By Brian Hall, from Cardsblog.com
Our 2018 St. Louis Cardinals Positional Outlook Series has finally made its way out of the infield! Starting today, we'll take a look at all outfield positions before moving on to the pitchers. Keep an eye out for links to Parts 1 through 5 of our Positional Outlook Series throughout this article. Right now, let's get to Center Field:
After three years of bouncing between AAA Memphis and the major league club and a couple untimely injuries, Tommy Pham appeared to be a clear cut AAAA player. The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler in the offseason of 2017, and it looked like he would be their long term solution in center field. Then Tommy Pham's 2017 campaign happened, and it was absolutely glorious.
With some new state of the art contact lenses and a fiery attitude we hadn't seen from a Cardinal in some time, Pham put up 5.9 fWAR and 6.4 bWAR in just 128 games and all but snatched center field from beneath Dexter Fowler. Speaking of Fowler, it looks more than likely that he'll get minuscule time in center this season. You'll probably hear more about him in the corner outfield features.
When you take a look at his numbers from '17, there's almost nothing but good omens for Tommy Pham in 2018. His 148 wRC+ ranked fifth in the NL and his .411 OBP was third in the NL and fifth in all of baseball. In addition, not only did he hit the ball hard fairly consistently - making medium and hard contact 49.1% and 35.5% of the time - his walk and strikeout rates were respectable at 13.4% and 22.1%.
The one concern with Pham is the fact that he'll be 30 years old in March, but I think it's a pretty safe bet that (if he can stay healthy) he'll put up at least a couple more solid seasons before declining due to age and/or hitting free agency in 2022. When that does inevitably happen though, the Cardinals have a few minor league players that will hopefully be ready to pick up where he left off.
Two Years from Now
Although, it would be nice for Pham to be the Cards' lock down center fielder for the next few years, it's always good to have a contingency plan. Most fans probably already know him from his stint in the majors last season, but Harrison Bader looks to be developing into a serviceable outfielder. With his speed and better-than-expected defensive ability, Bader could very well be the Cardinals' starting center fielder in a few years.
After struggling in his first season at AAA in 2016, Bader posted a 111 wRC+ in 2017, earning his first promotion to the major league level. Although he didn't find much success during his time in the majors, it will be interesting to see if he can make the same adjustment at the professional level if that's where he ends up after Spring Training.
Scouts grade him with solid power, but it's hard to predict how much success his career 5.4% walk rate and 26.1% strikeout rate will allow him to have. I don't think it's overly optimistic to think that his floor is about on par with Randal Grichuk's performance in St. Louis, but hopefully he'll be able to develop a bit further than Grichuk.
If the Cards for some reason decided to take the free agent route, there are a couple decent center field options in the 2019 free agent market. The list includes Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, and Andrew McCutchen, but they'll all be over 30 years old and more expensive than the current minor league options. It would be more prudent to allow the young talent the team already possesses to develop rather than committing to a free agent past his prime, but this is something the Cardinals' front office has typically done well anyway.
Five Years from Now
If Bader does not pan out, there are a few other prospects that could be ready in this time frame, but it's hard to say anything for certain. Randy Arozarena and Oscar Mercado look to be potential glove-first outfielders, and they'll both be entering their primes in about five years.
Again though, this is so far down the line and the Cardinals are so pitcher-oriented when drafting and trading that outfield talent in the minor leagues is a bit scarce at the moment, especially after packaging Magneuris Sierra in the Marcell Ozuna trade.
In the case that Bader has not become an every day center fielder at this point, the Cards' best option may be trading or signing a free agent for outfield talent a la Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna. Only time can tell with these things, and the Cardinals are so deep in pitching talent that I think it's more than fair to wait and play the center field situation by ear five years down the road.