordingly.
The longer they sit on these OFs the worse the return will be. It will likely get to the point that they’ll just end up releasing them. Similar to what the Yankees have done with all these great prospects that always got put into every trade for a elite player.
Of course the problem is that the Cards could use some pitching (though they aren’t without their own prospects there that are close) and unlike having 6 OFs for 3 positions is a problem having SP depth doesn’t really exist any more even teams near 10 deep aren’t looking to deal them because pitchers break if you look at them funny
Is it really a battle if there is never a winner as an outcome?
“If you have three quarterbacks that really means you don’t have one.”
In this case, “if you have five outfielders that only means you really don’t have three.”
that Noot for Lopez deal maybe should’ve happened. 4/5 starters are FA (with waino retiring) and it’s not like its SOP for the birds to pay for pitching in FA. Nevermind that the pitching was suspect coming into the season and is the primary reason we’re in last place.
Mo extended Mikolas so now they have him and Matz returning.
I forgot about the mikolas extension, but that still leaves us needing to fill 3 spots next year and had us going into the year with only one guaranteed starter for next year, it’s not like we’re going to have a an offseason like the rangers where we spend what it takes to put together a good rotation in an offseason. that’s just not how our front office operates.
You are right on all points.
Have you see what Liberatore is doing in AAA? He turn his approach around since last year. I think he is ready to come up to the majors.
I’m not as optimistic on Liberatore as I once was but I would love to be wrong. That still leaves two spots for next season and we could use at least one more this season. Maybe a trade and extend Walt jockety special for someone like Giolito?
Maybe they need to put their attention on getting rid of the Head Coach. Guy has lost the clubhouse with his nonsense and it wasn’t even worth it, given that Tyler O’Neill is just slightly below average.
World Champion Lars Nootbaar? Is that the Lars Nootbaar you’re talking about?
This has been frustrating to watch. The talent level on the field is not that different is the problem (outside of Walker). They are a deep team, but honestly they would have been better off having three starting outfielders and say Yepez on the pine as a 4th and Donovan getting some time on the grass as well than what they have. I think any of these guys would have better numbers on another team starting most days, but they are just lowering their trade value playing them this way. I wouldn’t call the season a wash yet of course, but I think additional thinning to AAA from the group would allow for better results on the field and get all of them consistent at bats to keep the value up. Trading for pitching will be a need mid season again whether they are in contention or not. It does make me wonder a bit if the pitch calling and framing has changed enough to cause some of the pitching woes though.
There is no battle……
Their FO (that runs the team) is using the OF the same way the Rays and other teams do – planning that games strategy and spotting the OF’s that fit the strategy – including matchups against the opposing pitchers……and changing them out as the game situation changes.
If one of those guys took the opportunity and ran with it they’d be starting each game.
It’s the way MLB is played today. Depth charts mean less every year. Don’t try to put your values on others – it’s a good idea to understand what values each teams FO’s and managers have.
Lars Nootbaar is a candy bar from somewhere in northern Europe, I assume.
“Nootbaar’s mother is fully Japanese while his father is an American of Dutch, English and German descent. That makes Nootbaar’s ancestry predominantly Japanese.”
So he played for Japan in the WBC.
Lars Nootbar is an outstanding performer and inspirational member of World Baseball Classic Champion Team Japan.
St. Louis media keeps talking about how teams will wait until at least June to make trades. I hope they give all four of the current outfielders a good run over the next four to six weeks.
That will also give Walker some time in Memphis to get more loft on his swing and learn something about playing right field.
Best to not get greedy a muzzle Yepez’s Major League abilities.
Plenty of teams could use a thumping 25 year old corner infield/outfielder
Put on a visor hat and turn on the heat lamp. Let’s make a deal!!
Reading this objectively and in-depth. Stl does not have a glut of talent they have a vacuum. Basically, it’s nootbar and nobody else.
If by vacuum, do you mean they all suck?
St Louis just lost again.
Their bats are again limp. Their balls are again deflated.