The Cardinals thought they had it figured out. Surprise breakout Tommy Pham was set in center field. Marcell Ozuna, off a smashing year, came over to handle left. Veteran Dexter Fowler held the right-field post. They cleared the other mainstays from the 2017 outfield roster, and figured they had a lineup, and specifically an outfield, that would knock down walls and crush opponents.
Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. As we peel into June, the Cardinals are 18th in runs and 20th in offense, a mediocre machine. Pham had a terrific April, then skidded through a .195/.276/.425 May. Ozuna has been hurt and unproductive most of the year (.645 OPS, three homers), and Fowler (.180/.291/.311) has been one of the worst outfielders in baseball. He’s been dinged up, too.
What’s a St. Louis baseball fan to do? Turn those lonely eyes to Harrison Bader.
Bader, 24, was a fringe Cardinals prospect entering the year. If you looked at a Top 10 list for the organization, Bader was likely in the middle. No scouting organization ever put him in MLB’s Top 100. Bader was solid if unspectacular in 123 Triple-A games last year (.283/.347/.469, 20 homers, 15 steals). You love the category juice, but he also struck out 118 times. A brief 85-at bat trial in the majors went nowhere (.659 OPS).
Bader’s been forced into playing time of late and it’s become a fun story. Again, the key slant is the category juice. Bader has five homers and six steals in just 88 at-bats. He knocked three hits from the No. 2 slot Thursday, scored twice. His .290/.365/.484 slash will play in any of our mixed-league formats.
And he’s striking out slightly less often than last year (three percent dip), and the walks are bumped up 2.3 percent. Every tiny step helps.
When the Cardinals are all healthy, Bader might not have a gig. Pham’s 2017 and start to this year mark some territory. Ozuna and Fowler are being paid well. Ozuna was such a monster last year (37 homers, .924 OPS), how can they push him aside? Fowler’s meaty contract runs through 2021. And obviously the Cardinals have NL problems with lineup construction; there’s no DH spot to fall back on. We didn’t even mention Tyler O’Neill, who’s hit some, too. And the infield is crowded as well.
But sometimes a productive player forces the manager’s hand. Maybe Mike Matheny will turn this outfield into a time-share, a rotating thing. Perhaps the hot hand will prevail. Maybe someone will get hurt again. Maybe the Cardinals will decide Fowler deserves a push back into a fourth-outfielder role.
I suppose Bader’s uncertainly, and the crowding in St. Louis, explains his modest six-percent ownership tag in Yahoo. But sometimes you have to grab at recent production and talent, and just hope the roster gridlock sorts itself out. I’ve added Bader in a few spots, seeing the plausible upside. I’m asking you to consider it, too.
About the same time last year, we talked about Pham and promoted him. There was a lot of laughing and snickering; it certainly didn’t last all summer. This is not some cheesy told-you-so, it’s the ever-present reminder to focus on what could go right, to stay proactive with the back-end of your roster.
The team is hoping DeJong can return in early July, and you know how those long-term timetables go — they’re hard to trust, and often too optimistic. Meanwhile, Munoz is on a .287/.330/.436 clip for his 26 games, with three homers and a bag. If you rank all the shortstops for the last two weeks, about when DeJong went down, Munoz is the No. 8 scorer in 5×5 value. He’s still available in 96 percent of Yahoo leagues.
Speed Round: Hanley Ramirez is officially a free agent, as he passed through waivers. No one was going to jump on the in-limbo $22 roster bonus Hanley might gather with regular playing time, passing a modest threshold of plate appearances. Now he can hook on somewhere without that road block. Ramirez is a negative in the field and was in a massive slump when cut, so his fantasy value will need some type of contextual bump. I haven’t made a proactive addition anywhere . . . Clayton Kerhsaw lasted just 62 pitches before departure. That’s not unusual, but now he needs an MRI on his back . . . The Marlins made it official: Brad Ziegler is out as closer, Kyle Barraclough is likely in. The secondary name to know is Drew Steckenrider, though he’s been shaky this year. Barraclough’s line speaks for itself: 24.1 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 15 BB, 27 K, 1.48, 0.99 WHIP. Too many walks, but everything else is in place . . . Tim Beckham (groin) should start a rehab assignment in two weeks . . . Aledmys Diaz (ankle) has returned to action for the Jays and should start soon. It might be harder for Randal Grichuk (knee), who had a .435 OPS before the DL stint . . . If you enjoy recorded audio conversations, I was a guest on Patrick Davitt’s excellent Baseball HQ podcast this week. We start with some hockey talk, but eventually get to an extended discussion about players, strategy, and the state of the current fantasy baseball season. You can also catch me on the Breakfast Table podcast every week; Michael Salfino and I talked football Thursday (an audit of the running back position; posted shortly), and will handle baseball next week.