Why does the Cardinals’ offense suck so bad?

By all accounts, the St. Louis Cardinals have talented hitters. A quick glance down their everyday lineup, even when you consider new shortstop Ruben Tejada in at short for Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals have a lineup that seems to be capable of providing above average production at every position. Yet two weeks until the season starts and the Cardinals sit 28th of 30 teams in run production.

It isn’t a question of lack of talent. So it really does beg the question: Why does the Cardinals’ offense suck so bad?

The first answer to the question applies specifically to this spring, but it isn’t a particularly satisfying answer. It’s the ballpark. Roger Dean Stadium is typically played with the winds blowing in, so powering a home run out of the park should probably count as two on the stat sheet. Its just hard to hit the ball out.

We can confirm that by looking at the other team that calls Roger Dean Stadium home. The Miami Marlins have sucked on offense too. They rank 30th of 30 teams. So for Cardinals fans, it could really be worse.

We are given the ballpark argument back at Busch Stadium too. The addition of Ballpark Village has reportedly changed some of the wind patters that make it even more difficult than it already was to muscle a ball out. But the Cardinals are still just average on the road.

So while I understand that the Cardinals shouldn’t be ripping the ball out of the park all day long, the Cardinals’ offense isn’t focused on that ability. They’re about the other forms of power. Getting extra base hits and taking advantage of scoring opportunities. But if the team was capable of scoring runs without the home run, there isn’t really much stopping them from doing it now.

The second answer has been hammered by many fans over the last couple years. Complaints about the offense really began in earnest in 2014. During the 2013 season, they put up historic production with runners in scoring position and that led to the team scoring the third most runs in baseball. But they overachieved. In 2014, they plummeted to 23rd in the league and last year they fell one more notch to 24th.

Injuries and fatigue played a factor in the offense last year, so it makes it difficult to really know just would have happened had everyone stayed healthy. So while I do believe they would have been better than 24th, I still don’t have much confidence going into 2016.

So the answer here is John Mabry. The hitting coach has been under fire for quite some time for the offense.

While I’ve been a fairly big defender of Mabry, mostly just in relation to others, things did immediately start to go south on the offensive side of the ball when he was named hitting coach. During Mark McGwire’s first year, he received some criticism for an underperforming offense and Tony La Russa defended him by saying that it can take a season for players to truly adapt to a hitting coach’s philosophy. Even still, none of the three years under McGwire have been as bad as the last two years have been under Mabry.

My main defense of Mabry is that there is no quantifiable way to determine just how much credit or blame he deserves for the offense. Some players don’t use the team’s coaches. Some turn themselves over completely. So it makes it hard for most to point the finger at him with any credibility.

The best way I know to measure the potential impact of a hitting coach is with the suggestion that the team’s rank in runs scored should fall somewhere between their rank in on base percentage and slugging percentage. By that measure, the Cardinals were 13th in OBP last year, 23rd in slugging and 24th in runs scored. No wonder fans feel frustrated by the team’s offense. They have to claw for every run they get.

I’m not on (or joining) the “Fire Mabry” bandwagon, but I do believe that if this team doesn’t figure out how to score runs this season that it’s time to replace him and see what happens. Because at the very least, he isn’t helping.

The third suggestion is a lack of focus in spring training. The Cardinals under Mike Matheny have always taken a laid back approach to spring training. More focus is placed on letting players get their reps and not so much about making sure you’re sharp for the season. They take the idea of slowing a player’s workload in March in the hope that you can push them harder in September.

Of course, that assumes they’ll be there to push in September.

The 2016 offense should be better than last year’s. While Jason Heyward did leave and Mozeliak’s only meaningful addition to the offense was Jedd Gyorko, the offense was addressed by inaction. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty played a combined 166 games and hit .287 with 24 home runs between them. Grichuk will also be putting his team runner-up 133 OPS+ into center field where the Cardinals received just 89 OPS+ worth of production last season.

The other trouble spot for the offense last year was first base. The Cardinals got just 78 OPS+ out of their first baseman, leaving the most room for improvement of any position. It will be a season of transition at first base too. There are three players expected to see major time at first base and all three could be free agents at the end of the season.

Matt Adams is the incumbent. Last year was probably a make or break season, but the quad injury he sustained that took away most of his season bought him another year.

Adams declared to the Post-Dispatch that he has his power back after showing some video tape of the changes he’s made to his swing for this season. Adams is 27 years old and has two arbitration years remaining after the year, but the team could still cut ties with him without costing them anything.

Brandon Moss has hit at least 19 home runs in each of the past four seasons. He is in his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent at the end of the season. He was a deadline acquisition for Mozeliak last summer and hit .250 with 4 home runs over his two months with the Cardinals. His 104 OPS+ was still a big improvement over what they had gotten from first basemen so far last year.

Another season away from hip surgery will help Moss. He can hopefully get closer to the 119 OPS+ player he was in 2014 while he played in Oakland.

Finally we have Matt Holliday. After years of fan discussion about moving him to first base, it has finally happened. But there may not be a lot of depth in the outfield if the Cardinals have to resort to Holliday at first. But there is hope that Tommy Pham or Jeremy Hazelbaker can play well enough to push Holliday to first base. His newfound positional flexibility increases the potential that his 2017 option gets picked up. Otherwise, he will be a free agent at the end of the season.

There is hope that the Cardinals’ offense will improve this year, and I believe that they will. But even if Piscotty and Grichuk turn into the players we expect them to be, I still think the Cardinals need one more game changing offensive threat to be a true World Series contender.

