A promising offensive prospect that craters back to earth has become the St. Louis Cardinals’ version anchorman Pancake Breakfast: They do it annually. Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson both showed signs a season ago that they could potentially be long-term solutions for two-thirds of the Red Birds’ outfield, and this year no one seems to know the lockdown is over.
O’Neill crushed the ball last year, batted 560 — good for ninth in all of baseball — and finished with 34 homers and 80 RBIs in 141 games. Putting this type of season together and fusing it with his thirst-inducing biceps will get fans extremely hot and extremely bothered. And I’m not talking about St. Louis-sweat-when-you-step-outside-in-the-hot-summer, I’m talking about rocking back and forth in your seat trying to think of anything else hot.
Those dreams are a lot less erotic now given O’Neill’s slow start. He’s seeing fewer fastballs this year and in return is struggling to repeat his performance numbers. His 0.333 slugging percentage isn’t in the top 10, or even in the top 100.
I wouldn’t exactly call Carlson’s 2021 season lust-worthy. Hitting .266 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs doesn’t get anyone on fire, but he wasn’t “as many doubles as RBIs (4) in 23 games” bad. Were it not for Nolan Arenado’s performance as April’s Player of the Month, St. Louis’ offensive malaise would be a bigger topic of conversation outside of Missouri.
If you add up this year’s year-to-year batting average declines between O’Neill (down .84), Carlson (down .80), and Paul DeJong (down .70), you get a total decline of . 234. This cumulative drop in averages is greater than what each of these three players is currently achieving (0.202, 0.186, and 0.127, respectively). My confusing sort of analytics aside, there isn’t a current iteration of this team capable of overcoming the issues that have plagued their postseasons for years.
DeJong is the poster Boy for the regression as his batting average has dropped in each of his six seasons since joining the league, except for the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
It’s early, and St. Louis is lucky enough to be 14-10 and rank fifth in run differential despite having the 17th best offense in MLB. If you’re a Cardinals fan like me, you know all too well the feeling of hopelessness that immediately sets in when it’s obvious an opposing pitcher is about to hit.
All hope of scoring falls to Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, both fantastic but like any big hitter need support in the line-up. It could be karma that has caught up with the Cardinals over the years of Red Devil Magic, or it could be a development issue, one I’ve yelled about before on this site.
Maybe O’Neill and Carlson are stuck in fewer and fewer petty slumps. Or they’re part of a trend of good but stagnant talent that’s become the norm for the St. Louis farm system. I mentioned O’Neill, Carlson and DeJong, but Kolten Wong never reached the peak that GM John Mozeliak promised. Randal Grichuk’s two most productive seasons came after he was traded away. I give St. Louis a pass to Aledmys Diaz because he hasn’t been a regular part of Houston’s lineup in recent years. That being said, Diaz had as many RBIs (45) as the guy who replaced him at shortstop last year, and he played in 29 fewer games and also had 83 fewer plate appearances than DeJong.
I also like Tommy Edman and Harrison Bader, but any offensive production from them is a bonus. Cards fans have been glancing at their watches anxiously for years, waiting for the next promised Albert Pujols. And the re-signing of the free-agent slugger that has been among his best in the past wasn’t what anyone had in mind, nor will it fill the need. If anything, the addition of DH to NL has only shed a brighter light on the team’s shortcomings.
I’ll skip the pitching part of this “What the heck is happening to the Cardinal’s prospects?” piece because their falls are largely due to injuries and pitching wasn’t the reason for the team’s postseason failures. If you’re looking for a solution, chances are it won’t come from manager Olivier Marmol. It’s not his fault that the team keeps hiring from the inside, ignoring what the heck is going on when their homegrown players take a nosedive after a year or two of scouting.
Does hitting coach Jeff Albert, held back by fired manager Mike Shildt’s staff, just press play/pause on the game tape and tell his boys to keep an eye on the ball? It would explain a lot.
Mozeliak’s acquisitions of Goldschmidt and Arenado were great, and he should be applauded for fleecing those franchises. However, St. Louis can’t expect to win a title by taking advantage of dysfunctional organizations, nor can they win by throwing buckets of money at free agents.
I know it’s early and there’s still plenty of time for O’Neill and Carlson to get out of their crisis. If they do, it’ll break with recent tradition, but I don’t think Cardinal fans would question that as much as Champ Kind did when Ron Burgundy skipped a couple of flapjacks.