During every offseason, I come up with all sorts of scenarios in my head that I discuss with anyone that will listen. The last couple of offseasons, I have very much hoped that the St. Louis Cardinals would have gone more with the youth in the outfield - and tested out what they really have - kinda like what they have claimed they will do in 2020 (despite still insisting on starting Dexter Fowler). So I wanted, today, to take a look at what we already know about the youngsters that I want to see more of in 2020 or 2021 (since the 2020 season my not happen - looking at you, COVID) - much like Josh Pierce did regarding DH candidates yesterday (check it out!).
I will start with Tyler O'Neill, because despite his proclivity to swing the bat and miss the ball quite often, I believe he has a huge job this year. It's not that I believe Marcell Ozuna's loss is as huge a hole as some people make it out to be, by any means, but Ozuna was gifted the 4-hole for the Cardinals for 2 full seasons no matter how he did and that spot is up for grabs. Even if it's Paul DeJong that grabs it (after his offensive display in the first "game" of "summer camp" it seems that he might), O'Neill needs to at least be able to back-fill DeJong's then-open spot in the lineup.
So what do we know about O'Neill? Tyler O'Neill has some of the best speed (not only on the Cardinals but) in the major leagues. He has yet to figure out how to use it incredibly well on the bases, but he is fast. He's probably capable of 15 steals over a 162 game season (so maybe 6 or so in 2020) as an every day player.
We also know that, as I mentioned, he strikes out a lot. He strikes out a lot less when he plays consistently, but he still strikes out a lot. He has also proven he cannot be a bench bat. Like, at all. Take these numbers on for size:
There have been 6 calendar months in the major leagues in which O'Neill has less than 30 plate appearances. He has 47 PA in those 6 months and hit .132/.157/.208/.366 with a 1.63% BB rate and a 68.23% K rate.
O'Neill has had 5 calendar months in the majors in which he has 30+ PA in the month. In those 5 months, he has hit .282/.325/.508/.833 with a 5.28% BB rate and "only" a 34.96% K rate.
Of those 5 months above, O'Neill has 2 calendar months in which he has received at least 50 plate appearances. In those two months, he has 146 of his 293 plate appearances in the majors. He hit .294/.336/.515/.851 in those two months. He also walked 5.48% of the time and struck out 30.82% of the time.
Looking at the time in which O'Neill played semi-frequently to frequently, his numbers extrapolated out to 600 plate appearances in a season show 90+ runs, 90+ RBI, and 24-25 doubles and 33-34 homers are possible, in addition to about 10 steals. I said 15 above, and I believe that to be true, especially if he's getting on base in the .330 range and he's playing every day to have more comfort on the base paths. I also think he's competitive enough with Harrison Bader for them to try to one up another on the bases.
A .330ish OBP, 125ish wRC+, 15 steals, solid defense...the upside here is a 4-5 WAR season.
Let's dig a little deeper. We know that Tyler O'Neill can turn on a fastball. Just watch these 3 home runs and a double hit on middle-in and up-and-in fastballs. Wow.
O'Neill has also shown the ability to look for a back up slider and yank it as well.
Another good O'Neill trait is that he can wait on an offspeed pitch as well, no matter where it is in the zone.
Amazingly, he can even rip breaking balls at times - when he makes contact. You saw one example of this in the second .gif above. Here's one of him waiting on a curve and taking it the other way, one of him hitting a high curve into the seats to walk off a game against the Giants., and one of him driving a slider the other way with authority for a single.
What else do we know about Tyler O'Neill, though? The doubly aforementioned contact problem. Even when O'Neill's been at his best in the majors, we're talking a 30% K rate. Not only that, but we're talking a whiff rate of 47-48% on breaking pitches...when he's on his game. Here is a middle-middle slider that O'Neill is somehow looking fastball on. I don't know why anyone would throw him a fastball in that situation, and the Nationals didn't.
You know those infomercials that say "but wait, there's more!"?
That visual story shown above was a must to be shown, but that story aside I truly feel that what O'Neill has done when he plays more of an everyday role outshines his swing and miss tendencies. As he sees more and more breaking balls, we'll find out by National Tell A Joke Day (sorry there wasn't a traditional holiday to help us decide this) if Tyler O'Neill's candidacy as a starter is a joke or if he is adjusting and laying off them, but he has to play every day (or almost every day) for those first 3-4 weeks to see.
The next guy I want to get to on this topic is Lane Thomas. He is another outfielder that most Cardinal fans will know from 2019. He will be given every shot (at least so the Cardinals say) to earn a spot in the outfield. After his stellar 2019 debut, there's no reason he shouldn't. Actually, after his entire time in the Cardinals' organization, he deserves it for sure. Let's rewind.
What do we know about Lane Thomas? After being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays, he played just 9 games in 2017 of little consequence. He began 2018 in AA and ripped to the tune of .260/.337/.487/.824 with 16 doubles, 4 triples, and 21 homers in 100 games. He then got sent to AAA for the final 32 games of his season and hit .275/.321/.496/.818 with 7 doubles, 2 triples, and 6 homers.
Thomas went ahead and continued that in 2019 in AAA, playing 75 games there and hitting .268/.352/.460/.812 with 17 doubles, 2 triples, and 10 homers while splitting time in St. Louis. At the major league level, he hit .316/.409/.684/1.093 in just 44 PA over 34 games - very much playing the 4th OF, as you can see by the playing time.
What else do we know about Lane Thomas? Thomas is, like O'Neill, one of the fastest men in the majors. In 44 PA last year in the majors, Thomas put 30 balls in play. He barreled 4 of them, averaged 91.7 mph off the bat, had an xWOBA of .376 - well below his actual wOBA of .445, but still phenomenal, and had a hard hit percentage of 43.3%! He struck out less than league average and he walked more than league average. Again. We know this to be true, but it was a SUPER SMALL SAMPLE. Even smaller than the splits we were talking about with Tyler O'Neill above.
