While much remains to be settled in the Cardinals’ offseason construction of their 2018 roster, one thing is now set in stone. With the big acquisition via trade of Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals have finalized their outfield for the upcoming season, barring some entirely unforeseen circumstance. With reports surfacing that last year’s big free agent signing, Dexter Fowler, is willing to transition to RF, it is likely that the Cardinals’ outfield in 2018 will see Ozuna in left (where he won a gold glove last season), Tommy Pham, the Cardinals’ 2017 breakout player, in center, and Fowler in right, a position more suited to his skillset. Early reviews of this trio are incredibly positive, with some speculating that the Cardinals may have just secured the best outfield in the National League. But have they? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
To be the best outfield, they’ll have to mix solid offensive and defensive outputs. They will need to provide strong offensive production while at least not being a liability in the field, and preferably being a strong asset in the outfield. Finally, the best outfield will not have a clear weak link. All three players will need to be at least average for the outfield as a whole to be great.
The National League of course has fifteen teams, but neither space nor good sense permits us to look at all fifteen outfields in detail. Several teams can be disqualified off the bat, for instance the Miami Marlins, whose fire sale sent Ozuna to the Cardinals, and who will be starting at least two new outfielders next year. Similarly the Reds, who had a fairly strong outfield last year despite their place in the standings, may be moving several of their players, with rumors of interest in Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton. Moreover, we can for these purposes rule out the Giants, Mets, Phillies, and Padres, because last or second-to-last place finishes last year imply that their rosters need some substantial work. We can revisit this discussion if major changes are made to any of these outfields we have left out. The final team we will disqualify is the Braves. Due to the December 17th trade of Matt Kemp to the Dodgers, it is difficult to be certain who their outfield will be entering 2018.
So that leaves us with eight teams in consideration alongside the Cardinals: the NL East winning Nationals; the three playoff finishers from the NL West, the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies; and, of course, the Cardinals’ division rivals, the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates.
Here’s how we will evaluate the teams. Throughout this study, we will lean heavily on Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a synthetic statistic that attempts to define how much more valuable a player is than an average MLB player at his position. There is a defensive counterpart to WAR, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which measures a player’s arm, error likelihood, and range, and compares it to an average replacement. Offensively, we will also focus on players’ slash lines (batting average/on base percentage/ slugging percentage) and their OPS, a player’s combined on-base and slugging percentages, one of the best single tools to measure offensive values. When necessary, we will mention other statistics like home runs and RBI, but as these are often represented in the stats already mentioned, they will be rare. On defense, we will focus on UZR, but will consider other factors as well. We will focus on 2017 statistics when possible, making note of where changes are made or where regression or progression is likely.
Let’s start with the NL East. The Nationals boast one of the best outfielders in baseball, Bryce Harper, who is entering the final year of his contract. Though there may be some flexibility in their outfield, for our purposes we will assume that Adam Eaton will return from his injury to play Center Field, moving Michael Taylor to left, with Harper remaining in Right Field. Here’s a look at the Nationals’ numbers:
Michael Taylor (LF): .271/.320/.486 WAR: 3.1 UZR: 6.8*
Adam Eaton (CF) (from 2016): .284/.362/.428 WAR: 6.2 UZR: 22.5**
Bryce Harper (RF): .319/.413/.595 WAR: 4.8 UZR: 2.6
Total War: 14.1
* In 2015, Taylor played almost 300 innings in Left Field. This is his number from that year. Taylor may be the best defensive outfielder of these three, with impressive numbers at all three positions.
** Eaton’s 22.5 total outfield score from 2016 is a bit misleading. For one, it is registered largely in right field, not center. Moreover, despite a reputation strongly to the contrary, Eaton’s career UZR of -4.5 overall and a whopping -24.6 in center field indicate that he may not be a strong asset in the field
Right off the bat, this will be an outfield that is tough for the Cardinals to match. A total war of 14.1 is very impressive, as are the three slugging percentages over .420. The UZR’s in the outfield can be a bit misleading, however, and it will be interesting to see if Eaton is willing to play left field, where he is probably stronger, to allow the younger Taylor to play center. On top of everything else, the Nationals have baseball’s third overall prospect, an outfielder named Victor Robles, who is certain to make a major impact this year. As NL outfields go, they may be the cream of the crop.
