If the Cardinals are to contend, it’s time to commit to the new core

Last spring as the Cardinals descended on Jupiter, Florida, for spring training there was quite a bit of talk about the organization’s efforts to put together the team’s next group of core players that would carry the team through the next 5-7 years. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina were the centerpieces of the current Cardinals’ core and at ages 34, 36, and 33 respectively, they’re also getting old.

“I think we will have an idea what that looks like,” said General Manager John Mozeliak to the Post-Dispatch in March when talking about the next generation of core players. “We don’t have to have the answer today.”

We didn’t have the answer that day, but after the 2015 season, we might.

Over the course of an injury plagued season, the Cardinals’ depth was tested like never before while players like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty showed that they deserved to be on the short list of potential members for that next group of core players. In many ways their performances also proved that it’s time to start making the shift and letting the younger players drive.

That starts by moving Matt Holliday out of the #3 spot.

When Matt Holliday first came to town in 2009 as a trade acquisition, he slid right in behind Albert Pujols in the lineup, batting fourth. He stayed there for most of the next two years, save for a few experiments in the second spot in the lineup. When Pujols left after 2011, Holliday assumed the third spot in the lineup. A place he’s held ever since.

Even this September and in the postseason after returning from a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss over half the season, Holliday returned to the lineup batting third and stayed there for the playoffs too, despite hitting just .158 after coming off the DL the second time.

That return forced him into the middle of a group of guys like Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Jason Heyward who had driven this team in his absence. The result was a disjointed offense that scored some runs in the postseason, but was never able to sustain a rally.

Matt Holliday will be 36 years old when he reports to spring training in February and could be entering his final year with the Cardinals. Even when he was healthy this year, he wasn’t showing the characteristics of a guy you want batting third. His .303 batting average and .394 on base percentage was more reminiscent of a guy you want hitting second. Or even leadoff.

He had just 3 home runs through the first 58 games of the season. That put him on pace for just 8 over the course of the season. For a guy reaching the end of his career who has hit over 20 home runs in every season with the Cardinals, is there another explanation than just decline?

No, John Mabry isn’t an answer to that question.

Just 8 home runs over a season. Even if you give him a few extras for the expected hot streak, it isn’t enough to justify having him hit third in the lineup next season.

While he is still a feared hitter, and deserves to be, he is not the same caliber of player he was when he first arrived in St. Louis. It’s time to recognize that.

Over the first four seasons of his $120 million, 7 year deal with the Cardinals, Holliday hit .301 with 99 homers and had a 145 OPS+. The past two seasons, he has hit just .274 with 24 home runs and a 125 OPS+. That’s a 14% decline in offensive performance relative to the rest of the league.

In comparision, guys like Matt Carpenter (134 OPS+), Randal Grichuk (133 OPS+), and Stephen Piscotty (129 OPS+) each had better numbers last season than Holliday averaged the past two years.

It’s time to begin the transition to guys who look to be headed to the center of the new core of Cardinals players. Through a tight division race and the postseason, they proved that they can handle the bright lights. They didn’t shy away from the pressure.

It’s time to take Holliday’s name out of the #3 spot on that lineup card, Mike.

So what’s the big deal about the #3 spot in the lineup? The biggest is that it’s guaranteed to come up to the plate in the first inning. Those three hitters are going to get the most plate appearances in any given game and that’s why you want to have the guys who will give you the most value at the plate in them.

Matt Carpenter, who will be 30 within the week, showed off his home run stroke this season, launching 28 home runs to go along with a league leading 44 doubles. That’s even with a heavy slump in May and June, and he still had incredible power numbers. He’s in the leadoff spot right now and probably will continue to be there. The odds of another year with those power numbers is slim, but getting solidly into the teens is definitely a possibility.

Stephen Piscotty, who will be 25 by the time the 2016 season rolls around, would be my target to hit second. When the Cardinals acquired Holliday, I always felt he was one of the model #2 hitters in the game. What does that have to do with Piscotty? Well, I see a lot of similarities between the way the two hit. I’m sure lots of prospect watchers are laughing, but I always felt that they were both guys who were better hitters than power guys. But they’re also good enough hitters that they get their fair share of extra base hits.

Piscotty goes second because he’s a more disciplined hitter than Grichuk is. Mathematic lineup modeling demostrates that the #2 spot in the lineup is the most important. It’s why moving Carpenter back was even considered this past season. But I think Piscotty has all the tools to effectively fill this role.

Grichuk would slot in behind him, batting third. At 24, Grichuk is one of the youngest players on the Cardinals. He hit 17 home runs in 103 games before an arm injury landed him on the DL. He can play all three outfield positions, so he’ll have a regular spot in the lineup next year. Plus he has likely put concerns about his ability to hit right handed pitching to rest.

Regardless of the struggles, the power has always played, both ways, and that’s what matters here.

After that, I think you can consider sliding Holliday into the fourth spot in the lineup. A good batting average can be important here and he still has some power potential. That also lets you put Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta back in the fifth and sixth spots in the lineup where they are more comfortable and perhaps even overqualified to hit.

