Angel in the Outfield

I wrote about the logjam in the St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation last time. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the outfield situation heading into 2014.

By the end of the World Series a large slice of Cardinal Nation had become disenchanted with the productivity of both third baseman David Freese and centerfielder Jon Jay. By three weeks after the end of the Series, which the Cardinals lost, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak signaled the club’s own disaffection by packaging Freese with reliever Fernando Salas and sending him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for centerfielder Peter Bourjos and power-hitting prospect Randall Grichuk.

Many casual fans might have thought that Mozeliak had his wet finger in the wind, doing fans’ bidding in one fell swoop–disposing of the formerly universally beloved 2011 World Series MVP in Freese and relegating Jay to a peripheral role on the club. This would allow 2013 breakout star Matt Carpenter to shift from second base back to his preferred position at third base, (and open second base for Kolten Wong, their first-round pick in 2011). Bourjos would be ticketed to be the starting centerfielder.

But John Mozeliak is a leader–the leader of the organization, and his pragmatism, vision, and team circumstances will dictate just which group of players receives the bulk of playing time in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield next season. I assert in this post that the ideal lineup would not include Bourjos on a regular basis; that he will likely find himself in the situation he endured with the Angels as a part-time player. The devil may be in the details, but the (former) Angel will not be in the outfield very much if things work according to plan.

That’s mainly because the best hitting prospect in the organization since Albert Pujols is slated to arrive on the big club in 2014 in the form of outfielder Oscar Taveras. He has been compared to a left-handed hitting Vladimir Guerrero: able to square up a variety of offerings and drive them hard. His bat is deemed ready right now. He is the main reason the Cardinals essentially said goodbye to the productive rightfielder Carlos Beltran, who wanted a multi-year contract. The question is can Taveras handle centerfield. He isn’t considered an elite defender, so the thought is he’d look best in an outfield corner.

Those spots are taken by Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. Holliday is a fixture in left because of his contract and consistency. Matt has been a very good offensive producer his entire time on the Cardinals. He will be 34 in the coming season, with three years left on what is increasingly looking like a team-friendly contract. Craig is supposed to take over in right field next season. He has been injury-prone and will be coming back from a Lisfranc injury to his left foot. He’s been a very good #4 hitter the last two seasons, playing most of the time at first base.

The Cardinals have six outfielders on their roster. They won’t enter the season with Holliday, Craig, Bourjos, Jay, Taveras, and Shane Robinson.

By late in the postseason it appeared that the Cardinals liked the right-handed hitting Robinson over Jay, who bats and throws left, if you noticed the change in how assignments were being doled out. Robinson seemed more steady in the field and was putting the ball in play more often. Jay took a step back defensively in 2013; he went from being above average to a bottom-dweller, according to advanced statistics.

Bourjos and Robinson are similar players. Both bat right-handed. Bourjos may have a little more speed, pop, and baserunning ability. Taking into account their age difference (Bourjos is two years younger), and the fact they traded Freese for him, if it came down to Bourjos or Robinson the latter would find himself on the outside looking in.

They’d like to keep Jay since he reliably gets on base against right-handers. The problem–the irony really–is that neither Bourjos nor Robinson are especially good against left-handers, negating a potentially effective platoon rotation of outfielders. They’re trying to upgrade centerfield defense, and there are more right-handed pitchers than left-handed, so that mitigates against the idea anyway, as that would mean Jay still got most of the playing time.

This is predicated on a situation in which Craig is healthy and Taveras for some reason is not ready for regular duty. One could imagine an outfield of Holliday, Bourjos, and Craig from left to right. Bourjos is a premier defender who would upgrade the range in center, which would be needed with Holliday and Craig on his flanks.

But Bourjos has a worrying injury history. He has chronic wrist and hamstring problems. 2013 was pretty much a lost season for him. Taveras is coming off season-ending ankle surgery last July. His physical status is still uncertain.

One can see why with the loss of Beltran and the expected replacement of him by Taveras the Cardinals would still be looking for and stockpiling outfielders when they made the Freese trade. This is also why it would not be prudent for fans’ expectations to be too high for Peter Bourjos as a Cardinal.

Mozeliak did not fleece the Angels. This was a baseball trade–the two teams had different needs and they filled them with two guys who weren’t very good last season. They may both bounce back, but the Cardinals had a strategic plan to reconstruct their roster and believed they could become more athletic and better in the field without losing too much offense. It was clear to Mozeliak that the Cardinals had to upgrade athletically at several spots to get better defensively while bolstering the diversity of the attack. The Cardinals were mediocre defensively and were 13th in the league in home runs. One reason is they got 9 all season from their third baseman. That’s OK if the defense is great, and there’s speed and dynamism elsewhere. His defense was putrid, and there wasn’t.

