Cardinals lose first two picks in 2017 draft and $2 million for Astros hacking scandal

For the most part, I am just happy that the Cardinals can finally put “hackgate” or whatever you want to call it behind them and begin planning for the future. The Cardinals will forfeit their first two picks in the 2017 draft to the Astros as well as pay them a $2 million fine. That penalty ends up right about the middle of what baseball fans wanted to see. Some wanted more, some wanted less.

I wonder how the Astros’ AL West opponents feel with a club in their division receiving two free draft picks. Especially when there was not any real damage to the Astros’ organization. After all, it’s not like the Cardinals used the information to swoop in and steal a deal the Astros were working on. The balance of power in the AL West will be worth watching in three or four years.

It sets up an interesting box for the Cardinals. They are already under penalty for exceeding their international spending cap last year and now they lose their two highest draft picks this summer. With the trade costs we saw this winter, trading out of the prospect pool that the organization will need to rely on to produce talent and absorb the loss of those picks is very unlikely. That leaves the only feasible way to improve the club as free agency.

The organization talks about having money to spend, but it is always careful, perhaps overly so, about how they spend it.

Part of me has wondered if they were waiting to know exactly what the penalty was going to be before opening the checkbook since that money is the only way John Mozeliak can really improve the team for the next few seasons. Now we know, and now this winter will be interesting to watch and see how Mozeliak adapts to it being his only option.

But I did get thinking about the penalty in light of the penalty that the San Diego Padres got in September for intentionally withholding medical treatment information from the central database that all the teams use. The reported reason was to gain an advantage in trade negotiations. All the Padres’ GM got for orchestrating this scheme was a one month suspension during the quietest month of the year for an MLB GM. The organization received no other penalties.

So in San Diego, you have a proven and orchestrated effort by management of the club to potentially defraud the other 29 clubs.

But in St. Louis, even if John Mozeliak personally sanctioned the hacking and used that information in his day-to-day decision making, still only one club was placed at a disadvantage.

The Padres got slapped on the wrist. The Cardinals got punched in the mouth.

Granted, no federal laws were broken when the Padres failed to report the medical information, but that would seem to be why it’s even more important that Major League Baseball step in and do something to penalize it. As Mozeliak said when asked whether MLB’s penalties against the Cardinals establish a strong enough deterrent for clubs not to hack each other, he replied that four years in prison for Chris Correa would seem like a pretty good deterrent.

The penalties do not have any equivalency, especially when the Astros did not have to demonstrate that they were harmed by Correa’s access to their system nor did they have to defend charges that they possessed the Cardinals’ intellectual property.

The Red Sox and Marlins both discovered that the players they acquired from the Padres had more medical issues than they believed because they were not reported to the central database.

Of course, the Astros officially deny that they used any Cardinals’ intellectual property in the development of their “Ground Control” analytics system. However, regardless of what you want to believe, I suggest that it would be impossible for Jeff Luhnow and Sig Mejdal to play key roles in the development of the Cardinals’ analytics system and not reuse some of that knowledge and the lessons learned as they developed the AStros’ analytics system.

They did not go to Houston and reinvent the wheel and magically forget what they did for years in St. Louis. No, they would have built off the idea using what they already knew and learned while building the Cardinals’ system. That knowledge, whether or not it “belongs” to the Cardinals, is what made them worth hiring.

So the penalty does seem out of line with what was deserved. Now I know a little bit about how Patriots fans feel about “deflategate.”

Regardless, I’m glad the organization has it behind them.

Column: Matheny (maybe) throws his team under the bus and how to steal more bases

Over the past few seasons, Mike Matheny has made it a point to talk about wanting to be more aggressive on the basepaths. Each spring, the Cardinals steal a bunch of bases (they stole 28 bases last spring over a month of play) and every season they continue to be near the bottom (they stole 35 bases over six months of the season). That’s a stark contrast to be sure, but when asked about it this weekend, Matheny gave us an interesting answer that worries me just a little.

“I think everybody in this room would be completely shocked and surprised to know how many times we had the green light in the last several years. More often than not … I’ll tell you that.”

Guys, it’s not my fault, he’s telling us. I’ve been giving them the green light. He goes on.

“Part of it is the mindset. Yeah, there are some physical skills that we need to improve on, but it is just part of the mentality and part of the messaging that we take a lot of pride in as a staff. But also, the players have to buy in. We can tell them until we’re blue in the face that, ‘Hey, you guys have speed, athleticism. We should be taking first to third. We should be taking that extra base. We should be tagging up from first base on a deep fly ball.’ Those sorts of things we can tell them all day long, but until they get that drive in their own mind, I think you’re going to get less of a production.”

This left me scratching my head.

On one hand, you can definitely make the argument that he’s just talking in general about getting players to buy into your managerial philosophy. On the other hand, there’s definitely the feeling that he might have just thrown his team under the bus. Look guys, I want to steal more bases. I give these guys the green light to steal almost all the time, but they just won’t do it.

Now, setting aside the implications if he was actually throwing his team under the bus since I’m sure he’d disagree with me, let’s focus on the premise.

