ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals need to think long and hard about the future of Harrison Bader, their starting center fielder.
Why? He's finding it hard to get above .210 at the plate, is maddeningly inconsistent with a bat in his hands, and can't seem to buy much power at the plate.
Yes, he is flamboyant in the best way when playing the game of baseball and brings an energy to the club, but how much value do you attach to that quality that carries no real statistical value?
Look at Kolten Wong, who also plays the game with exuberance and likes to ride on the upside of baseball's fiercest mood swings. When he was inconsistent, it wasn't enough. Now, he's hitting and thriving. Bader is stuck in neutral.
He was hitting below .200 when sent down to Memphis on July 28, and he came back with a newfound patience at the plate and some lightning in his bat. He walked three times in his first game back, and over a five game stretch against Colorado and Pittsburgh, collected eight hits. Along with the top flight defense, many were thinking he was back for good. The 2018 Bader had returned.
The only problem is 2018 Bader was very inconsistent. Check his month-to-month OPS marks last season:
There's some up and down action in this numbers. Granted, it was his first full season, but when coupled with 2019's struggles, they start to paint a picture that doesn't resemble a starting player. Bader's greatest attribute will always be his glove work, but will that be enough to keep him in the lineup 145-150 times next season?
Defensively, he's no joke. Almost a wonder. Steady as the wind on a fall night, Bader electrifies out there. Last season, via Fangraphs, Bader saved the Cardinals 11 runs and put up an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR, which takes into account arm, range, and errors) of 9.1. This season, he's saved 13 runs and his UZR is 12.4. He covers ground in center and has a good arm.
But at the plate, he's anything but assured. He strikes out a ton, goes without extra base hits for long stretches, and lacks the general pop he showed last year. Bader's ISO (isolated batting average, tracks a hitter's power) is a paltry .180 this year. Bader's wRC+ is 80 (league average is 100). All in all, he's a below average hitter who enjoys streaks.
On a team with robust hitters at every position, that may be tolerable. But look around. Dexter Fowler has bounced back at the plate, but he's not going to give you more than a .780 OPS in right field. He's signed for two more seasons. Matt Carpenter, previously a 4-5 WAR player, is having a down year and on the wrong end of 30. Paul DeJong is having his best year yet, but his bat won't save a team. Paul Goldschmidt is stuck in a disappointing season. Yadier Molina may be fighting back Father Time, but he will turn 38 next summer.
Here's the thing. The Cardinals need to assess how much value Bader brings before they let Marcell Ozuna, a proven hitter, walk. Ozuna has stated his desire to stay and is having a fine year at the plate.
He has been a savior for the lineup this season and only turns 29 in November, so letting him go may not be a wise move. What if Bader regresses again in 2020?
Don't forget about Dylan Carlson, the organization's #2 prospect and top outfield prospect who tore apart Springfield and Memphis pitching this season.
Carlson turns 21 in October, but shouldn't be kept in Memphis for long if he's ready to go. The Cardinals need to remove the training wheels off a young phenom sooner rather than later for once, and Carlson may be where that starts. You don't need Bader blocking him next season. Yes, if you were wondering, Carlson plays center field.
What about Tyler O'Neill? The guy swings a mighty stick and has shown shades of power, but the team doesn't seem to trust him with a long stretch of playing time. He also has a hard time staying healthy. He falls into that part-time/full-time player gap conundrum as well. The team doesn't seem to hold too much stock in him.
It's easy to like Bader and what he brings to the team. The man can play and exudes flair on the baseball field. He makes diving catches. He runs so fast and can beat out infield grounders. There's the occasional home run.
But can the Cardinals afford to place him in center on a full-time basis in 2020? I'm afraid not.
This isn't the end of the world, folks. It's not dooming Bader to the lower levels of baseball doom by saying he shouldn't be out there 140 times a year. He could easily be a quality fourth outfielder on this team, or perhaps a trade tool in the offseason. The team still retains some nice control with Bader before he hits the market. Use it wisely.
Think long. Think hard, Cardinals, about Harrison Bader.