Holliday. Taveras. Craig. Two established sluggers who get on base at a good clip coupled with a 22-year’old hitter with a very high ceiling on his ability. That’s my favorite outfield. Bourjos is #4, chiefly as the first option in center. Maybe Taveras moves around, working his way in by playing in right one day and in center two days later. Jay can be on the bench.

It’s strange that although Robinson may have temporarily moved ahead of Jay on the depth chart he may be the one expendable with the arrival of Bourjos. The Cardinals seek balance and they presently have it. They also have a lot of talent. To top it off, they get a high draft pick from the Yankees since they signed Carlos Beltran yesterday.

Must be good to be Mo. Chris Carpenter retired. Jake Westbrook is off the books. Their third baseman and rightfielder are gone. They just made it to Game 6 of the World Series, and there’s little reason to think they won’t be a better club next season. I’ll cover the good news on the infield in the next Cardinals post.

Indifference Point

I was listening to “Radiolab” on the radio today and they discussed the concept of the “indifference point”. The indifference point as I understood it is the tempo most musicians and/or listeners prefer in a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica”, for instance. There’s some controversy over how fast Beethoven wanted the music to be played. What has been learned is that when something is perceived to be too slow the players wish to speed it up; or if it’s thought to be too fast they endeavor to slow it down. Eventually, most musicians guess at a point (tempo) that feels right. Clearly disparate groups can arrive at varying “indifference points” if you’ve listened to many recordings of the Third Symphony. Some are brisk and move along at a breakneck pace, while others are stately and almost ponderous. I submit the best interpretations lie between those two extremes, like von Karajan’s version with the Berlin in 1963. It’s majestic



The indifference point as it relates to the St. Louis Cardinals roster heading into the 2014 season pertains to my state of mind about who of a few candidates must go to make the club a functioning, cohesive and balanced group when the games start to count in April. They have too many starting pitchers, and someone must go. I don’t want any of them to go, but considering the 25-man roster and the way the club is constituted there simply isn’t room for all of them. The forthcoming is premised upon taking present rules for granted, assuming the health of all involved, (more on that later), and, the fact that I am not privy to all the options Cardinals management has regarding younger pitchers like Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and even Lance Lynn. (By options I mean can they be sent down to the minors, for how long, and how many times this could be done in each case).

Right now the Cardinals have seven starting pitchers for a five-man rotation. I will put them into subgroups thusly:
Locks: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha.
Tentatively In: Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly.
Comeback Candidate: Jaime Garcia.
Outside Looking In: Carlos Martinez. Let’s pick those apart in reverse order.

The Cardinals, in their exit interview with Martinez told him to prepare to start when the season arrives. Martinez is a high-ceiling talent who started throughout his rise from the minors. Deriving maximum value from a good pitcher means giving him more, rather than fewer, innings. Martinez would have more value providing 180 innings of work than, say, 60 innings. You want your best pitchers to throw the most innings. Martinez, who hit 101 mph on his fastball out of the bullpen and flashed an outstanding slider, has as much upside as anyone on the staff. He is also 22 and under team control contractually for years. He would be very effective–but possibly wasted–in a bullpen role.

Joe Sheehan has done research on taking young starters, moving them to the bullpen, and then converting them back into starters. The results are not particularly salubrious. He found only two recent examples of players who succeeded on such a path: Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox and Adam Wainwright of St. Louis. Most pitchers were ineffective as starters, got hurt, or were even ineffective as relievers. Examples recently are Wade Davis, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, and Joba Chamberlain. Sheehan’s conclusion is that clubs have one free shot: if you want to leverage a high-end starter as a reliever that’s fine, but to go from starter to reliever and back to starter is too risky, a bridge too far.

His point was that starting pitchers cannot be developed in the bullpen in today’s game, since relievers are mostly turned into one-inning pitchers. He believes the evidence says that unless and until MLB rediscovers the long-relief role– where young guys used to break in by pitching multiple innings per appearance, building arm strength– pitchers would be protected by defining expected workloads early on.

This is now where they are with Carlos Martinez. It’s believed that he is capable of ramping up his workload safely after performing one-to-two- inning stints for less than half a season. But the evidence suggests that to jerk him back again (to the bullpen) in order that he can be of some utility to the team might be inadvisable.

This is why Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals and Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds are probably “doomed” to close games for their respective teams. They’re too good at what they do to change their roles, and it would be too risky to ask them to work a lot more since they have become so acclimated to their present regimen for so long. It’s too late for them.

