What will Cardinals' outfield look like to open 2024?

Burleson, Scott II pushing to earn starting jobs with Edman, Nootbaar sidelined by injuries

March 10th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- As far back as November, some three months before the Cardinals convened in South Florida for Spring Training, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak declared that the club’s outfield alignment in the season ahead would be Jordan Walker in right field, Tommy Edman in center and Lars Nootbaar in left.

There was purpose in making such an early declaration, manager Oliver Marmol said this week just beyond the midpoint of Spring Training. Following a disappointing 2023 season where St. Louis’ defense lagged and the outfield was in flux most of the year, the franchise wanted its starting fielders knowing they should be working to better their defense.

“We named our outfield pretty early on in this, right -- for the reason that we wanted them to know that, ‘Hey, this is where you’re going to be playing and we’re counting on you to do this daily,’” Marmol said prior to the Cardinals’ 12-8 win over the Marlins on Sunday afternoon.

As Marmol has pointed out repeatedly this spring, “baseball happens,” and messed up the Cards’ months-long, best-laid plans in the outfield.

Edman, the former Gold Glove second baseman who converted full-time to center field after an error-free 42-game stretch there last season, has yet to recover from an October surgery to his right wrist. Meanwhile, Nootbaar fractured two ribs on his left side upon jamming his elbow into his midsection while trying to make a twisting catch in left on March 2.

Then, this happened on Sunday: Walker, who moved to Jupiter, Fla., in the offseason in hopes of becoming a better defensive outfielder, had a wind-blown fly ball ricochet off his glove for an error in the first inning. Walker, the Cardinals’ worst rated fielder in 2023, per Fielding Bible, drilled daily with instructor Jose Oquendo over the summer to improve his first-step reactions and routes to fly balls.

“He said he started to drift instead of getting to the spot and the wind continued to take it,” Marmol said. “If he had it to do all over again, he’d not drift and go back hard, and then come in if needed.”

The injuries to Edman and Nootbaar shifted the focus to former starting center fielder Dylan Carlson and Alec Burleson, who worked throughout the offseason to be lighter on his feet and better defensively in the outfield.

The wild card, of course, is 23-year-old speedster Victor Scott II, who not only stole 94 bases last season in the Minor Leagues, but he also won a Gold Glove at that level. Scott is not only the fastest Cardinal; he is also their fastest-rising prospect, going from No. 29 to No. 4 in a year’s time in MLB Pipeline’s organizational rankings.

“When you have that type of speed, you can not have the first step that you want on your first read and still make up for it with your speed,” Marmol raved about Scott, who led off Sunday’s game with a single, stole a base and tracked down a ball deep into the right-center gap in the third inning.

“He has the combination of all of it -- he gets pretty good jumps, he runs it down pretty good and his routes are good.”

Far and away baseball’s all-time leader in Gold Gloves with 99, the Cardinals struggled badly on that side of the ball in 2023. Undoubtedly, the defensive woes played a major role in the franchise finishing last in its division for the first time in 33 years.

Two seasons removed from winning an MLB-record five Gold Gloves, St. Louis plummeted to 20th in Defensive Runs Saved [-7] in '23, per Fielding Bible.

The defensive numbers were slightly better in the outfield where the Cards ranked 16th in DRS [-1]. Edman and Nootbaar led the outfield in DRS [3], while 2022 Utility Gold Glover Brendan Donovan [2] and Carlson [1] weren’t far behind. Two problem areas were with Burleson [-4] and Walker [-16].

Burleson took to heart the Cardinals’ demand that he use his offseason to get better so that he could be more trusted in the outfield. As a result, he came to Spring Training eight pounds lighter and with a newfound confidence.

Now, Burleson could find himself in a starting role on Opening Day after the Cards best-laid plans for the outfield went kaput.

“I take it as I’m still fighting for a spot on this team,” said Burleson, who had two hits on Sunday and is hitting .375 with a team-high nine hits this spring. “Those [injured] guys are going to come back at some point, so I don’t want to just get handed a roster spot; I want to earn it.

“And even when they come back, I want to have that spot and earn it.”