Mike Matheny on chess in the Cards' clubhouse
It’s the St. Louis Cardinals’ version of that classic Abbott and Costello routine:
“Who’s on first? What’s on second. Third base? I don’t know.”
Except in this case, the Cardinals really do not know, not with the not-so-distant return of shortstop Jhonny Peralta from the disabled list.
Peralta, out since spring training following left thumb surgery, will cause the dominoes to fall when he is able to complete a minor-league rehabilitation assignment in the next few weeks.
Befitting the too-much-over-here, not-enough-over-there roster the Cardinals have had all season, Peralta’s return is complicated. And it is rife with consequences for more than a fistful of Cardinals players: Aldedmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Brandon Moss.
The issue is simply this: Peralta will return expecting to play the position manned by the Cardinals’ best everyday player so far this year, Diaz. If Peralta must play – and he will, given his offensive contributions the last two years and his four-year, $53-million contract – how and where do you find playing time for Diaz?
We can’t rule out moving Diaz, we can’t rule out moving Carpenter and we can’t rule out moving Peralta.
St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak
“I’m very comfortable with him (Peralta) doing other things,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak told reporters at Busch Stadium earlier this homestand. “We can’t rule out moving Diaz, we can’t rule out moving Carpenter and we can’t rule out moving Peralta. … The good news for us is that we’re very confident in what Peralta can do for us defensively, and I think he can do that at any position.”
Oh, the options are numerous, but as we explore them I’m wondering: What would Abbott and Costello do? What would you do?
Option 1: Peralta to short, Diaz to third, Carpenter to first
This may be the most straightforward solution, restoring Peralta to his natural playing position while giving Diaz less defensive responsibility at third – and Carpenter fewer fielding obligations at first.
Why this works: Peralta’s range may not be as great as some others playing that position in the majors, but the Cardinals wind up with an out on most everything hit his way. The same can’t be said of Diaz – who has had 10 errors at short, five of them throwing miscues – and Carpenter, who is second on the team with seven errors (three on bad throws). And putting Carpenter at first reduces the number of throws he has to make routinely; nine of his 21 errors since the start of the 2015 season have come on errant throws across the diamond.
Why this doesn’t work: Putting Carpenter at first gives the Cardinals five players – one out of five on the 25-man roster – who are first baseman. That list would be topped by Carpenter, followed by Adams, Moss and Holliday – who would all but see his first-base days come to an end. If Carpenter is the Cardinals’ everyday first sacker, how to find playing time and at-bats for Adams and Moss?
Option 2: Peralta to short, Diaz to second, Wong to the bench
This stratagem is relatively simple, putting a wrinkle in the middle of the infield but leaving the corner spots untouched.
Why this works: It removes the Cardinals’ weakest link in the everyday lineup: Wong is hitting just .258 with five RBIs and four errors at second base.
Why this doesn’t work: There are 25 1/2 million reasons, good or bad, to keep Wong in the lineup. With that five-year deal signed in spring training, Wong also is young enough that benching him could damage his development. And having thrown in their lot with Wong, the Cardinals are not likely to want that money stagnating on their bench every day.
Option 3: Peralta to short, Diaz to third, Carpenter to second
This move would put Carpenter and Diaz in new positions defensively, but let Peralta remain in his comfort zone at short.
Why this works: Again, Wong takes a seat as the Cardinals try to climb back into the National Central race; as Matheny likes to say, the Cardinals are in the winning-games business, not the player-career-development biz. It also puts Carpenter back at the position where he was named an All-Star in 2013.
Why this doesn’t work: Again, it puts Wong’s big contract on the bench, and puts Diaz at a position he has yet to play in the majors. What’s more: At this point in Carpenter’s career, he profiles as a corner infielder, with more pop than someone playing up the middle. This also would increase his responsibilities with the glove – worrying about turning the double play, positioning on bunt plays and serving as the cutoff man for hits to right and right center – and that might detract from his offensive approach.
Option 4: Peralta to third, Carpenter at first
This may be the most straightforward of the changes, leaving intact the middle infield tandem of Diaz and Wong for them to develop more consistency as they progress through the growing pangs of young players.
Why this works: Peralta played 204 games at third base with Detroit and Cleveland in 2009-10, with a .981 fielding percentage. Carpenter, who has played five positions in the Cardinals organization – first, second, third and the corner outfield spots – would have fewer defensive burdens at first.
Why this doesn’t work: Again, the logjam at first base. And the move leaves the more-suspect defender, Diaz, playing the more difficult defensive position.
Option 5: Peralta/Carpenter in left field and at third, Holliday to first
This is the baseball equivalent of a Chinese fire drill, putting three players in new positions while again leaving Diaz and Wong alone.
Why this works: Giving Holliday more playing time at first could lessen the later-in-the-season fatigue level for the 36-year-old, who is coming off a 2015 season in which he missed 124 games because of a quad injury suffered chasing down a ball in the outfield.
Why this doesn’t work: Tony La Russa always said that any infielder can learn to play outfield (read: Skip Schumaker), but this option would likely weaken the Cardinals at first base and in left field (even if you concede that Holliday is no better than an average defender in left). And he’s new enough to first base that we’d likely see a hiccup or two there, not to mention that Peralta or Carpenter would be basically playing out of position.
The Cardinals have a couple weeks to figure this out, but all in all it’s enough to confound Abbott and Costello both. To say nothing of you and me.
“Who’s on first? What’s on second. Third base? I don’t know.”
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or @JoeOstermeier