Outfield Targets: Internal or External?
If the season were to start tomorrow, the Cardinals outfield would likely consist of Tyler O'Neill in left, Dylan Carlson in center, & Lars Nootbaar in right. There have been many fans speculating whether the Cardinals would entertain the idea of adding another outfielder. Personally, I would like to improve from Nootbaar.
Don't get me wrong, Nootbaar is a solid player. He also brought that "spark" to the team last year. But let's look at his play. In 2022, he hit .228/.340/.448 with 14 home runs and stealing a few bases. The 14 home runs is really out of character. I think people see that in just over 200 at bats and they might think he's capable of hitting 20 home runs. I would pump the brakes as he has never hit more than 7 in the minor leagues. I think he can make the perfect 4th outfielder.
Who would slide in and take over RF? Let's look at 3 targets I really like. Let's begin the the internal option: top prospect Jordan Walker. If you ask anyone around the game (the experts) who they think the NL Rookie of the Year in 2023 will be, Jordan Walker will be one of the most common answers. Walker is a 1st round draft pick in what could be a historic 2020 draft that also featured Masyn Winn, Tink Hence, & Alec Burleson. In Walker's 2 seasons in the minors, he has averaged .310/.388/.525 with about 17 home runs. Quite impressive for a kid that can't buy a drink.
2022 saw Walker shoot up the prospect ranks into the top 10 to finish the season. When MLB Pipeline releases their 2023 list, don't be surprised to see Walker at the top. This is in part of his spectacular performance in the Arizona Fall League. This is where many top prospects from around the league compete for a month. During that time, he showed off his arm, his range, his speed and most notably, his hit tool. He is the definition of a 5 tool player. In 21 games, he hit .286/.367/.558 with 5 home runs and 3 steals. However, there are likely going to be some growing pains as he is still learning to be an outfielder.
In years past, the Cardinals would likely keep Walker down the first few weeks to gain an extra year of control (very much like what the Cubs did with Kris Bryant in 2015). However, with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed upon in 2021, there is a clause in there that encourages teams to promote their top prospects. It states that if an eligible prospect makes the Opening Day roster, receives a full year of service time, and receives strong consideration for an award (Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, or MVP) before their arbitration years, the team will receive draft pick compensation after the first round. Walker would certainly fit the bill with this clause. If he has a great spring, I think it's a safe bet you will see Walker in right field on Opening Day.
There are 2 external options I feel the Cardinals should certainly explore. The Los Angeles Dodgers made waves by not tendering a contract to former Rookie of the Year & MVP Cody Bellinger. Since winning the MVP however, he has been a shell of his former self. Many believe that Bellinger's downward spiral is a result of this home run celebration from Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS.
Bellinger wound up having surgery on that shoulder that offseason and his production hasn't been the same. Personally, I think it's more to do with this swing. Which is why he is working with Matt Holliday. This is notable because Holliday is now the bench coach for the Cardinals so he has first hand knowledge of Bellinger's swing. Holliday has been credited to fixing the swings of Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Matt Carpenter of late. Goldy won MVP, Arenado finished 3rd in MVP, and Carpenter had a resurgence with the Yankees prior to being injured.
It's unknown what kind of contract Bellinger is looking for. Many expect him to take a 1 year "prove it" deal and then seek a long term deal next offseason. I think the Cardinals could actually give him a 5 year deal with mutual options both of the first 2 seasons of the deal. It would be rewarding for both the team and Bellinger. Bellinger could love his time in St. Louis and stay with the team, should they want him, but it also gives him the opportunity to explore a new deal elsewhere.
Should the Cardinals sign Bellinger, this would slide Carlson back to right field. Bellinger won a Gold Glove in 2019 and has been one of the better defenders ever since. With the "inside" information that the Cardinals now have now that Holliday had been working with him, don't be surprised if you see Bellinger wearing Cardinal red.
That leads us to the news of the day. Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Bryan Reynolds has been subject to trade rumors in the past, especially this past trade deadline where many speculated the Pirates would trade him since they aren't all that close to competing. When the offseason started, Pirates GM Ben Cherington said they had no plans to trade Reynolds. Then word came out, from Pirates beat writer Jason Mackey, that he reportedly is asking to be traded.
As Mackey notes, he said it doesn't appear the Pirates will immediately move him. Shortly later, the Pirates said that they will not be honoring Reynolds' request.
Reynolds certainly would be a hot commodity if he actually is available. A 27 year old former All Star, he finished his 4th season with a career high 27 home runs. He is an above average player slashing .281/.361/.481 and averaging more than 20 home runs per season.
Reynolds is actually a below average defender so it would be interesting to see if he shifts to a corner outfield spot. Hypothetically, what would it take to acquire Bryan Reynolds. As we know, the Pirates and Cardinals were trade partners at the trade deadline where we acquired Jose Quintana and Chris Stratton. One would have to assume, the Pirates are already familiar with the prospects of the Cardinals. I would think the Pirates would want an MLB ready player at the forefront. Players that fit that would include Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Lars Nootbaar, & Jordan Walker. Walker I think it untouchable. I'm not sure if the Pirates would be interested in Gorman since they have Ke'Bryan Hayes there who is quickly becoming one of the best defenders at the hot corner. That makes me think Matthew Liberatore would be the centerpiece. If you also include top prospect Masyn Winn, to go along with Liberatore, that would likely get the Pirates to seriously consider making the trade. Sure they already have an electric shortstop in Oneil Cruz, but they could move him to CF himself.
Personally, I would like for them to have Jordan Walker or Cody Bellinger in the outfield come Opening Day. Hell, why not both and have one of the 4 outfielders DH. What say you? Take our poll below and let us know your thoughts!
Who would you like in the Cardinals outfield for Opening Day 2023?
- O'Neill, Carlson, Nootbaar
- O'Neill, Carlson, Walker
- O'Neill, Bellinger, Carlson
- O'Neill, Carlson, Reynolds