Could Harrison Bader Change the Dynamic of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Outfield?

Mar 12, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pinch hitter Harrison Bader is congratulated after the victory over the Houston Astros during the game at Roger Dean Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Astros 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pinch hitter Harrison Bader is congratulated after the victory over the Houston Astros during the game at Roger Dean Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Astros 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cardinals already had a young core of outfielders heading into 2016, but Harrison Bader’s rapid ascent through the minors could give the group an even greater makeover heading into 2017.

This past offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals showed quite a bit of confidence in their young core of outfielders when, after losing Jason Heyward, they decided not to sign or trade for a veteran replacement, instead opting to head into the regular season with a trio of second-year players–Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Tommy Pham–complimenting Matt Holliday in the outfield.  All three had made great impressions in their respective first shots at extended playing time during 2015, and the Cardinals’ front office took a gamble that they’d at least come close to replicating that success this season.

That gamble has looked both smart and unintelligent at various points this season. Piscotty has really been the only one of the three that’s been capable of being trusted throughout the year. Though he slumped throughout the month of June, he still has an extremely respectable .286/.357/.474 slash line with 14 homers, and his defense in right field has been good enough that it looks like the Cardinals will be just fine for the long term without Heyward in right field.

After winning the Opening Day left fielder job, Pham got hurt in his first at-bat of the season, missing a month with an oblique injury and then spending a month in Triple-A after losing his roster spot to Jeremy Hazelbaker. Since his return on June 18, he’s not making the most consistent contact in the world, but he’s got seven homers in 104 plate appearances and an OPS well above .800.

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Grichuk has been the most inconsistent of the three, perhaps because he’s failed to get regular playing time at any point, even dating back to the third game of the season, when Hazelbaker replaced him in center field. He slumped so badly that he was optioned to Triple-A on June 18, and while thrived after being recalled on July 5, starting seven of his first eight games and going 12-for-30 with three homers, he’s now 4 for his last 30 with one homer since then, and unsurprisingly, he’s been on the bench in five of 12 games.

Interestingly, though, there could be one more unexpected name that joins that group for 2017. Harrison Bader, the Cardinals’ third-rounder in the 2015 draft, has been on an absolute tear ever since he joined the minor-league system in late June of last year. After spending just seven games at short-season State College, Bader played his final 54 games of the 2015 season with a full-season club, the Low-A Peoria Chiefs. While the Cardinals tend to be aggressive with college pitchers, it’s a rather unprecedented move for a position player, especially a third-rounder, to move to a full-season team so fast. Bader thrived there, though, hitting .301 with a .869 OPS in 228 plate appearances.

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The Cardinals showed quite a bit of faith in Bader by playing him in five big-league spring training games in March, and they showed even more faith in him by placing him in the upper minors (Double-A Springfield) to begin his first full professional season. He certainly proved them right, though, hitting .338 with a .960 OPS during April and finishing with a .286/.350/.491 line in 314 plate appearances before he was promoted to Triple-A Memphis on July 6.

Through 21 games at the minors’ highest level, Bader has yet to show the same type of power that he has at every other level–he’s got just one homer in 67 at-bats–but he’s displayed the same ability to make consistent contact, hitting .284 thus far. Bader’s also shown himself to be a talented, versatile defensive option, getting work at all three outfield positions.

Bader has the same plate discipline concerns that have caused some to doubt Grichuk’s long-term future as a big-league starter, as he’s struck out 94 times in 387 minor-league plate appearances this year, though he’s got a respectable total of 25 walks. Considering that he’s already knocking on the big-league door just 645 plate appearances into his pro career, though, it’s entirely possible that he’ll become an option at the big-league level within the next calendar year.

Because the Cardinals have a full stable of outfielders for 2016–the three aforementioned young guys plus Hazelbaker and Holliday, with Brandon Moss and Kolten Wong as extra depth guys and 40-man roster players Charlie Tilson and Anthony Garcia looming as potential September call-ups–it’s unlikely that we’ll see Bader on the big-league team this year, because the Cardinals won’t want to start his arbitration clock and potentially burn one of his minor-league options unless it’s absolutely necessary.

With that considered, it also might be a bad idea to let him loose on Opening Day of 2017. We’ll see how MLB’s Super 2 rules are changed this winter with the new CBA–that could be an off-the-field factor to consider–but regardless, big-league teams usually don’t like to have rookies making their big-league debuts on Opening Day, because with everyone still getting their timing down in April, it can be a bit traumatic for a first-time big-leaguer to face elite pitching for the first time when they haven’t even gotten into any type of rhythm yet. With that said, we saw Aledmys Diaz hit the ground running without issue during the first series of this year, so maybe it’s something that the Cardinals would consider after all.

If the Cardinals feel that Bader is going to be a major part of their big-league plans heading into next season, that could make a player like Grichuk expendable. With Piscotty having right field locked down for the foreseeable future, the Cardinals might decide that they’re well-covered in the outfield if they see Bader as an everyday starter. Though Grichuk has slumped this year, his raw power and athleticism should still make him a pretty valuable commodity to other teams, so it’d be interesting to see what they could get for him this winter.

Perhaps the biggest way that Bader could influence the Cardinals’ plans for 2017 is by convincing them to pay Holliday $1 million to walk, rather than giving him his $17 million-dollar option for next season. While Holliday has increased his flexibility this season, showing the ability to play first base as well as the outfield, he’s continued a steady trend of regression, as his OPS has dropped for the fourth straight season. His current .236 batting average and .310 OBP would be significant career lows, and while his 18 homers through 377 plate appearances will give him a good chance to post his best home run total since joining the Cardinals, it’s safe to say that he’s no longer the middle-of-the-lineup presence that he once was.

There’s really no reason for the Cardinals to spend big bucks on starting pitching this winter–other than to lock up Carlos Martinez long term, of course–and there really aren’t any budgetary constraints to speak of these days, so there’s not exactly a distinctive reason to decline Holliday’s option. But with the back-and-forth flexibility that teams increasingly favor these days, which allows teams to manage players’ workloads and give them a chance to reboot in the minors if necessary (see the Cardinals’ treatment of Grichuk, Pham, and Kolten Wong this season), it’d help the Cardinals out if they were able to replace Holliday, who’s highly-paid and will be 37 next season, with Bader, a cost-controlled 22-year-old who has all of his minor-league options remaining.

The fact that Bader is considered an above-average center fielder only helps his cause, because the Cardinals still lack a clear long-term solution at that position. Grichuk’s defensive limitations have shifted him back to the outfield corners, where he’s a more natural fit, in recent weeks, while Pham’s lack of durability may prevent him from ever being a true everyday option.

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We’ll see how Bader, who was recently ranked as the Cardinals’ third-best prospect in MLB Pipeline’s midseason update to their rankings, does down the stretch in Memphis this year–and for that matter, how Grichuk and Pham do in the majors–but considering his ascension over the past year, it’s pretty clear that the Cardinals will have another young option to consider as they’re figuring out how to distribute big-league playing time in 2017.