St. Louis Cardinals: Keep Randal Grichuk In Center Field
By Josh Brown
The St. Louis Cardinals are looking for a defensive upgrade in center field, but the one they have right now is fine.
I have a question for Cardinal Nation — are you truly worried about Randal Grichuk‘s defense in center field? I’m not. Not one bit. I’ll tell you what I’m more worried about — the St. Louis Cardinals infield defense, the starting rotation’s glaring holes and inconsistencies, and an offense that is losing 21 percent of it’s power with the departures of Brandon Moss and veteran Matt Holliday.
Yet, here we are roughly three weeks away from Winter Meetings and Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak has stated that one of his main focuses this offseason is to find an upgrade defensively in center field. Why?
If you didn’t know, last season the Cardinals’ outfield (as a whole) ranked tied for 4th lowest in all of baseball with just 9 errors committed. Guess how many of those errors Grichuk made in center field — zero. That’s right. On the other hand, the Cardinals infield committed a total of 73 errors in 2016: 12 at first base (9th highest in MLB), 15 at second base (9th highest), 29 at shortstop (highest in baseball) and 17 at third base (18th highest).
The good news at shortstop is Aledmys Diaz settled down and got better defensively in the second half of the season, so hopefully that number won’t be near as high in 2017. To be fair, Mozeliak has also said that finding some backup help in the middle of the infield is also a priority. I believe he will.
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But the need or panic (I guess?) to move Grichuk from center to left field puzzles me a bit, and it is intriguing that Mozeliak believes this to be one of the main priorities as the offseason kicks into gear.
Sure, Grichuk posted a negative 0.9 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in center last season, which isn’t great but it isn’t terrible either. Even with that, Grichuk’s defense in center last year was far from awful, and I’ll tell you why.
This might be hard for some to believe but Grichuk (despite having some arm issues in 2015) has a great arm in center field. Don’t believe me? Grichuk had the fourth highest ARM rating (2.8) among all center fielders last season, behind only Leonys Martin, Ender Inciarte and Jackie Bradley Jr. In case you need a refresher on the ARM stat, FanGraphs defines ARM as “the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing.”
Grichuk backed up that ARM rating with 7 defensive runs saved, which ranked which ranked 5th among all National League center fielders this year — and was even ahead of Mike Trout in the American League. Yep. He recorded 8 assists too, which ranked 6th and was also ahead of Trout and Chicago Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward.
So why the -0.9 UZR for the Cardinals’ center fielder? The answer is simple — he took bad routes on balls. If you watched enough Cardinals games last season you know this to be true. There were times that Grichuk simply took bad routes on balls or made the golden mistake of taking his first step in on a ball to him rather than back and getting a bit burned.
It happened, but it doesn’t make Grichuk a hopeless case in center field. The 25-year old is only a year removed from posting a 2.4 UZR in center field in 2015.
So, why did Grichuk struggle with bad routes? Who knows. Odds are, it was more mental than anything else. Grichuk struggled mightily at the plate to begin the 2016 season and it got him sent down to Triple-A for more grooming. Those early struggles at the plate likely translated into pressure on the field at times as Grichuk never really got comfortable on either ends of the diamond during the first half of the season.
I realize this is more speculation than definitive proof, but it is as good a guess as any. I believe Grichuk will be just fine in center field next season. Taking bad routes is fixable, and something I’d imagine that he is working on extensively this offseason. Grichuk may not steal a bunch of bases, but he does have good speed and a great arm that has proven to play well in center field. I say keep him there.
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Instead, Mozeliak could focus on getting a left fielder and leaving Grichuk in center — something he’s said he would do if he can’t get the center fielder he wants via free agency or trade. Guys like Dexter Fowler and Charlie Blackmon simply don’t cut it for me. Not to mention, neither of these guys make sense as that “defensive upgrade” in center.
Blackmon in particular was terrible defensively in center field last season with a negative 10.4 UZR (second lowest) , -2 defensive runs saved (tied for 6th lowest) and the worst center field ARM rating in baseball at negative 5.7. Fowler wasn’t much better either with a 1.0 UZR (10th lowest), 1 defensive run saved (9th lowest) and a negative 0.3 ARM rating (7th lowest).
Why in the world would Mozeliak forfeit a draft pick to sign Fowler or trade a handful of touted prospects for Blackmon when neither are defensive upgrades in center field? I get the notion that if Grichuk were moved to left field he would likely be above average defensively and adding an above average center fielder would make the outfield much better as a whole.
Still, guys like Blackmon and Fowler would not provide that outcome. Now, Arizona’s center fielder A.J. Pollock is a different story, and if Mozeliak is in the works for that kind of trade this offseason then we are in for some real hot stove action come December.
But let’s go back to left field. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again — Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes is an average defender in left field with a cannon of an arm (imagine how many third base coaches think twice about sending a runner from second to home on a single to Cespedes in left field), and he would provide an offensive boost in the middle of the Cardinals lineup for years to come. His power would greatly close that 21 percent gap created when the Cardinals waved goodbye to Holliday and Moss. Think about it.
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If Mozeliak can’t get the center fielder he wants, the one St. Louis has right now is just fine. Grichuk is an average center fielder with an above average arm who made some great diving plays at times in 2016. I believe he will only get better at the position if given the chance as an everyday player there. Thanks for reading.