When I think about the Cardinals’ baserunning last season, a lack of aggression is not how I would describe it. If there is a fine line between being aggressive and being a nincompoop (TOOTBLAN reference for the uninitiated), I’d say that the team leaned much more to nincompoop than aggressive. How many times did baserunners get thrown out trying to go for the extra base? How many times did we see Chris Maloney wave a runner home only to see them thrown out by five feet?

Aggression doesn’t seem to be the problem.

A big picture question is that if Matheny wants the team to feel free to steal bases and take the extra base why aren’t they? Why aren’t the players buying into the concept of creating havoc on the bases? It seems like an easy buy in to me. I feel like it should be relatively easy to convince someone that stealing bases and taking the extra base create problems for defenses and can benefit you greatly. So maybe it’s not the message. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence.

Which would explain why the Cardinals run wild in a month of spring training (stealing 28 bases in a month), but only steal roughly the same number of bases over a six month season (stealing 35 bases). It’s much easier to risk stealing a base in spring training when the games don’t count than it is during the season.

I think the obvious question then is, if this is a part of the game that the Cardinals want to improve in, why haven’t the Cardinals taken steps to be proactive about helping players become more confident on the bases?

Vince Coleman, who played for the Cardinals from 1985 to 1990 and led the league in stolen bases all six seasons, talked to the Cardinals’ organization before the 2015 season about creating a baserunning instructor position inside the organization for him. At the time, the Cardinals decided against it and Coleman would go on to join the Chicago White Sox as a baserunning coach. The Cardinals still today do not have a dedicated baserunning instructor in their system.

Logic would dictate if you want players to be better baserunners, it would start with coaching. You want hitters to improve at hitting? You give them hitting coaches. You want pitchers to improve at pitching? You give them pitching coaches. You want defenders to improve at defending? You give them defensive position coaches. So why no baserunning coach?

Now, that’s not to say that coaching baserunning doesn’t fall into someone’s job description as both Willie McGee and Kerry Robinson both do some level of it, but McGee works only part time and it’s not the same as having someone whose sole job is to focus on helping guys improve on the bases.

Coleman talks about how he feels that stealing bases is a lost art in today’s game and I completely agree with him.

More than ever played are better trained than they were 30 years ago, so you can’t tell me that they’re simply slower than they were 30 years ago when guys like Coleman and Rickey Henderson were stealing 100+ bases a year. The league has fast guys who are capable of putting up those kind of numbers and it’s more than organizations not wanting to risk it.

Whenever I think about fast guys who can’t steal bases my mind goes to Peter Bourjos. Bourjos, to me, was always the perfect image of a guy who had always been so fast that he never had to learn how to actually steal bases. So he seems completely awkward when he does it to the point it looks like he’s going to miss second base completely most of the time. A little instruction and perhaps Bourjos could be that kind of baserunner who could steal 100 bases.

This isn’t something they’re instilling in the minor leagues either. Charlie Tilson, who is now also with the White Sox, played for Springfield in 2015 and led the Texas League with 46 stolen bases. In 2016, Springfield only had 57 stolen bases, down from 114 the year before with Tilson on the roster. So either players have great speed and know how to use it, or they don’t.

So the answer for the Cardinals perhaps isn’t so much to simply be more aggressive or steal more often, but to be smarter and to train for it. Not everyone is capable of understanding the mechanics of opportunities to take the extra base or seeing that tell in a pitcher’s mechanics that gives them a bigger window to steal a base on their own. For many it requires consistent teaching and coaching and work.

The organization says that they want to be “more athletic” and add speed this season. That requires taking the time to work with the players so that they understand those things. It’s more than telling players they should steal; it requires empowering those who can steal bases to steal those bases (Kolten Wong was 7-for-7 last year stealing bases).

The Cardinals struggled defensively last season and the organization took steps to shore it up. They promoted Mike Shildt to be Quality Control Coach and shortstop Aledmys Diaz will go work one-on-one with Jose Oquendo for two weeks before spring training begins.

If Matheny is serious about being better on the bases, the team will need to work on it.

And if the organization is serious about their efforts to become more athletic and be able to use it to their advantage, they’d be wise to focus on coaching baserunning as those players are developed through the system.

Rosenthal and Siegrist avoid arbitration too

The Cardinals have officially avoided arbitration with Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist as well as Matt Adams as all three agreed to terms on one-year deals today. Today was the deadline for teams and players to exchange salary numbers for arbitration.

Siegrist will earn about $1.6 million in his first year of arbitration. The 27 year old former 41st round pick posted a 2.77 ERA over 62 innings of work for the Cardinals last season. He has proven himself to be a reliable setup man for Mike Matheny as he has a 2.44 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP over the past two seasons. In 2015 he led the league in appearances with 81.

Rosenthal will make $6.4 million in his second year of arbitration, a raise from the $5.6 million he made last season. The 26 year old Rosenthal is coming off a disastrous season that saw him post a 4.46 ERA and a 1.91 WHIP over 40 innings of work. When you factor in the importance of the innings he pitched early in the season, Rosenthal was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball last season. Those struggles were carried by a 6.5 BB/9 rate.

The big news may be that the Cardinals did not come to terms with their two other arbitration eligible players, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. It’s believed that the club could be working on an extension for Martinez, but Wacha will likely soon come to terms with the club.

