Column: Wong’s pending return brings questions

The Cardinals expect that Kolten Wong will be ready to return to the big leagues on Friday after the All Star break concludes and the team heads to Pittsburgh to begin the second half. That return will bring about some changes to the lineup and undoubtedly scrutiny on how manager Mike Matheny fills out the lineup card.

Too many good players. John Mozeliak might tell you that it’s a “good problem to have,” but it simply creates a number of problems for the Cardinals in the immediate future because the best player is not always playing. Perhaps it would be a good problem to have if decisions were being made purely on performance.

When Wong went on the disabled list for the second time on June 15th he let the team with a .301 batting average and a .393 on base percentage. Before the injury he had certainly done everything he needed to do to have the opportunity to keep his starting job upon his return. But Wong’s injury also set some positional moves in motion.

When he went on the disabled list, Paul DeJong returned after about three days in the minors. He came back talking about how he felt overwhelmed in his first taste and had gotten a good opportunity to catch his breath. He performance demonstrated that it wasn’t just talk. Since June 15th, DeJong has hit .345/.370/.701 with 8 home runs and over the last two weeks has become the Cardinals’ starting shortstop.

With second base now vacated, the Cardinals have slid Matt Carpenter over to open up first base. Since June 15th, Carpenter has hit .230/.422/.405 with 2 home runs in 23 games. He isn’t getting hits, but a walk is almost as good as a single. He has a 24.3% walk rate since June 15th, and his season long 17.5% is tied for second in baseball with Mike Trout. As a lead off guy, that’ll work.

Moving Carpenter has allowed Luke Voit to play regularly at first base and he too has responded by hitting .315/.366/.684 with 3 home runs in 14 games so far this season.

And moving Carpenter to third isn’t a possibility as Jedd Gyorko is batting .311/.407/.581 with 5 home runs since June 15th.

So in Wong’s absence, their four primary infielders have hit a combined .300/.396/.586 while Wong has been gone. It’s hard to say any deserve to take a back seat, but it’s hard to say that to Wong who was hitting .301/.393/.444 when he hit the disabled list.

So who plays where?

Well, DeJong has demonstrated himself to be a satisfactory shortstop. Perhaps it’s just small sample size illusions, but he has a +1 defensive runs saved, +3 saved runs above average, and also a +1.6 UZR. He’s demonstrated more range and a better glove than Aledmys Diaz, but still has work to do on the double play. That’s not too surprising considering he just started playing the position less than a year ago.

Gyorko is a +11 defensive runs saved and a +0.7 UZR.  Both numbers I never would have bet he’d have achieved and I never expected him to duplicate last year’s defensive results, let along better them. With the season he’s had, he would appear to have third base secured at the moment.

Voit has hit well and has enough potential that he has earned an opportunity to play more often than being Carpenter’s backup would allow.

And then there is Carpenter who is the best lead off type hitter the Cardinals have and arguably one of the best lead off hitters in baseball. He has the ability to play multiple positions, which could come in handy. But I’ll get there in a bit.

Yesterday I posted a graphic to Twitter that shows the Cardinals’ wRC+ (weighted Runs Created plus, which is normalized, league-adjusted and park-adjusted and 100 is league average) by position this season. It’s broken down showing both the first half and the last 30 days so we can judge which way it’s trending.

It’s fairly obvious that Yadier Molina isn’t going anywhere, though Mozeliak opened the door on Carson Kelly getting a promotion to share some time with Molina down the stretch, but I have a hard time believing that we will see Kelly in St. Louis before September unless Molina goes into a deep slump.

Shortstop is the next worst position on the list and DeJong is currently outperforming that with a 138 wRC+ in the Majors this season. So I expect they will ride with him there.

That leaves the two corner outfield positions in need of improvement. With Dexter Fowler back in center field, he has a 119 wRC+ this season before his injury, that will slide Tommy Pham and his 136 wRC+ to one of the corner outfield spots. I expect both Fowler and Pham to settle in between 120 and 130 wRC+ this year on the whole.That leaves one of the corner outfield spots open for improvement.

I suggest Carpenter. Unfortunately, the organization is unlikely to ever truly consider it because of Stephen Piscotty‘s extension. Though in my opinion, I feel like that extension actually makes it easier for the Cardinals to tell Piscotty that he’s going to lose some playing time right now because the commitment you’ve made to him guarantees him an opportunity to get it back either next year or once an infielder cools off.

Carpenter has played outfield before, so this isn’t a Matt Adams situation. He played 26 games there over his first few seasons in the Majors. Now, he wasn’t great defensively there in his small sample size, but left field is the least important defensive position and since he’s the lead off man, the opportunity will come often to get his bat out of the game early for a better defensive alignment and still get him four plate appearances in a game.

That would make your defensive alignment as follows,

  • C Yadier Molina
  • 1B Luke Voit
  • 2B Kolten Wong
  • SS Paul DeJong
  • 3B Jedd Gyorko
  • LF Matt Carpenter
  • CF Dexter Fowler
  • RF Tommy Pham

Those are the eight best hitters the Cardinals can put on the field right now and is relatively solid defensively (even if it can be improved by swapping Fowler and Pham).

But the Cardinals could use this lineup and if they can’t find traction over the next two weeks, there’s no point in buying at the deadline because this team will need more help than one or two moves will bring.