By Alex Peterman/Special to The Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH — When the St. Louis Cardinals roll out their opening day roster to start the 2020 Major League Baseball season, it will be with a new-look outfield.
When star slugger and former Marlin Marcell Ozuna left to join the Atlanta Braves in the offseason, it left a gap in the outfield — and in the lineup.
It’s not that the Cardinals are struggling with finding an outfielder to fill the spot in left, or anywhere else. The talent is there. But with so many vying for playing time, Harrison Bader’s status is one of the more intriguing spring training stories out of Jupiter, where the Cardinals are based ahead of the regular season.
For Bader, a starter in center field last season, the key to remaining in the lineup is finding comfort and consistency at the plate.
The 25-year-old, who is entering his fourth season in the majors, hit a career-low .205 in 2019, so this spring has been about slowing the game down at the plate and learning to trust his hitting ability.
Bader has no shortage of Palm Beach County support as a former Florida Gator star, and he was a Gold Glove finalist last season after saving 13 runs in 122 games played, according to baseball reference. But that part of his game has never been a question mark.
“In spring training, it’s just a good time to take the positives,” Bader said. “It’s just about going out there and putting together consistent work, making sure that the mental process behind what we’re doing is in the right direction. We’re world-class athletes, so it figures itself out.”
Ozuna’s departure opened a spot in left field, but if Bader continues to struggle at the plate, the Cardinals have a bevy of options to replace him in center, including Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman, Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson.
“Harrison’s played well,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said Sunday after Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Astros in the Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches . “Tyler O’Neill’s clearly played well. Lane Thomas has had productive at-bats. There’s definite options there.”
“I’ve been pleased,” he continued. “We’ve got depth, and that’s why we’re here to sort it out. It’s good the guys are taking advantage of it and playing well.”
Among those who have performed well, Bader has had a nice offensive burst to start spring training. After working with hitting instructor Lorenzo Garmendia during the offseason, the result has been a .319 average, although that’s in the small sample-size of 19 plate appearances, as of Wednesday morning.
“I have a year of experience under my belt, so I’m just going to go out there and focus on winning baseball games, man,” Bader said. “That’s all there is to it.”
After the Cardinals secured a playoff berth last year, their first since 2015, Bader is hoping to help lead St. Louis back to the postseason.
But it’s a long season ahead — and the first step is a personal one.
“My personal goal is really just to be the every-day starting center fielder,” Bader said. “That’s all I want to do. I want to play every day. I know I have the ability to do so.”