Calculating a crowded Cards outfield

March 12th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

With four MLB-ready, starting-quality outfielders pushing for playing time and only three outfield slots available, the Cardinals could be forced into something of a numbers game in the coming weeks.

If 20-year-old can’t-miss-kid  has his number called for the Opening Day roster – and that seems increasingly more likely with each 450-foot home run he smashes – the Cardinals could very well be facing a sticky and tricky numbers crunch with their incumbent outfielders.

Whatever will they do with bounceback candidates and and the irrepressibly magnetic , who in recent weeks has become a sensation in Japan?

Walker, of course, ranked as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, is the 6-foot-5, 250-pound proverbial elephant in the outfield, and the Cards would be hard-pressed to send him to Triple-A after a start to the Grapefruit League that has stirred memories of 2001, when Albert Pujols hit his way onto the club and never looked back.

Four talented and motivated outfielders and three spots -- it’s a good problem to have for a Cardinals team that is hoping that their influx of talent can make them serious World Series contenders again.

It’s a good problem to have unless you are manager Oliver Marmol, and you must fill out a lineup card daily and try to keep four outfielders happy and productive.

Here's where that pesky math comes into play: Can the Cardinals possibly figure out how to divide four by three and make the sum a positive one? It certainly won’t be easy, and it will take some understanding from the parties involved, but with some creative math, it just might work.

Whip out those calculators and follow me here: Three outfield spots, seven games a week most times = 21 possibilities.

Use of the DH spot, seven games a week = seven more potential spots. That’s 28 possible spots to try to satiate four outfielders.

The problem, of course, is that new catcher Willson Contreras will likely DH a time or two a week, knocking that total down to 26.

Nolan Gorman, who hit 14 home runs as a rookie and returned with a much-improved swing this spring, is sure to play five to six days a week with, say, four games coming as the starting DH.

Factor in how the Cardinals like to strategically use the DH spot to “rest” MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, and the number of potential openings for the four outfielders is down to roughly 20 or 21 a week.

Marmol said that number could be even smaller when factoring in other youngsters on the roster also pushing for plate appearances.

“This is a competition. You have [Juan Yepez], [Alex] Burleson, Walker, Carlson, Noot and T.O. -- so many names competing for those outfield spots and the DH spot,” Marmol said with a shake of the head. “I’ll have a better answer for [satisfying four outfielders] in a couple of weeks. Good thing we’re not breaking camp today.”

Admittedly, not even Marmol knows how things will shake out in the final two-plus weeks of Spring Training.

History says injuries will happen at some point and the Cards are certainly better off having too many outfielders instead of too few. The club was holding its collective breath on Saturday when Walker belly-flopped into second base, stayed down for several seconds and ultimately left the game with a right shoulder strain.

Walker, who was scheduled to have Sunday and Monday off before hurting his shoulder, was listed as day to day. The injury isn’t serious. 

Further complicating the outfield congestion for the Cardinals is that Nootbaar (Japan) and O’Neill (Canada) are away from the team while competing in the World Baseball Classic.

That buys the Cardinals more time to marvel at the exploits of Walker, who needed just 10 Spring Training games to rack up five multi-hit performances.

Also, Carlson can keep showing off his improved power after adding 12 pounds of muscle and bulk and Nootbaar can continue teaching the pepper grinder motion to Shohei Ohtani and all of Japan.

How the numbers eventually shake out in the outfield is anyone’s guess, but the prediction here is that Walker starts in left field and bats second, O’Neill ultimately wins the center field job, and there’s a platoon in right depending on whether the opponent throws a lefty (Carlson) or a righty (Nootbaar).

Time will tell whether the Cardinals can come up with enough opportunities to make the numbers work in their very talented, but crowded, outfield.