Column: It’s time to finish the job

The Cardinals lost yet another winnable series this weekend, this time against the Chicago Cubs who have now entered a tie for first place in the division. The Cardinals have gone 4-6 since on a 10 game road trip since the All Star Break. Winning just four games despite leading in 9 of the 10 games.

Through the road trip, they have demonstrated every conceivable way you can lose a game. Sloppy play, defensive miscues, lack of fundamentals, bullpen struggles, bad luck, and on and on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these games were winnable.

The sloppy play, poor defense, and lack of fundamentals has been a constant issue over the past couple seasons. When we discuss them, I always think back to a UCB Podcast episode last summer where Kevin Reynolds asked me how many games I felt the Cardinals had given away to that point in the season. I suggested you could make the case that the number was in the double digits.

At the time that would have put the Cardinals neck-and-neck with the Cubs for first place in the division and that would have completely changed the narrative for the season. But even when the season came to a close, all it would have taken was for them to have held onto two of those games to secure a Wild Card spot.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals beat themselves last season. This wasn’t a situation where the team was just outmatched in every aspect of the game on the field. They just kept finding ways to beat themselves. With failures in the fundamentals of the game that the franchise has historically been lauded for.

The front office noticed it and everyone from Bill DeWitt Jr on down gave us the standard lip service about cleaning up the play on the field over the winter. Mike Matheny spoke at Winter Warm Up about how they were going to focus on it in Spring Training. The organization went as far to create a new position, Quality Control Coach, to help the team sort through the issues.

But six months later and those same issues are still costing this team victories on a regular basis.

The latest example came last week when Trevor Rosenthal failed to cover on a ball hit towards first base. By the time he realized what had happened and reacted to it, it was too late and Jose Reyes beat the play out and the Mets scored to win the game in a walk off.

I suggested that everyone should be on the field the next morning for pitcher’s fielding practice. If they want to play like Little Leaguers, they can be treated like Little Leaguers.

Back on June 9th, the Cardinals made some changes on the coaching staff, headlined by the reassignment of third base coach Chris Maloney. Since then, the Cardinals are 21-19 and still find themselves exactly where they were 40 games ago. In fourth place, 4.5 games out. And that’s with five wins against the Phillies and there are no games against them remaining.

It’s been a quarter of a season since those changes were made and the rest of the NL Central has given the Cardinals every opportunity make a move in the division, but their own sloppy play has prevented that from happening. It’s time to finish the job that John Mozeliak began on June 9th.

Let’s look at the facts in evidence. The Cardinals have struggled with sloppy play and bad fundamentals over the past two years, but this has really just been a culmination of the degradation in it over the last several years. As Jose Ortiz suggested when he wrote about it, note that “The Cardinal Way” was lost on Mike Matheny’s watch.

With the priority that Matheny told us that he was going to make improving fundamentals this spring and the complete lack of improvement that has been made in that direction suggests one of two things.

First, Matheny hasn’t actually tried to correct the issue. This could be for multiple reasons ranging from he doesn’t see it as an issue or he doesn’t know how.

Second, he has made an effort to correct it and the players haven’t. Those reasons would be that the message is either not sticking with them or they are willfully ignoring it.

Either is a sign of trouble in an organization. Both are indications that it’s time to move on and put a new voice in the manager’s office.

I’ve spoken a few times over the past couple years of how it seems that communication is one of Matheny’s biggest issues. Not just, “Hey, you good to go today?” but actually communicating his approach and philosophy to players so that they don’t just understand it, but buy in.

We saw that with Randal Grichuk last winter who was not told that the organization wanted to replace him in center field. We saw that this spring when he said that Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko were going to start the season out in a platoon after the organization had told Wong he was going to start.

And back at Winter Warm Up, Matheny spoke about solving some of those fundamental problems and aggressiveness on the base paths and he spoke about the difficulty of getting players to buy into his message. That was a big red flag to me. It felt like he was throwing his team under the bus.

The Cardinals may wait until the end of the season and let Matheny go as John Mozeliak has talked about not liking to fire guys in the middle of the season. He’s talked about how players don’t like to feel like they got someone fired.

But this team still has a chance. It’s time to finish the job and send that warning shot at the clubhouse. They need to feel like they got someone fired. Matheny has been given his opportunity to turn this club around and they are as bad as ever.