Adams agrees to deal as arbitration figures are due to be exchanged

The St. Louis Cardinals and first baseman Matt Adams agreed to a one year deal yesterday that avoids the arbitration process for the second year eligible player. Jon Heyman reports that the deal is for 1 year and worth $2.8 million. That represents a raise from the $1.65 million he earned last year and equal to the $2.8 million salary he was projected to earn this season by MLB Trade Rumors.

Adams, 28, hit .249/.309/.471 last season with 16 home runs in 118 games for the Cardinals. With the organization verbally committing to Matt Carpenter at first base, Adams looks to be the left handed power bat off the bench. Adams excelled as a pinch hitter last season, going 12-for-37 (.324) with 3 HR and 13 RBI.

This is Adams’ second year of arbitration eligibility, so while the team is not committed to him past the 2017 season, they hold one more year of team control on him if they choose to exercise it.

Arbitration eligible players are scheduled to exchange figures with their teams today as they prepare for February hearings if agreements can’t be reached. The Cardinals have four players who are arbitration eligible and have yet to reach agreements: Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Kevin Siegrist.

Today those players and the Cardinals will exchange salary figures, the players indicating what they wish to be paid and the Cardinals indicating what they wish to pay them. Usually at this point an agreement can come quickly since all the cards are on the table. However, if the two sides are still unable to reach an agreement, an arbitration hearing will be scheduled in February. Both sides will present their cases as to why their salary number is correct and then the arbiter will decide which figure the player will be paid.

The Cardinals have not had a negotiation reach the arbitration hearing since 1999.

Column: Cardinals will need better pitching to win in 2017

It’s not shock statement. If the St. Louis Cardinals are going to make a run at the Cubs in 2016, they will need to get better pitching. Just a season removed from having the best pitching staff in baseball, the Cardinals stumbled to 12th in 2016 with an ERA over one run worse. That difference was a key factor in the Cardinals going from a 100 win division champion to an 86 win team that missed out on the playoffs for the first time in six years.

And it isn’t like 2015’s MLB best pitching staff had everything go their way either. The team’s ace Adam Wainwright made just four starts before an Achilles injury in April cost him most of the season. But John Lackey managed to have a career year, Jaime Garcia showed why he was worth keeping around, and everyone learned who Tim Cooney was.

The 2016 pitching staff ran into trouble before the offseason even got into gear with Lance Lynn out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Once the season started, Wainwright still wasn’t right, Garcia ran into a wall, and Michael Wacha’s stress fracture recurred.

And if that wasn’t enough, the defense struggled to consistently make outs. The Cardinals were 25th in defensive efficiency last season, a measure of how often players reach base when a ball is put into play. For reference, the Cubs were #1.

For some pitchers, like Mike Leake, that struggling defense cost him what was otherwise one of the finest seasons of his career. For others, it was just fuel on the fire of their struggles.

Improving that defense was one of John Mozeliak’s goals this winter and, for the most part, that has been accomplished.

Randal Grichuk, newcomer Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty should be a better outfield than what the Cardinals had this past season. Kolten Wong should improve the defense up the middle if he can prove himself worth playing everyday and Aledmys Diaz, who played much better once he settled in, should continue to improve. Justin Turner could have made it even better, but I digress.

The defense isn’t perfect though, the Cardinals will have either Jhonny Peralta or Jedd Gyorko at third base. Neither present a tried and true plus defender and I’m on record that I’d rather see Matt Carpenter at third everyday and Matt Adams at first base.

While the defense should shape up to be better, the pitching staff will now need to do their part in 2017 if the team intends to make a run at the playoffs, much less a World Series. There are questions in the rotation and, much like the offense last season, plenty of clutter that sets the stage for some difficult decisions. But here’s why I think positively about the rotation.

The fifth starter. The Cardinals have very much played coy with who the fifth starter will be in 2017. By all accounts it seems like it will be a three way competition for the spot, though it seems obvious who should get the opportunity.

Michael Wacha represents the path of least resistance. He struggled last year with a 5.09 ERA over 24 starts and 3 relief appearances. He would miss a month late in the season after his stress fracture returned. The organization seems uncertain what to do with Wacha as they were rumored to have included him in a trade offer early in the winter. Mozeliak indicated that they may need to reset the expectations of him being a 200 inning starter and has also hinted that they could use him in a role similar to how the Indians used Andrew Miller in the postseason. So at least the appearance of an opportunity for someone else is there.

Trevor Rosenthal has also been said to be coming to spring training preparing to start. The former closer lost his job last season due to ineffectiveness, but it was long assumed that guaranteeing him the closer’s job was part of convincing him to accept a move to the bullpen. Now removed from the role, it looks as if the organization is going to give him an opportunity to start.

Regardless of where Rosenthal pitches, his problem the last few seasons has been consistently throwing strikes. Now four seasons removed from his last start, I believe that taking him out of the bullpen, where his body has become conditioned to relief, will exponentially increase his injury risk. That transition from long-time reliever to start is what I believe effective resulted in the end of Kyle McClellan’s career.

As a result of coming from the bullpen, Rosenthal will likely need to be put on an innings limit in the rotation. And in my opinion, if you’re going to consider a pitcher with an innings limit on him, it’s clear that the guy should be Alex Reyes.