The possibility is there that they already have it. I hope they do.

Adam LaRoche makes the decision most Dads wish they could

Adam LaRoche just made the decision that most Dads wish they could. You see, for the last few years, Adam LaRoche has brought his son Drake to the ballpark with him pretty much every day. The team’s he’s been on (the Washington Nationals from 2011 to 2014 and the Chicago White Sox last year) pretty much accepted the young man as their “26th man.”

After the Nationals won the NL East in 2012, the team celebrated with beer and champagne while Drake and 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper sat in the corner with some sparkling grape juice. That’s just one of a number of stories that have come out since the decision was made in the wake of this story about how Drake was accepted by his father’s teams.

So by all accounts, Drake was beloved by a majority of the guys on the team, was well behaved, and helped out around the clubhouse cleaning cleats, picking up baseballs, and doing laundry like the other teenagers in the clubhouse would. He had a locker next to his father complete with a uniform and everything. Several players who have been on teams with Adam have spoken positively about Darke’s presense, so it seems pretty obvious that this wasn’t a kid causing problems. He’d been around a Major League clubhouse for years and knew what was expected of him.

This spring however, White Sox President Kenny Williams had a couple conversations with LaRoche about bringing his son to the ballpark less often so that the team could focus on baseball. As Williams phrases it, “one of the things we said coming into this seasonis ‘let’s check all the columns’ with regards to our preparation, our focus to give us every chance to win.”

Williams must have pushed the issue in the second conversation with LaRoche because the decision to retire came very soon after. LaRoche decided to step away from the game, likely forfeiting his $13 million salary for 2016.

The White Sox players had a contentious meeting with Williams, which included a profanity-laced verbal tirade from the White Sox’s best player, Chris Sale, directed at Williams. There was even talk of boycotting yesterday’s game before the manager finally convinced them to take the field.

Since then, there has been a lot written wondering why LaRoche would let this decision cause him to retire. But I believe that if you are thinking like that, you’re looking at the situation backwards. When you flip it up, I think everything makes much more sense.

Last season, LaRoche endured the worst season of his career. He hit .207/.293/.340 with 12 home runs in 127 games for the White Sox. The 78 OPS+ was just the second time in his career that he’d posted below average results. The other, 2011 when he missed a chunk of the season with injury. He considered retiring, but ultimately made the decision to return for 2016. I believe his decision was based on the idea of getting to share the Major League experience with his son one last time.

Adam grew up around a Major League clubhouse himself. His father Dave pitched in the Majors for 14 seasons. Adam remembers hanging around the clubhouse with his brother Andy fondly. It was obviously a special experience for him and one that he enjoyed the opportunity to give his son.

Much has been said about the way that the LaRoche’s handle Drake’s schooling to allow him to spend this kind of time with his Dad, and while it might seem strange to regular people, it really isn’t that strange for the child of a professional athlete.

But after Adam has spent the last few seasons of his career with Drake by his side, I can imagine him not wanting to do it any other way.

So Adam made the decision that most parents wish they could make. He decided that spending a bunch of time with his son was more important to him than making $13 million. If only we were all so lucky.

Since LaRoche’s decision and the reasoning behind it became public yesterday, there has been quite a bit written defending the White Sox’s decision. Some say that the White Sox didn’t say that he couldn’t bring Drake sometimes (something disputed by LaRoche’s statement on the second conversation with Williams), just not all the time. But the way this entire discussion has been framed by White Sox upper management—even if they’re saying the opposite—is that they viewed Drake as a distraction.

Some say LaRoche is being selfish by walking away and robbing his son of the experience even part of the time. Some say Drake will now blame himself as the reason his father isn’t playing baseball anymore and he should have been more flexible. Some have even called LaRoche a quitter for retiring. After all, doesn’t LaRoche know that trying to win a World Series is more important than spending time with his son? #sarcasm

All of that might all have a little bit of truth, but when you look at it the way I suggest, things make much more sense and many of those defenses of the White Sox and attacks on LaRoche fail to stick.

Williams defended the decision to the media by asking how many workplaces allow you to bring your kid to work today. That defense rings hollow to me though for one simple fact. A Major League clubhouse isn’t your typical workplace. It isn’t an office job. It isn’t your kid tagging along while you wait tables. That’s an important decision to make. Plus, Adam did have a workplace where he was allowed to bring his son. It was an important part of the discussion before LaRoche signed his contract with the White Sox.

Out of one side of his mouth, Williams says that the decision wasn’t made because Drake was a distraction, but out of the other side he adds that he wanted to make sure they “checked all the boxes” when it came to focus and preparation. So if Drake wasn’t a distraction, why was limiting his access part of checking the boxes of focus and preparation?

LaRoche understood the implication of Williams’ decision.

There is also the argument that Williams was just being the bad guy for a teammate that was uncomfortable going directly to LaRoche with the issue. But if that is the case, I feel like that speaks to a much larger clubhouse issue than a 14 year old coming to work with his Dad. If you can go talk to the team’s President, but not your teammate, that’s a big problem!

Maybe I’m biased though. Some of my favorite memories as a kid were tagging along with my Dad to work. Getting to play on his computer. Getting to draw on his whiteboards (they were the greatest thing ever!). In later years, I came in and did some grunt work and helped out.

I feel like a very important part of my development as a person was getting an opportunity to see my Dad in the workplace setting. There he was more than just my Dad. He was a boss, he was co-worker, he was an employee. Seeing my Dad in those situations shaped many of the principles by which I treat people now.