Mozeliak talked this weekend about being unhappy with the attitude and culture around the club. The quickest fix for that is to remove the guy who is paid to set that tone.

Cardinals trade Gonzales for Mariners’ prospect O’Neill

The St. Louis Cardinals have traded left handed pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill today.

Gonzales, 25, missed last season after Tommy John surgery and has a 2.90 ERA in 11 starts for Triple-A Memphis this season. He made a spot start for the big league club this season, allowed 5 earned runs in 3.1 innings. The former first round pick owns a career 5.53 ERA in 40.2 innings at the big league level over 7 starts and 3 relief appearances.

O’Neill, 22, is currently hitting .244/.328/.479 with 19 HR in 93 games for Triple-A Tacoma this season. He hit 56 home runs over his previous two seasons in Double-A and High-A ball. A former third-round pick, he is rated as the Mariners’ #2 prospect according to MLB.com.

Before the 2017 season he was a consensus top-100 prospect, coming in 36th at MLB.com, 38th at Baseball America and 53rd with Baseball Prospectus. He fell off the midseason lists as he struggled early in the season, batting just .218/.287/.381 with 6 home runs through June 15th. In a little over a month since, he is hitting .303/.406/.697 with 13 home runs.

If you’d asked me a week ago what this club needed, I’d have answered with a power hitting corner outfielder who likes to strike out. Okay not really, butsome have compared him to Grichuk, unjustly I think. Yes, so far this season O’Neill has struck out 27.3% of the time. But his numbers also show that he knows how to walk too, walking 11.1% of the time. Compare that to Randal Grichuk‘s best season in AAA which revealed a 5.9% walk rate.

The Cardinals do have a glut of outfielders. The big league club has Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty signed long term, Tommy Pham hitting up a storm, and then Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and Oscar Mercado coming along in the minors. Now add O’Neill to the mix as the best of them and you have to wonder if a move is coming.

Another indicator of a potential trade coming is that the move of Gonzales didn’t just add O’Neill, it opened up a spot on the 40 man roster which now stands at 39.

The move of Gonzales also opens up a spot on the 40 man roster which now stands at 39. That could also serve as an indicator that another trade to deal out of that outfield prospect depth is on deck with a space now open without requiring a 40 man player be sent out in the same move.

Cardinals call up Carson Kelly as Grichuk and Duke are activated

The St. Louis Cardinals have called called up catcher Carson Kelly and activated outfielder Randal Grichuk and left handed reliever Zach Duke off the disabled list. To make room for them, the Cardinals optioned right handed reliever Sam Tuivailala to Memphis, outfielder Magneuris Sierra to Springfield, and designated catcher Eric Fryer for assignment.

Kelly, 23, was hitting .283/.375/.459 with 10 home runs in 68 games with Memphis this season after going homerless in 32 games with Memphis last season. Kelly appeared in 10 games last season for the big league Cardinals and hit .153/.214/.231. It seemed that his promotion may be coming when Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak indicated that his opportunity was coming.

The former gold glove catcher has been viewed as Yadier Molina‘s heir apparent behind the plate, but just how the two will co-exist on the roster is still yet to be determined. When discussing Kelly, Mozeliak indicated that the two would share time. Fryer, Molina’s backup prior to today, had started 15 of the team’s 95 games behind the plate. That would leave Molina on a pace to start 136, the second most in a season in his career.

How much time they split likely will fall back on how well Molina is playing. He finished off June with a 16 game hitting streak, but so far in July is hitting just .259/.293/.370. Those should be achievable numbers for Kelly.

The Cardinals also recalled Zach Duke who they received in a trade last July from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Charlie Tilson. Duke pitched well to finish out the year, posting a 1.93 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 28 appearances, but had to undergo Tommy John surgery after the season. The club held onto him and he returned to the mound earlier this month. He has thrown 9 scoreless innings and allowed just 4 hits and 1 walk in 9 rehab appearances.

Randal Grichuk is also back with the club and will be starting tonight. Grichuk has struggled to find his groove this season, hitting just .215/.270/.408 with 9 home runs in 61 games. After a nearly month-long stint in the minors, Grichuk returned in late June and batted .196/.250/.500 with 5 home runs in 15 games until he was placed on the disabled list after returning to the club after the All Star break.