I’ve been critical of Reyes in the past as I don’t see him as great a prospect as many others do mainly because of his control issues and lack of dominance in the minors. However, he got the call last season and proved me wrong. He’s still walking batters, but has managed to be effective enough. In 5 starts for the Cardinals down the stretch when the team needed him the most, Reyes was 2–0 with a 2.20 ERA.

If Reyes does end up being the pitcher that I expect he’ll be, the Cardinals should go ahead and squeeze every ounce of effectiveness out of him now before the batters figure him out.

Lance Lynn. Lance Lynn is returning after missing last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was reportedly ready to begin a rehab assignment in September if the option had been available to him, but the organization opted to shut him down and let him have a regular offseason to prepare for 2017. That is a positive sign for the team who will be relying on him to play a critical role in their rotation.

He has before, posting a 2.87 ERA over 379 innings of work in the two seasons prior to his surgery. Lynn will be almost 18 months removed from his surgery, which bodes well for hopes in Lynn’s performance next season. The only question will be whether he can push through a full season of work.

The guy that first comes to mind is Adam Wainwright, who had the surgery in February 2011 and returned a year later to the rotation. It took Wainwright into May and maybe even June before he looked to have a good, consistent feel for his pitches again and wasn’t a reliable starting option until the second half of the season, posting a 3.13 ERA over his final 12 starts. However, Lynn will be further removed from his surgery than Wainwright was and hopefully further along in his recovery.

Mike Leake. As I wrote last September, Mike Leake had an undercover career year last year. He posted near career bests in walks per nine, strikeouts per nine, home runs allowed per nine, line drive rates, and ground ball rates. All the fielding independent metrics represented a guy who was having one of the best seasons of his career. Instead, he had the worst.

He was probably the greatest victim of the shoddy defense behind him last season. Opponents had a .321 batting average on balls in play last season compared to a .263 just a season before and up from a .292 career average entering the year.

But because of those issues, he also stands to gain the greatest benefit from a better defense. That’s the key to Leake’s success. He’s not the kind of pitcher who will go out and dominate you, though he did a few times last season. He’s Dave Duncan’s kind of guy. A pitch to contact and let the defense make plays kind of guy. And if that defense is making the plays, Leake will have a good year.

Adam Wainwright. Adam Wainwright is perhaps the biggest enigma in the Cardinals rotation entering 2017. He will turn 36 in August and has two years remaining on his current contract. He is coming off the worst season of his career, posting a 4.62 ERA over 199 innings and an 89 ERA+. However, I think there is much to be said about the fact he missed most of the 2015 season while recovering from an Achilles injury.

Wainwright’s worst two seasons have both come the year after missing the most, if not all, of the previous season with injury. Those coming in 2012 after Tommy John and then this year. He spoke in May about discovering a large difference in his leg strength as a result of the injury and set about correcting it. After he mentioned that, he had a 2.84 ERA over his next 14 starts.

From 2013 to 2015, Wainwright posted a 2.61 ERA over almost 500 innings of work. His 142 ERA+ over that span was the fourth best in baseball among starting pitchers who threw at least 450 innings. The three pitchers ahead of him on the list are Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. That’s good company.

Even if you add 2016 to the sample, he still stays in the top-25. Lynn is 28th on that list. The next guy I’m about to talk about is 26th. Three of the top-30 pitchers in baseball? I like that.

Carlos Martinez. The only bright spot for the Cardinals’ rotation last season was Carlos Martinez. He was also the only pitcher who started more than 5 games for the big league club and provide above average results. His 3.04 ERA, 135 OPS+ and 5.4 WAR made him one of the top pitchers in baseball and the heir apparent to Wainwright for the title of “ace.”

By ERA+, Martinez was the 15th best pitcher in baseball last season. Over the previous two seasons, he’s 8th on that list, tied with David Price. And Martinez is six years younger.

Martinez may never have the outright dominance of a guy like Kershaw, but Martinez took big steps this past season to mature into the kind of pitcher you want on top of your rotation. He can beat you in multiple ways, even if he doesn’t have his best stuff. In fact, I felt there were games last season where he seemed to get some sort of sick satisfaction at intentionally not using his best stuff and still beating you. That’s a pitcher.

To me, the ace of your staff is more than just the guy who is pitching the best at any given moment or any given year. He’s the guy who is pitching well and has the track record of it too. In that fashion, the only thing standing between Martinez and being that ace — and perhaps even throwing his name into the conversation of the best pitchers in the game — is doing it again.

Rumor Check: Brian Dozier

Last night Cardinals Twitter was abuzz at the idea that the Cardinals were in talks to acquire Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Brian Dozier. Darren Wolfson, a reporter for the local ESPN affiliate in Minneapolis, called the Cardinals very much “in the mix” for the second baseman who has also been linked to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants this winter.

The rumors seemed to indicate that John Mozeliak knows that the Cardinals still need another impact bat in their lineup and is looking for ways to add one. I can’t disagree with that assessment as I’ve suggested since last winter that they were still a bat away from being a legitimate contender. But Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals for ESPN, tweeted this morning that the organization is not “actively pursuing” Dozier.

