Cardinals keeping options open in right field

Internal candidates include Fowler, Martinez, O'Neill

November 6th, 2018

ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals narrow their search for an impact bat this offseason, most would agree that addressing the deficiency through the addition of a corner infielder would be the path of least resistance. It is not, however, the only open road.

The club's right-field situation remains a bit of a conundrum. For while the Cardinals are not lacking in options, they are deep in questions about potential productivity.

Will rebound from a career worst season? Does 's offensive boost outweigh his defensive limitations? How would fare with a full season's worth of at-bats? And does the sum of these options create sufficient certainty?

With those answers still pending, the Cards will explore potential offseason upgrades. Those could include the biggest of them all, , who, at the age of 26, may land the richest free-agent deal in Major League history.

The organization has the financial flexibility to make such a pursuit, and Harper would check so many boxes. He'd be that missing left-handed bat, a power presence in the lineup and a future face of the franchise. He could also give the Cardinals something they've lacked in right field for years: stability.

The idea of finding a right fielder for the long term would be ideal, as this has been a position of churn for much of the last decade. Consider that during 's run of 14 consecutive Opening Day starts, the Cardinals have employed 11 different Opening Day right fielders. That includes seven in the last nine years.

Many of those who have come and gone were once expected to be organizational anchors. was an emerging star when he signed a five-year extension in 2013. The following season, as his production began to slip, he was dealt to Boston. That was to pave the way for Oscar Taveras, until he passed away in a tragic car accident that fall.

arrived as a one-year stopgap, then chose not to stay any longer. took hold of the position for the next two seasons, until he, like Craig, was dealt after signing an extension that was supposed to cement his place in the Cardinals' lineup for years.

Fowler seemed like the natural fit to take over next as he moved to right field in 2018. But a terrible offensive season coupled with a season-ending foot injury leaves his future uncertain.

If the Cardinals do not add a starting outfielder this winter, they'll be betting on a rebound season from the 32-year-old Fowler, who slashed a career-worst .180/.278/.298 over 90 games in 2018. His season ended in early August with a left foot fracture, which continues to heal. Three years remain on his five-year contract.

"Expectations again for Dexter [are that] he has to have a very good offseason," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said recently. "He has to show that he's ready to commit and get back to where he once was, and, if he does that, then that's a great internal solution."

But can the Cardinals afford a wait-and-see approach? The organization is coming out of a season in which its right fielders ranked 26th in the Majors in OPS (.697), 24th in slugging percentage (.386), 25th in on-base percentage (.311) and 22nd in batting average (.239).

Making the gamble on Fowler more palatable would be the security offered by Martinez and O'Neill behind him. Martinez, who posted an .821 OPS last season, was the team's most consistent offensive player in 2018. The knock on him continues to be on the defensive end. Then there's O'Neill, who has eye-popping power, but also a strikeout rate of 40.1 percent.

The upside is why the Cardinals continue to champion their internal options. But they acknowledge doing so with divided attention and an open mind.

"[I'm] not writing [our plans] in ink where we can't change," Mozeliak said.