The key for me though, is to ensure that the three best hitters on the club get to bat in the first inning. Those three were the Cardinals’ three best hitters in 2015. Each played a critical role in the Cardinals’ successes last year. They deserve their shot.

I believe that Mike Matheny’s ability–or inability, as it may be–to move the veterans from their established spots in the lineup to give better performing and younger players an opportunity to play those key roles will define the 2016 season.

It’s time to throw the kids the keys to the car.

The 2015 season comes to a close

The final out was recorded and the Chicago Cubs celebrated on the field, clinching their first postseason series victory in 12 years and their first series clinching victory ever at Wrigley Field. Congratulations to the Cubs and their fans. I just hope that they don’t get used to it.

The saving grace for Cardinals fans of the loss–or just me, at least–is that it was a good series.

Neither team rolled over. Both teams played hard. The games went back and forth. Games weren’t over until the final outs were recorded. It was everything you could want in the first postseason matchup between longtime rivals. It didn’t disappoint in any way. Except the outcome.

So with the season officially over for the St. Louis Cardinals, we turn our attention to the offseason and diagnosing what was the cause for the early season exit and the Cardinals’ seeming step backwards.

The popular course of action will be to blame manager Mike Matheny for the team’s failures late in the season and into the postseason. In my opinion, that’s the lazy option and it fails to account for the realities of the situation that Matheny was in with a tight division race and many of our key players returning from injury.

Could he have made better decisions? Sure. But while many of the decisions he made were questionable, they weren’t obviously the wrong decision. They just had bad outcomes.

In the Divisional Series, the Cubs got to enjoy a worn out Cardinals’ pitching staff that had to keep the foot on the gas until the very last weekend of the season to secure the division. We saw the strain in September of that battle as the league’s best pitching staff posted their first monthly ERA higher than 3.00 with a 4.18 ERA in September and October.

The keys of the pitching staff, like Michael Wacha (7.88 ERA), Trevor Rosenthal (6.48) and Seth Maness (6.75), led the charge of guys that struggled.

Things may have also turned out differently if Matheny had had the luxury of resting these guys more in the second half of the season. Instead, they had to battle to the end and September was spent balancing playing time for guys returning from the DL and the need to win baseball games.

Winning the division was the goal. Matheny succeeded in that. But it probably cost us the postseason.

The final injury may have been the fatal blow to the Cardinals as well. All combined, the Cardinals had nine members of it’s Opening Day roster spend time on the disabled list, including their #1 starter as well as their #3 and #4 hitters.

Carlos Martinez being shut down in September turned out to be a big deal. Once the team struggled through Game 2, the lack of another dependable starting pitcher reared it’s head. Martinez, along with Lackey and Garcia, were the only three starting pitchers who were strong through September.

The trouble left the Game 4 starter in question. And it’s potentially very telling that Lance Lynn wasn’t trusted to take that start.

In the end, the Cardinals had their opportunities to win this series and failed. Take back just a couple pitches and the results of Games 3 and 4 swing drastically. The Cubs took advantage and that’s what good teams do. The Cubs were better. The trouble in actually admitting that is the potential that they’ll be very good for a few more years at least.

The offseason brings the Cardinals more questions than answers. Will they bring back Jason Heyward? What happens with John Lackey and Jaime Garcia? What does the future hold for Lance Lynn? Who is the answer at first base? How does the bullpen sort out for 2016 with lots of potential turnover?

With all the questions, this could easily be John Mozeliak’s busiest offseason as the Cardinals’ GM.

During his tenure, he has never faced a rival team that was built for sustained success. Until now.

It should be interesting to see how he responds.

Why starting Tommy Pham isn’t as easy as it seems

Over the past couple weeks there has been a lot of angst about Mike Matheny’s lineup decisions. They’ve primarily focused on the decision to use Jon Jay in center field much more often than Tommy Pham.

After a minor league career littered with injuries, it’s more than a little ironic that he’s finally gotten a real Major League shot thanks to the littany of injuries to the big league club. He struggled in his first cup of coffee with the Cardinals. Opponents quickly figured out his weaknesses and exploted them. He is back and has made adjustments.

Since he returned to a big league lineup on August 17th, Pham is hitting .308/.392/.554. He capped that off last night with a 3-for-4 performance featured a pair of home runs to center field and a triple.

With those numbers, I totally understand the desire to have Tommy Pham playing almost every day, but let’s not be so quick to dismiss Jon Jay.

Jay bears the unique distinction of being the most overrated and the most underrated player on the Cardinals roster. Only a player of Jay’s ability could be both and it makes him an easy target. It also makes every discussion around him explode.

In his first two years in the big leagues, Jay played well enough to convince the team to make room for him by trading Ryan Ludwick and former top prospect Colby Rasmus. He seemed locked in as the team’s undisputed center fielder until he struggled in 2013 with a .276 batting average during a season where he completely revamped his swing mid-season.

With the doubt about his future, John Mozeliak went out and acquired Peter Bourjos from the Angels as insurance. Jay responded to the challenge last year, hitting a team leading .303 and returned to playing plus defense as well.

That performance was enough for Mozeliak and the Cardinals as they worked out a two year deal worth $11 million.