But there is so much that that could mean.

The returns to Minnesota for Dozier would seem to include Kolten Wong along with a top pitching prospect, seeing as the Dodgers are rumored to have offered one of their top pitching prospects in Jose De Leon with the Twins still looking for more.

The question immediately becomes whether such a trade makes sense for the Cardinals. To determine that, we need to figure out what the Cardinals have to compare.

The two in house options at second base for the Cardinals would be Wong and Jedd Gyorko. So let’s look at them.

Wong struggled to begin the season, but came on comparatively strong at the end of the year after a brief demotion. That makes him difficult to accurately project into the coming year, but I think a 2.0 WAR for Wong is his floor if he’s given the opportunity play every day. That’s what he would have gotten in 2016 when you project him out to 500 plate appearances, which is how much playing time I believe he should be getting. But he also has the potential to be so much more if he could be the player he was in the second half last year.

Gyorko posted a 2.9 WAR last season in a career year. Being a career year alone makes it easy to question his ability to duplicate that. To an extent, his WAR was also carried by the first positive defensive WAR of his career and it was 1 WAR better than any previous season he’s had on defense. Even if he beats out either Jhonny Peralta or Wong for the bulk of playing time at their positions I think a 2.0 WAR from him is optimistic.

That leaves Dozier.

At 29 years old, Dozier hit .268 with 42 home runs last season and posted a 6.2 WAR. That WAR made him the 11th most valuable hitter in baseball last season. But consistency is a big question with him.

Over the past four seasons, Dozier’s WAR has varied between a low of 2.4 WAR and a high of 6.2 WAR with no two seasons with 1.5 of the previous. That’s a cause for concern if you’re looking to give up a lot to get him. But I think it’s safe to suggest that Dozier’s floor would be what we got from Gyorko last season and probable that he settles in around a 4 WAR player going forward.

So the question that Mozeliak has to ask himself is what is that extra 1 to 2 wins worth? Is it worth a 2.0 WAR player and a top pitching prospect? The trade market this winter would suggest yes, but I’m not too sure I buy it.

Dozier definitely has the potential to make the Cardinals’ lineup stronger, but I don’t see him as a clean up type hitter. I like to consider RBI rate in this situation and Dozier had a 14.6% RBI rate last season in his highest since 2013. The Cardinals have five returning players who had higher RBI rates than Dozier did last year, so I think he would settle in fifth or sixth in my lineup.

Regardless, it still creates a deeper lineup and that is always a positive. And finding a guy who can play solid infield defense while contributing with the bat is not easy. Dozier can do that.

The addition of a player like Dozier would make the Cardinals’ lineup more projectable, but there’s too many questions and moving pieces to be able to say that he will make the Cardinals better. Which Dozier do we get? Do we get the 6 WAR one or Gyorko 2.0 one? Is this the year Wong puts it together?

Because of the risk involved in the answers to those questions, I don’t see this as a trade that Mozeliak is likely to pull the trigger on.

Column: So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…

It’s been hard to miss that the hot topic since the Cardinals inked the deal for outfielder Dexter Fowler is that they may wade into the waters for Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo if their asking price continues to fall. The reasoning is obvious, adding another big bat to the Cardinals lineup and one that is proven at producing runs. Both get the title as “100 RBI” guys.

But as I tweeted this weekend, I hate the moniker of “100 RBI” guys. RBI are a function of team performance. For example, Encarnacion led the American League with 127 RBI last year, but if he had batted third for the Cardinals instead of the Blue Jays, he would have likely missed out on 100 RBI due to the lack of opportunities.

Encarnacion had 490 runners on base when he took an at bat last season. Meanwhile Matt Carpenter drove in runs at the same rate as Encarnacion, but had just 271 base runners on base when he came to the plate. Yet another reason why moving Carpenter down the lineup is so important for the Cardinals.

But not only that, the Cardinals actually had four players who could have been 100 RBI guys given the same number of base runners that Encarnacion had. Those are Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, and none other than Matt Adams.

This column began as an analysis of the projectability of Encarnacion and Trumbo outside of their hitter friendly ballparks. Instead, the more I dig into it, the more I come to one inescapable conclusion. The Cardinals already have their cleanup hitting first baseman. His name is Matt Adams.

If you haven’t yet closed out the tab in your browser yet, I can’t believe those words are coming out of my brain onto my keyboard and into this article either. A year and a half ago at the trade deadline I wrote that the team should find another starting first baseman and dump Adams at the first chance they got. Last winter I called for him to be non-tendered. Last April I suggested he should be the guy to go when Jhonny Peralta came off the disabled list.

But here we are. Last week suggesting it’s time to schedule Yadier Molina’s exit and now suggesting Adams should be the team’s first baseman next year, I’m certainly picking the popular topics.

Through the minor leagues, Adams’ numbers fit the stereotypical cleanup hitter. He hit for average and he hit for power. I remember figuring that the power would probably carry into the Majors, the question would be how much he could hit.

In 2011, Adams won the Texas League Player of the Year Award after hitting .300/.357/.566 with 32 home runs. The previous year he’d hit .310/.355/.541 with 22 home runs and 41 doubles for Quad Cities. He was rewarded before the 2012 season by being named Baseball Prospectus’ #69 prospect on their annual top-100.

