With summer camp winding down and the abbreviated regular season looming on the horizon (COVID permitting), there is all kinds of chatter among Cardinal fans about what this team will look like when and if it takes the field. But, for all of the chatter, there seems to be very little uncertainty regarding how Mike Shildt will deploy his forces.
If you are going to bet on the outcomes of the “position battles,” this is how it is going to shake out. The outfield will begin as Tyler O’Neill in left, Harrison Bader in center and Dexter Fowler in right. Top prospect Dylan Carlson will begin in the minor league camp. Matt Carpenter will be the starting third baseman. Tommy Edman will scrounge for at bats where he can find them. And Carlos Martinez will be the closer. Nobody expects anything different from Shildt. Is this the right thing to do? No. But sometimes doing the right thing is really hard.
Let’s take third base.
Now 34 years old, Matt Carpenter has been the quintessential Cardinal. He has played at least 114 games a season for the last 8 seasons, with an .835 lifetime OPS – all in St Louis, where he has been a three-time All Star and twice a top-ten finisher in the MVP race – most recently in 2018 when he hit 36 of his 148 career home runs. He has also started at least 200 games at three different infield positions (3B, 2B and 1B) and even made 14 starts in the outfield. Of all the decisions that I am about to question, this one is easy enough to justify. At his best, Matt Carpenter is an elite offensive force.
However, Carpenter begins the 2020 season on the short end of three circumstances that must force Mike to re-evaluate his situation. First, now 34 he is entering what is usually the declining phase of a player’s career. Additionally, he is coming off the worst season of his career (.226 average, 15 home runs, .726 OPS). Finally, his position was taken from him last year by the spectacular Tommy Edman, whose .304 batting average and .850 OPS led all Cardinals with at least 100 at bats last year.
The short and blunt of it is that Edman needs to play, and Carpenter’s age and recent decline make him vulnerable. Matt may very well end the season back in the starting lineup. Edman’s sophomore season may not live up to the promise of his 2019, or Carpenter may absolutely explode when he gets his opportunities and force his way back into the lineup. But Matt needs to at least begin the season second on the depth chart. After his stellar 2019, third base has to be Edman’s job to lose.
The outfield problem is Dexter Fowler – now also 34 and – if we are being honest – in clear decline. Over the last two seasons, Fowler is a .216/.321/.367 hitter – a .688 OPS. That figure includes a .183 average (17 for 93) last September. He then went 2 for 33 in the playoffs – not that anyone hit much in the playoffs.
The Fowler problem is two-fold. First, for some reason Shildt is enamored with him. Second, the Cards are trying to graduate a whole bunch of high-ceiling outfielders. In more-or-less pecking order they are:
- Tyler O’Neill. Tyler has made kind of extended cameos at the big league level over the last two seasons. His early career has been plagued by lack of contact (110 strikeouts in 293 at bats), but he has maintained a better-than-Fowler average of .258 and has 14 big league home runs. Tyler has also been a two-time 30 home run guy in the minors and has 140 minor league home runs in about four seasons worth of at bats. He carries a .271/.343/.529/.872 batting line over 2418 minor league plate appearances. In 996 PA at the AAA level, O’Neill has 68 home runs and a .267/.339/.554/.894 line. He needs only a sustained opportunity to see if that minor league success can translate into major league production.
- Lane Thomas. It’s hard to say the impact that Thomas might have had on the team as it headed into the playoffs last year. In 38 at bats before a broken hand ended his season, Lane hit .316/.409/.684/1.093 with 4 home runs. That’s a bit out of synch with what Lane has done throughout 480 games and 2027 minor league plate appearances, during which he has hit 55 home runs with a .252/.329/.421/.750 batting line. He has, though, gotten better against higher competition. In 444 AAA at bats, Thomas carries an .815 OPS.
- Dylan Carson. Dylan is the team’s top-rated prospect and number 16 in all of baseball. Just 21 years old, Dylan hit .292/.372/.542/.914 with 26 home runs and 20 stolen bases across the two highest levels of minor league baseball in 2019. He was hitting .313/.436/.469/.905 in spring training before camp shut down.
- Austin Dean. Dean had two uninspiring partial seasons in Miami, hitting .223 in 291 at bats for the fish. But Austin is a monster in AAA. In 568 at bats over two AAA seasons, Dean has whacked 27 home runs and hit .331/.398/.546/.944. Even though the PCL is known as a hitter’s league, these are still eye-opening numbers.
