Up on the Farm

Major League Baseball has gotten itself in a bind with the way the game is played and how rosters are constructed today. With 12- and -13 man pitching staffs, the 25-man roster puts pressure on the front office and manager to find and deploy versatile players-especially in the National League–who can competently man a few different positions on the field. There’s urgent need on several teams for a Bip Roberts-type, but he played in a time with generally larger stadiums and 11-man pitching staffs. More of a premium was placed on players who could field several positions, get on base, and steal a base once in a while, because home runs were harder to hit and were therefore more valuable.

There’s still a need for versatility in an age of smaller stadiums and larger pitching staffs, but the 25-man crunch is leading to situations where a club can’t find room for multi-tool players who do several things well, rather than one or two things very well. This is how you get an Evan Gattis playing left field for the Braves last season, because B.J. Upton was so bad, or Pete Kozma playing shortstop for five months because the Cardinals hoped he wouldn’t embarrass himself with the bat, which he did.

Gattis had power versus left-handers, and he could catch, but that was about it. Gattis hurt the Braves in the postseason with his play in the outfield. The Cardinals came two victories away from winning their second World Series in three seasons, partly because there were too many holes in their lineup; too many sure outs against a top-notch pitching staff.

The Cardinals were a top-tier offensive club during the regular season. They did it mainly by mashing a high number of doubles. They were at the bottom of the league in stolen bases and their ability to hit home runs regressed. Mike Matheny handled what he had to work with well, but the inability to put pressure on the other team through speed on the base paths, or the facility to strike quickly with homers, caused the team to depend on a strategy announcer John Rooney liked to call “Keep the line moving.” They were very good at this against lesser competition, but it proved fruitless at the end when there were some spots in the lineup offering no punch and no on-base skills against elite major league pitching.

General Manager John Mozeliak quickly acknowledged his mistake and set about addressing the hole at shortstop by signing Tigers free agent Jhonny Peralta in early December. Peralta had been suspended for the last 50 games of 2013 for PED use but was reinstated for the playoffs and was one of the best postseason hitters for the Tigers, especially in the first round against the Athletics.

Peralta moved to shortstop only a few years ago. He’s big for the position, and he’s been just average there since he started playing there regularly. There’s some question as to whether he’ll be good enough to stick there at age 32, but it’s believed that if he is just average in the field his bat will more than take up the slack.

I wonder about that, as well. Not much has been made of Peralta changing leagues at this advanced stage of his career, possibly because of more, but limited interleague play, and the fact that he is going to the non-DH league. I believe recent history such as in the case of Albert Pujols points to concern about league changes for hitters. Albert’s decline has been chalked up to aging, and it’s a plausible explanation, but it’s something to watch going forward. Peralta is not a sure bet to add value with his bat, but he’s a good one. I like the move.

The trade with the Angels that sent David Freese away opened up third base for Matt Carpenter, who came up as a third baseman. Carpenter had a magnificent season in 2013, solving the leadoff problem the Cardinals had for several years and adding punch while playing second base almost every day. This 6+ WAR player came in fourth in the MVP voting and was crucial to the Cardinals’ success. He’s proved to be durable, although he went through a trough in late summer where he seemed fatigued from the extreme ramp-up in duties. The only question with Carpenter is can he continue to display the elite on-base skills he showed last season.

Carpenter is not a great defender, but almost anyone will be better in the field at third than David Freese, who ESPN’s Peter Pascarelli said had the range of a sofa during the World Series.  (Freese is hobbled by damaged ankles and was still being pulled for a defensive replacement late in games last season).

As it stand today, Matt Adams is the starter at first base. Adams only had 319 at-bats in 2013, but he hit 17 home runs, which was second on the club. He became the everyday starter when Allen Craig rolled his foot rounding first base in a game in early September. Big City, as he is known, is a true behemoth, but he showed good agility in the field and seems to have good knowledge of the game.

Adams has had some predictable trouble against left-handed pitching, as he’s a young lefty hitter, and this has really been the only chink in his armor. Will he hit lefties in 2014? We need to find out in the affirmative.