Rosenthal would be crestfallen to learn this. He wants to start. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak essentially told him in November Sorry, we like you right where you are. You’re our closer. I think that’s the right decision for the Cardinals going forward.

Chapman likes closing. He prefers it. He apparently doesn’t want a heavy workload and likes to throw the ball as hard as he can. Max effort can’t take you through seven innings, and when you can touch 104 miles an hour with strikes and pair it with a devastating left-handed slider it literally is game over when he arrives on a scene. His new manager Bryan Price, the former pitching coach, was an early advocate for max value from Chapman, as a starter. The organization has concluded that it would be best for both parties for Chapman to finish games, or be available regularly for high-leverage situations, as the need arises.

This is a long way of making the point that I think Carlos Martinez is too valuable as a starting pitcher not to have him do it. This is why I think he will start, and it will be at AAA Memphis when the season begins. He will be insurance for:

The Comeback Candidate, Jaime Garcia: Garcia, the only left-hander among the seven, is coming off moderately invasive shoulder surgery. He missed most of 2013. Already having had Tommy John surgery in 2008 to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, he will have a daunting task coming back from the shoulder procedure and the concomitant rehabilitation. Shoulders are much more dicey for pitchers as the joint is more unstable than an elbow; there’s much more range of motion involved. The history of pitchers coming back from shoulder surgery is not nearly as good as that of those who have had elbows repaired. Although they have a chunk of guaranteed cash invested in Garcia, at present the Cardinals cannot count on him being available in 2014.

It would be good to have Garcia back. He has value as a quality left-hander and the Cardinals are paying him like a starter. He has little trade value now since he has not proved himself durable and effective. Ideally, he would be a rotation fixture.

Which leads to those Tentatively In: Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly. Both are young, cost-controlled power pitchers, although Lynn is soon due for a bump in pay from arbitration. He’ll have a case from the traditional standpoint, as he has won 31 games in the past two seasons.

Since they are both young, have proved they can effectively eat innings and are cheap they would be valuable trade commodities. Both are exemplars of why the Cardinals system is envied: they are home-grown talents, years from free agency. This is how good teams are sustained in baseball today.

I am indifferent as to which one must go. If I had my druthers it would be Kelly, because although he throws very hard he misses surprisingly few bats for that velocity. I don’t think he has great secondary pitches or the upside of Lynn. Lynn, however, could bring back more in a package, as he’s had success at this level longer than Kelly and is still inexpensive.

Wainwright is the ace. Wacha and Miller are number one draft picks that the organization sees as rotation cornerstones for years to come. The Cardinals appear to be invested in their futures. Realistically, only one of Lynn or Kelly would have to go because of the status of Garcia, and the uncertainty surrounding the progress of Martinez. Having said that, I can see the Cardinals attempting to “pull a Kelly” with one of these guys when injuries or regression hit. (Kelly was stashed in the bullpen at the start of last season, where he languished due to disuse and inconsistency until Garcia was shut down and he took his place in the rotation–after a brief, failed flirtation with left-hander Tyler Lyons). It may be that they try to muddle through with one in the bullpen and one at Memphis, or on the disabled list.

The fact is that all seven have legitimate claims to be in a major league rotation, and they should be. The club, however, has a few more needs going into next season, like a utility infielder who bats right-handed and can get on base at a decent rate.

Hmm…I’ve written an equivocating, indifferent piece. Perhaps that’s as it should be. I hope it has conveyed a work-in-progress feel a general manager must inhabit as he crafts a roster while the air is cold, the stadium is dark, and spring training is still more than a hundred days away. Maybe John Mozeliak is at the indifference point, observing a tonic interlude between the release of tension provided by the trade of David Freese/ signing of Jhonny Peralta, and the buildup of tension engendered by the apprehension of unfinished business.

When I conceived this article I saw 26 names for 25 spots. I thought I could justify a two-for-one dump of a pitcher and a reserve outfielder for a Martin Prado type. (Not likely to begin with, as he wants to play every day and makes $10 million. I don’t know of any $10 million bench players. Vernon Wells?) That’s not necessary! I don’t believe “these things have a way of working themselves out”. Every team has imbalances every year…they should be minimized, shortened in duration of time; not allowed to reverberate throughout the organization.

Now that I’ve thought through the process, and noted the questions around two of the proposed starters, I’m more convinced they might take the latter path, trying to hang on to all seven, at least until some answers are provided by Memorial Day. Thanks for your patience. I’ll touch on other imbalances on the roster in a future post.