The St. Louis Cardinals are relying on a lot of people to do things they’ve never done before if their offense is going to be successful in 2017.
I’m not saying they can’t do it. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of them struggled outside of their comfort zone. That’s a risk the front office seems prepared to take.
Let’s start at the top and look at the biggest question marks in the Cardinals lineup:
Leadoff man Dexter Fowler is accomplished in that role. But he’s had a problem in the past with remaining healthy over the course of a long season. Since he became a full-time big leaguer in 2009, Fowler has averaged 131 games played a season. He’s played more than 143 games only one time in nine campaigns. As the roster stands, the Redbirds don’t really have a plan B when it comes to fly chasers. Their fourth outfielder is Tommy Pham who hasn’t shown he’s capable of being a major league starter for long stretches of time should a starter go down to injury.
Aledmys Diaz figures to bat second in the order. Diaz looked fantastic last season – at least until he was lost down the stretch when his hand was broken by a pitch. But did anyone really expect him to storm into the big leagues like he did? I’d say no since the Redbirds demoted him to the minors before breaking spring training even though Jhonny Peralta was injured and expected to miss two-thirds of the season. I’m curious to see if Diaz can repeat the .300 hitting with power that he showed in 2017 – and if he can iron out the rough spots in his fielding.
Matt Carpenter has proved he can hit for power over the past couple of years. And that qualifies him to be Matt Holliday’s heir apparent in the three spot in the lineup, according to St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. But what he hasn’t done is shown he can hit anywhere besides the leadoff spot. Baseball players, fans and coaches will tell you it doesn’t matter where you hit because it’s all the same. But Carpenter’s numbers tell a different story. He’s a .295 career hitter batting first in the order, a .257 career hitter batting second and a .222 career hitter batting third. Hopefully, going into the season knowing his role will give Carpenter a chance to prepare. But if he flops batting third, the Birds’ lineup will be a mess.
The clean-up spot is another mystery. Will Stephen Piscotty, an outfielder who arrived in the big leagues with a reputation of hitting for average but not much power, now assume the slot where power means the most? Or will Matt Adams, a guy the Redbirds have been intently trying to trade this winter, be back in the spot? Adams showed a lot of promise as a power hitter. But he’s never been able to produce as a regular like he did when he was a part-time player.
Randall Grichuk is likely to hit fifth because of his power. But are we to believe the Cardinals have faith in a guy that they sent to the minors last year – twice? Sure, Grichuk strikes out more than we’d like to see. But he also hits for a respectable average, has the most power upside on the team, plays pretty good defense and he can run. Yet the Cardinals are always ready to the pull the plug on him at the first sign of failure. Why? And what changed their mind to alter their perception that he was a fringe major league player last year to become a middle of the order stalwart this year? I hope Grichuk gets into a groove and never looks back. Because if he doesn’t, I don’t know what the Birds are going to do.
Catcher Yadier Molina will likely bat sixth. He showed a strong recovery from his previous thumb injuries by hitting for average. But he struggled to hit for power in 2016. I’ll be interested to see if he can find his power stroke after another off-season to strengthen his thumb – or if Molina will slide down the batting order in his twilight years.
Third base could be a revolving door. Peralta, seems more appropriate at third because of his declining range at his original position, shortstop. But he had a tough time bouncing back from a thumb ligament surgery and it remains to be seen if his power will return. Remember that before he was injured, Peralta sure seemed out of gas in the second half of 2015. Another option at third is Jedd Gyorko who managed to hit 30 homers in a super utility role. But he’s going to rack up strikeouts in bunches if he is overexposed and his defense is average at best. Whether it’s Peralta or Gyorko who gets the bulk of the playing time, one of them is going to have to play more than he’s ever played before at that position.
Finally, the big question is the enigma, Kolten Wong. He’s got the quickest bat on the team and can fly on the bases. But the diminutive second baseman doesn’t want to spray the ball around and terrorize pitchers on the base paths. He wants to be a little home run hitter. Pitchers know it, they exploit his over-aggressiveness, Wong gets down on himself and the downward spiral begins. The Cardinals need Wong, after three years of trying, to finally become the player they thought he could be.