Then came the bump in the road. Jay underwent wrist surgery in the offseason. Recovery pushed back his start to spring training and that led to him struggling early in the season. Since then, he’s continued to struggle with tendinitis in that same wrist and it landed him back on the disabled list. After a 5-for-13 rehab stint in Memphis, Jay returned.

Much to some consternation, he immediately took over the center field job upon his return. Being the guy that the organization declared as their starting center fielder and who they’d invested in like they had, he was going to get a good shot to keep his job. If his wrist is in better shape now than it was earlier in the season, his previous stats don’t mean anything now.

Jay getting regular playing time is not Matheny “playing favorites” with “his guys.” That’s the starting center fielder coming off the disabled list. That’s the way it works with all 30 teams in baseball.

It’s the same reason that Matt Holliday and Matt Adams will become regular players again once they get clearance to play everyday from the training staff. They need to figure out their timing and Matheny needs to figure out if they can contribute. That can’t be figured out while the guy sits on the bench. So they have to play.

After Jay returned, there were many people fortune telling that Matheny was going to keep Jay in center field even after Randal Grichuk got healthy. Grichuk hasn’t gotten healthy yet, but Matheny actually played an injured Grichuk over a healthy Jay! Too bad for that narrative, right?

The argument is to let Tommy Pham play as much as possible while he’s hot. It seems like an easy decision, but it isn’t.

Matheny has spent the better part of the season managing a team of spare parts to the best record in baseball. Now those regular parts are returning and need playing time. Matheny needs to let these guys play.

I’ll totally agree that September of a tight division race isn’t the most ideal time, but it has to be done. Matheny doesn’t have the luxury of writing off a guy that might be able to help this team win, let alone a guy who has a track record of contributing.

Consider this. If Matheny chooses to ride Pham right now and he flames out at the end of the season, what happens? Say Grichuk has complications and his arm isn’t ready to man center field. The Cardinals head into October with two options: a slumping Pham or an ice cold Jay.

But fans won’t consider that this is what they wanted all along. Instead the narrative will be “Matheny ruined Bourjos by never playing him and now he’s done it to Jay too. He hasn’t learned. Worst manager ever!”

It’s a no-win scenario.

The way I see it, Matheny has done a pretty good job of walking the line between maximizing the odds of winning each game and making sure he has a roster of guys who can contend in October.

They aren’t easy decisions to make and they are only going to get harder. Guys like Pham and Stephen Piscotty will be forced out of the lineup when this happens. Don’t be surprised.

And when you think about it, in many ways Jay has to play right now if ever. With Grichuk close to returning, that’s one more player needing playing time.

Hopefully the Cardinals will win enough games along the way to October.

If we don’t, it isn’t Matheny’s failure.

Three things to remember as the Pirates come to town

It seems that every time the Cardinals lose on Twitter, there’s a segment of fans that seem to believe the season is over. It doesn’t matter that the Cardinals have the best record in baseball by a few games or even have a five game lead in their division. All is lost! Just go ahead and send the players home. Forfeit the rest of the season. The Cardinals lost a game on August 9th. There’s no chance.

Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it?

You see, us Cardinals fans are a spoiled bunch. Forget about the #BFIB insults that other team’s fan bases hurl at us, we do it to ourselves.

So lets all just collectively take a breath, enjoy the ride, and remember how hard it is to actually win baseball games. In that spirit, here are three things to remember as the Pirates come to town.

1. The Pirates aren’t closing in on the Cardinals.

At the All Star Break, the Pirates were 2.5 games behind the Cardinals. Entering play today, they are 5 games back. So the Cardinals have actually stretched out a lead over the last few weeks. After Saturday’s game, both teams were 7-3 in their previous 10 games too. And until the Pirates exploded for 13 runs yesterday, they’d only scored one more run than the Cardinals in August.

So for all the talk about how great the Pirates are and how they can’t seem to lose, the Cardinals’ offense might be crappy, but the two teams seem equally matched right now. So that doesn’t scare me when we have the advantage.

2. It’s a long, long, long season and you’re never going to win every game.

Major League Baseball was founded in 1903 and in 113 seasons, no team has ever won every game. Only one team, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, have even won 75% of their games. So it’s safe to say that every team, no matter how great they are, are going to lose some games.

The season is long. At 162 games, it’s the longest of any professional sport by almost double. It’s a grind and it’s more about how you do over the course of the season. I doubt we’ll be looking back and going, “Man, if we’d just won that game on August 9th, we’d have won it all.”

3. Pittsburgh has yet to win at Busch Stadium this year.

So far the Cardinals have gone 5-5 against the Pirates this season. The Cardinals are 2-5 in PNC Park and 3-0 in Busch Stadium. And 6 of our remaining 9 games against Pittsburgh are going to be played on home turf in St. Louis.

The Cardinals are going to make the postseason.

You can write that down and reference it later. Since the Wild Card was introduced, there has only been a single instance of a team winning 90 games and not making the playoffs. Now with the extra wild card, that wouldn’t have happened. So 90 wins is pretty much a guaranteed trip to the postseason. For it to not be, you’d need five 90 game winning teams between two divisions to send a 90 win team home. And that’s not going to happen.

