Cheap Seats

St. Louis Cardinals may have painted themselves into corner with conservative roster upgrades

On the eve of spring training, the St. Louis Cardinals and the big moves of the winter behind major league baseball clubs, it seems the Redbirds have more than a few questions left to answer.

The team decided not to pursue a middle of the order batter who is capable of playing a corner infield position, a move that I thought was their most pressing need going into the 2016-17 off-season. Meanwhile, general manager John Mozeliak gambled that he would be able to trade first baseman Matt Adams so Matt Carpenter could slide across the diamond from third base to a position that figures to be easy for him to handle defensively and the Birds passed on a chance to add a noteworthy extra outfielder.

The Cardinals seemed like a perfect fit for one of the corner infield sluggers on the market this winter and were speculated to be after several of them. Yet they passed. So, not only are they a bat short in the middle of the order, they also left themselves unsettled defensively. If they would have gone out and signed Justin Turner away from the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, they’d be committed to Turner playing third and first base would have belonged to Carpenter.

While versatility is a desirable quality for a player to have in most cases, Carpenter’s ability to move around the defense makes it tempting for his manager to use him to plug holes. Will the Cardinals be tempted to put Carpenter back at third base to make room for Adams who can’t play anyplace else but first? Will Carpenter take at-bats away from Kolten Wong at second base? What happens when aging and brittle infielder Jhonny Peralta struggles or gets hurt?

Mozeliak said he wanted to improve the infield defense, primarily through putting Carp at first and creating some consistency across the diamond. But, since he didn’t sign a corner infielder, and since Adams is still around, and since Peralta is written on the lineup card in extremely light pencil as the starting third sacker and cleanup hitter, the middle of the order and the corners of the infield are still up in the air as the Hot Stove League music stops and the desirable free agents have already found chairs.

With Carpenter at first and Peralta at third, the Cardinals are forced to waste a valuable roster spot on Adams, a poor defender and who can only play one position – which coincidentally the same one the team’s best hitter, Carpenter, plays.

The Birds passed on a chance to acquire a big hitter because they thought they could improve the offense by adding Dexter Fowler as a free agent to be the leadoff hitter. The front office leadership decided it could improve the defense by putting the range-challenged Peralta at third, moving scatter-armed infielder Carpenter to first and by putting 2016 starting centerfielder Randal Grichuk in left field in place of Matt Holliday to make room for Fowler in the field.

It seemed like, with a lackluster season as motivation and the clearing of Holliday’s $17 million annual salary to open up some financial flexibility, this was the time to make a bold move to add an impact player. No offense to Fowler, he’s a nice player and a solid addition both to the clubhouse and the lineup. But I don’t think anyone sees him as a guy who can put a franchise on his back and carry it to a playoff spot.

With an aging player at third, players who have had trouble establishing themselves in left field and second base and a lack of an obvious cleanup hitter, the Cardinals don’t have much roster flexibility to deal with potential bumps in the road that may pop up over the course of a long season.

What if Grichuk, who found himself in the minor leagues twice last year as he struggled to keep his batting average over the .200 mark, struggles again at the plate? The Cardinals don’t have another outfielder on the roster who seems like a fit for an everyday role. Tommy Pham, the fourth fly chaser, seemed to lose the confidence of the coaching staff last year, playing less and less as the season went on.

What if Wong has another crisis of confidence?

Even if all of the pieces are healthy and productive, the Cardinals still have a hand tied behind their backs because of Adams’ lack of versatility. Not only can’t he do much in the field, but as a lefty batter, opposing managers can hold back their lefty relievers to keep Adams on the bench as a pinch hitter.

The Cardinals have a high enough ceiling to believe that they can succeed. But they have enough question marks to make it easy to believe they could fail.

I get the sense that things are either going to go very right in 2017 – or else they’re going to go very wrong and it’s going to be time for a bigger overhaul before next year.