Those are experiences that I want to share with my son too. My son was at my office yesterday, coincidentally, just after the story broke. He was walking around the office, giving everyone high fives, and playing with a co-worker’s stuffed panda. He and I sat at my desk for a bit and he was asking what everything was.

So I get it. In many ways I get LaRoche’s thought process and decision here. If Drake had been a problem or a distraction, I can understand the organization wanting to restrict his access. But I think the response from the team would have been very different. By all accounts so far, he wasn’t. And furthermore, when LaRoche signed his deal with the White Sox, they assured him he could have his kid around.

Some have called Drake the loser in this situation. I call him the winner. His Dad just told the world that he was more important than $13 million or a World Series ring. And what kid wouldn’t want that.

I hope some day that I can find myself in a situation where I can turn down $13 million to go spend time with my kid.

Shortstop situation shouldn’t worry Cards

After the 2015 season saw five of the St. Louis Cardinals’ nine Opening Day starters spend significant time on the disabled list, the team got bad news again. Jhonny Peralta, injured over the weekend, is expected to miss two to three months with a torn tendon in his left thumb. And so begins the team’s 2016 disabled list adventures.

Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak discussed that the Cardinals want to evaluate their internal options before making a decision whether to pursue players outside of the organization. Of course, the media still loves a good trade rumor story, so they have already begun discussing all of the potential options available or potentially available. I doubt that will happen though.

Losing Peralta hurts. Lets not lie. Peralta was one of the players that carried the offense in the first half of 2015 while Matt Holliday was on the disabled list and Matt Carpenter was slumping.

In Peralta’s stead, Jedd Gyorko will likely get the first crack at this year’s starting shortstop job. Gyorko, 27, hit .262 with 14 home runs in 82 games last season for the Padres after he spent a three week stint in the minors in June. While he’s only played 220 professional innings at shortstop, having played mostly second and third bases, he did play shortstop in college. Mike Matheny even spoke today about how much they like Gyorko’s glove and arm, which leads one ot believe that range will be the issue.

There is also Greg Garcia, who was already expected to be Peralta’s primary backup during the season. The 26-year-old Garcia has never been a top prospect or viewed as capable of sticking at shortstop at the Major League level. However, through the minors, he has been one of those players who has flown under the radar and yet still produced at every level. Can I use the term “sneaky good?”

He hit .240 with 2 home runs for the big league club and did that with a 97 OPS+. That’s good for just shy of league average offensively. Defensively, he may not be the right guy, but he should be good enough to spell your starter.

The most interesting situation of all might be that of Aledmys Diaz. Diaz was signed out of Cuba before the 2014 season when he hadn’t played pro baseball for almost two years. His first season in the U.S. was marred by injury as he struggled to stay on the field. But his 2015 season ended up showing the reason the Cardinals were interested. And he could have been had by any team in baseball too.

In July, the Cardinals needed a 40 man roster spot, so they designated Diaz for assignment. The move took him off the 40 man roster, but it also placed him on waivers. The Cardinals took a chance that with $5 million remaining on his deal, that nobody would assume the risk. They were right. He passed through waivers and stayed with the Cardinals.

Since July 1, 2015, Diaz hit .322/.387/.570 with 12 home runs over 69 games between Double-A Springfield, Triple-A Memphis, and the Arizona Fall League. Add to that some glowing reviews of his defensive abilities, and I think you have the guy that the Cardinals would like to have playing shortstop in Peralta’s stead.

Diaz is the most immediate to benefit from Peralta’s absense in spring training. While he was positioned to be an early cut from Major League camp with Peralta there, all of those at bats open up with Peralta gone. Given his salary and option situation, Diaz may get a legitimate opportunity to take this job.

It’s the option sitation that changed my mind too. When the injury first happened, I didn’t expect that Diaz would see substantial playing time. Maybe he’d get an opportunity to make the team out of camp, but he wouldn’t see regular starting time unless he truly forced the organization’s hand with his performance.

Having been on the club’s 40 man roster since he signed his contract, the Cardinals have already exercised two option years to keep him in the minors. If they were to send him down to the minors this year, it would be his third and then he would have to make the big league club next year.

So as I see it stacking up, I don’t think there will be a better opportunity for the Cardinals to see what Aledmys Diaz has then right now. So why not see what he has?

I also believe that the Cardinals are very capable of navigating a few months without Jhonny Peralta without negatively impacting the team’s playoff chances. But I wish they didn’t have to.

Cardinals commit with Wong’s extension

When the St. Louis Cardinals announced earlier this week that they had agreed to terms on a $25.5 million, 5 year deal with second baseman Kolten Wong, it was more than just locking up a young player who had plenty of potential. The Cardinals committed at a position that they really haven’t shown much commitment at over the past thirty or so years.

To find a second baseman who had been the Cardinals’ regular second baseman for more than three years in a row, you need to go back to the 1980s. Tom Herr did the job from 1981 until he was traded in 1988. In the 28 seasons since, only three Cardinals even have three seasons in a row as the regular second baseman: Jose Oquendo (1989 to 1991), Fernando Vina (2000 to 2002), and Skip Schumaker (2009 to 2011).

If Kolten Wong plays through this new contract, Wong will have eight seasons under his belt as the Cardinals’ regular second baseman. That alone puts him into some rare air in St. Louis history.

Herr had seven seasons. Rogers Hornsby had seven seasons too. Red Schoendienst, who celebrated his 93rd birthday just over a month ago, had ten seasons as the team’s regular second baseman.

