SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cardinals made headlines on Wednesday when they demoted highly acclaimed rookie Jordan Walker to Triple-A, but the transaction was about so much more than the 20-year-old slugger needing to up his launch angle, lower his chase rate and blah, blah, blah.
Instead, what the Cardinals did by removing Walker temporarily from the MLB equation was send a not-so-subtle statement to the remaining group of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Lars Nootbaar and Alec Burleson. That statement goes something like this: Now that there will be no more issues with rhythm and uncertain playing time, the group will need to consistently produce, or major upheaval could be coming in the not-so-distant future.
“The outfielders are going to have to make the most of this and see what they can do,” team president John Mozeliak said ahead of Wednesday’s loss to the Giants, the Cardinals’ ninth in a 12-game span. “Clearly when you look at it from the standpoint of, ‘What have we done?’ It hasn’t been working, so we do want to change some things up, we can get that right mix and guys can get into that rhythm and that regular type of playing time and see if that works.”
In the first test of that new strategy, not much worked at all on Wednesday. A starting outfield of Nootbaar (.222), Burleson (.232) and O’Neill (.253) went a combined 0-for-9. Further complicating matters, Nootbaar and Burleson had confusion in the fifth inning over a ball hit into the right-center-field gap, and Nootbaar had the baseball fall from his glove after fearing he was about to collide with Burleson. It was yet another defensive blunder for a Cardinals squad that has historically prided itself on refusing to give foes extra outs.
“We both called it at the same time. I heard him calling it, so I peeled off and went behind him in case something did happen, and I was ready to catch it, but it is what it is,” Burleson said of the play that led to the go-ahead run. “Out of the corner of his eye, he saw me. It was just a tough ball, especially with it being loud out there.”
The outfield issue is not a new one for the Cardinals. They went into Opening Day with five capable outfielders after Walker and Burleson slugged their way onto the roster in Spring Training. Mozeliak said he fully anticipated Burleson securing a spot after making it to the bigs last fall, but he was surprised when Walker displayed so much maturity and poise at the plate. Then, the prized rookie went out and showed he was ready for the big stage by impressively notching a hit in the first 12 games of his MLB career.
When Walker’s historic streak ended and he invariably cooled off, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol proclaimed him to be “human” after all. Walker came into this week’s series in San Francisco just 7-for-35 (.200) in his past 10 games, but of more concern to the Cardinals was his 60.4% ground-ball rate. With 25 hard-hit balls (95-plus mph exit velocity) in his first 20 MLB games, the team wanted to make sure Walker has the correct swing path to get more of those laser doubles and home runs than grounders up the middle. There is little to no concern about Walker’s future with the Cardinals, and both the team president and manager stressed on Wednesday that they fully expect to see him back in the bigs in a matter of weeks, not months.
This transaction wasn’t so much about Walker going through troubling struggles or him being overwhelmed on baseball’s brightest stage. Instead, it will be about the Cardinals finding out exactly what they have in the outfield that remains. With more consistent playing time can O’Neill get back to being the power hitter who terrorizes pitchers? Can Carlson, a former first-round Draft pick with loads of talent, ever break through from the left side of the plate to get his plus-glove in the lineup on a regular basis? Can Nootbaar regain the momentum he had late last season and in the offseason, when he shined for Team Japan in the Classic? And can Burleson overshadow his defensive shortcomings with his uncanny ability to consistently get the barrel on the ball?
Depth is always good when injuries hit or slumps strike, but the Cardinals found out the hard way that depth can be a negative when trying to shoehorn five players into three spots and sapping the daily rhythm of the group.
If the remaining outfielders fail to shore up questions surrounding them and can’t break through in the coming weeks, more change almost certainly will come. Only the next time around it won’t be the young and impressionable Walker taking the fall for the team’s struggles in the outfield.