There will come a day when I don’t have to slide a ‘they should still sign Bryce Harper’ caveat into every article analyzing the 2019 Cardinals, but because that day has not yet arrived, let’s get it out of the way early this time: the Cardinals should make a bid for a 26-year-old superstar in free agency, but they’re not going to.
Great, now that we’ve covered that, let’s dig into the actual roster a bit with this question: of the four main elements of a baseball team--infielders, outfielders, starting pitchers and relief pitchers (sorry, bench guys)--which unit will be most important for the Cardinals if they are to succeed in 2019? It’ll be hard for St. Louis to reach its goals if any one of the four completely flames out, but I’d argue there’s one group in particular whose performance will fall under the microscope more closely than the others this season.
Very rarely does a starting rotation make it through a season with good health fully intact. Even in a year like 2018 where the injury bug bit Cardinals starters with an irritating vigor (Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes all missed significant time), St. Louis had the depth to withstand it. Since nearly all of that depth returns for 2019, it seems reasonable to hold high expectations for the group.
The Cardinals rotation should be solid.
As for the infield, it boasts the new best player on the team. Paul Goldschmidt rounds out a unit that features the following: a hitter who finished sixth among qualifying NL hitters in OPS last season, a 2018 Gold Glove finalist, a shortstop who, despite regression at the plate last season, still managed to compile 3.3 fWAR, landing him among league leaders at the position, and oh yeah... a future Hall of Famer behind the plate.
The Cardinals infield should be solid.
The bullpen was definitively the worst element of the 2018 Cardinals, as team relievers combined for the 20th ranked ERA in MLB (4.38). Another jarring stat: the three top-paid relievers in that bullpen (Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil) combined to earn $26.75 million while allowing 58 earned runs in 70.1 innings pitched (7.42 ERA). Needless to say, the bullpen can’t afford to be abysmal again, and it probably won’t be. Andrew Miller should give the Cardinals a dynamic lefty in relief--Genesis Cabrera could be another one, at some point. Jordan Hicks should continue to hone his craft, and there’s a distinct possibility he’ll have Alex Reyes to contend with for save opportunities, should the latter shift to the bullpen in his return from injury this season.
You may have thought the bullpen was the direction I was heading with this article, but it’s not. The Cardinals bullpen should be adequate, at worst. Call it bold, but I don’t anticipate the bullpen being the culprit should the Cardinals miss the playoffs again.
The difference between another October at home and the revival of postseason baseball in St. Louis could come down to the collective performance of the Cardinals outfielders.
The expectation at present is for Marcell Ozuna, Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler to comprise the primary outfield alignment for the Cardinals. The way I see it, out of every group on the roster, there may not be a wider variance in potential outcomes than for this trio.
Left field: Marcell Ozuna
Working from left to right, Ozuna’s debut season with the Cardinals wasn’t a total disaster, but it didn’t quite live up to expectations, either. The only significant addition to the St. Louis lineup the previous winter, Ozuna’s .758 OPS was fourth-best out of his six seasons in the big leagues, a far cry from the .924 mark he posted the previous season with Miami.
Every year, there seems to be at least one crushing injury that emerges in the spring, and for a minute there, it definitely felt as though an Ozuna setback could be the 2019 edition after some comments made by the team at Winter Warm-Up stirred up a bit of consternation regarding the left fielder’s recovery from shoulder surgery.
“I think he’ll be ready to go in spring. I’m not overly concerned,” John Mozeliak said. “He’s going to spend the remainder of his off-season in the Dominican Republic, which is not ideal in terms of our medical staff being able to get a firm grasp of where he’s at.”
Mozeliak said then that he was slated to visit Ozuna while he was in the Dominican Republic to get a sense of where Ozuna was in his recovery. That visit took place and positive reports on Ozuna’s condition followed.
The next task for Ozuna will be to build up strength during spring training, so he’s ready to go when Opening Day arrives. The decision to go under the knife on his right shoulder should do wonders for the throwing arm of the former Gold Glove outfielder who more closely resembled a lead glove recipient last season with the Cardinals--but ideally, improved defense is just part of the benefit.
