As the St. Louis Cardinals return home for their second homestand of the season, they find themselves in relatively uncharted territory, last place. And regardless of the results of this series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they will have spent more days in last place than not in this young season. For the Cardinals, there have been many things amiss as they return from their first trip to the Bronx since 2003. This one ended like that one did, a sweep. That team finished the year third in the division.
So the Cardinals return to St. Louis gasping for life. Over the past two weeks we’ve watched an exciting team with a good vibe around it turn into a struggling, lifeless mess simply by changing the calendar to April. Much more of this and the Cardinals will be in an unusual position, needing to ask themselves the hard questions about the viability of their plan for the franchise.
“Everything is on the table,” said John Mozeliak to reporters before tonight’s game. And I have some ideas that should be on the table.
The first being that the organization should cut ties with Jhonny Peralta.
Mike Matheny seems to want Peralta to be one of his lineup regulars, but Peralta has yet to provide him the payoff for that desire. I pointed out this winter that I felt like there was only room for one of Matt Holliday, Peralta, and Matt Adams. Mozeliak brought back two of them.
At the core, I understand the desire to want to get some return for your $10 million investment in Peralta and not wanting to have to explain that cut to your boss. At the same time, I felt like it was a good opportunity for the Cardinals to move forward and bet on guys like Adams, Jedd Gyorko, and Greg Garcia and give them an opportunity to see if they can carve themselves out a larger role for the years to come.
Because if Peralta hit well and played every day, he’s still just here for one year. And the worst thing that could happen is happening. We’re stuck with Peralta, he struggles and takes away playing time from better players (Gyorko and Garcia lead the Cardinals’ position players in WAR entering tonight’s game), and you still lose games. But if a guy like Adams could use that extra playing time to establish himself as a contributor, the team is better off going forward.
Letting Peralta go would open up the lineup card for Matheny, which would help him. Matheny wants to play Peralta regularly and feels some level of obligation to ensure he gets an opportunity to “get right.” Without Peralta’s need for playing time, he can use Gyorko and Garcia there as well as correct the organization’s mistake of committing to Matt Carpenter at first base.
And that’s idea number two, it’s time to end that commitment, and it should have been ended the day they chose to tender Adams a contract for 2017. Why would you commit to playing Carpenter at first base, when he will expect 150+ starts, and then turn around and bring back a guy who plays only first base? It makes little sense.
We saw the desire to get Adams playing time by forcing him into left field. An experiment that it appears Mozeliak hopes is over now. Of course, he also says he prefers to not move Carpenter around. But it doesn’t make much sense to me if you can find a way to make your team better with Carpenter at another position.
Freeing up Carpenter between first and third gives Matheny added flexibility. And real flexibility, not simply the ability to play multiple positions because you suck equally at all of them. Carpenter won’t win a gold glove at third base, but he’ll make the plays you expect a third baseman to make and that’s all you can ask.
Letting Carpenter play some third base lets you use Adams at first base, where he is a plus defender. And you can also get added playing time for Garcia, who now has a .401 OBP in 274 plate appearances since the start of the 2016 season.
Simply put, there are a lot of better ways you can reallocate the playing time that would otherwise be given to Peralta.
The final change I would propose is in the lineup.
Lineup criticisms are the most common Matheny complaint, next to bullpen usage, but while I comment on the lineup card quite a bit, it’s more about the logic of how it’s built that I have problems with. For example, Randal Grichuk has been among the team leaders in home runs and RBI, but until tonight hasn’t really hit higher than 7th or 8th. But Jose Martinez jumps into the lineup and bats sixth. If you trust Martinez to bat higher than Grichuk, why isn’t he your regular guy?
But here’s how I would lay out my lineup.
First move is to take Carpenter out of the third spot in the lineup. I’ve long argued that Carpenter should be batting second because it’s the most important spot in the lineup and he is the best pure hitter on the team. It’s the same reason I made a similar argument for Holliday since the day we acquired him.
But I would have Dexter Fowler and Carpenter continue to bat 1-2 and tell both to treat their at bats like they’re leading off the game. Make the pitcher work and set the tone. And specifically tell Carpenter that I’d rather have the .300, 50 doubles hitter than the .270, 25 HR hitter.
I would also consider platooning their order. Carpenter has a career .293/.390/.475 slash line against RHP and Fowler has a career .300/.390/.440 slash line against LHP. Both have much lesser numbers against the other handedness.
With those two at the top of the lineup, you have a roughly 60% chance of having the number three hitter coming to the plate with runners on base. Here’s where I take my shot with the team’s biggest power threat, Grichuk. Grichuk hit 24 home runs last year even after spending a month in Memphis. It’s a better look than burying Grichuk in the back of the lineup behind guys who don’t get on base. You would magnify the effect of his bat.
In the fourth spot, after having taken my shot, I want a guy who will put the ball in play and that is Aledmys Diaz. He does what I like to call making “baseball happen,” because anything can happen when you put the ball into play.
Though I’d suggest Kolten Wong batting eighth or ninth. And if you choose to bat him eighth, give him the green light to steal second base every time he’s on first base with the pitcher at the plate. If he can do that at a better than 70% success rate, you’ll score more runs overall.
Those moves might not completely solve the Cardinals’ problems this year, but they would go a long way towards helping the organization diagnose where they stand and what their needs are definitively. And if you both lose and fail to answer those questions, 2017 will really have been a failure, regardless of win-loss record.