Who’s Blocking Jordan Walker?

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The Cardinals selected Jordan Walker with the 21st overall pick in the 2020 draft. Since then, he’s been charging hard towards the majors, moving up the minor league ladder and prospect lists.

In 2021, he made his professional debut, splitting his time between Class-A and High-A. In 82 games between those two levels, he hit 14 home runs and stole 14 bases, leading to an excellent .317/.388/.548 batting line and a 151 wRC+. He moved up to Double-A for 2022 and kept it rolling, hitting 19 home runs and stealing 22 bases in 119 games. His .306/.388/.510 batting line led to a 128 wRC+, indicating he was 28% better than average. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and hit .286/.367/.558 over 21 games there.

Now Walker is considered one of the best prospects in the league. Baseball America and MLB Pipeline each have him at #4, Keith Law of The Athletic at #5, FanGraphs at #8 and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN at #14. Since Walker has little left to prove at Double-A, he’ll likely be in Triple-A to start 2023, potentially jumping to the majors at any point.

Walker has primarily been a third baseman in his career thus far, as that was the only position he played in 2021. However, an Nolan Arenado-shaped obstacle is stopping him from seeing much time at the hot corner in the big leagues, so the club has started giving Walker some outfield reps. Walker made 68 starts at third in Double-A last year but also 30 in the outfield (24 of those in right). In the fall league, all 21 of his starts were on the grass, with twelve in right field. Prospect evaluators have suggested he is adjusting well to the move, with his strong arm and athleticism likely to help him serve as an above-average defender in the outfield.

As long as Arenado is healthy, Walker will be looking to crack the Cardinals as an outfielder. As of right now, the club’s likely starters out there would be Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar, with Juan Yepez, Alec Burleson and Moisés Gómez also on the 40-man roster.

O’Neill, 28 in June, is coming off a frustrating season but was tremendous the year before. In 2021, he hit 34 home runs and stole 15 bases, producing a .286/.352/.560 batting line and a 144 wRC+. His outfield defense was graded well by all three of Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average, with all that leading to 5.6 wins above replacement per the calculations of FanGraphs. That placed him 13th among all position players in the majors, just ahead of guys like Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve. Unfortunately, he made multiple trips to the injured list last year, due to a shoulder impingement and hamstring strain. He only got into 96 games and had diminished results when playing, hitting .228/.308/.392 for a wRC+ of 101.

It’s a somewhat similar trajectory for the 24-year-old Carlson. He hit 18 home runs in 2021 and batted .266/.343/.437 for a wRC+ of 113, but slipped to eight homers and a .236/.316/.380 line last year for a wRC+ of 100. He also went to the IL a couple of times, though he still played 128 games on the year. However, he got strong grades for his work in center field, with 6 DRS, 3 OAA and 1.8 UZR last year in just 530 innings. He seems to be the favorite to take over up the middle with Harrison Bader now a Yankee, though O’Neill and Nootbaar can both also play there.

Nootbaar, 25, hasn’t really had a full season as a big leaguer yet, as he was optioned to the minors three times last year. However, he seemed to take off after his final recall in mid-July. From that point on, he walked in an excellent 16.7% of his trips to the plate, just barely trailing his 17.1% strikeout rate. He hit 11 home runs in that stretch and slashed .240/.367/.490 as part of the second half surge.

Yepez, 25 next week, is more of a corner infielder who can play one of the outfield corners from time to time. His work on the grass hasn’t been graded well and he likely won’t be an everyday option. However, his potent bat will be in the mix for time as the designated hitter, which could still have an impact on Walker’s path to the bigs. Yepez hit 12 home runs in a 76-game debut last year, leading to a batting line of .253/.296/.447 and a wRC+ of 109. Burleson, 24, is somewhat similar, as his bat is considered a stronger part of his game than his defense. He didn’t hit much in his 16-game debut last year but his Triple-A batting line was .331/.372/.532 thanks to launching 20 homers. Gómez, 24, has yet to make his MLB debut but got himself a spot on the 40-man after a strong 2022. Splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .294/.371/.624 for a wRC+ of 149.

Out of all of these players, the only one to have qualified for arbitration so far is O’Neill. He has between four and five years of service time, meaning he’s not slated to reach free agency until after 2024. The others still have many years of affordable control. Once Walker is deemed ready for a move to the big leagues, the outfield could start to get crowded in St. Louis. He seems to be headed towards right field as his predominant position, where he could line up with Carlson in center and O’Neill in left most of the time. That would bump Nootbaar into a fourth outfielder/designated hitter role, which he might be overqualified for if his second half results last year are anywhere close to legit. Perhaps the Cards would think about trading O’Neill next winter, when he has hopefully had a bounceback season in 2023 and will be just one year removed from free agency. That would free up left field for Nootbaar or one of the other young guys.

All of this is contingent on everyone being healthy, of course, as even a single injury could unclog the situation in a hurry. But there’s a lot of talent here for the Cards, as their player development pipeline seems to churn out quality big leaguers at an incredible rate. However, even top prospects don’t always find immediate success in the big leagues. Walker has yet to even reach Triple-A, so some more patience might be required, though it feels fairly inevitable that the Cards will be able to work from an outfield surplus again at some point, even though they just traded Bader at last year’s deadline.

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