Who’s On First, or, Who’s Confused Yet?

No, I’m not reworking the old Abbott and Costello bit, just thinking out loud about a conundrum facing the St. Louis Cardinals regarding roster construction as GM John Mozeliak must make some decisions before spring training begins late this winter. The latest information coming out makes unclear the roles of two players in particular–Allen Craig and Matt Adams–both ostensibly first basemen with different profiles and attributes. I’ll delve into that presently.
I should preface this post by noting the oddly disconcerting news that there was a shakeup at the local ESPN sports radio affiliate yesterday. A character in the “Yu Is So Right” post was based on–I wrote “a composite of”–a personality who lost his job. Of course I am not presumptuous enough to claim credit or blame for this circumstance, I just thought it was ironic, and kind of a shame. Listeners will lose the insights of the main Cardinals beat reporter, an indefatigable nerd who knows the club as well as anyone and is good at explaining sabermetrics, and a guy deployed by the station to cover the baseball team full-time and had access to all the principals.
The boss at the station is “Hoss” Neupert. I did not make that up.
What we’ve heard recently are some statements that confuse. Some context: Allen Craig is the de facto first baseman. He is 29, a RH hitter, who just had a very good season and is making $6 million per year for the next four years. He is also injury-prone. He was out from September 4th until the World Series in the third week of October, which is the earliest he could make it back. He has a Lisfranc injury to his left foot. Such an injury can take months from which to recover and often leads to painful arthritis down the line.
Matt Adams is a 23-year-old LH batter whose only position is first base. Although agile, he’s a hulking 260-pounder who already runs like a wounded Matt Stairs. He’d been an effective power bat off the bench who assumed first base after the Craig injury. He hit 17 home runs in just less than half a season’s typical plate appearances, so the Cardinals see him as a legitimate 30+ home run threat given a full season of at-bats.
And this is what the Cardinals need. Their power was down this year. They scored only 26% of their runs by the homer, which was near the bottom of the league; they were extremely dependent upon stringing skeins of hits together, and were amazing with runners in scoring position–but it’s not a skill per se and not something upon which they can rely. See Jon Lester, World Series.
It appears the Cardinals’ best home run hitter the last two seasons, Carlos Beltran, will leave for a multi-year deal. The right fielder has several suitors willing to sacrifice a top draft pick they’d have to give up to pry him away from St. Louis, who offered him a one-year qualifying offer, which prompts draft pick compensation if he rejects the offer and signs somewhere else.
This leaves right field “open”. So put Craig there, right? He’s a good athlete whose bat profiles well in an outfield corner. Give first base to Adams, who will offer the most power on the club and handled defensive chores pretty well.
But the Cardinals have the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues in Oscar Taveras. He was ranked one or two as the best prospect in baseball in 2013. His bat is ready now. They are not so sure about his route-running and arm accuracy in the outfield. Ideally, Taveras could take over in center field, supplanting the mediocre Jon Jay and forcing him to a bench role. But we’re hearing that the Cardinals want Taveras to just worry about mashing the ball and don’t anticipate expecting him to man a premium defensive position in center. So they’ve told reporters Taveras will be in right, and they don’t plan for Adams to be blocked any longer.
What does this mean for Craig? And for center field? They’ve intimated they were dissatisfied with Jay’s performance. Would they go after Jacoby Ellsbury to play center? What about shortstop, the most pressing need of all? Would they sign Stephen Drew? (Two draft picks; both Scott Boras clients. Don’t think so.)
What this all points toward is 1) a trade may be imminent; and/or 2) they could decide to get Stephen Drew, which would make the Cardinals lineup heavily left-handed.
They may move Matt Carpenter to third base, displacing David Freese. Then they could insert the LH-hitting Kolten Wong at second. Drew is a lefty hitter. So is Taveras. That would leave Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina as the only right-handed hitters in the usual lineup.
That’s great on most days when they would be facing right-handers but far less than ideal against lefties. They had tremendous difficulty with lefties this year, even featuring righties such as Craig, Molina, Holliday, Freese, and the switch-hitting slugger Beltran. I think it’s an anomaly but it’s also a fact.
I have to believe that they want their money’s worth from Allen Craig, who has been their best hitter the last two years. Perhaps it’s a smokescreen, (WHY?) they’ll keep everybody and Taveras will go to center.
We know the organization is determined to move on several fronts–shortstop and center, and likely at third, and has hinted that it’s time to go outside the organization to fill these needs.
Could we please have the DH, so we could reasonably keep these guys? Is it time to move pitchers–of which they certainly have a surplus–and package them with Craig to bring Troy Tulowitzki to St. Louis to play short and bring right-handed thump? Did I note that he’s 30, injury-prone and expensive? Oh, my. They’d have to give up some Faberge eggs to get Tulo in the form of premium young, cost-controlled power arms. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said it would take Craig, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal to get Tulo from Colorado. No, thanks.
So, this reporter is anxious to see Oscar Taveras. He’s considered the best Cardinals hitting prospect since Albert Pujols. It’s the cascade of related matters providing the tipover into anxiety. Mo, can we talk?

