Harrison Bader is confident he’ll be in center field for the St. Louis Cardinals when the season begins.
“I’m the starting center fielder,” Bader, 25, said. “It’s my position. I’m going to take it. There’s no sense in talking about it. I’m looking forward to showing up day one, guns blazing and ready to go.”
While there is no question about his defensive ability and speed in center, it’s his bat that gives some pause. For Bader, a starter in center field last season, the key to remaining in the lineup is finding comfort and consistency at the plate.
Last season, Bader finished with a .205 batting average. He hit 12 home runs, drove in 39 runs and stole 11 bases.
“Last year, individually it wasn’t what I wanted it to be production-wise,” Bader said. “The biggest thing I’ve taken away at this point is how I responded. I’ve been very fortunate to be with people behind the scenes who’ve helped me take steps in the right direction to help me produce like I want to and how I know I can.
“There’s no secret to it. There’s no special sauce. This is a day-in and day-out grind. My swing is feeling really good. All you can do is go out there and play hard. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
“My bat was not present last year. Plain and simple,” Bader said. “It showed up a couple of times, but I wasn’t nearly as consistent as I needed to be.”
However, following the season, he was a Gold Glove finalist.
“The Gold Glove recognition was nice. As tough as it was at the plate, you don’t want that to carry over into the field,” Bader said. “Regardless if I’m a .330 hitter or what I was last year as a hitter, I always want to play like a Gold Glove center fielder. That mentality will always stick with me.”
Center field will likely be one of the most competitive battles for the Cardinals this spring.
Ironically, the man whose job Bader took is helping Bader hold onto his job. He worked out with Tommy Pham in the offseason.
“He’s just somebody I’ve gravitated toward my entire career, just purely based upon his work ethic, how seriously he takes not only himself but the game – and how much he cherishes it,” said Bader, who worked out with Pham five times a week at Bommarito Performance Systems in Florida. “To have that energy around you, especially during the offseason when things can get a little sideways, to have him on a day-to-day basis to work with, I wouldn’t trade it for anybody in the world.”
Of Bader, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak said: “He’s an elite defender, but when you don’t have the offense and you’re looking for ways to score runs, you would like to see contributions come from multiple areas. But look, he’s an amazing talent from a defensive standpoint, so he’s worth his weight there, but having someone become a more productive hitter – and when you see him go to Triple-A and become more effective, it becomes somewhat of a head-scratcher. We know it’s there, he’s got to find a way to do it consistently at the Major League level.”
If Bader continues to struggle at the plate, the Cardinals have a bevy of options to replace him in center, including Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas and rookie Dylan Carlson.
Carlson is considered one of the team’s top breakout prospects this season. Last year, he hit .292 with 26 homers and 20 steals as a 21-year-old between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis. He also has above-average speed and shows the instincts that could make him a standout defender in center.
But Bader has his own strategy.
“I’m thankful for every day I get to wear this uniform. I want to be a Cardinal. I have been a Cardinal since day one. I want myself to be a consistent bat. I want to be a very hard out, night in and night out. I don’t want any pitching staff or pitcher to think I’m an easy out,” Bader said. “I have a year of experience under my belt, so I’m just going to go out there and focus on winning baseball games, man. That’s all there is to it.”