Why starting Tommy Pham isn’t as easy as it seems

Over the past couple weeks there has been a lot of angst about Mike Matheny’s lineup decisions. They’ve primarily focused on the decision to use Jon Jay in center field much more often than Tommy Pham.

After a minor league career littered with injuries, it’s more than a little ironic that he’s finally gotten a real Major League shot thanks to the littany of injuries to the big league club. He struggled in his first cup of coffee with the Cardinals. Opponents quickly figured out his weaknesses and exploted them. He is back and has made adjustments.

Since he returned to a big league lineup on August 17th, Pham is hitting .308/.392/.554. He capped that off last night with a 3-for-4 performance featured a pair of home runs to center field and a triple.

With those numbers, I totally understand the desire to have Tommy Pham playing almost every day, but let’s not be so quick to dismiss Jon Jay.

Jay bears the unique distinction of being the most overrated and the most underrated player on the Cardinals roster. Only a player of Jay’s ability could be both and it makes him an easy target. It also makes every discussion around him explode.

In his first two years in the big leagues, Jay played well enough to convince the team to make room for him by trading Ryan Ludwick and former top prospect Colby Rasmus. He seemed locked in as the team’s undisputed center fielder until he struggled in 2013 with a .276 batting average during a season where he completely revamped his swing mid-season.

With the doubt about his future, John Mozeliak went out and acquired Peter Bourjos from the Angels as insurance. Jay responded to the challenge last year, hitting a team leading .303 and returned to playing plus defense as well.

That performance was enough for Mozeliak and the Cardinals as they worked out a two year deal worth $11 million.

Then came the bump in the road. Jay underwent wrist surgery in the offseason. Recovery pushed back his start to spring training and that led to him struggling early in the season. Since then, he’s continued to struggle with tendinitis in that same wrist and it landed him back on the disabled list. After a 5-for-13 rehab stint in Memphis, Jay returned.

Much to some consternation, he immediately took over the center field job upon his return. Being the guy that the organization declared as their starting center fielder and who they’d invested in like they had, he was going to get a good shot to keep his job. If his wrist is in better shape now than it was earlier in the season, his previous stats don’t mean anything now.

Jay getting regular playing time is not Matheny “playing favorites” with “his guys.” That’s the starting center fielder coming off the disabled list. That’s the way it works with all 30 teams in baseball.

It’s the same reason that Matt Holliday and Matt Adams will become regular players again once they get clearance to play everyday from the training staff. They need to figure out their timing and Matheny needs to figure out if they can contribute. That can’t be figured out while the guy sits on the bench. So they have to play.

After Jay returned, there were many people fortune telling that Matheny was going to keep Jay in center field even after Randal Grichuk got healthy. Grichuk hasn’t gotten healthy yet, but Matheny actually played an injured Grichuk over a healthy Jay! Too bad for that narrative, right?

The argument is to let Tommy Pham play as much as possible while he’s hot. It seems like an easy decision, but it isn’t.

Matheny has spent the better part of the season managing a team of spare parts to the best record in baseball. Now those regular parts are returning and need playing time. Matheny needs to let these guys play.

I’ll totally agree that September of a tight division race isn’t the most ideal time, but it has to be done. Matheny doesn’t have the luxury of writing off a guy that might be able to help this team win, let alone a guy who has a track record of contributing.

Consider this. If Matheny chooses to ride Pham right now and he flames out at the end of the season, what happens? Say Grichuk has complications and his arm isn’t ready to man center field. The Cardinals head into October with two options: a slumping Pham or an ice cold Jay.

But fans won’t consider that this is what they wanted all along. Instead the narrative will be “Matheny ruined Bourjos by never playing him and now he’s done it to Jay too. He hasn’t learned. Worst manager ever!”

It’s a no-win scenario.

The way I see it, Matheny has done a pretty good job of walking the line between maximizing the odds of winning each game and making sure he has a roster of guys who can contend in October.

They aren’t easy decisions to make and they are only going to get harder. Guys like Pham and Stephen Piscotty will be forced out of the lineup when this happens. Don’t be surprised.

And when you think about it, in many ways Jay has to play right now if ever. With Grichuk close to returning, that’s one more player needing playing time.

Hopefully the Cardinals will win enough games along the way to October.

If we don’t, it isn’t Matheny’s failure.