Cardinals left fielders combined for a .769 OPS in 2018, which ranked 16th across MLB--a decidedly average output helmed by Ozuna. The repaired shoulder should allow Ozuna to reclaim the smooth power stroke that earned him a Silver Slugger Award, with career-highs in every major offensive category, back in 2017. Even if Ozuna can split the difference between his .924 OPS from that season and last year’s .758 output, the Cardinals would gladly take it.
Likely slotting back into his familiar role in the four-hole, St. Louis needs Ozuna to ‘clean up’ more often than he did a year ago as he heads into a contract year.
Center field: Harrison Bader
Harrison Bader was a breakout sensation for the Cardinals last season, defying tepid prospect projections and assaulting the league with an exuberant brand of baseball embodied by speed, hustle and athleticism. Bader compiled 3.5 fWAR in 379 plate appearances, and frankly, was robbed of his deserving place among Gold Glove finalists. His performance while roaming center field is what put him on the map, but Bader also put together a respectable .264/.334/.422 line at the plate (106 OPS+) to establish himself as the team’s de facto center fielder heading into 2019.
The challenge for Bader is to avoid the sophomore slump. I liken it to the situation Paul DeJong faced after finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2017; another player the Cardinals loved internally, but whose profile nationally was low before his debut, DeJong compiled a robust .857 OPS that season, bursting onto the scene as the latest ‘Where the heck did this guy come from?’ example in the Cardinals impressive history of player development. Kind of like what Bader did last year.
DeJong set the bar for himself pretty high with that 2017 campaign, and though he regressed offensively last season (his OPS fell more than 100 points to .746, his OPS+ from 121 to 102), his sturdy defense meant his contribution to the club remained positive in 2018. Now, Bader didn’t post Paul DeJong numbers at the plate in his rookie season, but in a similar way, he will need to rely on his ability to play consistent defense to keep his bat in the lineup throughout the summer.
Any effort to avoid a sophomore slump has to start with Bader improving his troublesome strikeout rate (29.3%), as with his speed, any ball in play has a chance to lead to runs for the Cardinals.
Right field: Dexter Fowler
Time to discuss the most polarizing player on the team--and how could he not be? There’s no denying Dexter Fowler’s performance last year was simply egregious. Among 136 NL players with at least 300 plate appearances, Fowler ranked 136th in fWAR (-1.2) in 2018. Throwing AL players into the mix, Fowler was 275th out of 278. After the 2017 outfield underwhelmed, the Cardinals shipped out Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to make room for Marcell Ozuna. Though nobody in that 2017 group was nearly as bad as Fowler was in 2018, the Cardinals showed urgency to try and improve a weakness to their team.
So why are the Cardinals giving Fowler a mulligan in the same winter that features a generational right field talent still scouring the classified ads mere days before spring training is set to begin?
The short answer: the Cardinals believe in Fowler, and they’re paying him either way. Regardless of which of those two tenants weighs more heavily in the team’s holding pattern in its outfield this winter, the result is a fresh start for Fowler heading into 2019. Though it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s definitely a risky thing. Yes, there’s plenty to suggest that a new manager coupled with a healthier mind and body could allow Fowler to once again bring stable production to the St. Louis outfield--and the $49.5 million he’s owed over the next three years presents ample incentive for the Cardinals to test that hypothesis--but the natives have long since grown restless.
Cardinals fans don’t like watching October from the sidelines alongside their favorite team. They’re anxious to turn Busch Stadium back into a sea of red during baseball’s most exciting month. Though the team has made improvements this winter, the concern that right field reverts back to the black hole it was last season when the Cardinals ranked 26th in MLB in OPS at the position is one of the more palpable among the fan base.
Dexter Fowler can put that all to rest by channeling his performance from his debut season in St. Louis back in 2017. Until that happens, questions of Fowler as the path of least resistance in right field will persist.
While the outlook on the Cardinals outfield is generally positive, the path toward it becoming a problem area for St. Louis--another health issue for Ozuna, regression at the plate for Bader and the inability to rebound from last year’s debacle for Fowler--isn’t difficult to map out. The Cardinals do have options like Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez available if the core trio doesn’t pan out. For a team saying 'no thanks,' to Bryce Harper, it’ll be critical for that depth to arise if and when it is called upon this season.