Los Angeles Dodgers:
Let’s move now to the NL West. If the Dodgers, who finished one victory away from a World Series Championship, have any weakness, it may be in their outfield. Once much-hyped center fielder Joc Pederson has fallen on hard times, with his tendency to strike out outweighing his tremendous power. Their 2017 breakout player Chris Taylor is likely better suited to play in left than in center, two positions where he split time last season. But help is probably on the way in the form of Alex Verdugo, their second overall prospect, who slashed .314/.389/.436 in Triple A last year. He may well be the solution at center field, though there are concerns about his power. For our purposes, analyzing the best data we have available at the major league level, we will use the outfield they currently have listed on their website. In analysis, we will give a bump in center field for the incoming Verdugo.
Enrique (Kike) Hernández (LF): .215/.308/.421 WAR: 1.3 UZR: 1.5
Chris Taylor (CF): .288/.354/.496 WAR: 4.7 UZR: CF: 0.6/ LF: 4.3
Yasiel Puig (RF): .263/.346/.487 WAR: 2.9 UZR: 12.1
Total WAR: 8.9
Despite the relatively low name value of the group, this was a very good outfield in 2017. Though his skill is often overshadowed by his personality, Yasiel Puig is a tremendous right fielder, and he brings enough menace in his bat (with an OPS of .833) to be a very valuable player overall. Chris Taylor had an amazing breakout season at age 26, with an .850 OPS and 21 homers, and he played pretty strong left field as well. If the aforementioned Verdugo is able to step up and be stronger offensively than Hernandez while playing better defensive center field than Taylor (who could then move to left), this will be a very strong outfield in 2018; however, it probably lacks the top end talent to compete for the top spot in the NL.
The Arizona Diamondbacks were perhaps the biggest breakout team of the 2017 season, exactly reversing their record from the year before (69-93 in 2016, 93-69 in 2017). The critical question for the Diamondbacks entering 2018 is the status of J.D. Martinez, the premier free agent in baseball, who powered (quite literally) the Diamondbacks’ run after the team acquired him near the trade deadline. The DBacks remain one of his primary suitors, and they certainly need to bring him back if they hope to continue their success in 2018. The impact that Martinez’s departure or return would make on the outfield at Chase Field is significant enough that we will consider him alongside the other three Diamondbacks outfielders.
David Peralta (LF): .293/.352/.444 WAR: 1.8 UZR: 1.2
A.J. Pollock (CF): .266/.330/.471 WAR: 2.1 UZR: 0.5
Chris Owings (RF): .268/.299/.442 WAR: 0.6 UZR: 0.8
J.D. Martinez (RF): .303/.376/.690 WAR: 3.8 UZR: -7.7
Total WAR: w/ Martinez: 7.7 w/o Martinez: 4.5
As the numbers make clear, the Diamondbacks MUST bring back Martinez if they hope to have a great outfield next season. The gap between Martinez and Owings (or any other outfielder the Diamondbacks are likely to insert) is considerable, with a difference in WAR of 3.2 and an OPS gap of .325. Yes, Martinez is a massive defensive liability, which is what handcuffs his WAR, but having an OPS of over 1.0 more than makes up for it. The other two outfielders, Peralta and Pollock, are both good pieces. Peralta is an underrated talent. Though he does not excel anywhere, he does everything well, and plays both corner outfield positions well. Pollock is a bit of an enigma, because injuries have dramatically altered his career. Once considered a premier defensive centerfielder, the metrics indicate that his defense has dropped off lately, probably because of the injuries and time off. With that said, he’s still a 2.1 WAR player, which is nothing to scoff at. The whole tale here revolves around Martinez. If he’s back, this will be a dangerous outfield. If not, the Diamondbacks will likely be taking a step back in 2016.*
*The Diamondbacks also have once promising Cuban import Yasmany Tomas available should Martinez leave, but the arrival in a big way of Jake Lamb last year left him without a home either at 3B or in LF. Tomas might be a higher upside choice than Owings or Peralta, but he is likely to have deeper valleys as well.
