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St. Louis Cardinals' Harrison Bader, center, celebrates with Dylan Carlson, right, and Tyler O'Neil, left, after the Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

JUPITER, Fla. (KMOV.com) — The flurry of activity for the Cardinals roster as the calendar flipped from January to February, in many ways, set the tone for the direction and expectations of the club heading into the 2021 season. By bringing back Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, and adding a superstar-caliber player in Nolan Arenado to the mix, the Cardinals solidified their intentions to contend in the upcoming campaign.

Somewhat lost amid all the recent transactions for St. Louis was a move that charted a course for the team’s outfielders by subtracting a veteran player from the group. The Cardinals traded Dexter Fowler to the Angels without much in return; St. Louis is still responsible for the bulk of his salary in the final year of the five-year contract he signed with the team before the 2017 season, and a potential Player To Be Named Later hasn't yet been revealed.

Fowler’s tenure with the Cardinals produced uneven results, but the way he bounced back into respectable form following a disastrous 2018 season was noteworthy. Still a capable contributor at this stage in his career, Fowler seemed marked for a solid output near league-average for his position to go along with adequate defense in the field. A fine player, but one whose ceiling seemed capped heading into his age-35 season.

After adding Arenado as another stable pillar to pair with Paul Goldschmidt on the infield, the Cardinals front office was compelled to shift its outfield matrix in a bolder direction. The team cleared out a known quantity in Fowler to commit more completely to a chase for upside within its less-experienced outfield group.

After the Fowler deal, St. Louis has five true outfielders aged 22 to 26 on its 40-man roster: Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Justin Williams. On the first day of full-squad workouts at Cardinals camp Monday, team president of baseball operations John Mozeliak made clear his desire to see that group capitalize on the wide-open competition for playing time.

“It’s always hard to get inside someone’s head and try to figure out what they’re thinking about or what’s motivating them,” Mozeliak said. “But if I were sitting down talking to those five, I would say ‘This is a great opportunity. We’ve cleared the deck for you, try to take advantage of it.' It’s something that we’ve been thinking about, trying to do, and we were able to accomplish that. So now, I think for them it should just be like, you know, they’ve moved some things for us, and so let’s take advantage of it.”

Though it seems easy to assume that Bader and O’Neill—the two with the most big-league experience among the five—will pair with top prospect Dylan Carlson to form the Cardinals' standard outfield alignment this season, it’s important to remember even the best-laid plans often go awry over the course of 162 games. That’s why the Cardinals aren’t carving anything into stone at this point in the spring—there’s no sense in anointing a trio of starters before Grapefruit League play has the chance to allow the cream to rise within the group.

“I hope to connect with that group over the next few days at some point and just let them know that I see what they’re looking at—and what they should see is opportunity,” Mozeliak said. “From a player’s standpoint, that’s one of the things you most covet. So hopefully they take advantage of it.”

Without a long-established player or large contract in the group, the gate appears wide open for production to be the most relevant factor in determining inclusion in Mike Shildt’s daily lineups. The veteran-most player remaining in the group is Bader, who only reached arbitration-eligibility for the first time leading up to the 2021 season.

The notion of piecing together the team’s daily outfield from this group of young, versatile options is an attractive one for the Cardinals front office.

“It’s an athletic group,” Mozeliak said. “The fact is, four out of five could play center field, which is very helpful. I also think there’s some unique power to that group, too. There’s a lot to be excited about. I think it just simply comes down to giving them that chance to go play.”

The Cardinals outfield over the past two years combined has ranked 21st in MLB in Weighted Runs Created Plus and 19th in Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs. The team lagged behind in outfield production in 2019, and it only got worse last off-season after they traded Randy Arozarena and watched Marcell Ozuna leave in free agency. Now the Cardinals have jettisoned Fowler to open things up for a crop of players that manager Mike Shildt believes will be eager to push one another as each looks to cement his role in the success of the group.

“One of the things I appreciate about the dynamic of our clubhouse is you have people that are super intentional about helping other people, knowing that some of those people are coming after their jobs,” Shildt said. “So my hope for that group is that they work together, know they’re in competition—and they are competing for at-bats and opportunities on the field—but also know they’re in a team setting and to be respectful and share information and make sure it’s a healthy competition.” 

Fowler’s departure allows for a fresh slate for that competition, with the remaining candidates all in comparable stages of their respective careers. Still, it’s reasonable to note that those same candidates have struggled to gain collective traction in previous seasons. It’s possible, then, that the experiment falls flat, with the disappointing offensive output from the St. Louis outfield resembling a can being kicked down the road yet another year. But an honest-to-goodness competition to sort out the clutter from the capable isn’t the worst thing for a team that would like to avoid letting the next Arozarena escape their grasp.

The Cardinals consider left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore—the return in that trade with Tampa Bay—an important piece for their future. Parting with Arozarena before providing him a legitimate chance to showcase his ability, though, is a mistake the team would prefer not to repeat.

Among five fledgling players seeking to solidify their place, the Cardinals have effectively set the stage for a level competition—one that, in the months ahead, should produce valuable answers for long-lingering questions about the team’s remaining outfielders.

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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