Currently at 71-40, the Cardinals will win 90 games. They just need to win 19 of their next 51 (.372) to do so. In comparison, the Pirates will need to win 25 of 53 (.471) and the Cubs will need to win 28 of 52 (.538).

With the pitching the Cardinals have, getting to 90 wins will be easy. They’ll probably even shout at 100.

Now there is room for improvement, but lets keep this all in perspective. The Cardinals are the best pitching team in baseball and are even historically great in that regard. Their offense, while it provides us stress on a nightly basis, is still a league average offense. It could be a lot worse.

So until a team gets within a couple games, there really isn’t a reason to worry. The Cardinals have been the best team in baseball most of the year with a hobbled lineup and a rotation that’s missing it’s ace. I believe in this team and I believe that when it comes to winning games that they need to win, this team responds unlike any other. I’ve seen it for myself. Haven’t you?

Why I’m OK trading or blocking Matt Adams

Last night on Twitter, I discussed whether Milwaukee would accept a straight-up offer of Matt Adams for Adam Lind. Immediate reaction is that it seems like an overpay for the Cardinals for Lind, but I don’t think so. Though that may come because I never truly believed in Adams a Major League caliber player. His power plays, no doubt, but does the rest of his skillset? Here’s why I think the way I do.

1. Matt Adams has taken a step back every season he’s spent in the big leagues

I consider 2013 to be his first real big league season. That season he had a phenomenal September in relief of the injured Allen Craig that may have really set that bar too high. He slugged 17 home runs in just 319 plate appearances and put up a 129 OPS+. Since then, he’s taken steps backwards in every season.

Based on his 2013 numbers, projected at 600 plate appearances, he was on pace to have hit 32 home runs. In 2014, that number fell to 16. And then this year, a little further to 15.

In 2013 he had a .839 OPS. In 2014 that fell to .779. And then this year even further to .656.

Now basically two and a half seasons into his MLB career, he’s shown himself to be little more than a platoon caliber player with his .198 career batting average against left handed pitching making him a “must bench” a quarter of the year.

2. Matt Adams will be arbitration eligible this fall.

Because of his injury and the aforementioned steps backwards, he won’t get as much as he could have, but he will still be making more than league minimum. For a guy that you aren’t sure can be an everyday player, is he the right investment for you to be making?

3. Adam Lind is as good or better than Adams right now.

Lind and Adams are similar players. Both have power as their main calling card and both profile as the kind of players that you’d ideally platoon. The only difference is that Lind is five years older and has a little more proven performance in his background.

Lind is on pace for 26 home runs this season and is hitting .285. It isn’t a fluke year for Lind either, who has done this before. More than once. The Cardinals are in position to win now and I think it’s about time that they make a move like their are. If you could add Lind without giving up a top level prospect, that’s a win all around regardless of what Adams goes on to do in Milwaukee.

Going forward, Lind would actually fit well into the Cardinals’ plans. He can platoon with Stephen Piscotty at first base while Piscotty also grabs some at bats in the outfield. It carves out Piscotty the kind of role that Allen Craig filled in 2011 and 2012. When you consider exactly how such a move would fit together, I think it makes sense.

After all of this you may be asking why Milwaukee would want Adams now that I’ve torn him apart. Two main reasons, cost savings and potential.

Out of the gate you’re saving the Brewers $8 million next year and a few million the rest of this year. Obviously the Brewers will pick up that option if they can’t trade him because of the value Lind can provide at the plate.

Then there is the potential of Matt Adams and the player he has been. Milwaukee can give him the ability to play everyday to find that potential in a way that St. Louis can’t. If Matt Adams isn’t going to be good today, a championship contender like the Cardinals doesn’t have the luxury of waiting on him to become it.

The Brewers have the ability to let Adams play everyday and come into his own. I’d even be willing to send along a lottery ticket prospect to grease the wheel.

On our monthly UCB Radio hit, Kevin Reynolds and I talked that 2015 was probably the make-or-break year for Adams, as far as penciling himself into the team’s long term plans. With the injury, he’s probably bought himself another year. That’s lucky for him because this year wasn’t going very well.

For his part, John Mozeliak seems to still be high on Adams as an everyday player that you want to see taking 600+ plate appearances a year. He’s even said that he doesn’t want to block him with a trade acquisition, but I’m hopeful that’s just to create a bargaining position. I see Matt Adams’ value at a tipping point that may be as high as it will be going forward. Historically, that’s when Mozeliak strikes.

Should the Cardinals make a move as the deadline approaches?

There is just a week to go until Major League Baseball’s non waiver trade deadline on July 31st and the Cardinals find themselves in a precarious position. They are leading the NL Central and have the best record in baseball, but they’re also nursing injuries. General Manager John Mozeliak now has to figure out whether the cost of improving this season’s team is worth it. Personally, I question whether it is.

Last week, I tweeted what I felt the Cardinals’ keys to the second half were.