As far as I found in my research, the guy with the most is Julian Javier, who played for the Cardinals from 1960 to 1971. He was the team’s regular second baseman for 11 of those 12 seasons.

At the end of this contract, Wong will be 31 years old with plenty of baseball ahead of him, so the chance that he could go beyond the eight seasons is definitely real.

The contract represents a big commitment from the organization towards Wong, but there is still some question as to whether Wong will eventually blossom into the kind of player worth a long-term commitment. After all, the last player who earned a deal entering his final year of team controlled salary was Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, then 28, was coming off a season where he led baseball in runs, hits, and doubles and finished fourth in National League MVP voting.

Defenders of the deal, like myself, will undoubtedly point out Wong’s numbers. He was better overall in 2015 than he was in 2014. He also provided at least 2 WAR in each as well. With those kind of numbers, he is easily providing enough value on the field to be worth the money, even if he has already reached his ceiling.

But you can love the deal and still admit that Wong still has much to prove. Because he can show you the flashes of his immense talent and make a careless play. Often times in the same game.

Everyone talks about Wong’s 2015 season when suggesting that he still has a lot to prove.

In the first half of the season, Wong appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season. At the break he was hitting .280 with 9 home runs and had finished second in All Star balloting at second base. Many made the case that he’d been snubbed by not being selected as a reserve or placed in the final vote. I tend to agree with them.

The second half was a very different story for Wong. The breakout year ran off the tracks as he hit just .234 after the break. He failed to hit a home run over the final two months of the season. But for all of that, his second half wasn’t nearly as bad as the story gets told.

After the All Star Break through August 22nd, Kolten Wong played 33 consecutive games at second base for the Cardinals and hit .198. Why do I stop the sample on August 22nd? The Cardinals called up Greg Garcia on August 23rd and Wong finally got a day off. Actually, he got two off, and returned to the lineup on August 25th. He hit .287 the rest of the way.

The theory that his July and August struggles were due to fatigue and overuse have some support with the numbers, so that’s the theory that the Cardinals entered the offseason working with. Pete Kozma was the team’s primary backup in the middle infield for the team last year and with an already struggling offense, it made it difficult to bench a guy with Wong’s potential for the struggling Kozma.

That’s why the Cardinals acquired Jedd Gyorko by trade with San Diego. The move should help keep Wong fresh at second base, boost the infield depth, and provide a right handed power bat for the bench. That’s a plus for the team on several fronts.

For 2016, Wong has said that he’d like an opportunity to bat leadoff, but he still has a long way to go until he is ready to take that role. Matt Carpenter has made it known that he intends to keep the job, so Wong will have to play well enough to wrestle it away. And to do that, he’ll have to take another step forward.

There is no doubt though, that if Wong could, that the team would be better for it.

Adding Leake shores up rotation

John Mozeliak finally got someone to take his money. And while Mike Leake certainly isn’t David Price, he will do the trick. With the deal happening quickly today, the Cardinals introduced their first Major League free agent acquisition in an afternoon press conference at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals and Leake agreed to a 5 year, $80 million deal that has a mutual option for 2021 that would make the contract worth as much as $94 million, according to reports. That deal makes the largest deal that the franchise has given out to a player who had never played for the franchise before.

Leake’s new deal will also give him full no trade protection, so he will be in St. Louis through at least the 2020 season. He also now has the longest contract on the Cardinals. If there is a downside to this deal for St. Louis, it is the no trade clause. However, it can be seen as a calculated signal from an organization that intends to compete over the life of the deal. After all, contending teams don’t trade away MLB talent anyway, and the Cardinals haven’t had a losing season while the four digit year has started with a two.

Leake turned 28 last month and posted a 3.70 ERA and 11-10 record over 30 starts and 192 innings between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants. After spending the previous five and a half years in Cincinnati, Leake was dealt in July to the Giants. Leake posted a 3.87 ERA with a 62-47 record over his time with the Cardinals’ NL Central rivals.

There are a number of reasons that this deal is good for the Cardinals.

First, Jason Heyward is 1-for-14 against him. Checkmate, Mr. Heyward.

Second, he had a 3.87 career ERA in Cincinnati while playing half of his games in the very hitter friendly Great American Ballpark. His numbers bear that out too, showing a 4.28 ERA in GABP and 3.48 ERA on the road, including a 2.91 ERA on the road last season. With my unscientific projection model, I think you can easily knock half a run off that career ERA to set your expectation. I believe he’ll win 13-15 games with a 3.30 ERA this year.

Third, he is a workhorse. Over the past four seasons, Leake has started at least 30 games in each and has thrown the 17th most innings of any pitcher in baseball. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged just shy of 200 innings as well. When Lance Lynn’s 200 innings hit the disabled list in November, the Cardinals had to find a way to fill those effectively and Leake has shown he is more than capable of delivering them.

Fourth, I think about the kind of pitcher that Mike Leake is. He’s a guy who truly knows how to pitch and doesn’t rely on cruising a fastball by the batter to get outs. There’s a lot there that reminds me of Kyle Lohse who, when healthy, was excellent for St. Louis.

There are some differences though. Most notably that Leake does a better job of putting the ball on the ground. Plus, you can count on Busch Stadium turning some of those home runs into fly ball outs. They’ve both got some facial hair too.

Fifth, it’s a great price tag. Yeah, $16 million per year in average annual value does sound like a lot for someone who isn’t going to be an elite level pitcher, but considering Jeff Samardzija got $18 million per year from the Giants just a month or so ago, it’s a good deal. On the whole too, Leake has been better than Samardzija too. Generally, Samardzija may seem to have more upside, courtesy of his 2014 season, but he has been heavily inconsistent while Leake has been the model of consistency.

