ST. LOUIS — You can't keep them all.
Every baseball team, or sports team for that matter, knows that when they draft a unique talent, that player could end up exhibiting his skill set for another team down the road.
Take Randy Arozarena for example, who has turned into a mythic hitter during this fall season.
From the end of August to the present day, the former Cardinal phenom has destroyed American League pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays. Traded to the beach in a package that included prized pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore, Arozarena has flourished when something ever so simple occurred. He got a legit chance to play.
That never happened in St. Louis. Arozarena sat on the bench or snoozed through AAA-level pitching in 2019 while Harrison Bader hit .200, Dexter Fowler had a reasonably good season, and Marcell Ozuna did just enough not to impress the Cardinals into handing him more than a one year contract. As Philip Seymour Hoffman's Art Howe told Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in "Moneyball," a one year contract doesn't show much trust. Ozuna is wrecking it for the Atlanta Braves right now, playing on a ONE YEAR contract that was $200,000 richer than what St. Louis offered.
Luke Voit had a year to remember for the New York Yankees, but his departure isn't as sour as the others. Why? The Cardinals have a guy named Paul Goldschmidt, who is better than Voit, especially defensively. Without Goldschmidt's defense, the 2020 record for the Cards would look even worse. Cry all you want for Voit, but I will say this again just because it offends so many people with the truth. Voit is crushing the American League East, where he plays the majority of his games. Do you really think he'd be doing that in St. Louis at Busch Stadium? Really? Think again.
The Cardinals got a very good bullpen piece in Giovanny Gallegos, and remember the DH slot hadn't reached the National League when that trade occurred. The Cardinals saw a chance to replenish their bullpen and took it. No hard feelings. Goldschmidt is better and will be for at least a few years. Then, if Voit is still tearing the cover off the ball, St. Louis can reacquire him so he can slash .255/.330/.435 playing half of his games at Busch for the rest of his career, because that's how it goes. Even if you disagree, Goldschmidt is still better.
Arozarena is a different case study. The Cardinals could have used his services in 2019 or 2020. Pick either year and the lineup, especially the outfield assortment, was weaker than a Presidential debate moderator. They slugged putrid numbers, and didn't drive in many people. Tyler O'Neill, who has the looks of a WWE Thursday night wrestler, hit worse than Bader this past season. O'Neill hits the occasional home run, but swings and misses every inch of the baseball the rest of the time. Fowler is good for 1-2 WAR and that's it. Someone that composes a .706 OPS shouldn't be relied on to be a difference maker. Fowler moves the needle just enough, but the Cardinals needed and will need more from their outfield.
It's the sorest spot on the team, the place of obvious weakness. Arozarena, more than Voit, makes that reality sting a little more.
No offense to Liberatore, who could be a top rotation arm in the next few years, but this isn't a pleasant October for a Cardinals fan. The front office will dial down their spending this offseason most likely, the result of a pandemic that strangled team values and finances moving forward. I mean, there are offseasons where the Cardinals do little WITHOUT A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, so now they simply have built-in immunity to criticism. I can imagine Mozeliak musing in January to reporters about the struggle. "When you think about the pandemic, it really limits what we can do. Right? Because at the end of the day, we will finish second in every free agent sweepstakes, or the player won't even want to come here."
Hey John (and Mr. DeWitt Jr.), here's a rumination for you. The Cardinals have a problem, and Dylan Carlson won't be able to change that. That is unless he goes full blown Arozarena on National League pitching in 2021, or whenever teams come back. Bader gives you runs in the field, but not at the plate. O'Neill won't hit here. Heck, the team didn't even give him a single postseason at-bat. They passed up on Ozuna, but wouldn't give his replacement a postseason opportunity at the plate. They let him pinch run. Wow. Lane Thomas may have some ability, but he won't get the legit chance to showcase it here. Bet money on it, and I'll win.
So who else is coming down the pipeline? Not Randy. In 64 September at-bats, he slashed .281/.382/1.022. That's batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. And those numbers are ridiculous, but not as wild as October's performance. In the postseason, Arozarena is slashing .417/.462/1.266. He has 13 home runs in 112 at-bats. Bader, O'Neill, Fowler, Thomas, and Carlson had a combined 19 home runs in 513 regular season at-bats and postseason at-bats combined this year. 13 in 112 and then 19 in 513!! It's just home runs, but it's telling. One number shows big power and the other is flat. Is it a small sample size for Arozarena? Sure, but the monstrous sample size for the Cardinals makes it pathetic and sad.
All Cardinal outfielders don't leave here and become studs. Stephen Piscotty's OPS in 2019/2020 was .720 and .629. Randal Grichuk can slug and has hit with power for Toronto, but I don't think he moves the needle much in St. Louis, and he never put it together as a full-time player. Grichuk's OPS in 2019, playing 151 games, was .738. While his power would have helped St. Louis since he left, you don't find many crying for his services. Tommy Pham may not be technically a stud, but the OPS from 2017-2019 was strong. He's better than what the Cardinals have right now, and that's the problem.
Arozarena isn't alone in his post-Cards dominance, but he's the biggest reminder right now of how their judgement on the hitting side of things in the Majors is faulty at best. Why are so many players thriving away, with some becoming larger than life? Here's the company Arozarena joined this week:
It won't get better unless the Cardinals improve their outfield. Plenty of other teams trade off talent and miss it, but not as much as St. Louis recently. Arozarena isn't the only evidence, but he makes for a fine microcosm of the Cardinals' troubles over the past few seasons.
I'm happy for him, and Voit/Pham as well. But I am skeptical when I stare back at the front office down off Clark and Spruce.