St. Louis Cardinals: No time for fantasy baseball in 2017
By Larry Levin
I’ve been as big a proponent on these pages as anyone for the St. Louis Cardinals to have an eye to the future in its roster management and moves for the rest of the 2017 season. However, Sunday’s slaughter of the Cincinnati Reds points to a significant key if the Redbirds want to keep competing this year.
The lesson for the St. Louis Cardinals organization is this: Play the players that give you the best chance at winning. Slot them in the batting order in the best way to maximize runs. That means not only keeping Jose Martinez in the cleanup spot, but also making other changes which could amplify the results of that move.
Normally, one game would be a ridiculous sample size upon which to base any decision. The Cards, however, have shown such weakness at the plate, there is little risk in trying something new and different at this point. What do they have to lose?
The cognitive dissonance that’s occurred so often this year is the difference between the club’s expectations and actual performance. Several players, who were supposed to be critical to the cause, including Stephen Piscotty, Dexter Fowler and Aledmys Diaz, have disappointed in performance, illness, and more.
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Then, there was the hope this would be a breakout season for Randal Grichuk.
But as we’ve seen, the sometimes masher remains highly susceptible to chasing low outside breaking balls and high inside fastballs.
An ominous sign suggesting progress could be slow or even negligible.
For what started as an epic campaign for Jedd Gyorko, has seen him weaken to the point of recent benching. Certainly, whether from fatigue, reverting to mean, or pitchers discovering holes (most likely it’s a combo of the three), the third baseman, a delightful defensive surprise, has lost his batting touch for now.
This has left manager Mike Matheny with some tough choices. In some things, notably the confidence shown in young Paul DeJong, he has succeeded and ought be commended. (This is an article about lineups so we won’t even touch the painful subject of bullpen management.)
However in other choices, Matheny’s blind spots have derailed the offensive effort. Despite a two-homer game earlier this week, Yadier Molina has been a consistently 85-90 OPS+ batter this year. Some teams could afford this luxury, but not the offense-starved Redbirds. Dropping a vacuum in the order’s middle is not a way to win.
Another annoyance is the general unwillingness, except injury, to promote Kolten Wong to a loftier spot than eighth in the lineup. Sure, it’s great to have the number one eight-hole in the league, but can you really afford it when most of the other lineup spots are dragging in the bottom tier?
It sometimes appears hard for Matheny to come off his preconceived notions about where players bat and what they contribute to the lineup. However, to be fair, ultimately the results will turn largely on the quality of resources and their ability to meet expectations. No one gets a free pass here.
But to put the overall offense in the best position to succeed, the goal is to string at-bats together in the way that will produce the most runs. I’m pretty skeptical the manager has worked all the best angles at accomplishing this.
Modern baseball says the best hitters get the most opportunities to produce. That does not mean a strong Wong hitting eighth anymore than it means a weak Molina (still an essential part of the team’s success, regardless of lineup order) fifth.
Moving the strong and imposing figure of Martinez into the four hole may be Matheny’s best choice for now. The question is what to do with the rest of the mess.
Well, until they’re fixed or showing signs of reclamation, Piscotty and Grichuk will have to share playing time. One of them can man the right-field slot and bat low in the order.
But it’s time to get more aggressive than that. No matter Matt Carpenter‘s preference, if Wong can maintain a .350-plus OBP in the leadoff spot, his energy and speed make for an electrifying start. When Kolten first said he thought he should be leading off over a year ago, he wasn’t in my opinion ready; now he is.
Pham needs to be in the two hole as the best overall hitter right now, and then in my opinion, either Dejong or Carp should bat third, depending on whether a lefty or righty is pitching, flipping them around cleanup hitter Martinez as needed.
In this scenario, Gyorko drops to sixth, Molina to seventh, and either Grichuk or Piscotty eighth. If Greg Garcia is filling in for Gyorko, which is dandy, then perhaps he can switch with the right-field tandem if desired; I don’t think that’s nearly a critical issue.
Look, no one who’s rational, which I try to be, thinks that a one-game result is an indicator of future success. But there’s been no proof at all past performance has been, either. So if something looks good both on the field and on paper presents itself as a better alternative, why not try? It’s now or never for ’17.