How the Cardinals’ crowded outfield should shake out

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St. Louis’ addition of Paul Goldschmidt has forced a fight for playing time in right field, and it’s a battle Jose Martinez needs to win.

When a team has the opportunity to add a player like Paul Goldschmidt, you worry later about how the acquisition might effect other players, because, let’s be honest, nobody on the Cards’ roster is going to be more valuable.

The Cardinals, though, need to make sure the domino effect doesn’t hurt their chances to win. Their plan to move ahead with Dexter Fowler as an everyday right fielder may do just that.

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Jose Martinez, the late-blooming first baseman/corner outfielder looks as though he’s going to play second fiddle to Fowler, but at what cost?

Martinez burst onto the scene in 2017, slashing .309/.379/.518 in 106 games for the Cardinals. He followed that up with a similarly productive 2018, this time as an everyday player, splitting time between first base and the outfield. Martinez finished 2018 with a 125 wRC+ and a 2.3 fWAR.

St. Louis signed Dexter Fowler after the 2016 season, and he gave them a typical Dexter Fowler-type of season in 2017. Fowler was a 2.5 fWAR player that year and had a productive wRC+ of 121. 2018, though, was a different story. Fowler’s wRC+ was cut in half (it dropped to 62) and he had a -1.2 fWAR. In August, Fowler landed on the 60-day disabled list with a foot fracture, bringing an abrupt end to the worst season of his career.

Heading into 2019, the current outfield will include Marcell Ozuna in left field, Harrison Bader in center and, seemingly, Fowler will man right field. Martinez is currently penciled in as a backup to Fowler and Goldschmidt, but in an increasingly competitive NL Central, is St. Louis making the right call? In my humble opinion, they are not.

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Martinez is clearly the real deal with the bat, and while he doesn’t hold much value defensively, I’m not so sure Fowler does, either. Fowler spend most of his career in center field playing below average defense. In 2018, he moved to right field, playing 649 innings with -5 DRS, a .969 fielding percentage and a -10.9 UZR/150.

Martinez played most of his 2018 season at first base but did log 335 innings in right field for -6 DRS and a -4 UZR/150.

How would that have looked if he’d matched Fowler’s 649 innings? Hard to say, but his DRS was on pace be twice as bad. And, to be fair to Fowler, Martinez can’t match his speed or instincts—Fowler had a much better 2018 RZR at .906 versus .800 for Martinez. To his credit, Martinez made no errors, so while he may not get to as many balls, he makes the catch when he does track one down.

The real question is—will Fowler be the hitter he was prior to 2018? Steamer projects a bit of a bounce back for him with a 104 wRC+, while Martinez is projected to post a wRC+ of 117.

Bottom line—the Cardinals can’t afford to give up any offense. Unless Fowler is going to bounce all the way back, the best solution is for the Cardinals to plug Martinez in as the primary right fielder, allowing Fowler to split some time between center and right field. He’d still see plenty of playing time in this role, starting a couple of times a week versus a tough right-hander or just to give Bader or Martinez a day off. Of course, he should absolutely be used as a defensive replacement for Martinez.

The Cardinals may feel obligated to start Fowler due to his salary—he’s set to make $16.5 million this year—but if they want to win games, they need to deploy their outfielders in a way that makes the most sense.

If it makes having an expensive fourth outfielder easier to stomach, St. Louis can weigh the combined production they’ll get out of Martinez, Fowler and Bader against a combined cost of less than $18 million. Last year, the three had a combined fWAR of 4.6 at a cost of around $17.6 million. That’s $3.8 million per win out of the trio.

If they can do something similar in 2019—or if Fowler can crawl back above replacement level—I think they’ll find the bang for the buck will not only be a good value, but will place them in a better position to compete with Milwaukee, Chicago and an improved team in Cincinnati.

Besides, how do you sit someone with a heat map like this? (The answer: you don’t)


Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC

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