Going down will be outfielder Magneuris Sierra, much to the disappointment of fans who enjoy his style. Sierra has gotten good results, batting .365/.400/.365 through his 13 career games over now three cups of coffee in the big leagues, however he still lacks the polish necessary. All 19 of his hits have been singles as he will need to develop more gap power to become a player that can be worth playing for his bat and not just his glove. At 21 though, he has time on his side. He will return to Springfield where he is batting .293/.326/.403 this season.

Also down is right handed reliever Sam Tuivailala, which I think is a shame. In 21 innings of work this season, Tuivailala has a 2.14 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. His WHIP ranks third in the bullpen behind John Brebbia (0.77) and Matthew Bowman (1.07). Regardless, Tuivailala could not break into more important innings, going nearly two weeks between his last two outings. Since his last recall, Tuivaila had allowed just 1 earned run over 10 innings of work for a 0.90 ERA and 0.90 WHIP.

And the club may say goodbye to Eric Fryer who has been designated for assignment. Fryer joined the last last season as a catcher for Memphis, but was pushed to the big leagues after injury to Brayan Pena. He would be designated for assignment last summer by the Cardinals as well, being picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates. His first game with Pittsburgh was against the Cardinals where he went 2-for-4 with 3 RBI and the Twitter hashtag #FryersRemorse was born.

After they released Pena over the winter, the club signed Fryer to serve as Molina’s backup this season. He has started 15 games and appeared in 19 others, batting .155/.277/.197 for the Cardinals.

Rumor check: Lance Lynn

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted out the same article that suggested the Cardinals were players for Brad Brach with the note that the Royals were “aggressively pursuing” starting pitching, including Lance Lynn. It should be noted that Lance Lynn’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the article, but he made the link and so the rumor mill began.

The Cardinals have reportedly told teams it may both buy and sell over the next couple weeks as it tries to reposition it’s club to compete. That may include selling some pending free agents who they do not expect to bring back. That list includes Lance Lynn.

Lynn is 30 years old and has posted an 8-6 record with a 3.40 ERA in 19 starts in his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2016 season. Lynn has struggled with the long ball at times this season, which is not unexpected for a pitcher returning from TJ. After a rough June, Lynn has thrown 13 consecutive scoreless innings over his last two starts.

Lynn had set himself up for free agency this winter with his previous deal that bought out only his arbitration years, though seemed to change his tune this spring when he suggested he hoped the Cardinals would entertain extension talks after the All Star break.

I suggested back in may that Lynn could command 5 years, $125 million in the free agent market. I also suggested that the Cardinals couldn’t afford to let him walk out the door. Never underestimate the value of the pitcher you can pencil in to provide you 200 quality innings, regardless of the prospects you have coming up behind. I love the idea of Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn anchoring this rotation for the next five years.

Because of those contract needs, he is a slam dunk to be given a qualifying offer by the Cardinals if he finishes out the season with the club. That provides a floor for the type of return St. Louis would want to see from any Lynn trade.

The Royals are in third-place, three games out in their division and two games out of the American League Wild Card race and they’re looking at starting pitching options. They also have a number of their key players hitting free agency like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain.

If the Royals are intent on acquiring Lynn and taking a shot now because they see their window closing at the end of the year, they aren’t going to trade him for Major League talent. So don’t expect to get a Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer in return.

That means prospects. Their biggest problem here may be the lack of a top-100 prospect. And looking at their top prospects list, I don’t see much here that gets me excited. So me and the prospect list makers seem to be on the same page.

But the Royals are looking at significant holes in their roster next season and one would assume that they’d like to keep all the young talent they have to help fill those holes as cost effectively as possible.

In his chat though Derrick Goold suggested that the Astros are a better fit for Lynn because they have more prospects and they also may be willing to extend him before free agency. I’m sure Jeff Luhnow having drafted Lynn may help too.

For the Cardinals, this move would signal selling to me because regardless of Luke Weaver, Marco Gonzales, or Jack Flaherty, I have a hard time seeing this team being competitive in October without Lynn in the rotation.

So I think that the Cardinals are laying ground work for buying and selling right now. If they can’t find the deals they need to improve the team they have they way they like, they may try to move on some of these sales to help set this team up going forward. Either would make me happy.

But as far as this particular Lynn to the Royals deal, I don’t really buy it.

