This is the fourth of a six-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into the 2017 season. We've already examined the catchers, corner infielders and starting pitchers. Up next: the outfielders. ST. LOUIS -- Though the Cardinals
This is the fourth of a six-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into the 2017 season. We've already examined the catchers, corner infielders and starting pitchers. Up next: the outfielders.
ST. LOUIS -- Though the Cardinals have not engaged in a frenzy of winter activity, they are poised to unveil a new-look outfield when camp opens next month in Jupiter, Fla.
The December addition of William Fowler provides a new up-the-middle anchor for the Cardinals' defense, which was a liability for much of 2016. Fowler's arrival also necessitated a move for Randal Grichuk, who will start in left. Stephen Piscotty will complete the outfield by returning to right.
It's a unit that should provide above-average defensive coverage while also featuring three critical pieces in the Cardinals' revamped lineup.
"I think he brings a lot of experience and some real good veteran leadership to the outfield," Piscotty said of Fowler, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract. "He saw his defensive numbers really improve [last year, so] hopefully he can kind of share with us in Spring Training what he did and make us all better."
What Fowler will tell his new teammates is that he found added defensive success by playing deeper. Statcast™ data showed that, in 2016, Fowler started at an average of 321 feet back. That represented an increase of 17 feet from '15. The Cardinals believe that shift explains how Fowler went from posting a negative-12 Defensive Runs Saved to a plus-1 DRS in the span of one year.
Alongside him, Grichuk and Piscotty profile as above-average defenders. Grichuk's move to left field should provide the most defensive impact, as the Cardinals are coming off a season in which their left fielders finished 26th in the Majors with a negative-10 DRS.
On the offensive end, Fowler will push Matt Carpenter down in the lineup and assume the role of leadoff hitter. Fowler's .393 on-base percentage last year ranked sixth-best in the National League, and he's one of nine players to post an OBP of at least .365 (minimum 300 plate appearances) in at least four of the last five years.
Grichuk opened 2016 as the team's cleanup hitter, but he couldn't provide enough production to stick there. The Cardinals are hopeful this year will be different. Though Grichuk's '16 slash line of .240/.289/.480 was underwhelming, he did post an .881 OPS upon returning from his second Minor League demotion in mid-August.
Piscotty is a likely candidate to slot into the cleanup spot, from where the Cardinals hope he can replicate his 2016 success with runners in scoring position. He ranked second in the NL with a .368 average in such spots. Piscotty also led the Cardinals with 85 RBIs, 86 runs scored, 266 total bases and 10 game-winning RBIs last season.
But behind these three, the Cardinals have questionable outfield depth. Tommy Pham projects as the current fourth outfielder, though his career has been repeatedly interrupted by injuries. Jose Martinez, a September callup, and Anthony Garcia are also on the 40-man roster. Harrison Bader is the organization's closest outfield prospect to the Majors, but the Cardinals would prefer the former third-round Draft pick get more time in Triple-A.
As a result, the Cardinals remain in the market for another outfielder -- particularly a left-handed hitting one -- to further balance their depth going into Spring Training.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast.