Column: Cardinals miss on Luis Robert

Saturday was the first day that 19-year-old Cuban phenom Luis Robert was officially cleared to sign a deal with a Major League club and the action moved quickly. Several clubs made bids on the young player who one anonymous American League executive hyperbolized as “the best player on the planet.” The last couple weeks it had been reported that it was going to come down to the Cardinals or the White Sox. And then on Saturday it became apparent that the White Sox were the chosen team.

Reporting over the weekend initially indicated that the Cardinals had the best offer on the table, but that the White Sox wowed Robert with their presentation that included a Spanish-speaking manager and fellow Cuban stars (both of which the Cardinals have as well). But later reporting by MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosh indicated that they may not have even been on par with the White Sox’s offer.

So once again it appears that the Cardinals stuck to a proven broken model and missed out on the player they wanted.

“What I know is that we didn’t sign him. All negotiations have different nuances. All negotiations have different risks. All negotiations have different upside. This was certainly a unique opportunity for us because historically we are not playing or trying to sign these types of players. I don’t second-guess our strategy or second-guess our approach,” said Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak to the Post Dispatch on Sunday after the team had been informed that their bid was not the winning one.

It’s okay, Mo, I’ll take it from here and do some second-guessing on the strategy and approach.

Under the tenure of Mozeliak, the Cardinals have routinely come up short when it comes time to sign players on the open market. Overall, those decisions have worked out for them, though I’m not sure how much credit you can give the Cardinals simply because another team got more aggressive than they did.

The Cardinals have been missing a franchise altering talent in their lineup since the departure of Albert Pujols following the 2011 season. Oscar Taveras was supposed to be the next one and Mozeliak responded to his potential by paving his road to the Majors. As we all know, Taveras never got the opportunity to realize that potential and the organization is still lacking a player of his caliber.

By all accounts, Robert is a potential franchise altering talent. Even if you don’t buy all the hype, the odds that he becomes a consistent contributor are still very good.

He was the best player available in this international signing period. He was routinely the best player in international tournaments playing against players older than him. Most scouts even consider him to be better than any player available in this summer’s draft, where the Cardinals’ first pick will be #94.

Simply put, of all the talent he has ever faced or been stacked up against to this point in his career, he has been the best.

If the Cardinals believed that Luis Robert was a potential franchise altering talent, and it would appear that the answer to that question was yes, then there is only one question to be asked. If not Robert, then who?

If not Luis Robert, who is going to be the franchise altering talent for the Cardinals?

The Cardinals’ minor league system has plenty of quality talent that projects to contribute at the Major League level, but it has no singular position player that has the potential that Robert has.

In a little over a month, the Cardinals will be locked out of making a play for a player like Robert in the next two international signing periods, but there doesn’t appear to be another one coming that soon anyway.

The odds that that player will be selected in this year’s draft are slim as well thanks to the signing of Dexter Fowler and the penalties for Chris Correa’s hacking of the Astros. Furthermore, they aren’t a franchise that is generally bad enough to earn high picks in future drafts and hoping a Delvin Perez caliber talent drops to you in the late first round or that you stumble upon the next Albert Pujols in the 13th is not a sound franchise building strategy.

For those reasons, there was no better time for the Cardinals to put the model aside, step beyond their comfort level and do what it took to ensure that Robert would one day be playing in St. Louis.

Because of the salary structure in baseball and how players in the first six years of their career are generally underpaid, even if they went beyond their comfort zone, the odds are still very good that Robert will give you a return on your investment unlike any veteran free agent would.

Instead, the Cardinals played it cheap, stuck to the model and once again came up short. And for the Cardinals, that question still remains.

If not Robert, then who?

And I don’t see an answer to that question.

The Cardinals could act by trade, but the prospect cost to acquire a franchise altering talent is incredibly high and rightly so. But that kind of trade would require far too much talent leaving the franchise to make sense.

That leaves free agency where we will see a number of potential franchise altering hitters available over the next couple years at much greater costs and similar, if in different ways, levels of risk. And given the Cardinals’ track record in free agency, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Mozeliak said on Sunday that they will redeploy the money not spent on Robert elsewhere, but that’s what they have always said after coming up short. For two years now we’ve heard about how the organization has cash and is willing to spend it, but we have yet to see it make a difference in their approach to free agency.

This team is a player short. Robert was a golden opportunity to get a potential franchise centerpiece player. The stars were aligned, but when it came time to score, the Cardinals’ choked.

It’s a familiar story. But at some point, actions speak louder than words.

Column: How can the Cardinals best use Jhonny Peralta?

St. Louis Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak has said that infielder Jhonny Peralta is expected to be activated this weekend as they play a three game set against the San Francisco Giants in St. Louis. The question then on everyone’s mind is how to use Peralta?

Peralta opened up the season penciled in as the starter at third base. It seems like the organization expected Jedd Gyorko to step in and take the job later in the season if he got hot and went on a power surge. However, Peralta struggled to open up the 2017 season and ended up on the disabled list after an adverse reaction to some cold medication.

In the mean time, Gyorko secured his hold on the everyday third base job. Through 37 games this season, Gyorko is hitting .330/.385/.607 with 7 home runs and has easily been the Cardinals’ most valuable position player. He’s even proving the doubters, like myself, wrong by continuing to play plus defense on the field.

There is also Greg Garcia on the roster who has hit .255/.367/.314 this season, but while Garcia is an on base machine, even last year Peralta provided more punch than that.

For his part, Peralta has admitted that he does not expect to come back as the starter at third base for the Cardinals. It seems like an obvious position for those of us who judge purely on performance, but it is a positive that he seemingly accepted what his opportunities are likely to look like going forward.

The benefit of the disabled list trip for Peralta was that he got an opportunity to take a rehab stint and hopefully find some of that long lost timing at the plate.

The answer to me for how you use Peralta is simple: You let him show you.