Number 3 was to get healthy. Matt Holliday has now returned to the lineup and that’s helped stabilize the offense. The team also sent Jaime Garcia and Jordan Walden out on rehab assignments today. Marco Gonzales is close to being ready and then you have Matt Belisle expecting to return in August.

Number 2 was to find ways to protect Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Both pitchers were supposed to be under innings limits entering the year, but have had those mostly set aside due to the innings deficit following Adam Wainwright’s injury.

And Number 1 was to get Matt Carpenter right. It’s about time, but his slump is finally getting noticed by the media and Mike Matheny, who dropped Carpenter to 7th in last night’s lineup. Since May 3rd, Carpenter is hitting .211 with just 12 extra base hits. For comparision, he hit 17 extra base hits in April alone.

Someone commented that the offense needed to be more consistent, but to me, that will be a function of Carpenter getting right and the rest of the lineup getting healthy. If those two things can happen, the offense will be more consistent almost by default.

Whether or not the Cardinals choose to acquire anyone this week, those three things need to happen. If the team can’t get healthy or if Carpenter doesn’t get right, the impact that any addition can have is minimal. It’s because of that, that I think Mozeliak should consider standing pat at the deadline.

The Cardinals have reportedly kicked the tires on starting pitching because of the innings load that Wacha and Martinez are taking on. With Garcia and Gonzales eyeballing a return, you’ve got two guys that may be looking for a rotation spot. You can cycle either of those two or even Tyler Lyons or Tim Cooney into a spot start or two to shave some innings off Wacha and Martinez down the stretch for free.

As I wrote last year, the regular season advantage of acquiring a top shelf starting pitcher at the trade deadline is only a win or two at the most. You would make such an acquisition for the playoffs, but even with that pitcher, if you don’t have Wacha and Martinez right in October, your chances aren’t very good even if you add Cole Hamels or David Price.

They don’t really need relief help with Jordan Walden working his way back and a guy like Sam Tuivailala in position to make his mark on the bullpen in the second half. It might be a good place to make a value addition if you can find one. Something like the acquisition of Edward Mujica a few years back.

I’ll even go as far as to say that the Cardinals don’t even need to acquire a first baseman. Stephen Piscotty has gotten a hit in both of his games and will get some time at first base. You’ve also got Mark Reynolds who has hit .214 with 4 homers in July. That’s twice as many as he’s hit in any other month with the Cardinals.

I still believe that this team has the pieces it needs to make a deep October run. But unless Mozeliak has a player drop into his lap at a great value, I’d rather him just check the bet over to the Pirates. They don’t have the pieces to do any substantial shopping and even though they added Aramis Ramirez today, he’s 37 and in the middle of his worst season since 2002. Their hope is that the former star will catch lightning in a bottle, but that’s far from a guarantee.

If he does stand pat, Mozeliak will inevitably catch criticism for it. It’s already been building during the season. His reasoned approach to roster moves and decisions garnering frustration with their speed or lack thereof. But I do believe that standing pat is the right choice.

You can call it drinking the kool-aid (I like Strawberry, which coincidentally is also red), but I trust Mozeliak. He has never had a losing season as a GM and it would require a failure of epic proportions for that streak to end this season. Mozeliak has his plan and he will continue to work it.

The past few deadlines and offseasons we’ve all sat here and talked about how the Cardinals should trade away their abundance of young talent and bring in some veterans. If this year has taught us anything, it should be that Mozeliak was right to hold onto his young talent. Without them, this season is over. Instead, the Cardinals have absorbed the shots they’ve taken and continue to be the best team in baseball.

And that’s by Mozeliak’s design.

And I’m not sure I’m willing to sacrifice next year’s team’s ability to do the same thing.

Perspective

Following this afternoon’s 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins, Jaime Garcia now has four starts in June and has an ERA of 0.96 and a WHIP of 0.61. The Cardinals have also lost three of those four starts. Why? It it certainly wasn’t Garcia’s fault. Twice the Cardinals were shut out and today, the bullpen squandered an 8th inning go-ahead home run from Jason Heyward.

To listen to some, the sky is falling.

And to be honest, they’re kind of right.

But when you consider where the Cardinals are, that should be expected. Can you really expect the Cardinals to maintain their torrid winning pace while missing a third of their WAR production from last year to the DL for an extended amount of time.

Not really.

With Matt Holliday and Matt Adams missing from the lineup, the offense is much weaker and the bench is too. Mark Reynolds and Randal Grichuk have been pressed into everyday service and they’ve done well since being forced into starting roles. However, the bench is left without a legitimate threat. That impacts your ability to win games late. That impacts your ability to cycle out your new core hitters.

The Cardinals have yet to react to the loss of Holliday as far as the roster goes. John Mozeliak indicated that the team may make a move for offense earlier this week, but no move has been made.

There is no doubt the offense needs help. Mozeliak knows this. Since Holliday hit the DL, the offense has averaged exactly 3 runs per game. That won’t get the job in a majority of games, but is there an answer to help the offense in house?

Not really.

