St. Louis Cardinals

Mike Shildt has done wonders for the Cardinals, but crowded outfield complicates things

Cardinals GM talks about Carlos Martinez’s 5-year extension

John Mozeliak talks about the five-year, $51-million contract extension given to St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez.
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John Mozeliak talks about the five-year, $51-million contract extension given to St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez.

Mike Shildt has done a lot of things since becoming the St. Louis Cardinals manager last July 15.

  • His Cardinals have posted the best record (55-37) in the National League since that day, including a league-leading 14-9 mark this year.
  • He’s fostered a more relaxed, less stressful atmosphere in the clubhouse.
  • He’s well liked by his players and the media, his candid, open, honest approach a refreshing change for players and reporters alike.

Now we’ll see if he can perform magic tricks.

Specifically: How does he find playing time for four or five outfielders who can occupy only three outfield spots?

“We definitely recognize we’ve had a lot a lot of production out of our outfield, and which is a very positive thing,” Shildt said before the Cardinals completed a three-game sweep of Milwaukee with a 5-2 win on Wednesday. “That’s a great opportunity to think about, right? When you have good options and good players ...”

With the return of Harrison Bader (hamstring) from the injured list, the Cardinals have no room at the inn for all the players who ought to be in the starting lineup:

Bader is off to a slow start offensively, hitting .175 and missing a week and a half with a hamstring injury. But he is the speediest and most-gifted outfielder on the club, and the team is at its best when he’s patrolling center field.

Jose Martinez is the flip side of that coin, an indifferent defender but hitting .344 this year, and .311 in his four years with the team.

Marcell Ozuna, coming off a nagging shoulder injury last year that robbed him of his customary power, is batting .272 and has nine home runs and 21 RBIs in 22 games.

To top it all, Dexter Fowler has reached his high-water mark in a Cardinal uniform, batting .310 in the early going this season after bottoming out at .180 last year.

“I’ve been feeling good,” Fowler told reporters after a four-hit game Monday in the Brewers series opener. “I’ve been putting good swings on and taking good at-bats, and it’s kind of contagious.

“I’m just trying to go out and take the AB’s and let the game come to me,” Fowler said. “Whatever situation it is, just try to execute the situation.”

Also in the outfield mix: Promising second-year slugger Tyler O’Neill, working at Class AA Springfield to return from a nerve issue in his throwing arm, and just-arrived-on-the-scene rookie Lane Thomas, who legged out two infield hits Wednesday and is hitting .400 since his promotion from Class AAA Memphis earlier this month.

It’s got Shildt wondering how to get at-bats, if not starting assignments, for all of them. He’s used double-switches and pinch-hitting ploys to get a couple plate appearances — when he can — for the outfielders on the bench on any particular day.

“The flexibility in that goes many different ways,” he said. “This group is about competition and being ready when they’re called.

“That’s something I appreciate very much is the ‘wantness’ that everybody has, the mindset. It’s pretty special and makes for special teams.”

This was a different task altogether for Shildt late last season, when O’Neill and Bader were a year younger, Thomas wasn’t on the scene, Ozuna was ailing, and a broken foot had put the final touches on Fowler’s worst year as a pro.

He had just 52 hits with 31 RBIs in 334 plate appearances.

After an eerily similar start this season — Fowler was hitting .189 as of April 13 — he has caught fire the last two weeks, batting .432 (16-for-37) with four doubles, a home run and eight runs scored.

“He’s using the whole field in driving the ball,” Shildt said. “The ball is going straight, he’s got a nice trajectory to it, he’s staying through it clearly and using the whole field.

“And when you’re doing that and you look at hitters who use the whole field, guys have to defend it. It’s going to create more holes.”

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler said during the annual Cardinals Care Winter WarmUp at the dowtown Hyatt Hotel that he owed fans his presence at the annual event.

Two hot weeks don’t prove Fowler is back to being the player who received a five-year, $82.5-million offer in free agency from the Cardinals three years ago, a deal that runs through 2021.

But his hot streak — and Shildt’s hope to get him lots of at-bats to get him and keep him right at the plate — complicates the lineup card sitting on the manager’s desk before every game.

He’ll mix and match, weighing past performance against the opposing pitcher that day, knowing there are a handful of outfielders waiting to see that lineup posted in the clubhouse a couple hours before game time.

One scenario in the short term: Keep Fowler’s hot hand in center, ease Bader back into the mix with double-switches in the later innings, and find ABs for the kids when Martinez should be lifted for defensive reasons with the game on the line.

Mostly, the manager is watching. Carefully.

“The eyes tell you the guys are staying available and sharp and ready,” Shildt said. “But they’re also doing it because they’re engaged and buying into what their role was that particular day. We expect that to continue.”

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the St. Louis Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.
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