If the Cardinals are to contend, it’s time to commit to the new core

Last spring as the Cardinals descended on Jupiter, Florida, for spring training there was quite a bit of talk about the organization’s efforts to put together the team’s next group of core players that would carry the team through the next 5-7 years. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina were the centerpieces of the current Cardinals’ core and at ages 34, 36, and 33 respectively, they’re also getting old.

“I think we will have an idea what that looks like,” said General Manager John Mozeliak to the Post-Dispatch in March when talking about the next generation of core players. “We don’t have to have the answer today.”

We didn’t have the answer that day, but after the 2015 season, we might.

Over the course of an injury plagued season, the Cardinals’ depth was tested like never before while players like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty showed that they deserved to be on the short list of potential members for that next group of core players. In many ways their performances also proved that it’s time to start making the shift and letting the younger players drive.

That starts by moving Matt Holliday out of the #3 spot.

When Matt Holliday first came to town in 2009 as a trade acquisition, he slid right in behind Albert Pujols in the lineup, batting fourth. He stayed there for most of the next two years, save for a few experiments in the second spot in the lineup. When Pujols left after 2011, Holliday assumed the third spot in the lineup. A place he’s held ever since.

Even this September and in the postseason after returning from a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss over half the season, Holliday returned to the lineup batting third and stayed there for the playoffs too, despite hitting just .158 after coming off the DL the second time.

That return forced him into the middle of a group of guys like Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Jason Heyward who had driven this team in his absence. The result was a disjointed offense that scored some runs in the postseason, but was never able to sustain a rally.

Matt Holliday will be 36 years old when he reports to spring training in February and could be entering his final year with the Cardinals. Even when he was healthy this year, he wasn’t showing the characteristics of a guy you want batting third. His .303 batting average and .394 on base percentage was more reminiscent of a guy you want hitting second. Or even leadoff.

He had just 3 home runs through the first 58 games of the season. That put him on pace for just 8 over the course of the season. For a guy reaching the end of his career who has hit over 20 home runs in every season with the Cardinals, is there another explanation than just decline?

No, John Mabry isn’t an answer to that question.

Just 8 home runs over a season. Even if you give him a few extras for the expected hot streak, it isn’t enough to justify having him hit third in the lineup next season.

While he is still a feared hitter, and deserves to be, he is not the same caliber of player he was when he first arrived in St. Louis. It’s time to recognize that.

Over the first four seasons of his $120 million, 7 year deal with the Cardinals, Holliday hit .301 with 99 homers and had a 145 OPS+. The past two seasons, he has hit just .274 with 24 home runs and a 125 OPS+. That’s a 14% decline in offensive performance relative to the rest of the league.

In comparision, guys like Matt Carpenter (134 OPS+), Randal Grichuk (133 OPS+), and Stephen Piscotty (129 OPS+) each had better numbers last season than Holliday averaged the past two years.

It’s time to begin the transition to guys who look to be headed to the center of the new core of Cardinals players. Through a tight division race and the postseason, they proved that they can handle the bright lights. They didn’t shy away from the pressure.

It’s time to take Holliday’s name out of the #3 spot on that lineup card, Mike.

So what’s the big deal about the #3 spot in the lineup? The biggest is that it’s guaranteed to come up to the plate in the first inning. Those three hitters are going to get the most plate appearances in any given game and that’s why you want to have the guys who will give you the most value at the plate in them.

Matt Carpenter, who will be 30 within the week, showed off his home run stroke this season, launching 28 home runs to go along with a league leading 44 doubles. That’s even with a heavy slump in May and June, and he still had incredible power numbers. He’s in the leadoff spot right now and probably will continue to be there. The odds of another year with those power numbers is slim, but getting solidly into the teens is definitely a possibility.

Stephen Piscotty, who will be 25 by the time the 2016 season rolls around, would be my target to hit second. When the Cardinals acquired Holliday, I always felt he was one of the model #2 hitters in the game. What does that have to do with Piscotty? Well, I see a lot of similarities between the way the two hit. I’m sure lots of prospect watchers are laughing, but I always felt that they were both guys who were better hitters than power guys. But they’re also good enough hitters that they get their fair share of extra base hits.

Piscotty goes second because he’s a more disciplined hitter than Grichuk is. Mathematic lineup modeling demostrates that the #2 spot in the lineup is the most important. It’s why moving Carpenter back was even considered this past season. But I think Piscotty has all the tools to effectively fill this role.

Grichuk would slot in behind him, batting third. At 24, Grichuk is one of the youngest players on the Cardinals. He hit 17 home runs in 103 games before an arm injury landed him on the DL. He can play all three outfield positions, so he’ll have a regular spot in the lineup next year. Plus he has likely put concerns about his ability to hit right handed pitching to rest.

Regardless of the struggles, the power has always played, both ways, and that’s what matters here.

After that, I think you can consider sliding Holliday into the fourth spot in the lineup. A good batting average can be important here and he still has some power potential. That also lets you put Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta back in the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup where they are more comfortable and perhaps even overqualified to hit.

The key for me though, is to ensure that the three best hitters on the club get to bat in the first inning. Those three were the Cardinals’ three best hitters in 2015. Each played a critical role in the Cardinals’ successes last year. They deserve their shot.

I believe that Mike Matheny’s ability–or inability, as it may be–to move the veterans from their established spots in the lineup to give better performing and younger players an opportunity to play those key roles will define the 2016 season.

It’s time to throw the kids the keys to the car.