Be prepared, Peralta will likely draw a spot in the starting lineup a couple times over the first few days he’s up. I support this because you need to figure out what you have out of him sooner rather than later.

So to start, Peralta will most likely take most of the third base time away from Garcia and he will likely get some time at shortstop to spell Aledmys Diaz. I think, depending on how things shake out in the outfield, you could see him get some playing time in left field or even first base. Those are all positions he has played before in the Majors.

As I wrote last season, I don’t think his 2016 results were representative of the kind of player Peralta can be going forward. He had a hand injury last year and those are notorious for messing up swings and timing. It’s one of those situations where you’re “healed” but you aren’t actually back to 100%.

I still believe Peralta can be an average to slightly above average offensive threat. I don’t think we’ll see 2014 Peralta again, who hit .263/.336/.443 with 21 home runs, but I don’t think a Peralta who can hit .260/.330/.400 who can hit you 10+ home runs over the rest of the season is completely out of reach.

If you play him and he hits, you keep giving him opportunities. If he doesn’t hit, you limit his appearances.

The question at that point becomes what Mozeliak really meant when he said earlier this year that the organization was applying a short leash to Peralta. How long will they give him to find traction? If he can’t, will they release him? I think it’s a possibility, especially as Gyorko and Garcia continue to demonstrate that he may not be needed. And everyday that goes by, it gets cheaper to cut him.

Column: What does a Lance Lynn extension look like and should the Cardinals do it?

In recent weeks I’ve seen questions both in Derrick Goold’s weekly chat and Jenifer Langosch’s inbox feature about whether the Cardinals should entertain Lance Lynn’s interest in discussing an extension that would keep him in St. Louis beyond the 2017 season. In Goold’s chat, it was framed as whether, with all the young arms coming through the system, should they keep him? It’s a question that will likely consume John Mozeliak’s mind this summer as he considers how far he’s willing to go to bring Lynn back to St. Louis.

Derrick’s answer to that question was a resounding yes, because he can provide “known quantity innings.” His point primarily being that Lynn can go out there and throw 210 good innings in 2018 while you will most likely need an assortment of those young pitchers to fill those innings without him. There is a great deal of value in that, not just in having Lynn throw 200+ good innings, but being able to use those good young arms in other roles.

I agree with that and we’ll get into the why and what that looks like shortly. But I think Lynn is one of those players that’s easy to carry a biased opinion around on because of what you think about him from the start. Early in his career he was an emotional guy that was at risk of falling apart if things didn’t go his way. But more recently, he has matured into one of the best pitchers in the league.

The stats bear this out, since 2014, among starting pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings, Lynn has been the 11th best pitcher in baseball by ERA+. He is tied right there with Madison Bumgarner.

Since he joined the Cardinals’ rotation in 2012, Lynn has 63 wins, good for 22nd most in baseball. Despite your opinions on pitcher wins, they are still a good thing to get. And that’s number is even with a missed season. Give him another 15 wins and Lynn is 6th. You give him 20 and he’s 2nd.

And through five starts this season, Lynn has a 2.45 ERA over 29.1 innings pitched along with a 1.09 WHIP. That’s his best start since 2012, his first full year in the rotation.

I feel like the fact he has come back as strong as ever following Tommy John is equal parts impressive and surprising. Even though he’s a few months further out than Adam Wainwright was in 2012, I still cringe when thinking about Wainwright’s start to that season. I cringe the same way thinking about Alex Reyes’ eventual return in 2018.

But I find it interesting that Lynn is even willing to talk extension with the Cardinals.

Before the 2015 season when he signed his current 3 year, $22 million deal, it seemed like a signal that he was going to go to free agency. At that point he had three arbitration years remaining and the deal only bought out those years. He left security and some guaranteed money on the table by not giving them any free agency years. Lynn was going to be 30 years old when he hit free agency and it was going to be one of his only chances to cash in with a big deal.

After Stephen Piscotty’s extension was announced, Lynn was asked about his contract situation. He said he hoped that the Cardinals would engage him in talks over the summer once he’s had a chance to prove himself healthy. It seemed like a change of heart. But perhaps not completely since free agent years when they start next year cost much more than free agent years when they start three years down the road.

In my opinion, Lynn has the numbers to be regarded as one of the top-15 pitchers in baseball. If he puts together a solid 2017 season and continues that, it should bring big money in a free agent period that sees himself and Jake Arrieta as the two main pitching targets.

To get an idea, we need to look at recent deals. Unfortunately, we have to go back to the 2015-16 offseason to find any kind of true comparisons because there just wasn’t anyone remotely close to Lynn’s age and abilities in last year’s free agency pool.

Jordan Zimmermann signed a 5 year, $110 million deal with the Tigers coming off a year where he went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA and threw 202 innings with a 108 ERA+. At 29 years old, he was three years away from being a 19 game winner and just a season removed from a career year.

Johnny Cueto signed a 6 year, $130 million deal with the Giants coming off a year where he went 11-13 with a 3.44 ERA and threw 212 innings with a 118 ERA+. At 29, he was a year removed from a season he won 20 games and threw 244 innings.

Zack Greinke, the other comparison I’m bringing in, signed the mother of all pitching deals, scoring a 6 year, $206.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks coming off an unfathomably good 2015 season where he went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA and threw 223 innings with a league leading 222 ERA+.

Given the start we’ve gotten out of Lynn, I think it’s fair to consider that he will put up something on par with his best seasons. Let’s use an average of the 2014-15 seasons. That puts Lynn at 14-10 with a 2.87 ERA and throwing 190 innings at a 131 ERA+.

That’s better than Zimmermann. That’s better than Cueto. That’s on par with what Carlos Martinez has done the past two seasons and we’re ready to annoint him the Cardinals’ ace.

So I think something north of what Zimmermann and Cueto got is a good target for what he is likely to get, especially given that it’s been a couple years, the 2015-16 offseason was littered with quality pitcher and the 2016-17 offseason was not. I think 5 years, $125 million or 6 years, $140 million is a good market target for what Lynn should expect to be able to get on the open market.

