With Winter meetings under way, trade rumors are in full swing. Especially after a disappointing 2016 campaign, Cardinals fans seem eager to outsource, bringing in new talent. In some cases, however, the answer may be right in front of us.
Besides Stephen Piscotty, who had a solid 2016, the Cardinals struggled in the outfield this past season. Ranking 28th in the league offensively in both center and left field during 2016, there are many areas for improvement with these two positions. Both offensively and defensively, the Cardinals must improve if they aspire to challenge the defending World Series Champs, or the newly stacked pitching staff of the Boston Red Sox.
Honestly, you could spend hours talking about trade possibilities that would solve this problem. With numerous names and teams floating around, the conversation is incredibly complex, and, at this point, about equally as mysterious. To avoid going into full depth of outfield trade permutations, I will reference the above article, a concise and encompassing summary written by Cardsblog’s Neel Kale. As he demonstrated, the Cardinals have a variety of options in their attempt to bolster their outfield, some more realistic than others.
With all present options being considered, I will attempt to make an argument regarding the Cardinals best possible option to patrol Center Field. With names like Lorenzo Cain, Dexter Fowler, Charlie Blackmon, and Mike Trout (yeah right!) all being considered, this seems like a tough argument to make. As I see it, though, it is far more simple, with the answer sitting in our very own system.
Harrison Bader has what it takes to become a star in St. Louis for years to come. He needs to start that campaign in 2017, with no other acquisitions in his way.
After a phenomenal 2016 season, Bader established himself to be (quite easily) the most promising position player in the Cardinals system. Hitting .283 in AA with 12 doubles, 4 triples, and 16 home runs, Bader consistently wowed scouts and fans alike. With great athleticism and a plus-arm in the outfield, Bader displayed the full package during his time with the Springfield Cardinals.
As a result of such a phenomenal AA performance, Bader earned a promotion to AAA ball, getting 147 at-bats before season’s end. While he struggled with this promotion, have no fear, for Bader proved it was just a fluke, a natural slump that all players experience. Specifically, Bader participated in the Arizona Fall League, playing for the Glendale Desert Dogs. Not only did he participate, though, he thrived. Hitting .304 in 79 at-bats, Bader hit 2 home runs, 1 triple, and 2 doubles against some of the most elite pitching minor league baseball has to offer. With such a stellar campaign, Bader was selected to the 2016 AFL All-Star Team, sliding in as a DH.
— Arizona Fall League (@MLBazFallLeague) December 5, 2016
To me, Bader has demonstrated both the physical and mental skills required to be an exceptional Major League outfielder. While certain existing players, such as Charlie Blackmon and Lorenzo Cain, have proven their worth and professional capabilities, I think Bader remains as the best option moving forward.
To be more concrete in my argument, let’s start with age. Bader is 24, projecting to start his big league career early in the 2017 season. Both Cain and Blackmon, however, are 30 years of age, bringing into question the possibility of injury or steadily diminishing performance. In this realm, certainly, Bader offers a long term solution to a 2016 problem, possibly anchoring the outfield for many years to come. With the other two noted options, though, their influence, by intention, is more temporary, perhaps filling the role for just a year.
With regards to experience, players like Cain, Blackmon, and Fowler (obviously) hold the upper hand over Bader. If the Cardinals are selling out to win a World Series next year, then these moves would make sense. In reality though, this is not the Cardinals way, and I really hope they do not deviate from such tendencies of forward thinking and thorough minor league development. While Bader does not have experience, he will be ready next year, and it just would not make sense for him to wait behind an acquired star.
At the end of the day, Bader has the tools to become a star in St. Louis, a top-of-the-lineup catalyst to pressure opposing defenses on a nightly basis. He has grown up in the Cardinals organization, and has the traits to re-establish the culture of hard nosed, smart baseball. Bader, at this juncture, is cheaper, younger, and offers MUCH more long term payoff for the Cardinals organization at-large. As far as he himself has demonstrated through performance, too, Bader has both the mental maturity and physical gifts to influence the game in all facets, right away.
As the Cubs demonstrated in 2016, building from within is the strongest recipe for success. While acquisitions along the way undoubtedly serve to complement existing talent, franchise players need to come from within. Bader has the potential to become one of these franchise players, and the Cardinals cannot ignore it. He needs the freedom to blossom, hopefully becoming a consistent difference maker for the next several years.
In baseball, you win up the middle (Center, Short, Pitcher, Catcher). With numerous pitching prospects ready to burst on the scene, Aledmys Diaz thriving in his role at short, and Carson Kelly developing nicely, Bader cannot be disrupted in his rise. The Cardinals are built perfectly to explode in the near future, and it needs to stay that way.