With the Cardinals season having come to an end, it’s time to look back and reflect on the year that was with player grades. We’ve already covered the pitching staff and the infielders, so it’s time to wrap up the report cards with a look into the St. Louis outfielders.
These grades are obviously going to be subjective, and I won’t hide this in my grading: My grades are tied strongly to how well the performance matched expectations. I may grade some players more favorably than others even if their stats are objectively inferior. If a player fell short of expectations, my grade will reflect that.
Harrison Bader: A
Bader might not have been a prospect garnering national attention coming into the season, like Juan Soto or Ozzie Albies, but he let his play speak for itself nonetheless. Particularly after the trade of Tommy Pham, Bader roamed center field at Busch Stadium like he owned it. Per FanGraphs, Bader finished the year ranked 10th among NL outfielders in WAR (3.5), while receiving fewer plate appearances than every player higher than him on the list. He flashed some power (20 doubles, two triples, 12 HRs, .422 SLG), some speed (15 for 18 in stolen base attempts) and enough defensive value (19 Defensive Runs Saved) to likely convince the Cardinals he’s the man they’ve been looking for to fill the void in center for more than just a spell. Bader entered 2018 as a projected 4th outfielder-type at the MLB level and he leaves it seemingly locked into the starting center field job in St. Louis. And he earned every bit of it.
Tyler O’Neill: B+
O’Canada saw just 142 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2018, but he came as advertised in those chances. He flashed the enticing raw power fans have been hearing about since he arrived in the trade for Marco Gonzales. O’Neill slugged .500 with St. Louis while bashing nine home runs, though he could certainly stand to develop more plate discipline--he only walked five times this season. O’Neill’s exciting, though, because he’s a pretty complete player. He’s an athletic defender with good speed on the bases. There’s always the chance he’s Randal Grichuk 2.0, but O’Neill’s power might even be greater than Grichuk’s. If he can sustain it, he’s going to be a heck of a value for the Cardinals in the years ahead.
Marcell Ozuna: C-
The Cardinals scored 761 runs in 2017, which ranked 13th in MLB. That wasn’t good enough. Desperate for an impact bat, John Mozeliak went out and traded for Marcell Ozuna. In 2017, Ozuna looked like the impact bat the Cardinals sought, but that was the first such season of his career. Regression was expected, yet the Cardinals didn’t upgrade the lineup in any significant way beyond Ozuna. That proved to be a lost gamble, as St. Louis scored two fewer runs (759) this season compared to 2017, while Ozuna turned in a decidedly average campaign. Ozuna’s .756 OPS was lower than Stephen Piscotty (.821) and Randal Grichuk (.803), the outfielders St. Louis cleared out last off-season to make room for Ozuna's “impact bat.” Ozuna’s right shoulder was compromised, something the Cardinals reportedly knew when they acquired him. That may have played a role in his underwhelming offensive numbers, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals hinged their off-season on him--and it didn’t pan out. At least, not in year one. Now go get that shoulder fixed, Marcell.
Adolis Garcia: F
I know, I know, it’s harsh! But I don’t give incompletes, I think it’s a cop out. Garcia went 2 for 17 (.118) and committed the most egregious base running blunder of the season when he blew a tire rounding third base in a critical spot of the season’s final week. It was a brutal introduction to the majors, but this grade should absolutely be taken with a grain of salt. Consider it based on one homework assignment while the other players are being graded on the final exam. Garcia didn’t get a lot of chances for success, and he muffed the one he had; by no means was his one mistake the reason the Cardinals missed the postseason.
Dexter Fowler: F
We’ve known for some time that 2018 would be a year to forget for Dexter Fowler. Long after his miserable start to the season turned into a miserable season in general, Fowler began to finally turn the corner as Mike Shildt promised him a consistent spot in the lineup to find his stroke. Not long after, he suffered a fractured foot that ultimately ended his season. Perhaps he’d have turned things around if not for the injury, but as it happened, Fowler’s season concluded with a .180 average. He slugged below .300. Save for a couple memorable home runs, not much was redeemable about Fowler’s season. The Cardinals staked a lot on Fowler’s success in right field, and it came back to haunt them. The .697 OPS produced by Cardinals right fielders in 2018 ranked 26th in MLB. Fowler was a considerable part of that, hence his failing grade for the season.
Overall Final Grade: C+
The bottom fell out of Fowler’s performance from the jump; among 278 MLB players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2018, Fowler ranked 270th in wRC+. Ozuna never lived up to the billing. 143 of his 146 starts came in the clean-up spot in the order, a spot in which the Cardinals ranked 18th in the majors in OPS this season. Before the Cardinals traded him on July 31st, Tommy Pham carried a .730 OPS. Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill provided solid value once given the chance, but their contributions weren’t enough to overcome the disappointment elsewhere in the outfield.
2018 CARDINALS FINAL GRADES
FINAL TEAM GRADE: B-
With an 88-74 record on the season, the Cardinals finished right around the pre-season expectations. Of course, they didn’t arrive there the way we expected. And though the Cardinals reached the projected win total, they entered the final week of the season with every opportunity to get over the hump and back into the playoffs. Instead, they succumbed all at once to the underlying flaws of the roster--the lack of impact hitting, a shaky bullpen and a starting rotation too dependent on youth following the attrition of anticipated workhorses over the course of the summer.
The team projects to return impressive starting pitching depth, but as we just saw, you can always bet on that depth being tested to the extreme. The front office shouldn’t take that for granted in developing its plan for the off-season. The glaring need for an impact bat wasn’t properly addressed last winter--Ozuna was merely a justifiable value proposition considering the package to acquire him was pretty painless to the organization’s depth. Unwillingness to offer premium prospects to upgrade the roster last winter can be excused by the knowledge that some of those blue chip pieces (Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, Tyler O’Neill, etc.) made considerable contributions to the big club this year and project to do so in the future.
However, it’s critical that last off-season--which again, hinged on the Ozuna trade--represents the last in which the Cardinals refuse to be aggressive with their resources in addressing key deficiencies to the roster. Fortunately for them, the resource of choice this winter doesn’t have to be prospects. With a couple big fish on the free agent market, it’s only going to take money to transform this franchise back into the one its fans have come to expect.
Will Bill DeWitt green light a competitive offer to a 26-year-old superstar this winter? And if so, will John Mozeliak be able to seal that deal? The opportunity exists for this to be a momentous off-season in St. Louis. It’s up to those two men to make it happen.