Knowing that, should this be an investment that the Cardinals make? In my opinion, they can’t afford to let him walk.

Yes, it’s true the Cardinals have plenty of well regarded pitching prospects in their minor league system right now. Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Sandy Alcantara, and I’m sure more whose names I don’t have on the top of my head. Even Reyes will be back at some point next year, but the rotation is in a fragile position.

Lynn is a free agent after 2017, Wainwright is a free agent after 2018, Michael Wacha is a free agent after 2019, Mike Leake could be a free agent after 2020, and Martinez could be after 2021. It won’t happen, but the Cardinals could turnover their entire rotation in five years. That’s a big ask of any organization’s minor league system.

Consider that if you let Lynn walk and Wainwright continues to struggle into 2018, how do you fill those innings? Let’s consider that maybe Wacha can’t escape his recurring stress injury. That’s three starting pitchers the Cardinals would need to produce in three seasons.

Obviously you can pencil Alex Reyes into one of those spots eventually, but I think it’s premature to expect him to be ready to contribute in the big league rotation in 2018. Wainwright wasn’t ready in 13 months. Marco Gonzales is just about 13 months out now and is getting ready to return to the mound. And he’s more of a crafty lefty than a 100 mph power pitcher like Reyes.

So the question of who fills Lynn’s shoes is very much open next season. And you could bet on depth, but with the questions coming up going forward, I think you commit to Lynn and Martinez to anchor this Cardinals’ rotation long-term.

I know many who would argue that they should go to free agency with Lynn and pursue Arrieta instead. But once you get to free agency, there’s no guarantee you can get a deal done and you might end up with neither of them. And given Mozeliak’s history in free agency, that’s a possibility.

If you can get a deal done with Lynn before the season is over, I think you do it. How does the old saying go? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?

Lynn has proven himself to be a very capable pitcher and I imagine that every team in baseball would like to have him in their rotation. So lock him up this summer and move on filling your team’s other needs. Like third base, even though Jedd Gyorko is playing out of his mind right now.

Column: Cuban phenom Robert declared a free agent

Cuban phenom Luis Robert has been cleared to pursue a Major League contract according to reports early this afternoon. According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, he will not be able to sign with a Major League club until May 20th, which is enough to give the Cardinals a window to get a deal done with Robert.

The Cardinals have kept a close eye on the 19-year-old prospect in the hopes that Major League Baseball would declare him a free agent before the end of the 2016-17 international signing period on June 15th. The reason? The Cardinals have blown through their international spending cap this year, spending over $9 million in bonuses, so they will be subject to a hard cap of $300,000 for individual player signings in the 2017-18 international signing period thanks to a new provision in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

Robert defected from Cuba back in November and established residency in Haiti in March. He is widely considered, along with Shohei Otani to be the top unsigned international prospects in the world. Robert is a five tool player. At least one AL executive has called him the best player on the planet. And while the hype may seem a little extreme, it’s not just all fluff.

Just look at his numbers. He was hitting .401/.527/.687 with 12 home runs in 52 games for Ciego de Avila before he defected in November. In 2015, as an 18 year old, he hit .305/.384/.413 with 5 home runs in 68 games. He was also teammates for three years on Ciego de Avila with Jose Adolis Garcia, who the Cardinals signed in February and was the Cuban National Series’ MVP that season.

During a fan Q&A before one of the exhibition games, Mozeliak spoke about Robert. “I will say, from a high level, he is one of the most exciting players to come along in many many years. You know, you hate to use that phrase ‘Once in a generation’ type player. I actually don’t know him well enough to make that comment, but I know that from a scouting stand point he’s ridiculously talented and I assure you that many many teams are hoping that get to engage in that and the Cardinals will be one of them” (h/t to Redbird Daily for that).

A few weeks ago Robert held a showcase event in Dominican Republic and the Cardinals had scouts and lieutenants there to watch. Their interest in the young player has been made clear.

So they’re interested, they intend to pursue, and when all things are considered, I think Robert is as close to a “must sign” player as the Cardinals will ever come across. Here’s why.

First, the Cardinals desperately need a dynamic young offensive player. There is a lack of top tier offensive talent in the Cardinals’ minor league system and the organization on the whole. I’ve spoken often about the hole in the organization left behind by Oscar Taveras‘ untimely death because Mozeliak had blazed him a path to the Majors.

Robert is that kind of dynamic talent who definitely has definitely flashed some power. He is on par with the best of Cuban talent that has come to the Majors, which so far as seemingly worked out.

Second, the Cardinals are in a unique situation as a franchise. This may be their last opportunity to add a dynamic young prospect this year. They lost their first two picks of this season’s draft to the Astros as a result of the hacking scandal. And as I’ve already discussed, they’ve blown through the international spending cap this year, which places them under a hard cap penalty in the 2017-18 international signing period starting in July.

Third, those rules which place the Cardinals in penalty also help them out for now. The Cubs and the Dodgers are out. The Red Sox and Yankees will be out until the next international signing period begins. The Astros, Athletics, Braves, Padres, Reds, and Nationals are all int he same position as the Cardinals, having to pay a dollar-per-dollar penalty on his contract.

The White Sox may be the only team that has expressed interest who are not in the penalty.

Fourth, the Cardinals are flush with cash. And on the verge of a new television deal beginning. If anything, that cash might be the only thing they’re willing to part with. Based on the suggestions I’ve seen, Robert could get a bonus worth around $30 million. That means he would cost the Cardinals around $60 million once you consider the penalty.

While Robert hasn’t talked much about what he’s looking for in a team, but he did speak in an interview with MLB.com that he was paying attention to his former teammate Garcia, who the Cardinals signed in February.

The Cardinals have also signed three other Cuban players in Jonathan Machado, Randy Arrozarena, and Johan Oviedo in this year’s international signing period. They also have Aledmys Diaz playing for them in the Majors.

