With the exceptions of Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and maybe Matt Carpenter, no player was a more pivotal focal point of St. Louis Cardinals marketing during the 2018-19 off-season than center fielder Harrison Bader. Not quite a non-prospect but arriving in St. Louis was marginal hype, Bader burst into the regular Cardinals position player rotation with a 2018 season marked by exceptional base running and fielding and above-average offense. A 106 wRC+ is 6% above league-average, fine but not exactly notable, but because he was so good at the other facets of baseball, Harrison Bader’s 2018 season prorated to 600 plate appearances was worth 4.9 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and 5.3 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. This is a player who makes All-Star Games and sneaks in some down-ballot MVP votes.
The Cardinals were so high on Harrison Bader last trade deadline that they gave Tommy Pham away to the Tampa Bay Rays to allow Bader to play center field, the spot on the field where the speedster would produce the most value (playing Pham in a corner would have been impossible). But less than a year later, Harrison Bader has fallen so far out of favor with the Cardinals that he has been relegated to part-time duty, even with Marcell Ozuna on the Injured List. In recent weeks, Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, and even Yairo Munoz have logged more time in the outfield than Bader.
The reason isn’t exactly a secret. Bader’s defensive metrics are still awesome, and while his base running runs are down, the actual loss of value from one year to another isn’t much. His offense has ventured into catastrophic territory. His wRC+ has declined each month in 2019–it was a rather robust 120 in April, followed by a fine-if-you’re-an-elite-fielder 83 in May, followed by a lousy 58 in June and an unplayably bad 22 wRC+ for July. On the season, his wRC+ stands at 73.
The obvious recent analogue for Harrison Bader is Peter Bourjos, the acclaimed defensive stalwart in center field who was acquired as an everyday replacement for Jon Jay before the 2014 season but was soon supplanted by Jay after he struggled offensively. In the early stages of 2019, it seemed that the Jon Jay analogue would be Dexter Fowler–Fowler is a more three-true-outcomesy player than Jay was (he walks more, strikes out more, and hits more home runs) but, his disastrous 2018 aside, more comparable in terms of overall offensive and defensive production. Fowler had better offensive peaks and deeper defensive valleys but was, for better and worse, a more conventional type of player than Bader.
But Dexter Fowler in center field has a second negative impact–not only is his defense in center field worse than Bader’s, it means he isn’t playing in right field, which means Jose Martinez, who borders on unplayable in the outfield, is. If one works under the assumption that Dexter Fowler is a competent if unspectacular right fielder and a mediocre but not disastrous center fielder, it means the Cardinals have a pretty good defensive center-right field with Bader-Fowler, but a pretty Not Good one with Fowler-Martinez. But offensively, the latter is better. How much better is the more relevant question.
Tyler O’Neill has become semi-entrenched in left field in the absence of Marcell Ozuna, but once Ozuna returns, O’Neill will likely find himself looking for playing time. Like Fowler, O’Neill can play center field, but not nearly to the same level as Harrison Bader. But while O’Neill penchant for strikeouts is frustrating, and his walk rate leaves something to be desired, his power gives him higher upside at the plate than Fowler. O’Neill is also one of the fastest players in Major League Baseball and is nearly a decade Fowler’s junior–his defensive upside is also higher. The two are probably close today in terms of current-day value, but I’d probably prefer to see what Tyler O’Neill can do more often than not.
So this leaves Fowler, Martinez, and Bader competing for a third outfield spot. If you choose Fowler, the Cardinals would probably play O’Neill in right field and Fowler in center field. I don’t necessarily think this is the right move, but I’m also not so passionate that I’m going to lose much sleep over it. Whatever extra self-esteem boost Fowler gets from playing his “normal” position for his career probably makes up whatever physical superiority Tyler O’Neill has in center. If you choose Martinez, the Cardinals are definitely playing O’Neill in center field, and that outfield is…pretty lousy. You have essentially a DH in right field, a probably underrated but still prone to major defensive issues left fielder, and a probable corner outfielder in center. But if you choose Bader, you have a pretty solid defensive outfield–a plus-plus defender in the most important defensive spot, a plus defender in another, and while Marcell Ozuna isn’t as good as the Gold Glove on his resume suggests he should be, he’s perfectly playable.
Harrison Bader’s offensive numbers, of course, are easily the worst of the trio, but a look at the underlying numbers might suggest that he’s closer than it seems at first, and at least close enough that his defensive superiority makes him the correct choice. His season batting average on balls in play stands at .259, extremely low for anybody, much less one of the fastest players in the sport. Last season, his BABIP was nearly 100 points higher, at .358. And all of this is occurring as his contact quality improves–his “medium” level of contact has increased while his soft contact has decreased (his hard-hit rate is about the same)–and his walk rate increases while his strikeout rate (marginally) decreases.
All evidence points to Bader having been very lucky at the plate last year–his true talent is almost certainly as a below-average hitter. But there’s a huge difference between him being a 90ish wRC+ batter and what he has been over the last couple months. Tony LaRussa comments about Yadier Molina aside, there is no such thing as a position player who can hold a Major League job with no offensive production, but if you think he can be competent at the plate, he has value.
And perhaps that value should come, until he comes back around, in the role in which he has been. Perhaps the Cardinals should, once Ozuna comes back, regularly employ an outfield of Ozuna-Fowler-O’Neill and then substitute Bader into the game after a lesser fielder takes a plate appearance late in the game. I’m not sure that I even believe this is the optimal plan, but I understand it.
What I don’t understand, however, and what seems absolutely perplexing from the outside, is the fact that Yairo Munoz, mostly a utility infielder, has spent so much time in the outfield. Munoz, who has an 82 wRC+ despite a .330 BABIP, has been at best an ever-so-slightly better hitter than Bader while providing little defensively. While his poor metrics in center field are virtually meaningless, given how little time he has spent at the position in his career, the eye test suggests a player who is not only materially slower than Harrison Bader, but one with less of a natural feel for the position (which makes sense, given that he is very much an infielder).
Munoz playing at all in center field would suggest that one of two things is true–that Harrison Bader is hurt, the Cardinals have lost hope in Harrison Bader offensively for at least the short term. In either scenario, having Bader on the roster is confounding–at that rate, he should either be on the IL or he should be in AAA, where he can play every day and work on his offense while not holding back the big league club.
The Cardinals have a huge glut of outfielders. Even with Marcell Ozuna likely departing via free agency next season, the Cardinals have Fowler and Martinez under contract, O’Neill and Bader under team control and in line to make the league minimum, and top prospects Dylan Carlson and Randy Arozarena likely capable of playing in the Majors. Of those, all but Martinez have played in center field, but Harrison Bader is by far the one who has demonstrated the most ability to handle the position going forward. It is likely that, either at the trade deadline or in the off-season, the Cardinals will try to trade at least one outfielder.
I would prefer they traded Jose Martinez, a player whom I enjoy a great deal but who has limited value to a team with ample outfielders and a first baseman who is finally starting to emerge as the player we thought he would be when the Cardinals acquired him, but he also probably has minimal trade value. Harrison Bader could surely command more. However, unless the Cardinals could swing sending him to the New York Mets as the centerpiece of another sell-low candidate, starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, I am very hesitant to see the Cardinals sell low on another center fielder just to say they made a move.