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Opinion | In a sprint of a season, the Cardinals can't afford to give Harrison Bader a long leash

In just a 60-game season, the Cardinals shouldn't hesitate to make some moves with players who are struggling
Credit: AP
St. Louis Cardinals' Harrison Bader smiles during baseball practice at Busch Stadium Friday, July 3, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS — I woke up this morning wondering who had a better chance of hitting a breaking ball: Harrison Bader or Jobu?

Now, the latter is a fictional voodoo doll owned by Dennis Haysbert's Pedro Cerrano from the baseball classic, "Major League." The former is the starting center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, who are four games into a hyperactive season that seems to acquire a new, wild speed each day.

Bader, the guy who took over when Tommy Pham was traded years back, has started three of those four games-and struggled at the plate. Unlike his colleague, Tyler O'Neill (and Cerrano for that matter), Bader doesn't have true power that hides a massive amount of strikeouts. Unlike Lane Thomas, Bader chases everything outside the zone. It won't take a Carlos Martinez knee-buckler to get Bader out; just put together a halfway decent delivery and he's swinging away.

This wouldn't be a big deal if this was fresh news. All of a sudden, a Major League player is struggling. For Bader, this has been going on for over a year. You can date Bader's struggles back to Sept. of 2018, where he accumulated 31 strikeouts and just 19 hits in 27 games. The .221 batting average was his softest mark for a single month in the entire season. 2019 was only a continuance of this problem.

Bader hit .205 in 2019, a steep drop from his .264 mark in 2018. There were times when he looked clueless at the plate and then there were moments where he seemed to be climbing out of it. Overall, Bader's OPS/OPS+ marks dropped to .680/79 last season.

It's simple. Mike Shildt and the Cardinals can't afford to keep starting Bader. A team struggling for offensive output can't rely on a guy who swings at bad pitches. During Tuesday night's game, the Cardinals were down by three runs and had a runner on in the ninth inning. Bader was set to hit, and this is where Shildt could have shown fans he was taking no prisoners and that 2020 was different.

With six hitters on the bench, including Andrew Knizner and Matt Wieters, Bader hit and struck out. Minnesota Twins pitcher Sergio Romo threw four pitches to Bader and that was it. The string was pulled and the game was over. Down 6-3, the Cardinals may not have mounted a big enough comeback to win the game. But a manager has to do what it takes to win each and every game. That stands for each season, but is especially paramount to St. Louis' chances in a 60 game season.

All Bader really offers the Cardinals is defense. He can run down most fly balls. His arm doesn't produce many assists, because the ball is usually sailing high over the infielder's heads. He's a fan favorite due to the exuberance he plays with, and the looks he carries to the field each game. Bader is a good person and that is good enough for some people to withstand the disappointment of Tuesday's ninth inning, but the song is starting to get old.

Over the offseason, John Mozeliak and Shildt made references to the outfield that a competition was brewing and that would decide who started and played. They kept Dylan Carlson off the opening day roster to control his player clock. Basically. by holding off on activating him for six days, they save a year in control. The six days of rest keeps Carlson's six years of team control in place. Okay, fine.

But what about Lane Thomas? He started on Sunday against Pittsburgh, didn't look particularly good, and didn't start in Minnesota. So what?! Bader hasn't looked good for nearly 200 games. Thomas had a better spring training than any other outfielder, including Carlson. Meanwhile, Oscar Mercado is doing very well in Cleveland.

The reality is clear for the Cardinals. You play Bader and it's going to be a low average, low on-base, and sporadic power at the plate with above average defense in the outfield. Is that good enough? Even batting ninth, Bader can make a dent in a league that now features the DH. He's making a dent in a bad way. Through four games, he already has 5 strikeouts: Plate appearances that wouldn't have changed if Bader had a fishing net up there.

Some may call this harsh, but that's the big leagues. You don't get to be a good person and start everyday. I wish it was that easy. Find a swell dude, give him a glove, and all the space he needs. Not in this league. They wear capes and sleeves, and swing at balls inside the strike zone. The same protocol goes for Dexter Fowler, who is making a slightly better go of it so far. Small sample size markings should affect the entire 2020 season, but you can't deny what came before for Bader.

In short, let the esteemed Joe Schwarz tell you inside 280 characters why Bader is a bad bet.

Birds on the Black writer Zach Gifford broke it down today, making the case that starting Thomas at the moment-even though his projections aren't much better than Bader-makes more sense. And here's the thing about those projections: Stat minds are going off WAY LESS with Thomas than they are with Bader.

The sad thing is Romo made a juicy pitch to Bader Tuesday night. With the game on the line and a chance to do damage, the center fielder did nothing with it. That's due to the fact that Bader has no idea what's coming or or to prepare for it. It makes you wonder if Mark McGwire could get together with him and make him choose a single pitch to attack, but that may not work.

One could say that Bader is only 26 years old and has time to make adjustments. I'd tell you that the evidence to support that notion is a short stack of papers. At the moment, Bader doesn't pose much more of a threat than the pitcher, a position that no longer gets to hit. The funny thing is Bader is hitting in the pitcher's spot.

On occasion, that strategy works. On Saturday, it was Bader teaming with Tommy Edman and Kolten Wong to manufacture runs. It helped win a game. But Bader only reached base due to being hit by the pitch. In fact, he's been hit by two pitches this season, which doubles the amount of hits he has. It's early, but the forecast isn't changing.

Yes, he did put together a 3.6 fWAR in 2018, which is impressive for a rookie season. But that fell to 1.8 in 2019, and his projected fWAR this season is only 0.6. He's a cheap asset, but one that may not be going much farther up.

If Bader could reach base more ... if he had a better eye at the plate ... the results would be better. As it is, Bader should be a fourth outfielder put in for defense in a late close game. He shouldn't be hitting with the game on the line. I halfway expect Bader to join Ex-Cardinal Oscar Mercado in the latest Cards-Indians trade.

No matter what the front office decides to do, Shildt needs to get this right. By now, the fictional Jobu stands a better chance of getting a hit.

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