Adams would go on to hit .340/.375/.603 with 9 home runs in 37 games for Memphis before getting called up for his first taste of the big leagues in May 2012.

In 2013, Adams stuck with the big league club, spending all but about two weeks with the team. He would put his name on the map by hitting .315 with 8 home runs after taking over the everyday first base job following the injury to Allen Craig in early September. Perhaps setting the bar too high for him to follow up.

He put together a quietly solid 2014 season, his first as the team’s regular first baseman, hitting .288/.321/.457 with 15 home runs over 142 games for a 116 OPS+. A hot start in 2015 would give way to a rough May before a quad injury would rob him of the next three months.

His .249/.309/.471 slash line last season wasn’t much to write home about, but it was perhaps the most intriguing season Adams has had for the Cardinals since the September back in 2013.

There was a point in May where Adams was one of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters, leading the team in RBI.

He has proven himself as a slightly above average defensive first baseman that belies his size.

And Adams slayed left handed pitching last season. He came into the year having hit .197 and slugged .317 against left handed pitching in his career. He hit .283 against left handed pitchers and slugged .522 against them.

For Adams, it’s really that ability — or inability, as it may be — to hit left handed pitching that’s been the question mark for him. If he couldn’t hit left handed pitching, he was no better than a platoon player. If he could hit both ways, well, then we’re talking about a very good cleanup hitter.

As I’ve mentioned several times on The UCB Podcast over the past few years, I love Freddie Freeman as a comp for Adams. Both first basemen. Both left handed. Both had time on the Top-100 prospect lists. Both profiled as middle of the lineup bats in the minors. Both could hit both ways in the minors.

When you dig into Freeman’s early Major League stats, you see that it took him a couple seasons — roughly 400 at bats — before he became a consistent threat against both right and left handed pitching. And once he figured that out, he went from a 114 OPS+ player to a guy who has averaged 145 OPS+ and finished in the top-6 in MVP voting twice in the four years since.

The difference for Freeman was that he got to play every day. Atlanta gave him a chance to develop his approach at the plate against both left handed and right handed pitchers. Adams has not been given the same opportunity. Freeman had 414 at bats against left handed pitching in his first two seasons in the Majors. Adams has had just 264 in his career, and he’s been in the Majors for the better parts of four seasons now. Whether we realized it or not, Mike Matheny has basically had him in a platoon situation.

It’s because of the lack of sustained opportunities, that Adams hasn’t had the ability to develop his approach against left handed pitchers in the Majors. Regardless of what Matheny will say about there being no time for development in the Majors, the only place Adams can develop that approach against Major League caliber left handed pitchers is in the Majors.

It’s not just his potential that makes him the right guy to be the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, he does two things the Cardinals need to do better next year: play defense and drive in runs.

The Cardinals were 8th last season in at bats with runners on base, but were just 22nd in batting average with men on. Adams was tied for the second highest RBI rate on the team last season, driving in 17.1% of base runners when he came to the plate. Only Carpenter’s 17.3% was better.

Starting Adams and sliding Carpenter back over to third takes Jedd Gyorko (11.2%) and Jhonny Peralta (10.8%) out of the lineup. Already that’s a 6% improvement in driving in runs.

Adams is a solid defensive first baseman. He may not win any gold gloves, but he gets the job done. In his only full season at first base, he had +8 defensive runs saved. His UZR has been positive in each of the last three seasons.

Meanwhile over at third base, neither Peralta nor Gyorko are known for their exemplary defense. Peralta wasn’t a good third baseman seven years ago when he played the position every day, why is he going to be now at 34? Gyorko had a good season last year defensively, but has not historically been a good defender. Part of me believes that we will look back on his 2016 as we do Peralta’s 2014 season.

Carpenter isn’t going to win any gold gloves at third base either, but he is a competent third baseman. And he will benefit from playing the same position, wherever that ends up being. His worst defensive seasons are those where he’s played multiple positions. When he’s been given one position to play, he’s been fairly neutral and that’s better than the other options on the roster.

Encarnacion wants $20 million a year at age 34 for a guy who hasn’t played more than a half season in the field since 2010. He hit a ton of home runs in a hitter friendly ballpark. For those dollars, the risk and the questions are too great. And on Trumbo, I think that he might have a little more pop, but ultimately won’t give you the value over Adams that you want.

Much like Jon Jay before him, Adams may never be the player the fans expect him to be, but he can still be a very valuable player for this team.

Column: It’s time for the Cardinals to lay out the Molina succession plan

It was during the 2002 World Series that I first heard anything about Yadier Molina. His older brothers Bengie and Jose were catchers for the Anaheim Angels during the series. During the game, FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were talking about the Molina brothers who were all catchers and how Bengie and Jose would say, “You think we’re good? Wait until you see our brother.”

At the time, Yadier was just a 19 year old kid who had wrapped up his second season of professional baseball in the Cardinals’ organization. He’d been drafted a year before in the fourth round by the Cardinals and they were definitely onboard with the hype.

The Major League roster and Yadier’s advancement merged perfectly, perhaps exactly to plan, as their incumbent catcher Mike Matheny was a pending free agent. Matheny, a two-time and defending gold glove winner at that point, was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the organization’s plan was clear to anyone with eyes.