Sixth, Leake will be 28 for all of next season. He’ll be a free agent after the 2020 season and will turn 33 years old following that season. So the Cardinals are getting the widely perceived “peak years” from Leake in this deal. That’ll be great, especially with a pitcher who pitches rather than just throwing the ball as hard as possible (looking at you Lance Lynn).

Once you factor all those things together, I believe Leake will perform much better than people expect him to. I tweeted earlier this winter that Leake was probably going to be the best value addition on the market just because he was best positioned to outperform his contract.

The main objections I’ve seen today about the deal is that he isn’t an ace caliber pitcher like Price and that Tim Cooney could probably pitch just as well.

On the first point, I agree. Mike Leake is not and will probably never be a staff ace. But that’s not what the Cardinals need. In a rotation that features Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, another ace is a luxury item. What the Cardinals really needed was someone who could go out there, be relied on to take the ball every five days, and be penciled in for 200 innings. He can do all of this. And for half the price of David Price.

To the second point, I also agree. Tim Cooney is probably capable of pitching just as well as Leake is. While I was never high on Cooney as a prospect, after seeing him pitch in St. Louis last summer and get better every time he took the mound, I’ve become a big fan. Unfortunately, you have to look at the bigger puzzle.

If Jaime Garcia could be depended on to make 32 starts, I believe you can take the risk on Cooney being your fifth starter because you’re more willing to gamble on the next man up role. But that isn’t the case and the Cardinals have a history of getting lots of use out of the next man up by having a starting rotation injury in April or May every year. You want Cooney in that next man up role.

Because if Cooney is pitching every five days in St. Louis and Garcia goes to the disabled list, who steps up? Who is the next man up? Is it Marco Gonzales who spent a great deal of time on the disabled list last year? Is it Alex Reyes (maybe if he didn’t get caught smoking marijuana again)? I think if those guys are healthy, it’s a very different decision for John Mozeliak.

Being able to let Leake pitch without an innings limit will be a big positive for the Cardinals over a guy like Cooney or Tyler Lyons. The Cardinals needed to bring in a pitcher. David Price would have been nice, but Leake may be the best value on the market.

The only downside to this deal that I can see is that he’s going to wear the #8. A pitcher in a single-digit jersey? That’s just not right. It’s unnatural. If I were Mozeliak, I’d have voided the contract right then and there.

How the Cardinals turned a strength into a weakness in four easy steps

Step 1: Waive Peter Bourjos
Step 2: Trade Jon Jay
Step 3: Lose Jason Heyward in free agency
Step 4: Have Randal Grichuk undergo sports hernia surgery

Easy peasy, right?

When the 2015 season wrapped up a month and a half ago, the Cardinals had five players on the roster that you could be comfortable with playing center field everyday. Now a week before Christmas and the only one that could go out there and play center field today is Tommy Pham. Which is ironic, considering injuries have basically defined his minor league career.

For the Cardinals, that should probably mean that there is shopping to be done, but this really shouldn’t be a simple window shopping expedition. This is a 2 am trip to Walmart.

I’ve already mentioned Pham. In addition to him, the Cardinals have two other center fielders on their 40 man roster: Randal Grichuk and Charlie Tilson.

As we learned earlier this week, Grichuk had sports hernia surgery and should be ready for spring training. But let’s be honest here. We’ve heard that story before. “Oh, he had surgery, but he’ll be good to go for spring training,” means a delayed start to spring workouts which means still waiting to get approval to see game action three weeks into March. Then the player struggles into May because they’re a month behind everyone else in preparation for the season.

Insurance against that is what the club needs right now. And with Grichuk’s own injury history, perhaps it would be a wise move even if both he and Pham were healthy.

Pham is a dynamic talent and excelled last year when given opportunities. He amazed in spring training and was likely pushing Grichuk out of a roster spot until a quad injury dropped him on the DL for over two months.

He made it back for a great September run that ended with many calling for him to be the club’s regular center fielder in the playoff series against the Cubs. They didn’t get their wish, but he did hit a pinch hit home run in Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series.

Pham’s spring training injury wasn’t a one off. While his 2014 season was about the only season he’d been able to remain injury free, it gave him an opportunity to show off the type of talent he has. We got a glimpse, but staying healthy–perhaps a much overlooked sixth tool–has always been a question for him.

The “internal option,” is Charlie Tilson.

For those unfamiliar with Tilson, he is a 23-year-old former second round pick of the Cardinals from 2011. Viva el Birdos described him as a “veritable toolbox of talent” last spring during their top prospect series. He makes a lot of contact, has a lot of speed, plays good outfield defense, and is very capable of sticking in center field.

The question with him is that his bat probably isn’t ready for the big leagues. Last season he hit .295/.351/.388 with 4 home runs over 134 games in Double-A Springfield. Considering Hammons Field is generally hitter friendly, those power numbers are disappointing. But the things that I like to use to gauge a hitter’s development and abilities have improved season-to-season every year he’s spent in the minors, though he still has work to do.

And as we learned the past couple seasons, getting a prospect the right development time in the minors is really critical to them sticking in the Majors out of the gate. Both Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk struggled in their first trips to the Majors. Meanwhile Stephen Piscotty hit from the get go. The difference? Piscotty got that second year in Triple-A.

So the Cardinals’ center field situation includes the oft-injured Grichuk and Pham as well as a not quite yet ready Tilson. They need someone who can play center field should both options go down. And even you want another option just in case one goes down or you’ll be looking at a Kolten Wong-esque overuse situation.

