ST. LOUIS – “Who’s on first?” is a frequently asked question in the baseball world. “Who’s in the outfield?” is a development worth following more closely in 2023 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Finding the best outfield combination has been a challenge for the Cardinals in recent years. St. Louis has changed its Opening Day outfield nine times over the past decade and begun new seasons with starting different combinations all but two times in the 21st century.
The right outfield combination can separate an average baseball team from a postseason contender and a postseason contender from World Series aspirations. Teams traditionally deploy some of their top hitters at the position, though the Cardinals also value defense and speed to patrol the land before the bleachers.
Finding a balance for all of those tools will be crucial if the Cardinals not only hope for a fifth straight postseason run, but to stack up against big offseason spenders, like the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres.
The Cardinals currently roster eight players who had MLB outfield experience last year, though some in very limited capacities. There’s chance for major upside among those players among that bunch, none older than 27 years old. A few newcomers have a chance to potentially join an already-crowded group this season as well.
Plans could change come spring, but here’s a closer look at how the Cardinals might begin the season at outfield…
Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill
In a December media briefing, Cardinals manager said he envisioned Lars Nootbaar as an “everyday” outfielder and a comeback year from the longest-tenured outfielder Tyler O’Neill.
Nootbaar led all full-time Cardinals outfielders with a 2.2 WAR last season, bouncing back after a slow start and emerging as a fan favorite after 10 home runs, 26 RBI and a .846 OPS in the season’s second half. Nootbaar has been putting in some work this offseason to improve his bat speed and is capable of above-average defense at all three outfield positions.
O’Neill carried the Cardinals during a critical stretch in 2021, smashing 13 home runs with 30 RBI in September alone. He’s also coming off back-to-back seasons with double digit stolen bases and became the defacto centerfielder after the Cardinals traded Harrison Bader. Injuries and strikeouts plagued O’Neill for much of last season, though adjustments would work in his favor with him due for a new contract possibly as soon as 2024.
Competing For Starts
Dylan Carlson, Juan Yepez, Jordan Walker
Some of the top-touted prospects in recent Cardinals history will have a chance to try and separate themselves from the competition.
Dylan Carlson, who finished third place in NL rookie of the year voting in 2021, battled various injuries and sophomore slumps last year, represented by a .205 second-half batting average and just 13 starts in the season’s final two months. Carlson has been developed as a centerfielder for much of his career, but Marmol noted last month that the center field job was “wide open,” whether it mean for him, Nootbaar, O’Neill or someone different.
Juan Yepez, more of an infielder by trait, found himself patrolling corner outfield spots often last year to get his power into lineups. There’s room for improvement in his fielding, but scouts have also praised him for a strong arm. Yepez could be a difference maker if the offense falls into a prolonged funk, as proven by his Game 1 home run last year when runs were hard to come by in the Wild Card round.
Jordan Walker, the sixth-best prospect in baseball per MLB pipeline, just wrapped up an impressive 2022 campaign for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals. The 2020 first-round pick enjoyed a .306 batting average, 68 RBI, 100 runs scored and a near 20/20 campaign. Walker spent some time this offseason working in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League. If he can quickly learn a new position without sacrificing his standout offense, he could be a regular in the St. Louis outfield sooner than later.
Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman
It’s fair to say that Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman are favorites to get into the lineup on a near everyday basis this year, but their position could change on a game-to-game basis given how matchups stack up for others. Donovan played 37 games in the outfield in his rookie slate last year, while Edman has played 78 games in the outfield over his first four St. Louis seasons.
Both were nominated for super-utility Gold Glove awards last year, and Donovan ended up taking honors. Fans will more likely see Edman and Donovan covering the middle infield this year, but their versatility has helped in recent seasons amid injuries and times where the Cardinals hope to maximize production out of other infield bats.
Next Men Up
Mike Antico, Alec Burleson, Mosies Gomez, Oscar Mercado
It’s unclear how many full-time and part-time outfielders the Cardinals will open the new season with, but there are intriguing talents of all kinds within the minors.
Alec Burleson likely would have the best track to MLB time after debuting last September. The 24-year-old enjoyed a .331 batting average with 20-plus home runs and doubles last season for Triple-A Memphis. Burleson has shown signs as a disciplined hitter, and the Cardinals will ultimately have to decide if he needs a little more development or can handle a bench spot and occasional corner outfield starts this year.
Moises Gomez, with proper development, brings some raw power that has proven scarce at times for St. Louis in recent years. Gomez broke the Cardinals farm record with 39 minor-league home runs last season with time split between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. The Cardinals added Gomez to the 40-man roster in the offseason to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent, a move that shows the Cardinals could consider him for a MLB promotion in the near future.
Oscar Mercado is a former prospect of the St. Louis Cardinals seeking another chance at the majors. Mercado enjoyed a strong rookie season with Cleveland in 2019 (.269 average, 15 home runs, 54 RBI), but hasn’t had the same production or opportunities since then. He is currnetly auditioning for the Cardinals on a minor league contract.
Of this bunch, Mike Antico is probably the longest shot to play in St. Louis this season. The 24-year-old is an intriguing case for the future though, leading all Cardinals prospects with 67 stolen bases last season. He takes a lot of walks and also offers stout fielding, some mechanics the Cardinals could consider for a role spot down the stretch.