Can Jon Jay Remain the Cardinals Full-Time Starter in Center?


This may seem like an incredibly loaded question, because it is. There are so many factors to consider before we can make any predictions about Jon Jay. From the little we have heard from the Cardinals front office, we can merely determine that Jay seems to be the number one candidate to garner the most starts in center field. The question is how many starts will he cede to Carlos Beltran? How many starts will manager Mike Matheny want to give Skip Schumaker? Once Allen Craig returns, will Jay lose even more starts? To me, the biggest question is, what does Jay have to do in order for Matheny to name him the permanent starting center fielder?

The answer? A lot. Jay has spent much of the last two seasons as a fill-in starter. He took complete control of center field late last season. Was it because he was performing at such a high level or was it because there was no one else for manager Tony La Russa to turn to?

This season Matheny will have a five man rotation to cover three spots once Craig returns and assuming he returns completely healthy. Schumaker seems to be the player who will get the least amount of at-bats. Beltran and Matt Holliday will be fixtures at the right and left field corners respectively.

That leaves Jay. How well does he need to be performing before Matheny chooses to move Beltran over to center field more often than we expect, giving Craig more at-bats? Obviously, a lot of that also has to do with how well Craig is performing.

At the crux of the matter is getting each player enough time to show what they are capable of. Holliday and Beltran will assuredly have to be hurt in order to be replaced. The salaries each receives does not lend to them being platoon type players. Jay will get a bulk of the starts in center to start off the season. He may be able to get 30-45 games in before Craig is ready to play at the major league level. If Jay gets out to an incredible start and both Beltran and Holliday are performing as expected, Craig may have a very hard time breaking into the lineup. But, if Jay is average, then Matheny will undoubtedly pencil Craig’s name in as often as possible.

If Jay is replaced more often because he is not setting the world on fire at the beginning of the season, does he become a wasted sole on the bench? How does he perform as a starter versus as a guy off the bench? See below.

as Starter173726.301.351.420.772.346
as Sub91100.273.340.443.783.323

If we scale the numbers back a little bit to a 162 game season, they are still reasonable as a starter. As a reserve, the sample size is very small but it seems that Jay may not lose much of his abilities coming off the bench. More on that later.

The first criticism is the power. Maybe this will come soon since he turns 27 this season. But, I would guess his high water mark with a full season of at-bats is no more than 15. Next, he does not possess an awful lot of speed on the bases to compensate for the lack of power. In fact he is not a very good base stealer, getting caught 7 out of of 13 tries in 2011. Looking around the league at other starting center fielders, you usually see a player with power or one with speed or both. Jay is a good, but not spectacular fielder (4.4 UZR/150 in 765 innings in center). So, is he best suited to start on a daily basis?

After the All-Star break in 2011 he started 58 out of 69 games. His batting average dips slightly to .290 and his OPS goes down to .747. Again, these are all small sample sizes. But look how the slash lines go down as a full-time starter versus as part-time starter.

1st Half9049248224256897.304.352.438.790.347
2nd Half69582552313167153.290.336.411.747.333

Maybe there is something in his minor league profile which would lead us to believe that he is going to be a long term solution for the Cardinals in center?

In 819 plate appearances spread over three seasons at AAA Memphis, his triple slash was .295/.356/.424. Very similar to the line he has put together in a similar number of plate appearances in the majors (.298/.350/.423). This tells me what we see is what we get with Jay. A consistent player who will not necessarily hurt you at the plate or in the field.

Knowing the history, are the numbers he has accumulated over the last two seasons as a part-time starter enough to keep Beltran from shifting over and allowing Craig to get more at-bats while manning right?

Moving Beltran over to center does pose some issues for the Cardinals in the field. While Jay is not Torii Hunter, he his a lot better than Beltran is going to be there. Beltran did not play center at all in 2011 and maybe for a reason other than the injury history. Beltran’s UZR/150 in center in 2009 was -7.5 and in 2010 it was -6. The biggest issue with moving Beltran over remains the chances of him getting hurt increases by playing the position due to the multiple shifts and the ground needed to cover in center.

If Jay struggles at the plate, Matheny may need to think hard about moving Beltran and suffer the field woes, so he can get Craig more at-bats. I’ve written before that the extra players could prove to be a benefit to Matheny if Holliday and Beltran suffer injuries. But, if they are all healthy, then expect a lot of changes in the lineup.

Jay is not the type of player who can carry a team, but Craig has this ability. I imagine with Beltran in the fold, Jay’s leash will be short once Craig returns, especially if he is not performing adequately. Furthermore, if Beltran looks especially fleet of foot (a major IF), Matheny’s choice becomes easier. There are a lot of “ifs” here and that is why they have to play the game. The results will dictate Matheny’s lineup card.

My point is simply this; there is nothing in Jay’s makeup that says he has a firm grasp as an everyday starter in center. Not when there are other ways to write the lineup. But, while I don’t think Jay is a long term solution in center field, the team as currently constructed may not lend to other options.

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