By Anthony Schramm, from Cardsblog.com
For Part VII of our Cardinals Positional Outlook Series, we're looking at Left Field. Keep your eyes out throughout this article for links to previous parts of our series.
The Cardinals' search for the highest impact bat since Albert Pujols ended with the acquisition of left fielder, Marcell Ozuna, from the Miami Marlins. Barring an injury, Ozuna will be the Opening Day left fielder and four-hole hitter.
After posting a .924 OPS with 37 home runs en route to a 4.8 WAR and a top 15 NL MVP finish last year, it seems the Cardinals finally have the big bat they've been missing. His Gold Glove defense in left also helps the mistake prone defense that has plagued them the past couple seasons.
The only decision the Cardinals need to make regarding left field is who will play when Ozuna needs a day off. Jose Martinez is more than capable of spelling Ozuna but it appears he will be getting semi-regular at bats at first base with Matt Carpenter returning to more of a super utility role. That leaves the winner of the final bench spot as the guy who sees occasional time in left.
Harrison Bader, Tyler O'Neill, and Luke Voit are all fighting for the final bench spot with Oscar Mercado having an outside shot. With Voit taking outfield reps in the offseason, all four candidates are qualified enough for a spot start in left field. Should injury strike, expect to see Bader or O'Neill get their shot at everyday at bats.
Two Years from Now
While there's no debate over who will start in left field in 2018, the Cardinals will have some tough choices to make once Ozuna's contract expires after 2019. If he posts similar numbers to 2017 these next two seasons, Ozuna will be in line for a massive payday entering his age 29 season.
The Cardinals will surely be able to afford to keep Ozuna but their willingness (or lack thereof) to spend big makes it likely we'll see another new guy in left in 2020. Without another star level outfielder set to hit the market after 2019, the Cardinals will have to look at in-house options or the trade market to replace Ozuna
Even after trading Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk this offseason, the Cardinals still have ample outfield depth under team control through 2020. With Bader and O'Neill next in line for a starting role in the outfield, it's a safe bet one of them will take Ozuna's place in the Cardinal lineup.
Right now, it's a toss up between the two as both have equally impressed in AAA while ranking four (O'Neill) and five (Bader) on MLB.com's Top 30 Prospects list for the Cardinals.
With two years left to separate themselves from each other, I think O'Neill and his huge power potential win out. The need for an impact bat will reappear with a potential Marcell Ozuna departure so the Cardinals will give their best prospect bat a shot before exploring outside options.
Five Years from Now
The only outfielders on the current 40-man who will still be under contract for the Cardinals are Bader, O'Neill, and Mercado. Based off our 2020 outlook, it will likely still be O'Neill starting in left for the Cards. By that time, O'Neill will either be in his last year under team control or will hit the market after 2024, depending on when he gets called up to St. Louis.
At 28 years old by the time Opening Day 2023 rolls around, O'Neill will be in the midst of his physical prime. Given his dedication to the weight room, O'Neill has the chance to be at the top of the home run leaderboard year after year.