Ultimately it makes sense for him to maximize his financial return, but having the comfort of players you know and your countrymen, I can imagine would make life a little more comfortable in a foreign country.

But Mozeliak has gotten what he wanted. They now have a chance to sign him and the clock is ticking. Hopefully they can make it happen.

 

Column: Everything is on the table

As the St. Louis Cardinals return home for their second homestand of the season, they find themselves in relatively uncharted territory, last place. And regardless of the results of this series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they will have spent more days in last place than not in this young season. For the Cardinals, there have been many things amiss as they return from their first trip to the Bronx since 2003. This one ended like that one did, a sweep. That team finished the year third in the division.

So the Cardinals return to St. Louis gasping for life. Over the past two weeks we’ve watched an exciting team with a good vibe around it turn into a struggling, lifeless mess simply by changing the calendar to April. Much more of this and the Cardinals will be in an unusual position, needing to ask themselves the hard questions about the viability of their plan for the franchise.

“Everything is on the table,” said John Mozeliak to reporters before tonight’s game. And I have some ideas that should be on the table.

The first being that the organization should cut ties with Jhonny Peralta.

Mike Matheny seems to want Peralta to be one of his lineup regulars, but Peralta has yet to provide him the payoff for that desire. I pointed out this winter that I felt like there was only room for one of Matt Holliday, Peralta, and Matt Adams. Mozeliak brought back two of them.

At the core, I understand the desire to want to get some return for your $10 million investment in Peralta and not wanting to have to explain that cut to your boss. At the same time, I felt like it was a good opportunity for the Cardinals to move forward and bet on guys like Adams, Jedd Gyorko, and Greg Garcia and give them an opportunity to see if they can carve themselves out a larger role for the years to come.

Because if Peralta hit well and played every day, he’s still just here for one year. And the worst thing that could happen is happening. We’re stuck with Peralta, he struggles and takes away playing time from better players (Gyorko and Garcia lead the Cardinals’ position players in WAR entering tonight’s game), and you still lose games. But if a guy like Adams could use that extra playing time to establish himself as a contributor, the team is better off going forward.

Related: So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…

Letting Peralta go would open up the lineup card for Matheny, which would help him. Matheny wants to play Peralta regularly and feels some level of obligation to ensure he gets an opportunity to “get right.” Without Peralta’s need for playing time, he can use Gyorko and Garcia there as well as correct the organization’s mistake of committing to Matt Carpenter at first base.

And that’s idea number two, it’s time to end that commitment, and it should have been ended the day they chose to tender Adams a contract for 2017. Why would you commit to playing Carpenter at first base, when he will expect 150+ starts, and then turn around and bring back a guy who plays only first base? It makes little sense.

We saw the desire to get Adams playing time by forcing him into left field. An experiment that it appears Mozeliak hopes is over now. Of course, he also says he prefers to not move Carpenter around. But it doesn’t make much sense to me if you can find a way to make your team better with Carpenter at another position.

Freeing up Carpenter between first and third gives Matheny added flexibility. And real flexibility, not simply the ability to play multiple positions because you suck equally at all of them. Carpenter won’t win a gold glove at third base, but he’ll make the plays you expect a third baseman to make and that’s all you can ask.

Letting Carpenter play some third base lets you use Adams at first base, where he is a plus defender. And you can also get added playing time for Garcia, who now has a .401 OBP in 274 plate appearances since the start of the 2016 season.

Simply put, there are a lot of better ways you can reallocate the playing time that would otherwise be given to Peralta.

The final change I would propose is in the lineup.

Lineup criticisms are the most common Matheny complaint, next to bullpen usage, but while I comment on the lineup card quite a bit, it’s more about the logic of how it’s built that I have problems with. For example, Randal Grichuk has been among the team leaders in home runs and RBI, but until tonight hasn’t really hit higher than 7th or 8th. But Jose Martinez jumps into the lineup and bats sixth. If you trust Martinez to bat higher than Grichuk, why isn’t he your regular guy?

But here’s how I would lay out my lineup.

First move is to take Carpenter out of the third spot in the lineup. I’ve long argued that Carpenter should be batting second because it’s the most important spot in the lineup and he is the best pure hitter on the team. It’s the same reason I made a similar argument for Holliday since the day we acquired him.

But I would have Dexter Fowler and Carpenter continue to bat 1-2 and tell both to treat their at bats like they’re leading off the game. Make the pitcher work and set the tone. And specifically tell Carpenter that I’d rather have the .300, 50 doubles hitter than the .270, 25 HR hitter.

I would also consider platooning their order. Carpenter has a career .293/.390/.475 slash line against RHP and Fowler has a career .300/.390/.440 slash line against LHP. Both have much lesser numbers against the other handedness.

With those two at the top of the lineup, you have a roughly 60% chance of having the number three hitter coming to the plate with runners on base. Here’s where I take my shot with the team’s biggest power threat, Grichuk. Grichuk hit 24 home runs last year even after spending a month in Memphis. It’s a better look than burying Grichuk in the back of the lineup behind guys who don’t get on base. You would magnify the effect of his bat.

In the fourth spot, after having taken my shot, I want a guy who will put the ball in play and that is Aledmys Diaz. He does what I like to call making “baseball happen,” because anything can happen when you put the ball into play.

Behind that we have Stephen Piscotty and Yadier Molina batting fifth and sixth. And behind them you can lay it out however you want in seventh, eighth, and ninth.

Though I’d suggest Kolten Wong batting eighth or ninth. And if you choose to bat him eighth, give him the green light to steal second base every time he’s on first base with the pitcher at the plate. If he can do that at a better than 70% success rate, you’ll score more runs overall.

Those moves might not completely solve the Cardinals’ problems this year, but they would go a long way towards helping the organization diagnose where they stand and what their needs are definitively. And if you both lose and fail to answer those questions, 2017 will really have been a failure, regardless of win-loss record.

