The Ongoing Cardinals Outfield Battle


Even though the Cardinals traded away Harrison Bader last summer, they are still dealing with a crowded outfield mix. That’s thanks to the emergence of young players like Alec Burleson and Jordan Walker. Those two joined Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson in the battle for playing time. That’s five guys for three spots, since infielder Nolan Gorman has been taking the designated hitter slot on most days, with Willson Contreras getting a couple of nods there as well when not catching.

The crowding evidently got to be a bit too much, as Walker was surprisingly optioned down to the minors this week. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently addressed the move, as relayed by John Denton of (Twitter links). Mozeliak said the move was about getting some more consistency from this group, hoping that subtracting one member would make it easier for everyone to get into a good rhythm.

The results of this jockeying for playing time will have consequences for the club in the short term, as they are off to a rough 10-16 start and will need to gain ground in the coming months. There will also be long-term ramifications, since all of those players are still under club control next year. If the Cards find themselves outside the playoff picture in July, they could consider moving someone and still have plenty of options to fill the outfield. And , as we saw last year with the Bader deal, they could make a trade even when they are in contention. Those decisions will surely be based on how the individuals perform in the next few months, so let’s take a look at where things stand now.

Tyler O’Neill

O’Neill is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, turning 28 in June and having debuted in 2018. He has between four and five years of service time, meaning he can be controlled via arbitration for one more year before reaching free agency after the 2024 season.

He has shown the ability to be an excellent all-around player, especially in 2021. O’Neill hit 34 home runs that year and slashed .286/.352/.560 overall for a wRC+ of 144. He also stole 15 bases and was graded well for his glovework in left field, leading to a tally of 5.6 wins above replacement, per the calculations of FanGraphs. That currently stands out as a career year for O’Neill, who was slowed by injuries last year. He only got into 96 games and had a diminished .228/.308/.392 batting line (101 wRC+). This year, he’s hitting just .256/.318/.385 for a wRC+ of 98.

O’Neill and manager Oli Marmol got in a public spat earlier in the year when the latter accused the former of improper hustle and spoke to the media about it. O’Neill disagreed with the sentiment that he wasn’t giving his all and also didn’t seem to care for the issue being aired so openly. He was benched for one game but has been getting regular playing time since, seeming to suggest there’s no lingering ill will from the dust-up. He got some time in center field earlier in the year but has been back in left for the past couple of weeks.

Some observers have pointed to the fact that Bader was also criticized by Marmol for a lack of hustle last year, just about six weeks before he was flipped to the Yankees, therefore suggesting the writing is on the wall for O’Neill. That’s pure speculation, but O’Neill is the most logical trade candidate since he’s the oldest and closest to free agency. However, dealing him would be selling low unless he can regain some of that excellent form he showed a couple of years ago.

Lars Nootbaar

Nootbaar is in his third major league season but was frequently optioned in the first couple, meaning he’s played just 178 games thus far. He initially hovered around league average at the plate but has taken steps forward over the past year or so, seeming to thrive when he got more regular playing time. Bader went on the IL June 27 of last year with plantar fasciitis, moving Carlson over to center and opening right field for Nootbaar. Bader was then traded before even recovering from that ailment. Since that time, Nootbaar has walked almost as much as he’s been punched out, getting a free pass 17.2% of the time compared to an 18.4% strikeout rate. That’s led to a .244/.373/.478 batting line and a 141 wRC+. His strong results at the plate are backed up by Statcast, who ranked him in the 90th percentile last year in terms of average exit velocity, 80th in hard hit rate and 85th in barrel rate.

That strong work at the plate is accompanied by excellent glovework as well. Nootbaar has played all three outfield positions and has tallied two Outs Above Average, six Defensive Runs Saved and a 6.7 grade from Ultimate Zone Rating. In the comments from Mozeliak linked above, he said Nootbaar will be the regular center fielder going forward.

Nootbaar seems like a solid long-term piece for the Cardinals given his well-rounded contributions. He’s currently 25 years old and has between one and two years of service time. He won’t reach arbitration until after 2024 and isn’t slated for free agency until after 2027. Over the winter, both the Athletics (in Sean Murphy discussions) and Marlins (in Pablo Lopez talks) brought up Nootbaar as a target of interest, but the Cardinals rebuffed those overtures.