The Rockies have a very good outfield centered on Charlie Blackmon, who finished fifth in MVP voting last year, and likely would have finished higher had he not split votes with teammate Nolan Arenado. In left, they’ll likely use last year’s surprising free agent signing of Ian Desmond, and in right field, they’ll have the returning David Dahl, who had a sensational arrival as a rookie in 2016, but missed all of last season with injury. It will be strange to see a Rockies outfield without Carlos Gonzalez in right field, but with his deteriorating performance over the past few seasons and the promise of Dahl, a former first round pick, it is the right move for the team.
Ian Desmond (LF): .274/.326/.375 WAR: -0.8 UZR: -2.3
Charlie Blackmon (CF): .331/.399/.601 WAR: 6.5 UZR: -0.6
David Dahl* (RF): .315/.359/.500 WAR: 1.3 UZR: 0.2
Total WAR: 7.0
*There were few good choices to represent Dahl’s performance, so I’ve opted to go at his 63 MLB games in 2016. Though this is a small sample size, it’s the best look we have at what he might look like in the majors in 2017.
Blackmon is obviously the superstar of this outfield. His offensive numbers, with an OPS of exactly 1.000, are very impressive. Though the common logic believes him to be a pretty good defensive outfielder, the metrics claim he is slightly below average. His teammate, Desmond, is considerably farther below average. Desmond is something of a super utility player, except he is a defensive weak link at most positions. His bat has typically played well, though last season was an exception. The Rockies would need both Dahl and Desmond to return to 2016 form, but if that were to happen, they would be in very good shape.
Moving on to the Cardinals’ own division, the NL Central. The Cubs have been the class of this division for several years, and look set to be great once again in 2018. But is the outfield their strength? The much-maligned Jason Heyward won a gold glove in 2017, and provides the best right field defense in baseball. But his bat is anemic. If Kyle Schwarber is likely to get the first crack at left field, then he will need to improve dramatically on his 2017 numbers as well. Let’s take a look at their most likely outfield combination:
Kyle Schwarber (LF): .241/.339/.485 WAR: 1.5 UZR: 3.4
Ian Happ (CF): .253/.328/.514 WAR: 1.8 UZR: 3.9
Jason Heyward (RF): .259/.326/.389 WAR: 0.9 UZR: 6.4
Total WAR: 4.2
The book is pretty easy to write on the Cubs’ outfield. Schwarber is the masher who may be a defensive burden (though his UZR indicates he’s actually better than average), Happ is a young prospect and an all around utility player, but looks likely to take the CF job next season, and Heyward is the defensive stalwart with the lagging bat. If they play these roles as expected, their outfield will be adequate. But unless Schwarber and Happ take major jumps forward toward their potential, this will not be an elite outfield in the 2018 season.
The Brewers have one of the more solid outfield units in the NL, and it may be underrated. Domingo Santana had a breakout year last season, Ryan Braun has been a dependable asset for years, and Lewis Brinson was one of the top prospects in all of baseball when he came up last year. Let’s take a look at their 2017 production:
Ryan Braun (LF): .268/.336/.487 WAR: 1.5 UZR: 0.5
Lewis Brinson* (CF): .331/.400/.562 WAR: — UZR: —
Domingo Santana (RF): .278/.371/.505 WAR: 3.3 UZR: -3.9
Total WAR: 4.8
*Brinson’s stay in the majors was too brief to use his statistics from last year. These are his statistics from AAA, where WAR and UZR are unavailable.
This is a strong outfield with room to grow. Santana and Braun combined for 47 home runs and 137 RBI last season, and Brinson has a very high ceiling. I would expect their total WAR to be even stronger next season. With that said, they aren’t very strong defensively, and none of them, with the possible exception of Brinson, is enough of a stud to make up for it. They’re an above average outfield without question, but aren’t in the top tier of the National League.
The Pirates’ strength, without question, is their outfield. Though last season saw Starling Marte lose 80 games to suspension and Gregory Polanco taking a big step back, Andrew McCutchen took a step forward from some regressions in seasons prior. It’s hard to know exactly what they’ll do in 2018, but their 2017 numbers (save for Marte) still look okay.
Starling Marte* (LF): .311/.362/.456 WAR: 3.9 UZR: 7.5
Andrew McCutchen (CF): .279/.363/.486 WAR: 3.7 UZR: -4.6
Gregory Polanco (RF): .251/.305/.391 WAR: 0.5 UZR: 2.9
Total WAR: 8.1
*Because Marte’s 2017 was shortened by suspension, we’ve used his numbers from 2016.