The Cardinals have been linked to Carlos Gonzalez from Colorado. And though I’m not totally convinced that it isn’t just national sports writers looking to fill inches (like all those Troy Tulowitzki rumors were), it would still be a good fit.

There is a lot to like about Gonzalez. He did hit 40 home runs last season and 16 of them came in his 76 road games. But he also failed to post a .300 on base percentage. Like Matt Holliday before him, his home/road splits scare me, but I was wrong about Holliday. I’d like to be wrong about Gonzalez too.

He isn’t really a center fielder, but he could probably fill the job in a pinch.

More recently, the Cardinals have been linked to the Rays for starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. They’ve also got a few solid outfielders pushing their Major League roster, which might make a guy like Kevin Kiermaier availabile. He is, at best, a league average bat, but his defense in center field would make St. Louis fans’ hearts sing.

Mozeliak does like all in one trades that fill all his needs too.

On the free agent market, a great candidate would have been Justin Ruggiano. I’ve liked Ruggiano ever since I saw him playing in Triple-A for the Durham Bulls. He has since put together a couple good seasons off the bench in a reserve outfielder role. But he just signed with the Texas Rangers.

You have Yoenis Cespedes and Denard Span out there too, but neither really fit what the Cardinals need.

As you can see, the options are few, especially for guys who can play center field. Mozeliak isn’t the kind of GM who likes to cross his fingers and hope for the best. He’s a risk manager. He hedges on young players and gets insurance for the oft injured. Hopefully Mozeliak can find a way to eliminate some of the team’s risk in center field.

Heyward chooses the Cubs

The news broke early this afternoon. Jason Heyward will be the newest member of the Chicago Cubs. Reports are that he turned down a pair of offers expected to have been around $200 million over 10 years from both St. Louis and Washington to accept an 8 year, $184 million deal with the Cubs with a pair of opt out clauses. Those opt out clauses come at the end of the third and fourth years of the deal, so he could see free agency again as a 29 or 30 year old player.

While many have chosen to take the angle that he took “less money” to join the Cubs–while technically true–he really didn’t. While the offers from St. Louis and Washington would have paid Heyward roughly $20 million a year, the deal with the Cubs will play him an average yearly value of $23 million and that opt out can easily be worth quite a bit of money. Zack Greinke turned his opt out into an additional $10 million a year over the deal he signed just three years ago.

The move looks to be a huge win for Theo Epstein and the Cubs, who have now taken the Cardinals’ top two WAR players and added them to their own roster. Heyward was worth 6.5 WAR last year, while Lackey was worth 5.6 WAR. The third place Cardinal was Matt Carpenter who accumulated 3.9 WAR

Even though Heyward’s deal with the Cubs is two years shorter than the Cardinals’ offer, Heyward took the deal that paid him more per year and sets himself up for a run to make even more money three to four years from now. Even if he stays in Chicago for the length of the deal, at age 34, Heyward should be able to easily recoup the $16 million he turned down to accept the Cubs’ offer.

He’s also hit exceptionally well in Wrigley Field for his career.

For the Cardinals, they now have a couple concerns. The first being that they still need to add an offensive piece to their lineup (and a starting pitcher too). Reports say that they are centering their approach on former Kansas City Royal Alex Gordon.

I identified Gordon as a good Plan B option for the Cardinals earlier this winter. He is a very similar player to Heyward, but trades less speed for more power. He is also a whiz defensively, which is good because that should make the move to right field easier.

I also believe that Gordon is a better fit for the Cardinals because, at age 31, he requires less of a long term commitment. It’s been projected that he’ll get a contract just over $100 million for 5 years. It’s basically the back half of Heyward’s contract.

He may also be a better fit because he fits what the Cardinals do offensively better. As fast as Heyward may be, his speed wasn’t going to be utilized in St. Louis under Mike Matheny.

The second concern in all this is John Mozeliak’s ability to close in a crowded free agent market.

I can think of four big free agents that the Cardinals have seriously pursued over the last five years. Three of them were this winter and Mozeliak has struck out on all four.

Yes, we did end up on the positive side of missing out on Albert Pujols, but the notion still stands. When the Cardinals have found themselves in a competition to sign a player at the top of the free agent market, they lose. Which is a curious place for the best run organization in baseball to be.

In an offseason where the organization bragged about having money to spend and very clearly marking Jason Heyward as the #1 priority, they failed. Mozeliak failed.

The difference between the Cardinals’ reported offer and the Cubs’ reported offer is very tangible. The Cardinals were asking Heyward to give up the potential raise he could earn after an opt out clause and asking him to give them two extra years at $8 million a year. Based on average annual value alone, Heyward will make $24 million more in those 8 years with the Cubs versus the first 8 years with the Cardinals. I wouldn’t have accepted the Cardinals’ offer either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the Cardinals didn’t offer an opt out clause and I hope it’s indicative of a franchise rule going forward because I hate the very essence of opt outs. It only benefits the player. But to seemingly misread a player’s contract desires that severely? I found it concerning.

Doubly so because of all the players the Cardinals could have pursued while Heyward decided. For Mozeliak’s sake, he better get a couple good deals done soon or things are primed to get ugly pretty fast no matter how successful the young players continue to be.

Mozeliak chasing as Cardinals wait

It all started on Tuesday morning as news broke that David Price had agreed to a 7 year, $217 million deal with the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals had been the runners up. Not only that, but Price reportedly began a round of golf that morning with the expectation that he would be joining the Cardinals that afternoon, but Boston went $37 million over the top and Price agreed at lunch time to join the Red Sox.