Alec Burleson

Unlike O’Neill and Nootbaar, Burleson has fewer dimensions to his game. His defense is generally considered subpar, even when limited to the corners, and Statcast pegs him in the 24th percentile in terms of sprint speed. He’s seen a bit of time at first base, dating back to last season.

The appeal of Burleson is his bat, which has the potential to hit for both contact and power. Outside of a brief debut in High-A in 2021, he’s generally been difficult to strike out both in the majors and the minors. He’s had only 134 major league plate appearances so far but has been punched out at just a 14.2% rate, well below this year’s 23% league average. He’s hit three home runs so far and currently has a line of .236/.295/.444. That’s just slightly above average, translating to a 104 wRC+, but that’s not bad for a player still getting his feet wet in the majors. He hit 20 home runs in 109 Triple-A games last year and slashed .331/.372/.532 (137 wRC+).

Burleson is just 24 years old and has less than a year of service, meaning he won’t qualify for arbitration until after 2025 and isn’t slated for free agency until 2028. He could be a long-term option in the corners for St. Louis, but he isn’t an exact match for their typical M.O. of placing an emphasis on defense.

Dylan Carlson

Carlson was considered one of the top prospects in baseball not too long ago, with Baseball America having him in the top 10 league-wide in 2020 and 2021. He got regular playing time over the past two years and proved himself to be a serviceable player with average-ish hitting and defense. Carlson hit .253/.331/.412 for a wRC+ of 107 over 2021 and 2022, walking and striking out at roughly league average rates. All three of DRS, OAA and UZR considered his glovework average or slightly above.

He’s been the one most squeezed by the logjam so far, only starting 10 of the club’s 26 games. The part-time role hasn’t suited him, as he’s hitting just .250/.308/.333 on the season for a wRC+ of 83. Perhaps he is the player with the most to gain from Walker’s demotion, as he will hopefully get some more trips to the plate and get into a better groove. He’s 24 years old but has between two and three years of service time already. He’s on pace to qualify for arbitration this winter and reach free agency in the 2026-27 offseason.

Jordan Walker

Walker parlayed a hot spring into an Opening Day roster spot despite being just 20 years old, turning 21 in May. He stayed hot to start the season, getting a hit in his first 12 games while slashing .319/.360/.489. He cooled off a bit from there, hitting just .192/.250/.231 since then. That latter line is a tiny sample of eight games, but the club still felt the best decision for everyone involved was for him to get regular at-bats in the minors and to spread his playing time around to the others. Between both of those stretches, he only walked in 3.8% of his trips to the plate.

Walker is still one of the best prospects in the game and will no doubt be back at some point. An injury to one of the other outfielders would quickly make space for him. He was on track to earn a full year of service this year but could wind up shy of that, depending how long he’s down on the farm.

Juan Yepez

Yepez has mashed in the minors over the past few years, hitting .252/.343/.487 in Double-A and .281/.362/.575 in Triple-A. He’s seemingly capable of carrying that over to the big leagues as well, having hit .257/.297/.453 for a wRC+ of 111 in 286 plate appearances. The problem is that he’s not considered a strong runner or defender. He could be a useful bat-first player in a corner spot, but the Cards have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at first and third, in addition to the crowded outfield mix. Yepez is 25 years old and still has a couple of option years, meaning the Cards can keep him as a depth piece for quite a while if they so choose.

Moises Gomez

Gomez isn’t considered a great runner or defender, nor does he have strong bat-to-ball skills. His standout tool is his power. Gomez hit 39 home runs last year in 120 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but also struck out in 34.7% of his plate appearances. He was added to the 40-man roster at season’s end to prevent him from reaching minor league free agency but is off to a slow start this year. Through 20 Triple-A games, he’s cut his strikeout rate to 24.7% but has gone deep just once and is walking just 4.7% of the time. His .234/.282/.351 batting line amounts to a wRC+ of 58.


There’s plenty of talent amid these options and it seems entirely possible that a trade will be on the table this summer, whether the Cardinals climb back into contention or not. They could easily move one of these players for some pitching, just like they did with Bader last year, and still have good options for filling out the lineup card every night. The club’s front office has just over three months to decide how to play it.

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