The Cardinals need their big-ticket outfielders to step up in order to be pennant contenders

The Cardinals are idle on Thursday following a series loss to the lowly Royals. The Redbirds are 26-21 and clearly have the look of a contender in the NL Central, or at least in the NL wild card mix. 

Much like their rival, the Cubs, this team just feels like it should be playing better. There are several reasons for this, but one of the big ones would be the offense is just mediocre. The Cardinals enter Thursday ranking seventh in the NL in runs, sixth in average, seventh in on-base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. Two of the big issues would be the big-ticket acquisition from each of the last two offseasons. 

Dexter Fowler, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal before 2017, is hitting .155/.274/.284 (56 OPS+). Marcell Ozuna, who the Cardinals landed in a big-time trade from the Marlins this past offseason, is hitting .253/.295/.331 (74 OPS+). He's coming off a .312/.376/.548 (146 OPS+) season and is only 27 years old. He was even benched on Wednesday due to showing up late for the game, said to have overslept. 

Now, the Cardinals do have options. Tommy Pham is a star and is playing like one. Jose Martinez could be used in the outfield if the Cardinals so choose. Harrison Bader is a serviceable option. Rookie sensation Tyler O'Neill is hitting .333/.367/.704 with three homers in just 30 plate appearances. 

It's just that the resources the Cardinals dedicated to acquiring Fowler and Ozuna these past two offseasons were significant, and the two are fully capable of playing like All-Stars. In Ozuna, Pham and Fowler, the Cardinals could have the best outfield in baseball. The potential is there. 

What gives? 

Ozuna is actually hitting the ball harder than he did last season, and his BABIP isn't totally out of whack. There is some concern with his approach at the plate, though. He's a lot more pull-heavy than he has been since his rookie year. He's hitting 42 percent of balls contacted to the pull field, compared to 38.6 percent last year. His going to the other way just 19.6 percent of the time, compared to 25.1 percent last year. His walk rate is way down (5.8 percent compared to 9.4 percent last year). He's also hitting more grounders and fewer fly balls. 

As such, the struggles aren't hard to spot. He's hitting the ball more often on the ground, is too pull-heavy and isn't getting pitched around. This isn't something that evens itself out without a change in approach. Any concerns have merit, but it's a long season and he's a talented hitter and has made adjustments in the past. Don't bet against him getting crazy-hot at some point. 

On Fowler, there should be more optimism. He has a .332 career batting average on balls in play, and this season it's .164. That's just brutal fortune when he makes contact. He's not striking out at a higher rate. In fact, his strikeout percentage in 2016 was 22.5 and this season it's 20 percent. 

Using 2016 -- because it's his best year -- Fowler is actually hitting more balls hard. He is, however, hitting a lot more fly balls (46.1 percent compared to 35.5 percent in 2016). His line drives and ground balls are down. He needs to focus on hitting the ball hard on a line. That's an adjustment, but it's one he can make. 

More reason for optimism on Fowler: He's been a slow starter several times before. Last season, he was hitting .205/.302/.411 through May 25 and hit .296/.394/.529 the rest of the way. In 2015, he was hitting just .228/.305/.374 through July 5 and slashed .272/.386/.449 the rest of the way. 

It's a tough task for manager Mike Matheny, as both Ozuna and Fowler will require regular playing time in order to get things on track, the team is better off with both hitting well and neither is doing so right now. Meantime, O'Neill and Pham need to stay in the lineup as the Cardinals can't afford to fall much further behind the red-hot Brewers

Still, the smart money is on Ozuna and Fowler getting on track at some point. They are too talented not to. When they do, the Cardinals lineup gets a lot more scary than the mediocre results it's turning out right now. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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