A Young Manager Has Old Considerations

New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, the youngest manager in MLB, will have at his disposal a somewhat old, versatile, established but oft-injured group at the top of the projected lineup in 2012. Rafael Furcal, 34, who hasn’t played more than 100 games at shortstop since 2007, is expected to lead off. He has not been an elite leadoff hitter since then, as he has never walked a lot and injuries have almost completely taken away from his base-stealing productivity.He performed better after arriving in St. Louis, but his OBP prior to that was .300, which is giving away outs at the top of the lineup. He is a switch-hitter without dramatic platoon splits, and it’s where he’s comfortable batting, so it appears that they will start the season with Furcal at the top.

Matheny can, however, follow Furcal with three players who carry high career OBP’s and can slug pretty well, too. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman all were in the top 10 in OPS in 2011 in the National League. Word is that Beltran, who will be 35 in April, will be slotted in second in the order. Another switch-hitter, he is coming off a fine rebound season. But he wears a large knee brace; his running game has been deeply curtailed by an injury which required modified microfracture surgery in 2010.

Once a sterling center fielder, he assented to a move to right field last season on the Mets. Beltran claims he can–and wants to–play center field, but most believe it’s not feasible for anything more than spot duty. The plan is a rotation in which he could play center against opposition left-handers, (while Jon Jay would sit), and Allen Craig could go to right that day. They envision Beltran getting 25 to 30 starts in center this season.

The 32-year-old Matt Holliday suffered an injury-riddled 2011. He had to have an appendectomy on Opening Day. He suffered a moderate quad tear, and probably came back too soon. He apparently wrenched his back in the weight room. And before a hand injury which kept him out of Game 7 of the World Series, a large moth got lodged in his ear in a late-summer night game at home that caused him to have to leave the game. (The offender had to be plucked out with tweezers by a trainer in the clubhouse. Of course, a photo of the “Holliday Moth” was tweeted the next day). These were niggling, non-chronic injuries that he should be able to avoid this season.

Then there’s Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman. He resurrected his reputation as an offensive force with a season that in several respects was better than the one of Albert Pujols. For instance, he got on base more than 40% of the time. (Pujols was at .366). Berkman inherits first base, Pujols’s haunt for the last 11 years.

These top four hitters present formidable problems for managers and teams in games that are tight, late. Three are switch-hitters, two of them historically good, (Beltran and Berkman), with real pop. A manager would have to think hard about what he was willing to give up to find a matchup he likes with the game on the line. About the only platoon weakness through that first four would be Berkman batting right-handed, so it would behoove opponents to have a lefty ready for him.

Whither Allen Craig? At 27, he has had trouble staying on the field. He had elective knee surgery in November, and no one knows when he will be able to contribute on the field. He is optimistic he’ll be ready by April 1, but it could be as much as two months later.

This was part of the impetus for getting Carlos Beltran. One can’t conclude that adding him makes your team worse, but it will cut into the playing time of a younger, cost-controlled slugger who has been very productive in limited duty. The Cardinals plan a rotation in which Berkman, Beltran, Craig, and Jay will all see consistent playing time and appropriate rest. One day Beltran could play center, and Craig would go to right. Or Berkman could need rest, so Craig takes over at first base that day.

All of this is predicated on the health of all of the above, and that all are producing. What if Jay struggles badly? What if Berkman gets hurt? Furcal goes down? These are possibilities of course, and the kinds of things teams must deal with every year. As constituted, the club has impressive depth, when you can bring a guy like Allen Craig off the bench. With 500 plate appearances, he is probably a four-and-a-half win player right now.

But if this goes badly Matheny, and by extension GM John Mozeliak, will have to respond nimbly to problems built into the structure of the club in the aftermath of the departure of the lineup anchor, Albert Pujols. The Cardinals were generally lauded for recruiting Beltran to provide oomph and length to the lineup. It represents a calculated gamble, with significant upside.

It is a formula based in hope–hope that the guys over-or at the top-of the hill can hang on for another year of productivity before reinforcements might arrive through other signings, trades, or from within the organization. But if the 30-somethings can’t stay on the field, a vigorous title defense will be short-lived, even allowing for five wins added by the return of Adam Wainwright.