Rumor check: Brad Brach

USA Today suggested this morning that the Cardinals would be a match with the Orioles for reliever Brad Brach, suggesting that Tyler Lyons would be enough to grab the Orioles’ fill-in closer.

Brach, 31, has a 2.75 ERA in 39 appearances for the Orioles this season. He is 15 for 19 in save opportunities since assuming closing duties after the injury to Zach Britton in April.

Over the previous two seasons as a setup reliever for the Orioles, Brach posted a 2.39 ERA over 133 appearances. He is making $3.05 million this year and has one final year of arbitration eligibility ahead of him before becoming a free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

It is the trade season and relief help is always highly coveted and it’s likely that teams like the Red Sox, the Nationals, and any number of other contending teams have already checked in on Brach. And as history has shown us, are likely willing to go further for him than the Cardinals are.

The Cardinals most desperate immediate need is someone who could come in and step into the closer’s role in St. Louis to solidify the bullpen. Brach would provide that answer both this year and next for a team in need of one.

USA Today suggests that the Cardinals could acquire Brach for left handed pitcher Tyler Lyons who would go immediately into their MLB-worst starting rotation. That would be really selling low on Brach, in my opinion.

The Athletics just got two of the Nationals’ top-20 prospects for a pair of relievers who make more money and haven’t been as effective as Brach over the past few years. Granted Sean Doolittle has plenty of years remaining on his contract, but I think the Orioles would want one of the Cardinals’ top-20 prospects to make the trade happen, and I’d assume a pitching prospect. Luke Weaver might be too high up the prospect list for the Cardinals to stomach parting with, but an Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, or Jake Woodford might fit the bill.

I’ve always been high on Lyons’ ability as a setup-type reliever, but I also wonder what the result would be if you just used Lyons in the role you’d use Brach in. Could he step into the closer’s role?

Rumor check: Christian Yelich & Marcell Ozuna

According to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, the Cardinals have interest in the Marlins’ outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and the Marlins have sent a top executive to scout Cardinals’ pitching prospect Dakota Hudson‘s last start.

There’s been a lot of love for Christian Yelich among my Twitter follows over the past year and change, and after his 2016 season I sort of understand why. However, his numbers have once again slowed this season showing him more likely to be a .290/.360/.410 hitter than the guy who hit 21 home runs last year and put up a 130 wRC+.

He is a solid player, but I basically see him as a left handed Stephen Piscotty. And I’m constantly being reminded that Piscotty is not the kind of hitter this club needs. He is more of what these Cardinals already have. A doubles hitter who can put up a good OBP.

I don’t get too excited about him and think that the majority of the excitement around him is the hope that he can repeat 2016 and he has 4 years, $44.5 million remaining on his current contract. That could go to 5 years, $58.25 million if his $15 million option for 2022 were to get picked up.

Of the two Marlins outfielders listed, I prefer Marcell Ozuna. If you’ve been around since November, Ozuna headlined a list of five players I felt the Cardinals should be interested over the winter. Reports are that they did check in on him over the winter, but obviously that went nowhere. Or perhaps just laying the groundwork for a future trade.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Ozuna has had a career start tot he season. He is batting .317/.375/.563 with 23 home runs in 90 games for the Marlins. All four numbers would stand as career highs. So to acquire him now would seem to be buying high. However, over the past 30 days his numbers have slowed a bit, down to .286/.327/.510 with 6 home runs, which may have an effect on his trade value.

Over the previous three seasons, Ozuna is averaging .265/.316/.433 with 25 doubles, 4 triples, and 19 home runs per season. He has now hit 23 home runs in three of the last four seasons.

Some of the complaints I see about Ozuna is that he is essentially Randal Grichuk. I disagree. He is what we wish Randal Grichuk could be. He walks more, strikes out less, makes more contact, and hits for a better average than Grichuk. And he’s done this over the course of now his fourth full season in the big leagues. Meanwhile Grichuk has yet to spend a full season with the big league club since debuting four seasons ago.

Ozuna’s contract situation is not as appealing as Yelich’s, as he has two more seasons of arbitration remaining before free agency. He’s also represented by Scott Boras, so it is safe to assume that Ozuna will hit free agency after the 2019 season.