Column: Wong’s comments further illustrate communication problems

Kolten Wong is an honest guy. Perhaps to a fault. He also carries his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps to a fault as well. You ask him a question, you’re likely to get a straight up answer, whether that is wanting to play every day or become the team’s leadoff hitter.

This is the same guy who, after getting picked off of first base in the 2013 World Series as a rookie who had spent less than a month and a half in the Majors, stood at his locker with tears in his eyes and answered every question.

This is the same guy who felt he needed to double down and moved to St. Louis this winter, leaving his warm and sunny Hawaiian winter base for the cold and snowy midwest. But it’s what he felt he needed to do.

The Cardinals had already shown their commitment, locking him up for $25.5 million over five years, four of which remain. Both John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny spoke highly of him as an exciting player who can provide gold glove defense. Much of the organization’s desire to improve on defense was tied up in the idea of Wong playing every day.

Then with a week remaining in spring training, Matheny tells the media that Wong is likely to start the season in a platoon share with Jedd Gyorko.

Being who he is, when asked about Matheny’s comments, Wong was emotionally honest about it. But as we typically learn in situations like this, despite how much fans may say they want players to be more honest and less cliche, being honest with the media is not the best policy. His reactions came across like an ultimatum to many: play me or trade me.

And that of course did not play well with a fanbase who would have much rathered Wong say something to the effect of, “I’m just happy to be here and help the team however I can.”

To his credit, Wong did not let it stew. He followed up to provide more context to his comments. He wants to stay in St. Louis and be the guy here, but he understandably wants to play everyday. And if that can’t be in St. Louis, he’d like to save everyone four years of hassle and do it somewhere else.

In pure baseball terms, he has not done enough to secure a full time job. But in the larger picture, I totally get it.

Over the years the organization has not shied away from the suggestion that Kolten Wong is their second baseman of the future. But he has yet to get the full support of his manager, despite Matheny’s insistence that there are “exciting things ahead” for Wong. That relationship has always prompted questions.

The question now is whether it can be salvaged or whether Wong and the organization should move on.

It all started in Wong’s first season, 2014. Wong was hitting .225 on April 26th when he was demoted to the minors because Matheny wanted to get more playing time for Mark Ellis, who was hitting .125 at the time. Ellis would finish the season hitting .180 and retire after generating little interest in free agency. Wong would hit .254 after returning on May 16th.

Wong’s second year, 2015, saw Wong left unimpeded at second base and he responded. He hit .280/.343/.434 with 9 home runs in the first half and was widely considered an All Star snub. He slumped after the break though, hitting just .202/.264/.264 while starting 32 consecutive games. Greg Garcia came up, Wong got a night off, and then he finished the season hitting .287/.331/.398 from the middle of August through the end of the season.

But the damage was done. What was a solid finish to the season and an improvement over his rookie year turned into a story about how he was now a question mark. All from a four week stretch in the middle of an otherwise All Star caliber season.

Over the winter the team acquired Gyorko, a three year starter at second base for the San Diego Padres. At the same time, the organization committed to Wong with his five year deal. It was an endorsement for Wong, but he once again had to look over his shoulder.

As many predicted, Wong struggled to open up the year. Once again he found himself demoted midseason. When he returned on June 18th, he would hit .251/.351/.401 to end the season. The return brought a fresh mindset, more than anything, but he still lacked the feeling of freedom to play aggressively.

Why do I think that? He only tried to steal four bases after he returned. For a guy who might be the fastest one on the roster, that’s a problem. It tells us something. Especially when Matheny gets up at Winter Warmup and tells us that he gives the green light “more often than not.”

To me, those Winter Warmup comments point to a problem stirring in the organization.

When Matheny told the media that he was likely to play Wong and Gyorko in a platoon, ultimately he was saying that he needs to play Gyorko at some point and it makes sense to see him when he has the platoon advantage. That seems a perfectly acceptable and defensible statement. But Wong’s reaction makes it obvious that he and Matheny had not talked about the manager’s ideas for playing time distribution early in the season.

After 3+ years of being Wong’s manager, Matheny should know better.

Whether or not you like the way that Wong’s wired or not, we have yet to see him play with Matheny’s full support. And he is the kind of player that needs to have that. He needs to have the confidence instilled in him that he is free to make some mistakes by being aggressive and that it won’t leave him riding the bench for the rest of the week.

That’s the kind of manager we have been led to believe that Matheny is, but there seems to be mounting evidence to the contrary.

We have seen the player Wong can be when he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. I like that player. That player is worth having. That player is worth playing every day at second base.

But the lack of communication between Matheny and Wong illustrates a problem I’ve been seeing. Instead of being an obvious comment about playing time distribution, it’s seen as a warning shot from a player who perceives his manager doesn’t believe in him.

Ask yourself why organizations make such a big deal about wanting to personally inform a player that they’ve been traded or released before hearing it from the media. Ostensibly it is so they hear it first hand and face-to-face rather than second hand where the message may not be as accurate.

But they don’t seem to have the same qualms about a manager talking about playing time distribution without having discussed it with his players. That seems just as important to me.

If this was the first time I saw communication breakdowns, I might be able to give it a pass. However, they gave Matt Carpenter a heads up that they intended to use him as their everyday first baseman in 2017. But according to Randal Grichuk, he had not been told of the team’s hope to sign a center fielder and move him to left field. Neither had Michael Wacha been told anything about how to prepare to potential roles the team had in mind for him, all while they talked to the media about his potential in a multi-inning relief role.

Good communication skills are a key to success in anything that involves more than one person. A misinterpreted message can lead to misunderstanding or worse. Misunderstandings and the resentment they can leave is not something you want in a clubhouse.

I know that many will fire back to my opinion on this with an argument that the player’s job is to whatever they’re told to do, whether that is play second base, left field, or sit on the bench. And that’s true. But if you want them to actually buy in to your plan rather than just follow it, as Matheny commented about at Winter Warmup, you have to communicate the plan. They need to know.

