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‘Put me out there, let me play’: Young Cardinals seek to make their mark in outfield

Youth and opportunity — that’s the plan as the St. Louis Cardinals go all in this season to give their young outfielders ample time to show they can succeed in the major leagues.

The Cardinals have a glut of young outfielders they want to give playing time to this year. 

At press time, it looks like it will be Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill, 25, in left field; Harrison Bader, 26, in center; and Dylan Carlson, 22, in right. Expected to push, if not compete, for a job are 25-year-old Lane Thomas, Justin Williams, 25, and Austin Dean, 27.

Dylan Carlson
Carlson (Source: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

One also can expect Tommy Edman, who will be playing second base, to see time in the outfield if Matt Carpenter sees time at second.

St. Louis will be relying on its youth to step up in a major way this season.

The Cardinals shuffled veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels 

The Cardinals shuffled veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels this winter, creating more room for the young guns to patrol the green spaces in Busch Stadium. Fowler, who turns 35 this month, can play all three outfield positions but the Cardinals chose to give the others more at-bats. The switch-hitting Fowler batted .233 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 23 games last season, his fourth with St. Louis.

The Cardinals also dealt Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay. A deal that resulted in gaining talented young southpaw Matthew Liberatore. But left fans questioning its wisdom.

Arozarena caught fire during the 2020 postseason, setting records for the Rays with the most postseason hits and home runs in a losing effort in the World Series. That kind of offensive production caused Cardinals fans to become upset with a deal that didn’t look as good in hindsight as it did when it was made.

In a recent videoconference, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak did not pass the buck regarding the Arozarena trade.

“I will own that,” Mozeliak said. “That’s on me. You need to know your own players. We will revisit how we rank our own players and make sure that we don’t have something like this happen again.”

That strategy is one of the reasons why Mozeliak wants to see if his current crop of outfielders can produce. 

“Go back a year, and think about Arozarena. Here’s a player that we could not find at-bats for,” Mozeliak said via Zoom. “We put him in a deal, and then, of course, he becomes legendary in October. That is sort of my greatest fear. 

“Making sure we give these guys some true chance, I have a hard time accepting last year as a great sample size because it was such an unusual year for our team. Not making excuses, but when you have that quarantine, then another 10-day dead period, then you are told to go play. I just don’t think from a player standpoint, or even a pitching standpoint, that we ever really caught our stride.”

Mozeliak is faced with a pivotal question.

“Now, as we sit here, how do we create that opportunity moving forward?” he asked. “You have these guys that really want a chance to play, that want at-bats. That is probably going to be the most important thing to get right, or (where) we can’t make another mistake. 

“The most important part is, what do we do with them? Because we have to see an uptick in our offense or it’s going to be a long year.”

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is in favor of the move to give these outfielders a season to prove they belong.

“Opportunity tells you, ultimately, what a player’s going to be,” DeWitt said. “We’ve been in a position where, talking about the outfield, … there hasn’t been, particularly with the young guys, ‘Put me out there and let me play a full season, and then let me play next season.’

“We haven’t had that so much because we’re trying to win, and if someone gets hot you want to play them. We’ve had a number of them. There are only three spots in the outfield and you can’t play five outfielders. And I think that’s part of the dilemma here.”

Mozeliak is excited to see what the young outfielders will do with the large runway he’s put out there for them.

“I do think there will be some competition in the outfield between now and the time we open,” Mozeliak said. “I’m very comfortable with the depth, very comfortable with who could win or gain those opportunities in the outfield. But there will be competition out there and that’s good to see.”

Bader knows this is his opportunity to cement himself in center and in the lineup.

“There’s a window in this game. Every season is a clean slate,” Bader said in a video conference. “You take everything you’ve learned from years past — good, bad, whatever it is — and you just use it as fuel. I’m excited to press the reset button and just compete. That’s all there is to it.”

Defense will be of little worry with the group. There is confidence that this group will produce at the plate this summer. But the reality is that O’Neill and Bader have yet to find the sustained success in the batter’s box that they had in the minors. The same goes for Bader. Carlson, a top prospect, saw time in 2020 and is being counted on heavily to give the offense a spark.

Carlson has just 110 major league at-bats to his name. But he’s a top prospect and is considered as one of the best 25 players under 25. He has been touted as a National League Rookie of the Year candidate for 2021.

Carlson has learned a lot in the past year. He learned how to be a big leaguer, making his debut on Aug. 15 and notching his first hit in the nightcap of the day’s doubleheader. He learned how to handle the mental battles that come with being sent back down to the minors and then called back up again.

Mozeliak believes Carlson will blossom without the starts and stops that the pandemic caused last year.

“Somebody like Dylan Carlson is someone that I do think, over a full season, … is going to be a producer in our lineup,” Mozeliak said.

In the 23 games that followed Carlson’s big league debut, he hit just .162, with four extra-base hits. He was sent back to the team’s alternate training site, and when he returned after 10 days, hit .278 through the final 12 games of the season, with seven hits for extra bases.

“Coming back up a second time, it really opened my eyes to the way the game is played up here,” Carlson said in a video conference. “There is definitely a focus on playing 162 this year and getting the body prepared, getting stronger and mentally getting ready. I’m in a really good spot.”

Mozeliak agreed.

“Just from a very simple performance standpoint, you want to see how that second stint with a big leagueclub is something that can just continue over,” Mozeliak said. “But I think, more importantly, a lot of times with young players, it really comes down to just confidence and knowing that they belong. I think in Dylan’s case when you look at how he played when he was up for the second time, he felt like he knew he belonged.”

While DeWitt noted that success in the minors hasn’t translated to the big leagues yet for his outfielder, he thinks it’s just a matter of time. He has been patient.

“We know that guys like Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and others have performed exceptionally well in Triple A and through the minors coming up,” DeWitt said. “And you show progression there, into the major leagues. But there aren’t many players who pop into the major leagues and just turn it on right away. So patience and time are helpful. I think that’s part of what we need to do in the future. This coming year and in the future, we need to put guys out there who we think have the talent and let ’em play and see what we have.”

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