The Pirates have a stellar outfield. Marte and Polanco are still young and may not have shown their best, and while McCutchen is aging, he still produced at a very high level last year with a 3.7 WAR. His defense is faltering, but the corner outfielders are both very strong. Though they may not be the top outfield in the NL, they’re certainly very strong.
St. Louis Cardinals:
And now, finally, to the main event. The Cardinals’ acquisition of Marcell Ozuna is still one of the bigger moves of the offseason, and it makes the Cardinals’ outfield very competitive. With Dexter Fowler likely moving to right and Tommy Pham playing center, they will be defensively stronger than they were last season, and if the bats remain as strong as before, they will be a serious threat in the National League. Here are the numbers:
Marcell Ozuna (LF): .312/.376/.548 WAR: 4.8 UZR: 3.4
Tommy Pham (CF): .306/.411/.520 WAR: 5.9 UZR: 2.5 (/5.1)*
Dexter Fowler (RF): .264/.363/.488 WAR: 2.7 UZR: -5.9**
Total WAR: 13.4
* Given Pham’s limited opportunities in center (just under 300 innings) we’ve shown his number from playing left, as well
** Fowler has played very little time in RF in his career, and this is his UZR from last year in Center. Despite the inexperience, one expects he’ll be stronger in right because of the relative ease of the position.
For the Cardinals’ outfield to be truly great next season, both Pham and Ozuna will need to play near the career-year levels they had last year, but that isn’t outside the realm of possibility. If they can, this will be a truly spectacular outfield. Fowler’s dependability makes him a solid piece to rely on, while Ozuna and Pham provide the huge potential upside. MLB.com wrote a compelling argument about the incredible pop in the new Cardinals’ outfield, using advanced statcast statistics. Pham and Ozuna ranked fifth and ninth last season in weight runs created-plus in the National League, and sixth and twelfth in WAR. That’s a strong outfield by any measure.
There is no question that the Cardinals have one of the strongest outfields in the National League entering the 2018 season. Looking at total WAR between the three outfield starters, the Cardinals and Nationals stand above the rest by a wide margin:
1) Nationals: 14.1
2) Cardinals: 13.4
3) Dodgers: 8.9
These two squads are in a category all their own as far as WAR is concerned. And if WAR is the best overall measure of value, then the Cardinals and Nats are on another level. The Cardinals’ outfield should balance solid defense (particularly with the gold glover in left and Pham in center) and often-explosive offense. That is a potent combination indeed.
Of course, these numbers depend on the continued success of both Marcell Ozuna and Tommy Pham, each of whom had career year last years. And it is realistic to expect either or both players to regress somewhat entering next season. But even if these two do regress, it is a long fall from last season’s numbers to the Dodgers’ total WAR of 8.9.
Moreover, the Cardinals are hardly the only team with these kinds of questions. The Nationals will be wondering whether Adam Eaton can return well from injury and make an impact, as well as what impact Bryce Harper’s contract year will have and whether their young players (Taylor, Robles) will continue to play at such a high level.
The Dodgers will be questioning the career year they received from Chris Taylor, and whether Verdugo can make a big impact. The Diamondbacks are still pursuing J.D. Martinez. The Rockies will need a great return from David Dahl.
In our own division, the Cubs may have the fewest questions, but they also may have the lowest upside in their outfield. The Pirates have to wonder whether Polanco can return to form, and whether age will finally catch up to Andrew McCutchen. The Brewers have a pair of young studs, but uncertainty afflicts all young players.
All this is to say that every team has questions surrounding their outfield. It’s what makes the baseball season worth playing. Yes, the Cardinals have to wonder if 2017 was the birth of the real Tommy Pham, or whether it was the best we’ll ever see him play. We have to ask whether the trade for Ozuna will be the coup that it could be. We have to wonder how Fowler will do in transitioning to right field. But all teams are asking similar questions.
If all we have to solidly evaluate these teams is the numbers from last year, then there is no doubt that the Cardinals have one of the best in the league. They don’t have the stud that the Nationals do in Bryce Harper, but they arguably have a more solid outfield across the board. In either case, being alone atop the mountain with the Nationals is hardly bad company.
The Cardinals will need to continue to tweak their roster before the season to compete at the highest level, but their outfield is set, and it is strong. That’s not a bad situation to be in.