Today, we continue along in the National League Central to discuss potential opportunities for prospects to earn starting jobs at positions currently manned by a player at risk of losing his job if his poor play continues. We’ll move on with the Cardinals. Though the team doesn’t include any standouts offensively, the lineup is deep with no easy outs. So really, the outfield is seemingly the only position in which a prospect might get an opportunity.
At Risk: Tyler O’Neill/Dylan Carlson/Dexter Fowler
Replacement: Tyler O’Neill/Dylan Carlson, Justin Williams
Both Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson represent at risk and potential replacement players. This all depends on who wins the job, probably in left field, to open the season. O’Neill is the former top prospect who has played about a half season over two years. He has struck out often, thanks to a whiff problem, while rarely walking. But he does own mammoth power, and has the fly ball rate to take advantage. The strikeouts might prove too much to overcome, though.
Dylan Carlson is the team’s current second best prospect, but he’s record just 79 plate appearances at Triple-A, so it’s anyone’s guess if he’s ready to succeed in the Majors, even if that stint was elite (.448 wOBA). Carlson has generally posted solid strikeout and walk rates, though both rates regressed upon the move to Triple-A, over a small sample. His power surged in 2019, while he even swiped 20 bases. He has the potential to contribute decently in all categories, but there’s no telling if he’ll be ready to do so in 2020.
Dexter Fowler enters the season as the expected starting right fielder after a rebound campaign off his poor 2018 season. But, his strikeout rate and SwStk% rose again and his once strong BABIP finished below .300 for a second straight season. At age 34, how much is left in the tank?
Justin Williams enjoyed a nice little small sample breakout at Triple-A last year, posting a sizzling .433 wOBA over 119 plate appearances driven by a .255 ISO and 29.2% HR/FB rate. He has shown power before, but never posted an ISO over .200 or HR/FB rate over 20%. His walk rate also doubled into the low teens. The sample is tiny, of course, but it makes you wonder if something suddenly clicked, as all his metrics surged.
At Risk: Harrison Bader
Replacement: Lane Thomas
Harrison Bader disappointed last year with a .293 wOBA and he has struck out far too often for a guy with just middling power. The good news is his defense has been spectacular, so that should afford him a longer leash, and the projections expect him to rebound back over a .300 wOBA. The short season might not be kind to slow starters though, especially those coming off a weak offensive season the prior year.
Lane Thomas is the team’s eighth best prospect, also combining power and speed. What’s interesting here is that while his strikeout rates have typically settled into the mid-20% range, his wStk% marks have generally been sub-10% since 2017. That suggests too much passivity, as strikeouts are racked up by called strikes, rather than swings and misses. That’s just speculation, though, but if this were the case, it’s better than if he had a whiff problem.
At Risk: Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright
Replacement: Austin Gomber
Dakota Hudson was one of the league’s most fortunate starting pitchers last year, using SIERA-ERA discrepancy. While he posted a nice 3.35 ERA, his SIERA was all the way up at 5.08, thanks to a weak strikeout rate and a walk rate in double digits. He generates a ton of grounders, which is great, but because grounders fall for hits far more often than fly balls, he defied the odds by posting a BABIP well below the league average. I doubt that happens again.
Adam Wainwright has somehow held on, even as his skills have collapsed. With a SIERA of exactly 4.70 in both 2019 and 2017, the now 38-year-old might not last much longer in the rotation.
Austin Gomber pitched 75 innings, mostly in relief, back in 2018, but failed to make it up to the Majors last season. During his last two stints at Triple-A, he posted strikeout rates in the mid-to-high 20% range, supported by a SwStk% between 11.9% and 12.6%. These aren’t great rates, but decent enough to make him worth monitoring. During his time in the Majors, he featured both a slider and changeup that generated a mid-teen SwStk%, meaning he certainly has a starter’s repertoire.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.