Then today, Jeff Samardzija signed a 5 year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants and, once again, the Cardinals were reported to be the second best offer on the table.

Cardinals fans have been left frustrated as the best pitching names are coming off the board this week and they have yet to secure one. David Price. Zack Greinke. Jordan Zimmerman. Jeff Samardzija. John Lackey.

The movement has left many fans debating whether they can put their dislike of Johnny Cueto to rest for a few years. But Cueto recently was reported to have turned down a 6 year, $120 million offer from the Diamondbacks.

While it would be nice for the Cardinals to have gotten an ace caliber pitcher like David Price, that was always going to be a luxury. With the losses of John Lackey to free agency and Lance Lynn to injury, the club needs to fill quality innings more than anything else.

And in that regard, there are still some good options out there that don’t require you to do the soul searching related to signing Cueto.

Of all the pitchers on the board, Mike Leake is probably my favorite option. The fear is always that while Leake is the youngest pitcher on the board, he may end up overpaid because of that fact. But my gut says that he is perfectly positioned to outplay the contract he ends up with. Plus, he doesn’t have any drat pick compensation attached to him.

He just turned 28 years old and is a former first round pick. He debuted in the Majors without having never thrown a pitch in the minors. Over the past three seasons, he has a 3.59 ERA and a 105 ERA+ while averaging just shy of 200 innings a season. That’s not bad when half your starts are happening in the hitter friendly Great American Ball Park.

Then you have Doug Fister. While Fister’s 4.19 ERA over 15 starts and 10 relief appearances for Washington doesn’t inspire a lot of desire, he is known as a ground ball pitcher who might see added success in front of St. Louis’ infield.

There is also Scott Kazmir who posted a 3.10 ERA over 31 starts last season between Oakland and Houston.

The problem with both of those guys is that neither have proven they have the ability to consistently throw 200 innings like a guy like Leake has. Between the losses of Lackey and Lynn, the Cardinals are looking to fill 393 innings. Some of those will obviously be filled by Adam Wainwright‘s return, but a reliable arm is still needed with a question-filled rotation.

If you’re looking to take a flier, you’ve got Cliff Lee, who hasn’t pitched since 2014 with an elbow injury. Then there’s Mark Buehrle who has said for years that he wants to pitch in St. Louis. There’s also Kyle Lohse who is coming off a rough season in Milwaukee, but has had past success in St. Louis.

Mozeliak could also explore the trade market. The Tampa Bay Rays are believed to be shopping any starter not named Chris Archer while Atlanta is shopping Shelby Miller. But I doubt this is an avenue that Mozeliak will pursue.

Hopefully though, by the time next week’s winter meetings begin, the position player market will pick up and we can be talking about the return of Jason Heyward.

While pitching is the luxury, this team has a real need on the offensive side of the ball. If missing out on some pitching forces the team to spend more on offense, maybe it’s worth the frustration after all.

Could John Lackey accept his qualifying offer?

This afternoon at 5 pm Eastern is the deadline for teams to make the qualifying offer to their outgoing free agents. For 2016, the qualifying offer is a 1 year deal worth approximately $15.8 million. If a player gets a week to decide whether to accept or decline the offer. If he declines the offer and goes on to sign with another team, the team he left receives a compensatory draft pick from the signing team.

The Cardinals announced that they have made two today: Jason Heyward and John Lackey.

Heyward was the obvious choice. At 26 years old and coming off perhaps the best season of his career and expecting to net a giant free agent deal (with projections as high as $200 million), Heyward will most certainly be declining the qualifying offer. He has no reason to accept it. So there’s a potentially free draft pick.

For Lackey though, the response is less obvious unless his agent has already told you that they’ll be turning it down. Which is doubtful because it would damage your bargaining position in free agency.

John Lackey turned 37 in October and is at the tail end of his baseball career. He experienced a resurgence last season after being acquired from Boston at the deadline. Part of the reason the deal was made is that he had an option for 2015 at the league minimum, thanks to some creative bargaining by Theo Epstein in case Lackey had another arm injury. He did.

Over his 43 starts in St. Louis, Lackey posted a 3.10 ERA and a 16-13 record. His 2015 campaign saw him win 13 games with a 2.77 ERA in 33 starts and his ERA+ of 143 makes it the second best season of his career. His best season would be a 150 ERA+ season where he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting. The similarities to that season are uncanny.

But all the on field production in the world can’t create a way to ignore the fact that at 37, Lackey’s best baseball seasons are behind him. The odds of getting a repeat performance are slim.

Down the stretch this season Lackey talked about how he enjoys pitching in the postseason and was glad to be somewhere he was going to get that opportunity. I think that’s important to note. Remember when the Cardinals acquired him last summer and there was some question as to whether he’d honor that option year? I do, and I think it’s because he’d been considering retirement rather than making league minimum for a last place team.

Given what we’ve seen in the past, when a player gets tagged with a qualifying offer, it hurts their market value unless they are a star player.

For example, you wouldn’t think twice about giving up a pick for 26 year old Jason Heyward, who you’re going to lock up for 7, 8, or 9 years. But for a 37 year old John Lackey who has a couple good seasons left in him, the question is how desperate you are.

For a small market team that needs prospects flowing through their system to remain viable, they’re not going to spend it on a 37 year old pitcher. That eliminates a number of contenders.