The sooner you tell them, the quicker they can get over any potential objections or hurdles and accept it and buy in. That way they can come to spring training ready to be bought in. Instead, it seems guys are being left to figure out the plan on the fly and that will create it’s own set of issues.

Column: Who takes Alex Reyes’ bullpen spot?

It might be the question that’s not been asked this spring by almost anyone. The focus has been on Michael Wacha whose hold on the fifth starter spot is now virtually unchallenged, but Alex Reyes was always most likely headed to the bullpen if he ended up in St. Louis this season. So instead of talking about Wacha, maybe we should be asking who is in line to take Reyes’ spot in the bullpen. Or at least an easier path to do so.

There are typically seven spots in the bullpen, two for lefties and five for righties. But with Brett Cecil and Kevin Siegrist expected to play heavy roles regardless of the handedness of the batters their facing, that rule of thumb is probably out the window when it comes to bullpen composition.

Cecil and Siegrist, along with Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, and Matthew Bowman are likely secure in their positions on the Cardinals’ roster entering 2017. That leaves one opening that, until pitchers reported a couple weeks ago and Reyes reported elbow troubles, likely had Alex Reyes’ named penciled into it.

There are likely four pitchers now who have their hats in the ring for the final spot in the bullpen.

Tyler Lyons. Tyler Lyons is the first player on my list. Lyons is returning from a knee injury and may not be ready on Opening Day, which complicates matters. But I’ve been a big believer in Lyons’ ability as a reliever, thinking he can be a reliever near to the level of an Andrew Miller. Over the past four years for the Cardinals, Lyons has worked 90 innings out of the bullpen with a 2.69 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.

However you want to cut his stats, a WHIP around or less than 1.00 is pretty dominant in baseball today. Lyons’ 1.02 WHIP last season was 30th among 196 Major League relievers who threw 30+ innings last season. And second on the Cardinals only to Oh.

But he still needs to prove his health and is still not yet cleared to play in games.

Miguel Socolovich. Miguel Socolovich is the second player on my list, mainly due to the path of least resistance. Socolovich has no options remaining and will either need to make the club or pass through waivers. Socolovich has been nothing but effective when he’s been with the big league club over the past two seasons, posting a 1.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 48 innings of work for the Cardinals.

He has carried that dominance into this spring, throwing 6 innings so far this spring with a 0.33 WHIP, including a 1-2-3 inning where the ball never left the infield in the only spring training game I watched. He’s been getting work closing out games and has been dominant in that role. He allowed a hit to the third batter he faced this spring and has faced his next 15 batters without allowing anyone on base.

The fact that Socolovich has pitched as well as he has and hasn’t been able to elbow his way into more important innings doesn’t bode well for him. Especially as he was the Cardinals’ best reliever last September.

Sam Tuivailala. The third option is Sam Tuivailala. Tuivailala has been a reliever all of his minor league career and the last few seasons has been groomed to close. However, he’s also struggled to find his way in the Majors and last season was by and large a disaster at every level. He has a 5.47 ERA and 1.87 WHIP over 25 career MLB innings.

This spring started well, but turned disastrous over the weekend as he was pounded for four runs over 2/3rds of an inning of work on Sunday. A spotless ERA jumped to 6.35 and his WHIP this spring went to 1.59 over 5.2 innings this spring.

The former third round pick does still have an option, which makes it easy for the organization to send him back to Memphis for a third season. But this season is the last best opportunity for Tuivailala to settle in and put his name on the list of potential 2018 bullpen members. And that list is already stacked.

John Gant. John Gant may be another guy who can put his name in the mix as well. Gant was acquired from the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade and brought along his spot on the 40 man roster. Gant pitched 50 innings for the Braves last season, posting a 4.86 ERA on a 1.50 WHIP. He also threw 56 innings for the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate last year, posting a 4.18 ERA on a 1.43 WHIP. He was versatile for the Braves, starting 17 games and making 15 relief appearances.

He has had a good spring, posting a 1.13 ERA and 0.38 WHIP over 8 innings of work. His latest appearance came on Saturday against his former team where he started the game and threw three perfect innings with three strikeouts.

Gant would have a leg up if his three closest competitors for this role didn’t already have spots on the 40 man roster. I expect that he’ll begin the season with Memphis in their rotation, but if he pitches well, could be the first guy in line if and when one of the big league starters goes down.

Jordan Schafer. A fifth guy on this list was supposed to be Jordan Schafer. However, given this week’s news that he will be undergoing either Tommy John surgery or UCL reconstruction, the Jordan Schafer experiment seems to have come to an end, at least for this year.

Column: Who stands to gain from regulars playing in the World Baseball Classic?

The World Baseball Classic kicked off on Monday morning and Seung-hwan Oh‘s Team Korea took on Team Israel. The Cardinals have five players who are expected to be on their Opening Day 25 man roster who are taking part in the series. Yadier Molina (Puerto Rico), Matt Carpenter (USA), Carlos Martinez (Dominican Republic), Brett Cecil (USA), and the aforementioned Oh (Korea) will be taking part, though Carpenter’s recent injury will likely keep him out and bring him back to the Cardinals.

While much of the focus is on those guys being out of camp, it does provide an opportunity for the players left behind to put themselves on the map with extra playing time. So as part of our Preseason UCB Roundtable, I posed the question to see who the bloggers throught was in the best position to take advantage of that extra playing time, whether that is to seal the deal on a role with the big league club or move themselves up the organizational depth chart or put themselves in line for a mid-season promotion.

Carson Kelly. It was a pretty unanimous view that Carson Kelly will benefit the most from Molina being out of camp and playing with Team Puerto Rico. He likely won’t be earning a spot on the big league roster this season, but Molina’s absence, along with that of Alberto Rosario (playing for the Dominican Republic), gives Kelly and Eric Fryer an opportunity to play more often and, for both, become more familiar with the big league pitchers.

