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.

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

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

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

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

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

This left me scratching my head.

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

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

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

Aggression doesn’t seem to be the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Column: Cardinals will need better pitching to win in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Column: So you want a cleanup hitting first baseman…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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