Matheny would mentor the youngest Molina for a season before he left in free agency and Molina became the starter in 2005. Matheny would win his third Gold Glove Award in 2004. He would head to San Francisco in free agency and win his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2005, making it his third in a row.

But on the Cardinals, Yadier Molina began to emerge as one of the greatest catchers of his generation, if not Major League Baseball history. A four-time Platinum Glove Award winner, eight-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All Star, MVP Candidate, Silver Slugger, you name it. If they award it to a catcher, Molina’s probably won it.

Next season will mark Molina’s 13th as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. He will turn 35 this year in what could be his final season with the team. There is a $15 million mutual option for a 14th season next year that, if Molina has his way, will turn into an extension.

Over his years in St. Louis, because he has been so good, that what I like to call the “cult of Molina” has developed.

After the Cardinals traded Joe Kelly to Boston in 2014, he talked about how there were a number of things he had to learn how to do in Boston because he never learned to do it in St. Louis. Yadi handled it. Reading batters, strategizing at bats, and holding base runners isn’t something pitchers have had to deal with because Yadi’s handled all of that.

I think we see struggles with guys stealing bases now because Cardinals pitchers have never worried about holding guys on and now that his skills have diminished in that area, throwing out just 21% of base runners last year from a career average of 42%, runners can take advantage.

You don’t shake Molina either. Kyle Lohse has spoken about shaking Molina off just a few times and allowing a hit each time. But on the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski was never comfortable with the culture in St. Louis that you don’t shake Molina off and he has pitched better since leaving.

I’m not saying that other catchers don’t put in the preparation, but in many ways Molina is a rare combination of talent, skill, work ethic, and preparation. And as Molina’s career approaches its close though, it’s time to lay out the post-Molina road map.

Last winter the Cardinals signed Brayan Pena in the hopes that he would be the guy who could finally allow the team to give Molina more rest and hopefully extend his career. That didn’t happen as Pena injured his knee slipping on a wet dugout step in spring training and Molina logged more innings behind the plate than ever before.

The Cardinals released Pena a few weeks ago in a roster squeeze which left Carson Kelly as the only catcher on the 40 man roster. John Mozeliak indicated during the winter meetings that they’d like to bring in a veteran backup for Molina this year so that Kelly can continue to develop by playing everyday.

But with Kelly on the cusp, the organization has reached a tipping point. You can only hold off Kelly for so long.

If the organization feels like Kelly is Molina’s future replacement, then they need to lay out the road map for Kelly’s transition to the starting role. Perhaps that’s Kelly serving as Molina’s backup in 2018 before Kelly steps into the starters role in 2019, much like Matheny and Molina’s transition in 2004. But Molina would need to know that he wouldn’t have a role on the team for 2019.

I know what you’re thinking. Molina is the face of the franchise. He’s the rock of the pitching staff. Of anyone, he has to retire a Cardinal.

That’s the reaction I always get when I bring this topic up. Eventually the transition to Molina’s successor will have to happen and we’re at the point where once you identify that successor, you need to move on when the new guy is ready. The organization has built their philosophy on not holding up the future for the sake of sentimentality. I love Molina, but the organization can’t afford to string Kelly along as his backup for multiple years like they did with Tony Cruz.

“Yeah, but Cruz was never a good hitter,” is the reaction I usually get when I bright this up. I’ll admit that he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. Cruz hit .282 across three levels of the minors in 2010 and would be hitting .262 in Memphis when he got his first call up to the Majors in 2011. He hit .262 over 38 games in the Majors in 2011 and then followed it up, hitting .254 in 2012. But over his final three seasons with the Cardinals, from 2013 to 2015, his batting average collapsed to just .203.

In my opinion, a big factor in Cruz’s declining performance was playing time. Pitchers were able to get ahead of him and stay ahead of him because he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to learn and adapt at the plate. Whenever he did get a stretch of playing time while Molina was injured, he would usually string together a few excellent games at the plate, perhaps giving a glimpse at what he could have been.

Because of this, ensuring that Kelly gets consistent playing time and doesn’t waste away for too long as a backup is of utmost importance to the future of the Cardinals. If they wait too long, will we see the same struggles that Tony Cruz had?

If Kelly isn’t viewed the successor, then the organization should put him to use. Use him as trade bait or use him as the backup now. The only reason to delay him at this point is to time up the hand off. But that requires actually handing the job off at some point. It’s time to figure out exactly when.

Column: With Fowler signed, what’s next?

This morning the St. Louis Cardinals introduced Dexter Fowler as the newest member of the team as he has signed a 5 year, $82.5 million deal. It was an aggressive move by the team to make sure that they acquired the best option on the market before another team did. He will wear the #25 for the Cardinals.

With the acquisition of Fowler, the Cardinals get better. Fowler was worth 4.1 WAR for the Cubs last year while Aledmys Diaz led the Cardinals with a 3.5 WAR.

Even if Fowler takes a step back, he’s been a consistent 2.5 WAR player over the past few seasons, which is still an improvement on what the Cardinals had in left field last year where Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss combined for a 1.1 WAR. The impact by metrics is 1–3 wins. All for less than we would have paid Holliday to stick around for another year.