If you’re asking me, the best option in house is Tommy Pham. Unfortunately for Pham, he plays the outfield and the Cardinals already have a crowded and complicated outfield dynamic. It was crowded and complicated even before Holliday went on the DL, but that means that Pham won’t see much of a chance unless there is another injury in the outfield. Maybe he’s more trade bait for a bench bat than anything else at this point.

There is a heavy call to bring up a guy like Xavier Scruggs, but let’s be honest about what Scruggs is. He’s a 27 year old power hitter who has been stuck in Triple-A without a “fair shot.” This is a story that repeats every year or two. Nick Stavinoha in 2011, Brock Peterson in 2013, shall I go on?

What about Scruggs will bring about a different outcome?

Reynolds has been really good since Adams hit the DL too, so can Scruggs outperform Reynolds often enough to deserve playing time? And I hope you don’t expect him to play much at all in left field either for the same reasons Pham isn’t the right guy.

Consider last September. Matt Adams was quietly dealing with a day-to-day injury in September and the Cardinals didn’t have another true first baseman on the roster, so they called up Scruggs. Scruggs was on a Memphis team in the middle of the playoffs when he got the call, and that’s something that Mozeliak doesn’t like doing unless the guy is going to play. He was also coming off a better season than he’s in the middle of right now. Daniel Descalso was in the middle of a season where he hit .242 with no home runs.

Descalso started over him.

Even with those odds in his favor, he couldn’t get a look. Obviously there is something missing that the Cardinals believe indicates that he won’t produce on the Major League level.

Yes, he can probably provide more impact than Ed Easley can, but Easley has gotten a whopping three plate appearances in his time in St. Louis and two of those came in a blowout loss. It’s not like he’s seeing a ton of action.

With all that said, there really isn’t a solution in house for the Cardinals to go to right now. Their best option will be to try to pick someone up off the trade market and that won’t really materialize for at least another month.

It’s okay though. The season isn’t even halfway over. There is a lot more baseball to play and a decision to add a bench player (or not) in June won’t be the reason a season is lost. The Cardinals are the best team in baseball and will be for at least another 5 days. If 90 wins gets you into the playoffs, and historically that is an automatic, the Cardinals only need to go 47-49 to secure a playoff spot.

When October does roll around, the Cardinals should be in better position. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams are both expected back. There’s also some rumblings that Adam Wainwright expects to be able to pitch as soon as October, so maybe an outside shot of having him in some fashion too.

Like it or not, we’re all along for the ride at this point. It’s going to be bumpy and not a lot of fun, but the Cardinals need to stay the course for right now. They’ll get healthier as the season goes, because let’s be honest that there is nowhere to go in that department but up. As long as they can continue to grind out wins, we’ll still be in this thing when October rolls around.

But if Lance Lynn isn’t off the DL by June 25th, you can help me mash the panic button.

Those dirty Cardinals, right?

So by now everyone has heard the big news, right? Donald Trump is running for President! Oh, not that? Uh, Dale Earnhardt Jr got engaged? Not that either, eh? Oh, you mean that the Cardinals “hacked” the Astros. Okay, so let’s talk about that a bit based on what we know.

Many major media sources are advertising this as the Cardinals’ organization hacking into the Astros’ system. That’s what the FBI is investigating, but there hasn’t been anything reported to that effect. Right now we have the actions of a couple employees. Given that they were employees that shared a residence, odds are that they are lower level ones.

Let’s also get something clear from the very beginning. There was no “hacking” going on. Unless these employees somehow got a list of passwords used by other GMs in baseball, they didn’t hack your team’s computers. The word hacking creates images of guys trying to access a system by forcing their way in without a username and password. That isn’t what happened.

These employees had a list of passwords that Jeff Luhnow and other former Cardinals employees who had left the organization for Houston used. Guess what? Someone re-used a password.

It’s like failing to re-key your locks after breaking up with a girlfriend who has a key to your apartment. Her using it to enter your apartment and dig through your stuff is still illegal, but she’s hardly a master burglar.

Even the Ground Control system the Astros have was easily found. Until the leak of a lot of information from the Astros internal system last summer, Ground Control was easily accessible via groundcontrol.astros.com. That link is now down, but the web.archive.org system has a few copies of the login page that it archived at different times through 2013.

That’s the situation based on the information that has been released and available so far. That is all we know. Anything else is wild conjecture at this point and while the results of the FBI investigation could run the gamut from the organization being criminally culpable to just a couple employees getting fired, we really don’t know and really lack enough information to generate even an educated guess at what really went down right now.

But there are a few things in the information that lead me to believe that this was just a handful of employees doing this on their own and not a sanctioned corporate decision to strike at the Astros or steal information from them.

First, this was done from the comfort of their own home. The New York Times report says that the access traced back to a home shared by Cardinals’ employees. Don’t they know that stuff like this is what your neighbor’s unsecured wifi network is for? It seems like a very amateur mistake. Anyone who has watched virtually any crime drama on TV over the last decade should know that what you do on the Internet can be traced back to you and your computer.

Knowing the intentional way that John Mozeliak goes about his business, weighing his options and ensuring that all the angles are covered, this doesn’t seem like a mistake the organization would make. They’d have researched how to do it so it couldn’t be traced or even hire a few guys in Ukraine to do it on the cheap.