- Justin Williams. After a modest minor league career, Justin – whose season was delayed by a broken hand – exploded at the AAA level last year. In a small sample size (36 games and 119 plate appearances) Justin punished PCL pitchers to the tune of .353/.437/.608/.1.045 – numbers not easy to ignore.
The exit of Marcell Ozuna to the Braves opens up left field for one of these hitters. The incumbent in center, Harrison Bader, deserves to begin the season as the starter based on his elite defense and his record of hitting in the minors.
And then there is Fowler in right. In all honesty, it will be a bit frustrating to see Fowler take at bats better given to one of the developing young talents.
What should happen here seems a bit over-obvious. Like Carpenter, Fowler should start the season as, say, the fifth outfielder. Some combination of Bader, O’Neill, Thomas and Carlson should man the outfield spots and the designated hitter, with Dean and Williams ready for whatever changeups the very strange 2020 season might throw.
Carlson is an interesting case. With no previous major league experience, if the Cards place him on the opening day roster – and if he stays there the entire year – the Cards will lose a year of control over the talented young outfielder. Whereas, if he spends the first week or so of the season in Springfield, the front office will be able to delay his arbitration years and eventual free agency by another year. I don’t think that there is anyone connected with the club that does not believe that Dylan is one of their best 30 players right now. In fact, since there will be no minor league season this year, St Louis is very lucky that their top prospect is close enough to major league ready that they can plug him into the big league scene this year with every expectation that he will hold his own. Otherwise – like many of their other top prospects – this would be a mostly lost year for Carlson.
No one pretends, though, that this will happen. At any moment, I expect to see the notice that Dylan has been re-assigned. It will almost certainly happen. But it’s the wrong move, and sends two bad messages.
The first bad message is that winning is nice, but pinching pennies is better. So, we may lose a few early season games that we might have otherwise won – and that may cost us a playoff berth at the end of the season – but it’s OK because we will gain one whole season of financial control over our best prospect. The other bad message is the one they are sending to Dylan. That message lets him know that the Cardinals will exploit every advantage the system allows them in order to maintain maximum control over him for as long as possible.
That’s all well and good. But one day the Cards will need Carlson’s good will. The day will finally come when he is eligible for arbitration and finally free agency, and Dylan is likely to remember how he is treated in the early part of this season. Putting Dylan on the opening day roster and giving him a chance to prove that he can stick in the majors might even prove to be the more economical decision in the long run.
Turning to the pitching decision, Korean import Kwang Hyun Kim has taken the team by storm. With four plus pitches that he can throw at varying speeds and with excellent control – not to mention an unorthodox delivery, Kim is the front-runner to take the open starter’s spot. This is not to say that Carlos Martinez’ performance in second camp has been any whit behind Kim. But Martinez has a history as an effective closer – and the guy they were counting on (Jordan Hicks) has opted out of the season. In the kind of logic that usually governs these kinds of decisions, that makes this an almost done deal.
But that is only because no one on the team is listening to Carlos.
If assigned to the ninth inning, Martinez will, of course, fulfill that role to the best of his abilities. But it has to be evident to anyone who is paying attention that being a starter is more important to Carlos than it is to any other starter on the staff. It was his consuming desire to return to the rotation that kept him tirelessly firing breaking balls all during the break. This was the carrot that Carlos has been chasing since last season ended. It is almost his raison de etre. Martinez – more than anyone else in camp – defines himself as an elite starting pitcher.
So, why in the world don’t the Cardinals exploit that passion? Knowing that 2020 will be a sixty-game sprint, why don’t they let Martinez’ great passion help fuel that sprint? If it’s true that there isn’t a wealth of closing experience behind Carlos, it’s also true that there is no shortage of dominating arms that are clear candidates to dominate that calling. Ryan Helsley would be my nomination, but for all of that, imagine how good Kim – a lefty with an strange motion that no one in the majors has faced before – would be in a role where teams aren’t going to get three or four looks at him a night.
Don’t get me wrong. Kim will do well as a starter, and Martinez will succeed in the ninth. But it’s not the right move. The right move – the smart move – is to ride Martinez’ passion.
So often, it’s quite difficult to see what the right moves to make are. The dawning of this abbreviated season comes with much more clarity than many. But as hard as it sometimes is to see the right thing to do, it can frequently be harder to do those right things.
Especially since the wrong things will be so much easier.