Ozuna over Yelich to me is an easy choice because the Cardinals have guys who are supposed to get on base. What they lack is a hitter with some thump who can drive those guys in. Ozuna would give them that while Yelich remains a question mark.

In return it looks like the Marlins are interested in Dakota Hudson. Hudson, 22, was drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft by the Cardinals. He put himself on the map last year posting a 0.68 ERA over 13 innings between Palm Beach and the Gulf Coast League. MLB.com rated him the Cardinals’ 9th best prospect entering the season.

He has a 2.77 ERA in 16 starts for Double-A Springfield this season.

On the surface, Yelich seems to be the kind of player that the Cardinals would find more appealing. High OBP, has flashed some power and has plenty of team control remaining. However, Ozuna provides more power and may be closer to the kind of player they need.

They’ve also checked in on Ozuna before, as this kind of parallels what they did with Matt Holliday, having checked in on him at multiple points before finally pulling the trigger to acquire him in 2009.

My feel would be that the Marlins would be more likely to deal Ozuna than Yelich since Yelich’s stock is likely to be down a little bit right now. He is also on a team friendly contract for an organization that needs inexpensive players. Meanwhile there is less guarantee for Ozuna, who they may feel the need to trade now while he has maximum value.

For that reason I buy this rumor. Obviously it depends on what else goes to Miami with Hudson, but if the Cardinals could fill one of their needs without giving up one of their top shelf prospects, even if Hudson is on his way to joining that list, I don’t know how you say no.

Five things about the Pirates Series

The Pittsburgh Pirates quickly strangled any hope of coming out of the break with some momentum as they managed not one, but two come-from-behind, walk-off victories against the Cardinals this weekend at PNC Park to win the series. As much as I want to say it was a surprise, since most expected the Cardinals to come to Pittsburgh and handle their business, it really wasn’t. Since the Pirates became relevant again, they have consistently given the Cardinals fits in Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals now find themselves 6.5 games back in the division and in third place. They head to New York for a four game set against the Mets.

“Closing time, one last call for alcohol…”

Or so the lyrics to the song go, but its hard for Mike Matheny to figure out who should take him home when everyone seems to be crashing. Seung-hwan Oh started the season as the closer before about three weeks ago Matheny said he was making a change and going with Trevor Rosenthal. Then he went back to Oh on Friday, who blew the save. Then on Sunday afternoon he pulled out Brett Cecil in the 9th to close up the game.

It’s a bad look when none of the three highest paid relievers in your bullpen can’t be trusted to close out a game and I don’t think we can add #4, Kevin Siegrist, in there either.

In my opinion it’s time to mix Sam Tuivailala into late innings situations. Tuivailala has a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings of work this season and carries a 1.20 WHIP. In Memphis he carries a 1.65 ERA over 16 innings of work. And yet he continues to be relegated to mop up duty in Matheny’s bullpen, having thrown the least out of all the relievers over the last 14 and 28 days. Over those last 28 days he’s thrown 6 scoreless innings in five appearances.

In fact, Tuivailala, John Brebbia, and Matthew Bowman have combined to allow just a single earned run over the last 28 days. No other reliever on the roster has less than two. They’ve earned a right to get an opportunity in higher leverage situations, especially when the guys who are there aren’t getting the job done.

Some of Tony La Russa’s greatest successes came by acknowledging the way he was using his bullpen wasn’t working and switching things up. It’s time for Matheny to follow that lead and mix things up.

Sierra returns triumphant

With injuries to both Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, Magneuris Sierra gets another cup of coffee with the big league club and comes throguh, going 4-for-4 in his return. Now through 9 games of his MLB career, he’s got at least one hit in all of them and multiple hits in five of them. He is the 154th player in MLB history to go 4-for-4 inside his first 10 career games.

Of course, the cries for Sierra to be an everyday player from here on out were there. We seem to be at peak Sierra, similar to where we were in May when everyone was complaining about how the Cardinals let Allen Cordoba go in the Rule 5 draft when he was hitting .300 in San Diego. Since June 1st, Cordoba has hit .131 and those complaints have gone quiet. Eventually Sierra will reach that point too and when he does, it won’t be pretty.

Sierra has sixteen hits in his first 9 MLB games. All singles. His speed making up for a lack of punch.