With their top priority now completed, the question is what the Cardinals do next. At today’s press conference, John Mozeliak was asked about that. He kept expectations low that they were only looking to add complimentary pieces at this point. Though he did say Wednesday night that they might not do anything before the holidays and two days later, here we are.

It’s been said that, with Fowler signed, the team may pivot their plan to add another hitter, perhaps even chasing Mark Trumbo or Edwin Encarnacion. If the Cardinals could find a taker for Jhonny Peralta, I’d totally be onboard with that. Though I still feel like Justin Turner is the best fit for what the Cardinals want to accomplish this winter, even if he lacks the same offensive punch as Trumbo or Encarnacion.

The Cardinals mashed offensively last year, but lacked on the defensive side of the ball.

While Trumbo and Encarnacion are truly designated hitters who can “play” in the field, Turner is an exceptionally capable third baseman. He would likely be the best defensive third baseman the Cardinals have had since Scott Rolen was playing over there. The problem with Turner is that it’s hard to bank on his offensive numbers.

Turner broke out with the Dodgers in 2014 after being claimed off of waivers and hit .340 with 7 home runs in 109 games. In 2015, he hit .294 with 16 home runs in 126 games. Last season he hit .275/.339/.493 with 27 home runs in 151 games for the Dodgers. Will he duplicate those numbers? Can he duplicate those numbers? That’s really the question.

But the answer I keep coming back to is that even if Turner can’t replicate that offensive performance, he is still a plus defender. He can contribute to the team even without his bat.

It’s not like Trumbo and Encarnacion are easily projectable players either. Both are coming off great seasons in hitter friendly ballparks.

Trumbo played half of his games in Camden Yards and hit .256/.316/.534 with a league leading 47 home runs. But outside of Camden, he has not nearly been as standout. He hit just 22 home runs in 2015 between Arizona and Seattle, though he hit 22 home runs on the road last year but with a .258/.299/.518 line.

Encarnacion, no relation to Juan who played for the Cardinals in 2006 and 2007, has played his entire career in hitters ballparks. Either the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati or the Rogers Centre in Toronto. He hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs last year. While just more than half of his home runs actually came on the road, he hit just .242/.343/.492.

The problem with Trumbo and Encarnacion is they do not have a fielding position. Sure, Trumbo can play right field and first base and Encarnacion has played both third and first bases in their careers, but they don’t improve the Cardinals’ defense, which was a stated goal for the organization this winter.

I see the Cardinals as about a 92 win team right now. Still likely a few games behind the Cubs, but signing a guy like Turner would draw that gap ever closer.

Cardinals set to sign Dexter Fowler

KSDK’s Frank Cusumano was the first that I saw on the case with the news that Dexter Fowler was coming to St. Louis for a physical. That could mean only one thing, a deal was imminent. John Mozeliak will get his man after Derrick Goold reported Mozeliak went “over the top” in order to ensure that Fowler would sign with the Cardinals.

Per USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the deal is done and, as long as the physical goes off without a hitch tomorrow, there’s already a press conference scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The actual terms of the deal are still unknown, but Jon Heyman has reported the deal to be for five years and between $80 and 90 million. That’s a span of $16 million to $18 million in average annual value.

The question that fans have now is whether Fowler is worth it. I say yes for multiple reasons.

He was the player the Cardinals needed

Beyond all the talk about dollars, on field performance, and value, he was the player that the Cardinals needed to get. They needed to add an outfielder and Fowler was the best available in free agency. When it became obvious that a trade for someone like Adam Eaton or Lorenzo Cain wasn’t going to happen, they needed to get Fowler.

And to Mozeliak’s credit, he put enough money on the table to get Fowler to sign on the dotted line before another team had the chance. Given my article from this morning, I’m taking credit for that.

His offensive credentials are better than Jason Heyward’s

Last winter the Cardinals put a 10 year, $200 million offer on the table for Jason Heyward before he turned it down to play in Chicago. By all reports, Fowler’s deal will be half as long and less than half the money. Fowler is three years older, but the deal is five years shorter. Much less of a commitment here.

Fowler might not have the reputation for being the same five tool capable player that Heyward is, but he has plenty of tools himself. He has power, hitting 30 home runs over the last two seasons. He has speed, with 15 triples over the past two seasons and is a stolen base threat. He’s shown a couple times that he can hit for average and get on base.

Over the past three seasons, Fowler has hit .266/.369/.419 with 132 extra base hits in 397 games. In that same time span, Heyward hit .265/.339/.383 with 125 extra base hits in 445 games.

Fowler has even been more consistent, posting an OPS+ above league average in each of the last six seasons. Heyward can only say he’s done that in four of the last six seasons.

I still question whether he’s a center fielder, but he should be good enough. And there’s still hope that they’ll play Fowler in left and Randal Grichuk in center, right?

He makes the lineup better

Last season Fowler hit .390/.483/.720 when leading off a game, all led the league. Signing Fowler gives the Cardinals a legitimate option to take over in the leadoff spot and move Matt Carpenter back in the lineup where he belongs.

That helps make the Cardinals’ lineup deeper and anything that can be done to improve that is a good thing.