Yu Is So Right

The following story is fiction. Some of the persons are real, one is a composite of local sports radio personalities, and one is named Bob.
Yu Darvish is a star pitcher with the Texas Rangers. He’s just finished his second season in the American League after coming over from Nippon Pro Baseball in Japan. He was invited to Game 1 by Mike Napoli, a former Ranger now on the Red Sox.
So Taguchi played in both leagues, won a championship in Japan on a club with Ichiro, and had some big hits as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 2000’s. He’s calling the World Series for Japanese television.
Jamey Wright has pitched in the big leagues for 17 years. He’s a journeyman who’s attending the Series in Boston.
Cryin Dull is a St Louis “insider” on the Cardinals who works for the local FM ESPN radio affiliate.
Bob is a smarty-pants wanna-be interlocutor/assistant/conscience for and of Mr. Dull.
They’ve convened at Fenway Park in Boston hours before Game 1 of the World Series between the Cardinals and Red Sox. Players from both teams are taking turns on the field. The group is sitting together halfway up the stands on a cool but sunny New England afternoon.
This is what was overheard…
Dull: Yu, So, Mr. Wright, how ya doin’?
In unison: Great, you?
(Darvish snaps his head around).
Dull: Great. Say Yu, how good is that arm?
Darvish: My right arm is fine.
Dull: So, (Taguchi snaps his head), you enjoying the AL?
Darvish: I am.
Dull: He’s really been impactful, right Jamey?
Wright: Um, yes.
Dull: Hey, is that Saltyamacchia?
Bob: It’s Saltalamacchia. (Whispering).
Dull: Irregardless, that guy’s playing tonight.
Bob shakes his head.
Dull: So, (Taguchi…) in regards to your career Mr. Wright, or Jamey, did you feel like you had a good season?
Wright: I would have liked a better ending.
Dull: Well, there was a lot of reasons the wheels came off, right?
Wright: Sort of.
Dull: Talk about it.
Wright: Well, I thought my role would be a bigger one than it was.
Dull: Don’t you mean than WHAT it was?
Wright: I’m not sure…
Dull: Nevermind. So, (Taguchi…) you know, (Darvish…) you literally came a long way over the years.
Wright: Yeah, a lot of riding buses. In the Carolina League our uniforms would get torn and we had nobody to repair ’em. I had to learn to sew. Found a kit at a Rite-Aid.
(Bob shares a smirk with Wright. Bob’s pretending not to be listening to the conclave but he can’t help himself.)

Allen Craig limps onto the field to attempt some light running. The Cardinals slugger suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot after rounding first base in a game at Cincinnati on September 4th. He’s only now become available to play in the World Series. Taguchi is intrigued.
Taguchi: Why is he limping?
Dull: It’s the foot.
Taguchi: Which foot?
Dull: Craig’s foot. It’s that foot that he’s fighting.
Taguchi: Left or right? (Exasperation mounts. Darvish is starting to sweat, even though the air is crisp and he’s just sitting there. Wright is looking anywhere but at Dull, because he’s fuming.)
Dull: It’s the foot that is in front when he bats–the front foot.
(Taguchi starts to frown).
Taguchi: So he hasn’t been playing?
Dull: Yeah, no. So he’s being ginger with it, right (uprise, question mark, I don’t know.) He’s taking care of it, right.
Taguchi: Do they think he’ll be alright?
Dull: So (pause) they’re trying to see where he’s at, and that. Right? He’s running better than what he was. In fact, recently he made a play that looked harder than it wa…then what it wa…um…it is what it is.
(Groans are now emanating from all around. Eyes are rolling in their sockets. A very uncomfortable air sets in).
Darvish: Craig’s a very good hitter.
Dull: He led the majors in hitting with runners in scoring position. He’s very unique.
Wright: When did he get injured?
Dull: So, (Taguchi…) I feel like I want to say the end of August.
Bob, in Dull’s ear: September 4th, Cincy, remember?
Dull: At the end of the day it doesn’t matter. See, look, he’s ran a lot. He’s running good.