The last Cardinals pitcher to turn down a qualifying offer was Kyle Lohse. At 34, Lohse was coming off a 16 win campaign with a 2.88 ERA, a 133 OPS+, and a 3.51 FIP. Lohse stewed in free agency until finally signing a 3 year, $33 million deal with Milwaukee.

His season wasn’t that far off of Lackey’s. At three years older, Lackey posted 13 wins, a 2.77 ERA, a 143 ERA+, and a 3.57 FIP.

Lohse had to wait and took a salary hit courtesy of the draft pick compensation he was tied to.

In a Twitter conversation with Dan Buffa yesterday I put my expectation for Lackey at 2 years, $26 million. He was much more optimistic at 3 years, $45 million. But I think all changes with the qualifying offer involved.

I remember a conversation I had with Matthew Leach, current MLB.com columnist and former Cardinals beat writer for MLB.com, where he told me that teams are willing to gamble dollars on a player. But when it comes to years and prospects, they are much less willing.

So teams are going to be reluctant to give up that draft pick for Lackey. If he wasn’t tied to compensation, I think most contending teams would give him a call. I think Pittsburgh would have been a great destination for him.

Lets add up the situation now. We have a 37 year old pitcher who wants to pitch in the postseason. That means he wants a contender. You’ve already made him a qualifying offer which has likely torpedoed his marketability.

When you consider all of this, I can easily see him becoming the first player in Major League history to accept a qualifying offer. Which brings me back to my initial point. Teams don’t usually make a qualifying offer (or in the old system, offer free agency salary arbitration) to players they think might actually take it.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Players have until November 13th at 5 pm Eastern, a week from today, to decide whether to accept or reject their qualifying offers.

Is it a good idea to use relievers on back-to-back days?

As fans we see it all the time. Another tight game and the manager makes the walk to the mound to bring in your bullpen’s best pitcher for his second or third consecutive day of work. Either by routine or by role, the manager makes this decision, in most case, purely out of habit without consulting whether the statistics say it’s a good move. But he’s a pitcher the manager has faith in to get the job done.

Every night during the season a situation like this happens. But when you dig into the numbers, it probably shouldn’t be done for the majority of pitchers in baseball.

On the largest sample size–the entirety of Major League Baseball–the concept of using a reliever who pitched the day before puts you at a small disadvantage. The combined ERA of a reliever rises from 3.69 to 3.70 and the WHIP goes from 1.28 to 1.30.

It’s a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. For most teams, that’s maybe a run or two over the course of a season.

But when you consider why a team would use relievers on back-to-back days–close games–those one or two runs may mean the difference between a win and a loss. Between a playoff spot or an October full of tee times.

So maybe my initial argument that the whole league should stop using relievers when they had pitched the day before isn’t totally accurate. But this is something that organizations and managers should be paying attention to on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis.

The Cardinals had the second most appearances of any team by a pitcher who had also pitched the day before last year. The differences in their stats are also larger than the league averages. For Cardinals relievers, the ERA jumped from 2.79 to 2.92 and the WHIP went from 1.23 to 1.39 when using a pitcher who had pitched the day before.

If you compare what that means for the 111 innings that Cardinals relievers pitched after having pitched the day before, and instead substitute the average Cardinal reliever, putting relievers out there on back-to-back days potentially cost the Cardinals 14 runs and an additional 18 base runners late in games.

How many extra wins would 14 runs in close games have given the Cardinals? Enough to clinch the division a few days earlier? Enough to give the guys coming off the DL more time to get their timing back and making them better in October? Perhaps.

For the sake of argument, lets dig into the Cardinals “Big 3.” That’s Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and Trevor Rosenthal. They’ve got some interesting differences of their own.

Seth Maness on 1+ day rest: 4.04 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
Seth Maness on 0 days rest: 4.71 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Trevor Rosenthal on 1+ day rest: 1.91 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
Trevor Rosenthal on 0 days rest: 2.49 ERA, 1.57 WHIP

Kevin Siegrist on 1+ day rest: 1.53 ERA, 1.07 WHIP
Kevin Siegrist on 0 days rest: 4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP

Before I jump in here, if you’ve paid much attention to my writing in the past, WHIP is one of my favorite metrics to analyze relief pitcher performance because of the way runs are charged to relievers. The basic goal of any reliever is to keep guys off base and get outs. WHIP measures that ability. Perhaps better than any other metric.

So when we look at Maness, he was probably a push in 2015, but when you go back and look at his 2014 season, one where he was much better overall, he clearly becomes a pitcher you didn’t want to put out on the mound on back-to-back days.

Meanwhile Rosenthal and Siegrist go from dominant relievers to below average ones overnight. Literally.

So with Rosenthal and Siegrist, you’re talking about pitchers that, when pitching on consecutive days, have a WHIP of 1.57 and 1.50 respectively. Only two Cardinals relievers put up worse numbers last season, Marcus Hatley (2.25) and Mitch Harris (1.59). And neither ever sniffed the mound in the 9th inning of a one run game.

Just comparing statistics, you’re going to find that almost anyone in the bullpen is a better option to take the mound on that second or third day than Rosenthal or Siegrist would be.

The difference would be make up and experience in pressure situations. If you made the decision to pay attention to these statistics, more of your relievers would get opportunities in those types of situations. Some will flourish. Some will faint. Add that information into your decision making.

The Cardinals also develop most of their own talent, so they have the opportunity to get these guys late inning pressure exposure in the minor leagues. That way, when they get to the Majors, they are not unfamiliar with the concept.

Finding a way to better manage these situations is probably the next big advancement in bullpen management. We’re just waiting for the next Tony La Russa to help pave the way.