O'Neill and Thomas have something in common - they both hit fastballs like nobody's business.
Where O'Neill very much struggled against breaking pitches, Lane Thomas was very good against the ones he saw at the major league level (see below), instead struggling most against offspeed pitches.
He simply pounded offspeed pitches into the dirt. Seems to me that potentially he is seeing fastball and swinging slightly higher than the ball, hitting the top of it due to the speed difference and thus drop in the pitch vertically. Just a theory.
Lastly, we also know that Thomas was around league average defensively in just 28 attempts, but to my eye test, he honestly looked like an above average defensive type anywhere in the outfield. He did not look like an elite defender like Harrison Bader out there, but much better than Fowler and better than O'Neill, to me...with what looks like a cannon of an arm.
The third guy I want to get to on this topic is Harrison Bader. He is the incumbent center fielder and likely to start 2020 there whether everyone wants him to or not. I think he's deserving of at least starting the year there, but giving Lane Thomas some shot there. Bader's elite defense (with our fantastic pitching) is something that is not a necessity, but is a fabulous convenience and helps them out greatly.
So what do we know? Harrison Bader is tied for 11th in center field Outs Above Average (OAA) from 2017-2019. However, Bader didn't come up until partway through 2017 and he also wasn't a full-time center fielder until 2019 (as he played some right field in 2018).
On a per-attempt basis, Bader has been the second best center fielder in the MAJORS. Only Keon Broxton was better. Now Broxton is on the Brewers, so Bader might be the second best in the division...but he's damn good.
What else do we know about Bader?
I'm not going to go into huge detail here, but he had a very confusing 2019 at the plate. Now, I found many reasons for optimism in that article, but at the end I talked about things that still concern me greatly. Will we see shifts on Bader like there were last year? Will we see Bader continue to pound pitches into the dirt? Or will Bader be able to find that correct launch angle more often (please don't read that as hit only fly balls...that's not what "launch angle" means)?
I wasn't the only one talking about Bader this offseason. Zach wrote some words here, John wrote at VEB, and Blake wrote at VEB. TL;DR - There are signs that Bader was a much better hitter than what 2019’s overall stats showed.
If Bader can be a league average hitter, he can start with his defense, unless 3 of O'Neill, Thomas, Carlson, and Fowler are mashing.
Dylan Carlson is the nom de jour. He has not played in the majors as of yet, so I will defer to our wonderful colleague here at BotB, Kyle Reis, with his write up on his Dirty Thirty-Five. The TL;DR version of Kyle's article is this:
What do we know about Carlson from the stats? He mashed in AA to the tune of a .281/.364/.518 line (which was a 142 wRC+). He upped his game in his finaly 79 PA of the year with the AAA club, up to .361/.418/.681 and a 161 wRC+. Then in Spring Training of 2020, he got on base at a .436 clip (thanks @johnredbird for that nugget)! Man! Dude can be really good. We'll see when he's given a shot.
Based on the evidence we have on Tommy Edman at the major league level, at least one person here at Birds on the Black thinks that he's probably going to be good. Edman showed that he was a good defender no matter where you put him. Mike Shildt never put him at short stop last year, but reports are that he is at least decent there - probably better than many that have gotten chances to play there recently (Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso, Aledmys Diaz, Greg Garcia, and Yairo Munoz to name a few).
We also know that, according to statcast data over at Baseball Savant, Tommy Edman is about as fast as Tyler O'Neill and Harrison Bader and Lane Thomas. Those four are a quite large step ahead of the next trio Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, and Kolten Wong in speed. As more evidence of this, Tommy Edman had 7 triples in half of a season. 5 of those triples were of the "stand up triple" variety. 3 of those stand up triples were as a right-handed hitter. He even had one triple to left field (much harder to do).
We also know that Edman was a .300/.350/.500/.850 guy last year. While I don't believe that is going to occur again this year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him between .750 and .800 on that OPS which, with that defense no matter where they put him, makes him a VERY valuable player.
We should be at the point in Andrew Knizner's development where he's getting split starts with Yadier Molina in the starting lineup and should be the primary backup, so long as the pitching staff trusts him and he can be a suitable defender behind the plate. If the Cardinals don't think that, then they need to start offering him up along with a couple of others for Nolan Arenado immediately. However, Yadi is an ageless wonder and apparently will start 75 out of 60 potential games this year, I' sure.
What do we know about Knizner? We know that in the minors he was a fairly high average, gap-to-gap extra base hitter. He has 38 batted balls in the major leagues. Of those 38 batted balls, 7 of them (18.4%) have been hit 100+ miles per hour and 13 of them (34.2%) have been hit 95+ miles per hour. That's not GREAT, but it's serviceable for someone who has never been a once a week or twice a week type of hitter.
We have seen that Knizner has hit into some hard luck:
But we have also seen that Knizner can turn on a fastball quite well - as evidenced by his first major league homer ever.
Lastly, we also have seen that Knizner still has some work to do (by my eyes at least) behind the plate to be above average as a defender (which is why it was my preference to hold onto Carson Kelly if we could, but I'll take Goldy in a heart beat). I'd love to see him start 8-10 games this year rather than the 1-4 he'll likely get.
Those 6 could play prominent roles this season, although I don't think that all 6 can at the same time (nor should they). Now, hopefully, we have at the forefront of our brains what we know already about these young men and how they can help the Cardinals be as good as possible in the sprint-of-a-season-known-as 2020.
Thanks for reading. Give Nick Childress some love on Twitter for all of the work he did on (most of) the gifs in this piece. He rocks.