The St. Louis Cardinals have a fairly substantial roster decision on their hands in the next few days with regard to the final bench spot. At the start of Spring Training, most fans assumed that the top performer out of a cluster of young outfielders would win the spot. I previously wrote about this fourth outfielder debate, in which I speculated that the final spot would be a battle between Tyler O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and Harrison Bader.
Flash forward to where these names stand after a month’s worth of spring games. O’Neill is destined for Triple-A Memphis after a hamstring injury ended his spring. Cuban natives Garcia and Arozarena remain in camp and have both shown impressive tools at times, but Garcia’s high strikeout numbers and Arozarena’s lack of experience above the Double-A level leave the assumption that both could use more seasoning in the minors. Bader has impressed thus far with 15 hits, 8 of which were for extra bases, and an impressive show of range at all outfield positions. He has at least some big league experience and seems like the logical choice for the last bench spot, right? Not so fast. Enter Yairo Munoz.
Yairo who? There’s no doubt that many Cardinals fans asked this question early in Spring Training. But after hitting two home runs in the same inning on February 28 against the Baltimore Orioles, it seems that both the fans and the Cardinals coaching staff alike want to see Munoz get a crack at the big leagues. By now it’s been well documented that Munoz came to the Cardinals organization in the Stephen Piscotty trade this offseason and was subsequently ranked as the Cardinals’ 12th best prospect entering 2018. Munoz hit a combined .300 between Double-A and Triple-A in Oakland’s system last year, and is slashing an impressive .375/.423/.625 this spring after hitting his third Grapefruit League homer on Thursday afternoon.
Munoz’s bat has always been the biggest part of his game, but recent launch angle changes to his swing have led to an increase in power, a tool that many did not expect the 23-year-old to develop so rapidly. But what really makes Munoz a standout this spring is his versatility combined with his bat. Although a natural infielder, Munoz has appeared all over the diamond thus far for the Cardinals. And although some questions have been raised about his range in the outfield, manager Mike Matheny has publicly asserted absolute confidence in Munoz’s abilities. So if Munoz has been so impressive this spring, why is there even a debate as to whether he or Bader will make the cut? It boils down to a number of fairly complicated reasons that ultimately end with Munoz deserving the spot, but Bader still being the most likely choice for the Cardinals.
First off, Munoz has zero experience in the Majors, and just limited experience at Triple-A. And while it’s completely rational to believe that he could make the jump straight out of spring and be successful, it’s also just as much of a possibility that he could struggle. Giving too much weight to Spring Training results almost never translates to real games in terms of individual performance over a season, especially with largely unproven mid-level prospects.
Also worth noting is that Bader is a true, natural outfielder and can cover ground at all three positions, including center field, a position where Munoz would potentially be most limited. Perhaps Munoz’s versatility would be more pertinent to the Cardinals if out-of-options infielder Greg Garcia was not as able to bounce around the infield as he is. Including a true outfielder on the roster to compliment Greg Garcia’s proven infield versatility seems to make the most sense. Munoz also walks at a drastically lower rate than Garcia and even Bader, at least in his minor league career thus far. This means the primary aspect of his game would potentially be power off the bench, a type of role that the Cardinals would certainly not shy away from, but that might be too risky should he not pan out as anticipated based on his spring stats.
Finally, Bader’s ceiling may not be as high as some regard him to be, and developing him as a fourth outfielder at the big league level may not be as outrageous as some fans think. Although he is the Cardinals’ 5th best prospect, Bader’s career minor league numbers, advanced hitting metrics and overall skill set do not suggest that he will develop into a superstar, but rather into player who’s more of a middle ground between names Cardinals fans are familiar with like Randal Grichuk and Jon Jay in terms of power and on-base ability. This is far from a knock to the confident young outfielder. He’s a phenomenal talent, but perhaps he can best help the club in a reserve role for now, rather than being continually groomed in the minors to eventually take over at a starting position in the Majors in the next few years that might not actually open up. This situation makes the case for Munoz even tougher.
Of course, the Cardinals could go with Bader on the basis of holding Munoz in the minors to add year of team-control, but the Cardinals have never really utilized the ever-growing “Kris Bryant strategy” before, so don’t expect that to be the reasoning if Munoz is in fact cut before Opening Day. In all likelihood, Bader will win the final roster spot based on some of these reasons mentioned, but it’s fun to think about the kind of player Munoz could be if he did make the team. Either way, expect to see both Bader and Munoz (and all of their talents) on the Cardinals’ Major League roster at some point this season.
The Cardinals have officially announced that Harrison Bader will be optioned to Triple-A Memphis to start the season, thus giving the final bench spot to Yairo Munoz. There’s no doubt that Munoz did everything to earn the spot, and it’s also clear that the Cardinals coaching staff believes he can play a solid enough outfield to leave a player like Bader off the roster. Once again, the Cardinals primarily cited a lack of playing time as the reason for Bader’s demotion. It should be interesting to see what Munoz can do with his first opportunity at the big leagues.