Darvish bolts upright and takes his leave. He’s exhausted by Dull’s inane patter. Taguchi and Wright are hanging in there.
Taguchi: Who will win tonight, Mr. Dull?
Dull: I tell you what, you know, maybe if you were still with the Cardinals..
Taguchi: (Smiling) They’d have a chance?
Dull: Right, so you would be the difference-maker.
Taguchi: Come on, Mr. Dull!
Dull: You hit ’em in the huevos rancheros a few years ago, right? I’m right, right?

The assembled group disperses. Bob and Dull grab their sacks and start trudging up the steps. Dull turns to Bob and says,
Anyway, I can’t wait to see Tavares!
It’s Taveras. Why do all you guys pronounce it wrong?
I’m not wrong. He’s gonna burn down the house. Don’t you know that “Disco Inferno” song? Who did that?
You are so right…

Lost In Orbit

There are a minimum of 1,458 innings in a Major League Baseball season. Before the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired the enigmatic A.J. Burnett from the Yankees last month, the starting quintet of Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and Charlie Morton combined averaged 502 innings pitched per season. Who has averaged the most IP per season in his career? Bedard, a lefty who missed two full seasons in 2003 and 2010. The Pirates now must count on him to rack up strikeouts.
Burnett came to the Pirates in a recent Yankees body dump. New York fans were nervous for a chunk of the winter that the team was standing pat with essentially the same roster from 2011. But then within 24 hours in the middle of January they signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal, and pulled off a traditional blockbuster trade by dealing hitting phenom Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for just as phenom-enal starting pitcher Michael Pineda. Both teams received exactly what they needed. A.J. had finally become superfluous. The Yankees will pay two-thirds of his salary to make him go away.
Burnett was lined up to front the rotation, providing a declining but still above average fastball and hard curve that would carve out at least league average innings munching. The move away from the short right field fence at Yankee Stadium and the AL East into a more favorable environment in the NL Central must have encouraged Bucs fans.
But Burnett broke the orbital bone above his right eye in a bunting drill this week, and after surgery, likely won’t make his debut until the end of May. So where will the innings come from?
None of the aforementioned five pitchers has thrown 200 innings in a season. According to Fangraphs, they collectively provided six wins above replacement level in 2011.
Charlie Morton, who does an eerie impression of Roy Halladay’s mechanics on the mound ate up right-handed hitters last season, but was torched to the tune of .364/.460/.500 by lefty swingers. He resurrected himself last year, but Baseball Prospectus sees him as possibly missing part of the season.
Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens have rarely finished games with efficiency. McDonald, who has a plus fastball but very little else that fools hitters, had a rough start but was more effective as the season wore on.
Manager Clint Hurdle led the league in relievers used in 2011, but he didn’t have much choice: no pitcher threw 120 pitches in a start last season. This will put a premium on versatility in the bullpen. Hurdle would be wise to eschew a “defined roles” approach to the ‘pen, cultivating a corps of hurlers from among Evan Meek, Jeff Locke, Brad Lincoln, and Chris Resop to soak up middle innings.
Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, two extremely hard-throwing right-handers, are expected in the future. They have high ceilings as starting pitchers, but neither is close. In fact, Cole, taken first overall in last June’s draft, had a shaky debut in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. His fastball has been clocked up to 101 mph, but his results have yet to match his raw stuff.
There’s no rush, because there simply isn’t enough talent here to push the Pirates into contention in 2012. It’s good to have competition, and a lot of baseball people look forward to it being provided in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the position players will continue to make progress. They’re very young. There will be hope in Pittsburgh when it could make sense to get a little old.

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.