This is a team that is reluctant to gamble on international signings because they don’t have enough data to provide a good projection yet. They don’t do things without thinking them through.

Perhaps these guys thought that nobody would notice a valid login attempt. After all, they were stupid enough to think they could get away with this.

Second, whoever logged into Ground Control leaked data. If the Cardinals were doing something to gain an advantage, why would they have basically waved a flag and told the world that there was a leak in the Astros computer system. This is counter-intuitive to the claim that the Cardinals were doing it to receive a competitive advantage. If you’re getting a competitive advantage, you keep it as long as you can.

So why is the FBI investigating the Cardinals? Considering the guys that their investigation led them to work for one of 29 competitors to the Astros, they need to determine whether it was just the employees acting alone or whether they were directed by higher level employees to do what they did for whatever reason. If the Cardinals did direct these employees to do it, then I think we can all agree that this is a very big deal and there will be a hefty price to pay for whoever had anything to do with it and rightfully so.

But based on the information that’s been revealed so far, we have nothing to indicate that the Cardinals sanctioned this. In my own wild conjecture, I imagine something like this happening while a couple employees kicked back watching TV with a couple beers, maybe even watching an Astros game…

Employee #1: “Man, that Luhnow guy was an idiot.”
Employee #2: “Yeah he was. Hey, I’ve got this list of passwords he used, want to see if he’s dumb enough to not change them?”
Employee #1: “Dude, it worked! He is an idiot!”
Employee #2: “LMAO, he thinks Bud Norris is worth that? Is he going to pitch against us every night or something?”

Still very illegal, but it is not the major corporate espionage that this is being made out to be by the media who are covering it and it certainly isn’t cheating. At least, not based on the information that the general public so far privy to.

The day may come where this story is worth that kind of attention, but the sad part is that if the Cardinals are found to be totally innocent in this situation, the stain of the cheating implication by the major media won’t wash out for quite some time.

Partly because nobody will cover it.

With Holliday out, what does the lineup look like?

So Matt Holliday is out with a quad strain. The good news for Cardinals fans is that it is only being advertised as a grade 2 strain, which is short of a complete tear as Matt Adams suffered. This means that the Cardinals can evaluate Holliday in a couple weeks and create a timetable to get him back on the field later this season. Optimistically, I believe that means in six to eight weeks the Cardinals could see him back in action.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for Mike Matheny between now and then will be to fill out the lineup card every night without Matt Holliday as the anchor point. Since Holliday’s early exit on Monday night, the offense has been flat, obviously missing the big bat. So how might Matheny fill out the lineup card?

The first thing that sticks out to me when I look at the options for the lineup is that there may never be a better time to utilize a speed and defense based lineup. The Cardinals have the personnel to do it, so why not? Why not take the opportunity to run wild and see what happens? It’s not like our current method of scoring runs is being very successful.

Normally, I’d argue that Matt Carpenter is the guy to keep building the lineup around as I did in April when I talked about optimizing the Cardinals’ lineup, but Carpenter hasn’t been himself lately. Since he left the May 3rd game early due to dehydration, he has hit .231/.346/.380 with only 8 of his 25 hits going for extra bases. Entering play today, he has gone hitless in the last five games he’s started, the longest such slump of his career.

As long as he slumps, I think because the margin of error is so slim for this offense, that you need to consider dropping him in the lineup.

Right now Jhonny Peralta is far and away the Cardinals’ best hitter. Over the past 28 days his line is a robust .341/.417/.615 with 6 home runs and 19 RBI, all team highs. He is also the only Cardinals hitter hitting over .300, getting on base better than .400, and slugging better than .500. But his bat is far more suited for third in the lineup than second in the lineup.

Kolten Wong is the guy that I would identify to slide into the #2 spot in the lineup right now. He is the second best hitter on the team right now, hitting .293/.358/.455 over the last 28 days.

As I said earlier, I would make a shift towards a speed and defense lineup in an effort to maximize the results of my pitching staff. That means that Peter Bourjos gets to start regular in center field and would be leading off for me.

CF Bourjos
2B Wong
SS Peralta
LF Grichuk
3B Carpenter
1B Reynolds
C Molina
RF Heyward
Pitcher

I’m not the biggest fan of Grichuk in the cleanup spot, but I think he is our biggest power threat beyond Peralta.

After Grichuk I take a flip flop approach. A guy who can get on base and then a guy who can drive him in. Carpenter and Mark Reynolds make this first pairing while Yadier Molina and Jason Heyward make the second.

Ideally, Carpenter or Molina gets on and Reynolds or Heyward hits a home run.

It’s not perfect, but the Cardinals’ lineup has many holes right now with the absence of Holliday and Adams. Holes that are almost impossible to patch in any meaningful way. But the lineup still features six or seven hitters who should be above average hitters, which would still be among the league’s deepest lineups.

Now the Cardinals and their fans hope and pray that Holliday heals well over the next two weeks to give them some positive news.

What do the Cardinals do about first base now?

During Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the St. Louis Cardinals seem to have lost first baseman Matt Adams to a quadriceps injury that may cost Adams the remainder of the 2015 season. A torn quadriceps was the diagnosis Wednesday morning as the Cardinals placed Adams on the 15 day DL and recalled catcher Ed Easley up from Memphis.

Immediately taking his place as the team’s regular first baseman will be Mark Reynolds. It was this role, insurance for Matt Adams, that Reynolds was signed to fill. Though he’s going to be used a little differently than expected.

Off to a slow start this season, Adams was looking like he was going to take yet another step back from the promise he displayed in 2013 when he hit .315 with 8 home runs in September while filling in for Allen Craig. While Adams had picked it up in recent days, it still wasn’t enough to make his splits over the last week wort going crazy over.

The loss of Adams will hurt a little bit, but for me more because Reynolds will no longer be a regular fixture off the bench. Instead he will be in the starting lineup where he will be used whenever his spot comes up instead of in certain situations.

So far in 2015, Reynolds has outperformed Adams offensively. Adams has a slash line of .243/.281/.375 with 4 home runs in 43 games. Reynolds has exceeded that with his line of .250/.314/.406 with 3 home runs in 39 games. Even when you break down that performance to platoon situations against LHP and RHP, Reynolds still comes out on top in both categories.

You’re also probably improving the lineup and the offense by more than just putting Reynolds into it. Mike Matheny had been insistent on batting Adams in the cleanup spot as he did last year with Craig. Reynolds won’t be hitting fourth (he batted 7th tonight), so you’re improving the lineup flow by removing Adams’ struggling bat from the middle of our best hitting players.

With the return of Jon Jay on the horizon (expected this weekend), many have suggested that it will create a playing time squeeze in the outfield and force one of our outfielders to move to first base. The debate has raged on about which outfielder would be best to move to first base, but that’s the second question to ask. The first question, and most important, is whether you have four outfielders who are clearly better than Mark Reynolds. Early returns say no.

By OPS+, one of my favorite metrics for comparing hitters, Jay and Jason Heyward have not been better than Reynolds. At best, Peter Bourjos is a virtual tie. That leaves just Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk as having outperformed him this season. And given the numbers, tells us that if we’re taking someone out of the lineup, it probably should be Heyward if we’re trying to force any particular outfielder into the lineup.

Many have targeted Matt Holliday as the perfect guy to transition to first base. About the only reason I can figure for that is because he’s older, slow, and has a stocky build. First base is where those guys go to finish their careers right?

Yes, Holliday was drafted as a third baseman, but he hasn’t played a single game on the infield in almost 16 years. Holliday has even expressed that he’s not that interested in a move, saying, “there’s a reason they moved me to the outfield.”

Other than Holliday, only one outfielder on our roster has ever played the infield. Lucky for us, it was at first base, right? Jon Jay appeared at first base in a game in 2009 for Memphis and then again in 2010.

I think that until we have four outfielders who can clearly give us more production than Reynolds is, there isn’t a cause for discussion about this idea and it really shouldn’t be looked at as an option.

If you are insistent about moving an outfielder to first base, I think it would make sense to move your most athletic guy. The thought being that his athleticism should help him make up for the lack of experience playing the position as well as make plays that the rest of the outfielders wouldn’t be able to on the infield. Seeing as the plays that happen at first base are generally more important than routine fly balls to left field, I’d look at putting the team in the best position there first. To me, that means Randal Grichuk.

But I don’t see the Cardinals shaking up the bag and forcing an outfielder into the lineup at first base. Particularly when none of them have ever put the ability to play multiple positions on their resume. Plus, there are a number of other players on the roster who are capable of filling those shoes if necessary.

Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Jhonny Peralta are all guys who can take on that role. You could even dig into the minors for Xavier Scruggs (or with a little experience in the minors first, Stephen Piscotty).

I’d be really surprised if the Cardinals pursued a hitter outside the organization to take Adams’ place as long as Reynolds is healthy. It really isn’t because of the money, the Cardinals have it to spend if they want to. Rather it’s about the prospects you have to spend to bring someone in (note, same kind of prospects who have played a vital role in keeping this team competitive when we lose our high dollar players to injury) and the years you have to commit to them once they’re here.

Take the situation of a Ryan Howard. Howard has had an incredible last month. Since April 24th, Howard is hitting .291/.333/.624 with 10 home runs. Is that going to be Howard’s best month of the season? Given what he’s done the last few seasons, it’s probably a safe bet.

But Howard is signed through next season with a hefty buyout to get out of his option for 2017. What do you do with Adams and Howard on the roster next year and potentially the next two? It’s easy to dismiss that question now, but that is definitely something that a General Manager has to consider and answer to the owner for.

The irony of all if this discussion is that if Mark Reynolds was in another team’s uniform, he’d probably be near the top of most lists as a potential acquisition. The grass is always greener, I guess.

I expect the Cardinals to be on the lookout for someone to solidify the bench this summer. Someone who can play the role Reynolds played off the bench. With the expectation being that the Cardinals will need to add a starting pitcher this summer, that’s something you can probably get added to a deal without giving up much additional.

While we’re suggesting trades, why not Allen Craig?

Just kidding.

Sort of.