“I’d say Carson Kelley, not to try to earn a spot, but just to give confidence that if Molina goes down this season, he can step up and take over the everyday job,” said CardsConclave‘s Daniel Shoptaw. “It’s also a situation where he can strengthen the Cardinals’ position in their discussions with Molina over an extension.”

Kelly is the catalyst of one of the Cardinals’ most difficult decisions in a long time: whether to extend Yadier Molina. A good spring followed up with another good year in Memphis would go along way towards fueling speculation around what the Cardinals intend to do as the year goes forward.

Matt Adams & Jose Martinez. The next most common answer was Matt Adams and Jose Martinez. With Carpenter’s injury, he has withdrawn from the WBC, but he is expected to not play this coming week and will likely take it slow getting back into game action. That still creates an opportunity.

Martinez has played a team high 34 innings at first base this spring, but is most likely battling for the fourth outfield spot with Tommy Pham. Martinez, the 2015 PCL Batting Champ while playing in the Royals’ farm system, is swinging the bat really well. He hit .438 in 12 games after being called up last September and picked up where he left off this spring, going 7-for-18 with 3 home runs over 8 games. There’s a lot of baseball yet to play this March, but he has certainly put the team on notice that he intends to go to St. Louis to open up the season.

Adams on the other hand is in an opposite situation. While still likely a lock for the big league roster thanks to his contract (though worth noting the Cardinals could cut him up to 15 days before the season starts and only pay him the minimum as the Mets did last year with Ruben Tejada), he is coming to camp with a much leaner body and a retooled swing. He started slow, and is just 2-for-17 with a home run this spring. But he will stand to get more playing time as well. And for Adams and his ability to establish a role on this club, getting game at bats with his new swing is important.

The bullpen. Behind Kelly there wasn’t much consensus, but there was a common theme when it came to the pitchers. With Cecil and Oh not in camp there are a number of guys who will likely get those looks, from Sam Tuivailala and Miguel Socolovich to Ryan Sherriff and Jordan Schafer.

I’ll be writing about it later, but that battle for the final bullpen spot is going to be interesting to watch as we start getting to the end of camp. Guys like Tuivailala, Socolovich, and Shafer stand to figure into that battle in some fashion.

“I think Sam Tuivailala and Miguel Socolovich should get more looks without Cecil and Oh, which will allow them to make a case for the last bullpen spot,” said Zach Gifford of Redbird Rants and Redbird Daily.

Martinez being out also gives Trevor Rosenthal the opportunity to keep starting and stretch into that multi-inning reliever they seem to want him to be.

“I don’t think he’ll crack the rotation, but it will definitely give him a chance to pitch multiple innings. It’s a role he’s well suited for, and it would be nice for the Cardinals to have someone besides Broxton to pitch the middle innings of close games,” said Redbird Daily‘s Colin Yarborough.

But beyond that, Adam Butler, also of Redbird Daily, thinks that proving himself this spring could help Rosenthal force his way into the discussion if and when a starter goes down. He says, “I don’t see him earning a rotation spot over Wacha. But if he can show that he can control his secondary pitches and they can be effective then he probably puts himself in a spot where he could step in if one of their current five starters gets injured.”

What do you think?

Column: Reaction to Fowler’s comments overblown

Yesterday ESPN’s Mark Saxon, who covers the Cardinals, reported that their new outfielder Dexter Fowler was “not thrilled” with the recent executive order that President Trump issued regarding immigration from seven primarily Muslim countires. This is what Saxon reported:

Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler is among the people not thrilled with President Donald Trump’s attempts to institute a travel ban. Fowler’s wife, the former Darya Aliya Baghbani, was born in Iran. Her sister, Fowler said, recently delayed her return from a business trip to Qatar because she did not want to be detained. Also, the Fowlers have discussed traveling with their young daughter to visit his wife’s relatives in Iran, but they feel this is not the right time. “It’s huge. Especially any time you’re not able to see family, it’s unfortunately,” said Fowler. President Trump said last week he plans to issue a new executive order after his first banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries was blocked by the courts.

Of course, the reaction was swift. Any athlete or anyone with any sort of celebrity speaking up on politics creates a negative reaction in general. “Stay out of politics,” and “Stick to baseball,” or something to that effect was a common response on Twitter. Some responses dipping into racist epithets. But what I think is important to note here is that nothing Fowler said was a political stance.

He didn’t criticize President Trump. He didn’t rail against it as bad policy. He didn’t advocate for immigration or Muslims or refugees. He didn’t do any of that. He didn’t even advocate for it to change. He simply shared how President Trump’s executive order impacted him and his family directly and decisions they’ve made a result of it. The day we aren’t willing to listen to the real life experiences of people who are impacted by policy is the day that America is lost.

In my opinion, the majority of the reaction is a projection from poorly written headlines. After all, up to 60% of people admit to only reading headlines, so even seemingly innocuous headlines like “Cardinals outfielder Fowler disappointed with Trump travel ban” like the one at STLtoday.com drives conclusions based on the reader’s own bias. For one, they’re likely expecting a much deeper discussion than one direct quote. I certainly was when I went to see what the fuss was about.

But for all the innocuous headlines, trust that there are many more out there that are driven to incite clicks and sway opinion to make Fowler’s comments out to be much more than they are.

I find the hypocritical nature of responses to Fowler’s statement intriguing.

We want our athletes to “stay in their lane” and only talk about their given profession. We don’t want them to express their opinions on anything else, mainly because sports is an escape from reality in many ways for many people. But we don’t place those same restrictions on ourselves.

The people telling Fowler to stay out of politics aren’t politicians. And they aren’t professional athletes either, but I’m sure they still voice opinions on professional sports.

