Upgrading the defense, improving the speed and finding a center fielder are among the offseason priorities for St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak.
Mozeliak said Wednesday at Busch Stadium that the Cardinals could look outside the organization for a center fielder and move Randal Grichuk to left field.
The Cardinals still believe Grichuk, who finished the season on a high note at the plate, could play center field and be an All-Star. But with Matt Holliday’s $17-million option for next season not being exercised, there also is an opening in left field.
“For us, it’s going to be, ‘What can we do to upgrade in center vs. keeping Grichuk there?’” Mozeliak said. “If we don’t find a good solution, we’ll just keep Grichuk there and put someone else in left. For us, it’s really going to be exploring what that trade and free-agent market looks like before we make that determination.”
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Grichuk could be a better fit there if a center fielder can be added from outside the organization. Mozeliak said a plus defender in center is more important than finding a center fielder to bat at the top of the order, where Matt Carpenter has flourished.
“I certainly think Carp does a really good job there, but if we decide Carp’s going to move down in the order, then having (a center fielder) hit leadoff would be helpful,” Mozeliak said. “But I don’t think the identity of the center fielder is solely based on where he hits in the lineup as much as being an above-average defender.”
If Grichuk returns to center field, Brandon Moss could fill Holliday’s void in left. But Mozeliak said the Cardinals still haven’t determined their level of interest in bringing back Moss, who slumped late and batted just .225 despite hammering 28 home runs.
“I don’t know that answer yet,” Mozeliak said of whether Moss will be back. “You think about his contributions this year and clearly, he had a lot of success. The last six weeks were very difficult for him. I still think he’s a great teammate, very well respected in that clubhouse. So I do see there could be a role for him.”
Catching the ball
The Cardinals (86-76) do not have an above-average defender other than catcher Yadier Molina. Their 107 errors ranked 11th in the National League.
Can the Cardinals catch the ball better without drastically changing their roster?
“I hope so because it would be tough to do a complete overhaul,” Mozeliak said. “You look at the personnel on this roster and it’s not like we have a ton of flexibility with it. I do think somebody like a (Aledmys) Diaz is going to be more comfortable next year (at shortstop), but if there was a way to add some protection up the middle, we should consider it.”
One way to improve, specifically, the infield defense is for second baseman Kolten Wong to figure out how to become an effective major-league player.
Wong is the most athletic infielder the Cardinals have, but he batted .240 with just 23 RBIs in 313 at-bats. He also would provide much-needed speed to the lineup.
“I’m sure he would be the first to tell you this was not the year he was hoping for,” Mozeliak said. “(Manager) Mike (Matheny) and I and the entire staff feel he’s a talented player. The tough part about the big leagues is it’s about performance. You’re either doing it or you’re not. me level, we’ve got to find that balance between giving him a shot to do it, but understanding there could be some struggles.
“As we look to see what this club is going to look like, from our standpoint, we probably need to pencil him in and then see what it looks like building around him. But the good news for us is we had somebody like Jedd Gyorko that came over and had the success he had. He gives us that flexibility to be a little more patient.”
Matheny said the Cardinals showed their commitment to Wong in spring training when they signed him to five-year, $25.5-million extension. But Wong was going so poorly in June, when his average dropped to .222, that the Cardinals optioned him to Class AAA Memphis for a week.
“There are lessons that need to be learned,” Matheny said. “There’s not a bluprint for each individual guy. You’ve got to kind of figure it out as you go. Kolten had some rough spots this year that we had to go to pretty extreme measures (to fix) when you’re sending him to Triple-A. But it had to be done and you could see he benefited from it.”
Running the bases
Mozeliak said the Cardinals must become more proficient on the bases. They seldom were able to go from first to third on a hit, and their 35 steals ranked last in the NL.
But if Wong doesn’t play and a new center fielder isn’t found, many of the same players from the team this year will be back in 2017, holding similar roles.
“When you look at our club, and when we talk about baserunning, you almost look at our club more like a station-to-station team,” Mozeliak said. “So if there was a way we can inject some athleticism or speed to this team, I think you could forego a little bit of that power. We’ve looked at addressing speed and athleticism for many years. We just haven’t been able to come up with that right combination.”
Reflecting on 2016
Mozeliak called it “a year of inconsistencies.”
“You think back to some of our defensive struggles, which put a lot of stress on our rotation, which then, of course, led to some inconsistencies with the rotation,” he said. “And from a baserunning standpoint, it didn’t go quite as we had planned.”
Mozeliak highlighted the shoulder and forearm injuries to closer Trevor Rosenthal, who set a franchise record with 48 saves last season but missed almost two months this year. Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh stepped in for Rosenthal and saved 19 games, but Rosenthal’s absence hurt the depth in the back end of the bullpen.
“Having to adjust the closer midstream is never easy,” Mozeliak said. “We’re very fortunate that Oh stepped up and gave us the kind of year he had. But (Rosenthal’s injury) certainly diminished some of the depth in the bullpen that we thought (we had).
“And as we sat here last year, one of the things we did want to focus on was improving our offense. I feel we checked the box, but you can argue, ‘At what cost?’ It’s certainly fair game. ... Even though we had the uptick in offense (with 225 homers), runs given up was something that ended up penalizing us.”
Matheny said this season wasn’t what fans are used to watching.
“I think from just the perspective of this organization, it looked different than what we’re accustomed to seeing around here,” Matheny said. “We’re accustomed to seeing very clean defense. We’re accustomed to seeing aggressive, clean baserunning, not making mistakes.”
If the Cardinals are going to have changes to the coaching staff, Mozeliak wasn’t ready to go public with it Wednesday.
“I don’t think I can answer that today,” he said. “I think both Mike and I plan on getting together over the next couple of days and looking at that. Hopefully, we have any issues resolved by early next week.”
Mozeliak doesn’t believe Jose Oquendo will return to the major-league staff. Many believed his absence this season was partly responsible for the Cardinals’ baserunning issues and defensive deficiencies.
“I believe he wants to stay with the organization, but mainly focus on working out of Jupiter,” Mozeliak said of the team’s complex in Florida.
Mozeliak also said he has not yet had any conversations with Matheny about a contract extension. Matheny is 461-349 in five seasons and has led the Cardinals to the postseason four times.