2012 Preview: Left Field

One of three 2011 Opening Day starters expected to take the field in the same position in this year’s Opening Day game, Matt Holliday already has his name penciled onto the lineup card. The team’s new #3 hitter after the departure of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday will have some big shoes to fill in the eyes of the fans.

They are shoes he is already filling, in my opinion. Myself and others have complained about the lack of visible leadership on the team. Holliday seems to have done just that this offseason, becoming more involved with other players on the team and even inviting a few of the Cardinals’ recent draft picks out to St. Louis on his own dime to work out with them during the winter. He does it under the radar, but it is there.

Last year was a freak year for Holliday. From injuring his back lifting weights to a moth flying into his ear, odd things were the name of the game. He played just 124 games, the fewest since his rookie season, as a result. It’s also the first time since his rookie season that he hit below .300, with his line of .296/.388/.525. He added 22 home runs and 75 RBI. Despite the abbreviated season, Holliday’s performance helped him post a career high in OPS+ at 153, better than the 150 he put up in 2007, when he finished second in the MVP voting.

When the playoffs came though, Holliday was fighting a nagging injury that was impacting his swing. He was still very good in the NLCS where he hit over .400 including 5 RBI. He eventually took himself out of the lineup and even off the roster for Game 7 of the World Series, letting Allen Craig get the start and the chance to hit the game winning home run. Good decision?

For this year, there seem to be some that wonder whether Holliday has become injury prone, even Holliday himself takes offense to those comments even calling into a St. Louis sports radio show to defend himself. I see a player who has been pretty injury free most of his career and has been productive.

I don’t see a reason to not expect Holliday to be back at the .300/.390/.530 level he’s been in St. Louis with 25-30 home runs. That’s all the Cardinals need him to do, honestly. Just be himself. That’s what the Cardinals are paying him $17 million to be. Certainly if the team starts losing while he is slumping he’ll take the lumps as the core player in the lineup, but there shouldn’t be any added pressure on him, except that he should get far more RBI opportunities in the #3 spot in the lineup. There were long stretches last season where he’d leave very few, if anyone, on base, yet some fans complained about his lack of RBI.

Holliday should once again establish himself as a high quality impact player and one of the best players in the National League. Of that, I have no doubt.

On the bench

In the outfield on the bench once the season rolls is likely to be Allen Craig and Erik Komatsu. You also have Skip Schumaker who will be getting some time in the outfield this season.

We all know about Allen Craig, but his knee injury is likely to make him miss Opening Day, so that means someone else will get a roster spot opportunity. Who will that be? I think it will come down to Mark Hamilton or Adron Chambers.

Hamilton’s time in the outfield is small, but he’d be there more as a bat off the bench for late inning pinch hit roles. He has made 11 appearances in the outfield between the majors and the minors, but is there more for his bat. Also, with guys like Komatsu and Schumaker on the roster, the time he’d have to spend in the outfield is minimal if at all.

For Adron Chambers, he made his first appearances at the end of last year and hit .375 over 18 appearances, though just 8 plate appearances. He still managed to have 4 RBI and 2 runs scored in just those few appearances. Chambers can play all three outfield positions and unfortunately for him, the Rule 5 pick Komatsu, may keep him off the roster for as long as he could have been on it.

Komatsu has shown himself in spring training and has impressed me. When he was first picked by the Cardinals in this winters’ Rule 5 Draft, I wondered why he even interested the team. He was a left handed hitter, just like Jay and Chambers. He plays all three outfield spots, just like Jay and Chambers. He wasn’t anything the team didn’t have. But having watched some of the games he’s played in spring training so far, I’m glad we have him and I think he’ll stick with the team.  As a Rule 5 draft pick, Komatsu has to make the team and stay on the major league roster or Washington will get a chance to get him back.

On the farm

On the farm the outfield talent is pretty slim, at least the quality outfield talent. For a club that was struggling to find playing time for some of it’s outfielders last year, they certainly had a lot of turnover. Nick Stavinoha, who hit 28 home runs for the Memphis Redbirds last year, is gone to Japan. Andrew Brown, who hit .284 with 20 homers for Memphis, was selected by Colorado off of waivers in October. Alex Castellanos, who was hitting .319 for Springfield, was traded to the Dodgers for Rafael Furcal.

As far as guys you might see in St. Louis remaining down in the minors, beyond Adron Chambers, is Shane Robinson, who hit .299 for Memphis in just 43 games. He missed a large amount of time due to injuries sustained in an outfield collision. Robinson likely tops out as a solid 5th outfielder in the majors. However, he is right handed and can play all three outfield positions.

The outfielder that does generate excitement is Oscar Taveras. Despite not meeting the plate appearance qualification, Taveras still won the Midwest League batting title. He was even likened to Vladimir Guerrero, in that he hits the ball really hard all the time, by the Cardinals’ new manager Mike Matheny. He was listed as 74th on the Baseball America Top-100 prospects list along with 5 other Cardinals.

Personally, while Taveras might have some potential, I’m conservative on him yet. Too high of a chance of a player still flaming out after a season of success in A ball. There isn’t much down there, except my thinking that Zack Cox will ultimately move to a corner outfield position.