Just like any of us, Fowler has thoughts and opinions, especially about things that have impacted his world directly, as that executive order has. Given Fowler’s follow up comments today, it’s safe to assume that he was asked about the immigration ban specifically because his wife is from Iran, one of the seven countries on the list. But even if he took the conversation there, I have no problem with him speaking up and speaking out.

First, when most of us are discussing a policy like this, we’re talking about it in a conceptual sense. Most of us does not have a direct link to anyone who has or will be affected by such a ban. But Fowler does.

When he says the ban is unfortunate, he is literally talking about his little girl not being able to go see their extended family—great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—because of the issues surrounding this executive order. Whether or not you agree with the immigration ban, if you don’t agree with Dexter that the situation is ‘unfortunate” then the nicest thing I can say to you is, you need to take a deep look at yourself because you’re the problem.

Second, if an athlete can articulately discuss politics on an authentic level, he or she is free to speak out in my book. I don’t care what your day job is. We live in a world of too many inarticulate comments on politics already, we don’t have to scroll very far on Facebook or Twitter to find them. Thoughtful discussion on politics left the building years ago. Just look at the reaction his comments got for evidence.

But for Dexter, this wasn’t politics. This was his life.

Keep talking Dexter.

Column: Taking a look at the fifth starter competition

I’m reading a lot this morning about “who will take Alex Reyes’ spot as the Cardinals’ fifth starter” this season. A lot of that is predicated on the question of whether Reyes actually had a shot at being the fifth starter. Sure, you have GM John Mozeliak saying Reyes was in the fifth starter competition. He said the same in 2014 about Carlos Martinez as well, but despite Martinez posting a 2.81 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, the spot went to Joe Kelly who posted a 6.28 ERA on a 1.60 WHIP.

Spring training and opening day roster decisions are mostly driven by one thing: the path of least resistance.

That’s why the job is Michael Wacha’s to lose. It always has been. In fact, I’m pretty comfortable saying that, unless Wacha or another starting pitcher ahead of him on the depth chart is injured over the next month and a half, Wacha will head to St. Louis to open the season as the Cardinals’ fifth starter. And that’s okay.

Wacha, 25, is just a year removed from a season where he posted a 3.38 ERA, won 17 games, and was an All Star. His results dropped heavily last season while he struggled with a recurrence of his stress injury, but he didn’t fall that far off the mark he set in 2015.

In 2015, Wacha allowed 8.0 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 7.6 K/9. In 2016, the only number that substantively changed was H/9, it jumped to 10.4 H/9.

Last season I wrote a column about how one or two plays not being made in the field during a game was the difference for Mike Leake between putting together a career year and one of the worst of his career. So there seems to be a hint that Wacha’s struggles on the mound can be partially attributed to a struggling defense as well.

His fielding independent pitching metrics seem to back that up. His FIP went from 3.87 in 2015 to 3.91 in 2016. His xFIP went from 3.88 to 4.05. His SIERA went from 4.02 to 4.31. So while his performance did fall off from 2015, it was not nearly as marked as his results would suggest.

He induced more ground balls last year than ever before, but that was offset by an increase in line drives. Opponents pulled his pitches more than ever, by quite a large margin. And he had a harder time getting soft contact, most of which only moved to medium contact, but that can still explain at least some of the H/9 increase Wacha saw.

For Wacha, the only real question is whether he can stay healthy and be a threat to throw 200 innings.
Outside of Wacha, if you want to entertain the concept that this is actually a competition, the most “legitimate” candidate is Trevor Rosenthal.

I still consider Rosenthal to be an exceptionally long shot to end up in the rotation. He was once a starter, posting a 2.78 ERA over 17 starts in Double-A Springfield in 2012. But the Cardinals ended up moving him to the bullpen, where he eventually became the team’s closer. However, after losing his closing job to Seung-hwan Oh last season, Rosenthal has been preparing for another shot at starting and the club appears to be humoring him.

The list of guys who established themselves in the bullpen and then transitioned to successful starter is exceptionally short. Braden Looper did it in 2007, posting a 4.94 ERA over 30 starts. Looper would stick, but only played two more seasons before retiring at 35. Kyle McClellan tried it in 2011, posting a 4.15 ERA over 18 games as a starter before being replaced by Edwin Jackson. McClellan returned to the bullpen the next year and then was injured. Neither were likely what you would call successful.

For Rosenthal there are a number of questions, not the least of which is what kind of innings limitations he would need to be on and what that would mean for the rest of the roster. Are his secondary pitches polished enough to handle starting? Is he going to be able to throw strikes? Is it worth the injury risk to transition him?

After Rosenthal, you have prospects. Guys like Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, and Marco Gonzales. And while we call them depth, their usefulness is pretty limited right now while they either need more refinement or, in Gonzales case, time to return from injury.

Weaver, 23, dominated Double-A Springfield before receiving a late season promotion to the big leagues. He struggled upon arrival though, posting a 5.70 ERA over 36 innings of work, including 8 starts. He still needs more experience before he’s ready to contribute regularly in the big leagues.

Gomber, 23, has been a dominant force in the minors over the last few years, holding a 2.62 ERA over 54 starts, topping out in Springfield at the end of last season. So Gomber still has a ways to go, with the jump from Single-A to Double-A being considered the hardest in the minors, but Mozeliak speaks highly of him and called him the top guy on the depth chart as far as left handed pitchers in the Cardinals’ minor league system. That said, Gomber doesn’t get much love from prospect raters. MLB.com has him #18 in the Cardinals’ system, just the ninth highest pitcher.

Gonzales, 25 (and Happy Birthday), like Wacha, made a quick rise through the Cardinals’ system and made his debut less than a year after he was drafted. His results were steady, but not great, and seemed to be ticketed for a bullpen spot last spring according to Mozeliak. However, an injury and eventual Tommy John surgery would derail his season. He is just 10 months out from his surgery, so he still has some time before he’s truly ready to see game action.

But none of that matters. Because Michael Wacha is and was already the Cardinals’ fifth starter.