The switch of Carpenter to third was part of a strategic plan to inject more speed and athleticism into the lineup in the person of 2011 first round pick Kolten Wong from Hawaii. If Wong works out it could be a key to the season, but there is an above average backup in Mark Ellis, a free agent who came over from the Dodgers.

Can Wong hack it at this level? If he can get on base one-third of the time he would be a real asset. He is known to be a good defender and is one of the fastest guys on the team. The way the team is constructed they are going to need these dimensions, as Carpenter is not going to hit a lot of home runs for a third baseman. That’s OK if there’s dynamism spread throughout the lineup, so the Cardinals will be watching to see if Wong can be steady in the field and make some things happen when he gets on base.

The arrival of Ellis has made Cardinals fans cocky. There’s a 3-win backup in place in case Wong struggles. Not many teams can point to a backup like Mark Ellis. He can play third in a pinch, but not much else. He offers no pop, no speed, and he won’t be batting second–as he did on the Dodgers–if Matheny knows how to construct a lineup. He doesn’t get on base enough against right-handers, which is most of what he’ll be seeing. If it turns out the 37-year-old has to play second base a lot and bats 8th, that would be fine, as he adds value in that role.

Going into camp there are no viable long-term backups for the left side of the infield. At the moment, the Cardinals must choose between two guys who don’t do enough things well to be good alternatives. Peralta and Carpenter can’t play every game, meaning the club will have to take another hard look at Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. Descalso is a left-handed hitter with a good arm and a little pop but he can’t really handle shortstop and is a below average hitter. Kozma is a glove man but can’t hit. His ability to run may help him find his way on the team as a pinch-runner. One of them will probably be cut if they carry a 12-man pitching staff. Eleven pitchers is unthinkable these days, and there will be times they’ll want to carry 13.

This is where Bip Roberts comes in. He finished with a .358 career on-base percentage and could reliably play every position on the field except catcher and first base. He also could steal bases. He’s a dying breed.

Roberts became expensive as he matured. Today’s sport, though sloshing in money, looks for bench players who are young, cheap, and usually under club control at minimum wages for several years.

I myself have been cocky contemplating the season ahead, but there are so many questions: How will Peralta perform? Can Adams hit lefties? Can Allen Craig stay healthy playing in the outfield? Will phenom Oscar Taveras force himself on the team? Will Wong pan out?

Everyone’s gone “studs and scrubs” in this environment, it’s just more notable with some prominent clubs, like the Tigers the last few years, with Verlander, Cabrera, Scherzer, and then guys like Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago; or the Yankees last year.

There isn’t room for a glove man; he needs to hit, too. But you need a guy who can play a few positions, like Descalso, but you’re bound to be disappointed if he gets overexposed.

The Cardinals’ success in recent seasons has been juiced by the performance of players from their own farm system, such as Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and others. This will have to continue if they are to continue to enjoy championship seasons.  They are in good shape to maintain their position in the National League Central, but it’s my position that impact will have to come from at least one of Oscar Taveras in the outfield, Kolten Wong, or the newcomer Peter Bourjos if he finds his way into the outfield rotation on a regular basis.

The infield defense will not be top-shelf. Core players like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina aren’t getting younger. They’ll still need an infusion of young talent in 2014. Heck, they must replace Carlos Beltran.

It’s a huge spring for Oscar Taveras. If he’s not ready physically, or struggles, the Cardinals will have no qualms stashing him at Memphis. I’m just starting to feel sorry for a guy like Shane Robinson, who will likely be a casualty of the numbers game with the outfielders on hand.

I think the best solution is an expansion of the rosters to 26 men. The players would approve, but the MLBPA has been cowed in recent negotiations, as Commissioner Bud Selig used the anti-PED crusade as a sort of background leverage in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. Bet that this will be a point of contention next time around.

Finally, I’d be in favor of carrying an 11-man pitching staff. Specialization has run amok; they don’t need 12 pitchers, but they’ve convinced themselves they do. You won’t see one 11-man pitching staff in 2014. How old is Bip?

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