As The Intrepid STL’s Zach Gifford tweeted last night, Sierra still has much to develop on the offensive side of the ball. His contact rate and chase rates are worse than Grichuk. His .571 BABIP makes him look good. He’s projected to have a 61 wRC+ to finish out the season according to Fangraphs. That’s 49% worse than an average player.

Wong returns from DL

Kolten Wong returned almost a month to the date of his headed to the disabled list for a second time and went 0-for-4. After his customary night off on the second night, Wong returned on Sunday afternoon and went 2-for-4. With Paul DeJong and Magneuris Sierra in the lineup, Wong batted sixth, which is the highest he’s been in the lineup all season. Which is borderline laughable considering he led the team in batting average and on base percentage a month ago.

Pham returns from the break hitting

It seems like Tommy Pham just has no desire to give up playing time in the outfield, even while that continues to be a talking point. Pham went 5-for-12 in the series with a pair of doubles in the Pirates series. Over the Cardinals’ last 20 games, he has hit .347/.427/.514. He has been the Cardinals’ best outfielder and their third best hitter overall by wRC+ (behind Paul DeJong and Luke Voit) in that span.

Another wasted Martinez start

The Cardinals lost on Sunday with Carlos Martinez going 7 innings and allowing just two runs for his 13th quality start on the season. That tied him with Mike Leake for the team lead in quality starts. It was the team’s fifth loss when Martinez turns in a quality start and third straight.

It was their third loss this season when Martinez turned in a QS+ or “Gibby” (defined by Derrick Goold as going at least 7 IP and allowing 3 ER or less).

Piscotty goes to the DL; Sierra recalled

The St. Louis Cardinals placed outfielder Stephen Piscotty on the 10 day disabled list today with a right groin strain and recalled outfielder Magneuris Sierra from Double-A Springfield. Sierra will not arrive in time for tonight’s game against the Pirates, however should be ready to play on Sunday.

Piscotty has struggled this season to find his footing, hitting just .236/.348/.371 with 6 home runs in 69 games for the Cardinals this season. His 95 wRC+ is a career low, a full 20 points lower than it was last season.

Following his mother’s diagnosis with ALS in May, Piscotty looked to be turning his season around, hitting .286/.373/.540 over the next 20 games, but then his performance once again began to tail off. But has hit just .200/.307/.246 over the last 20 games.

His injury is believed to be minor, but it will take some time for it to completely heal. So the organization decided to recall Sierra for his third cup of coffee in the Majors this season.

Sierra is hitting .375/.429/.375 as a big leaguer this season with hits in 8 consecutive games to begin his MLB career, a Cardinals record. He was last up in early June for Jedd Gyorko’s paternity leave and went 1-for-2 with a walk in his one game. Since that game, he has hit .301/.342/.413 over 35 games with Double-A Springfield.

Martinez back up as Grichuk heads to DL

The St. Louis Cardinals placed outfielder Randal Grichuk on the 10 day disabled list, retroactive to July 10th, for a lower back strain. To take his place, they have recalled outfielder Jose Martinez from Memphis. Martinez had recently been optioned to Memphis on July 7th, but had yet to appear in a game.

Grichuk had been sent to the minors at the end of May to work on his pitch recognition and plate approach before being recalled on June 25th when Dexter Fowler went on the disabled list. Since his return, Grichuk has hit .196/.250/.500 with 5 home runs in 15 games, striking out 33% of the time.

Martinez is batting .280/.321/.464 with 5 home runs in 50 games for the Cardinals this season, including .281/.329/.531 in the last month. At the time of his demotion, it was a little puzzling as he had been one of the Cardinals’ best hitters over the previous 28 days. Due to the All Star breaks, Martinez did not appear in a game for Memphis during his brief time in the minors.

Grichuk will be eligible to come off the disabled list on July 20th.

Column: Diagnosing Randal Grichuk

This has to have been a frustrating season for Randal Grichuk on many levels. He gets demoted last year to work on his swing and then comes up and hits .269/.300/.554 with 16 home runs in 70 games and seems to solidify his hold on center field with fielding metrics that allow you to make the case that he is one of the top-10 center fielders in baseball.

Then you find out two months later that your team has signed Dexter Fowler to play center field and move you to left field. And then late in spring training you hear to this crazy idea to try out Matt Adams in left field and that crazy idea turns into a fairly regular thing to open up the season, at least for a little while.

You run into a snag again in May and slump hard and find out the team’s going to send you to the minors to work on your approach and pitch recognition. All the way down to single-A.

So in the span of about six months you’ve been moved from center field by a player you can make the case is worse defensively, you lost your starting left field job to a career first baseman, and then got busted back down to single-A. Ouch.

Yes, I’m aware that Grichuk was sent there specifically to work with Palm Beach’s hitting coach, but the point remains. Single-A still hurts.

Grichuk returned triumphantly on June 25th, batting cleanup against the Pirates where he went 2-for-5 with a home run in the win. And the next night, he batted second against the Reds and went 2-for-5 again, adding another home run. He batted sixth the next two nights against the Diamondbacks and went 0-for-8. Then was back in the second spot for the series finale where he went 3-for-5 with 5 RBI as the Cardinals romped to a 10-4 victory.

That victory would make the Cardinals 11-0 this season when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup (4th or higher). Dating back to last season, the Cardinals are 27-7 when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup.

This season, we see a completely different Grichuk in the front half of the lineup. He has hit .291/.314/.563 with 3 home runs in those 11 games in the front half this season and just .198/.266/.346 with 4 home runs in 46 games in the back half of the lineup (5th or lower). That’s a stark difference, even for the small sample size.

Common baseball strategy suggests that you see better pitches when you bat higher in the lineup because you have better hitters around you. The last thing a pitcher wants to do is walk you with a good batter coming to the plate. But if you’re in the back half and the next batter is Greg Garcia or Eric Fryer, there is little fear, so there is no need to go after you with the same directness. They can try to make you chase.

And after about a week of compiling data, I’m about as frustrated as he has to be because I can’t find an obvious reason why Grichuk struggles so much.

Sixty percent of the pitches Randal Grichuk has seen this season have been balls, and 37% of those have been down and away. But when I look at some other players, this does not seem to be a ridiculously high figure. In fact, it’s slightly lower than the percentage of balls that Matt Carpenter sees.

But there doesn’t seem to be an enormous difference over the whole season sample as far as how he much opposing pitchers ask him to chase based on lineup position.

So on to pitch mix. And Grichuk actually sees more breaking pitches when hitting in the front of the lineup versus the back. Not what I expected to find. In the back of the lineup he sees more fourseam fastballs, in the front he sees more sinkers. Those are his biggest differences in pitch mix.

However compared to last year, he is seeing more sliders compared to previous seasons. He saw sliders 20.2% of the time in 2015, 20.4% of the time in 2016 and now 21.8% of the time this season. And based on Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights, he’s struggling against the slider worse than ever. And the curveball too.

Maybe now we’re getting somewhere, so this is about where I suggest something as simple as he just needs to stop swinging at balls. But he’s actually swinging at fewer pitches than ever before. His overall swing rate is down from 53.9% last year to a career low 50.4% this year. And last year he swung at 39.7% of pitches out of the zone compared to 37.2% this year.

He’s not even fooled by those sliders down and away we all talk about him being a sucker for. Last year he swung and missed on sliders down and away 31% of the time. This year it’s just 25%.

So all this to say that I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Cardinals should just tell him to swing away and bet on his talent. It is what got him here and is what put together incredible stretches the past couple seasons.

With the way he has hit in the front half of the lineup this season and the Cardinals’ lack of reliable bats in those lineup spots, I’d think really hard about slotting him in third and betting on his power to make a difference more often than not. Mainly because, even while I can’t find any evidence of it, I think the lineup protection is doing him some good.

Grichuk is one of many players the Cardinals have that needs to develop his plate approach. And that’s not going to change in a day or a month regardless of whether he’s working with Mark Budaska, George Greer or John Mabry.  Aledmys Diaz is in this same boat right now and I expect Paul DeJong will join him at some point. Behind them, Harrison Bader looks like the same kind of player. Enough talent to tantalize in short spurts, but ultimately lacks a plate approach for sustained success.

When I wrote on Tuesday about how the Cardinals should approach Kolten Wong‘s return, I never mentioned Grichuk and suggested Stephen Piscotty as the team’s fourth outfielder. It was intentional.

If the Cardinals are unwilling to let Grichuk bat where he has demonstrated the ability to be successful, they need to send him to Memphis to complete his development. And not call him back up until he’s proven himself ready.