I am beginning to think that the St. Louis Cardinals inability to decide whether they are trying to compete or to rebuild is ultimately responsible for a season that has been unsatisfactory on both counts.
Manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak have had an obvious disconnect about how the team's young players -- especially second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Oscar Taveras should be utilized.
When both players struggled early, Matheny decided to rely more heavily on veterans. When Mozeliak trumped Matheny by trading away Taveras' main competitor for playing time, Allen Craig, the Cardinals were forced to play a very raw Taveras every day. And it's not only hurt the team's performance. But it has put Taveras in a tight spot because a competitive team is counting on him to be a contributor right out of the box. And it seems that he's not quite ready to shoulder that burden.
Taveras hit a homer the night of Craig trade, which automatically caused his honks to throw their arms up in the air and claim that, over the course of a couple hours out of Craig's shadow, Taveras had ascended from prospect to superstar. Unfortunately, since Aug. 1 Taveras has started nine games (Not including the Monday night game in Miami) and compiled a .226 batting average with no homers, two doubles and four RBIs.
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In short, the departure of Craig and the more consistent at bats that came with it have done little or nothing to turn Taveras into an established MLB player. And that's not a surprise. Things like that require time.
Tavaras hit the ball hard but with little luck during his first stint in the majors in June. But since his second call-up his swing has seemingly lengthened and developed a loop, he's become less selective at the plate and his defense isn't exactly great. It seems to me that he's pressing, feeling as if he needs to try to hit home runs -- or at least rack up extra base hits.
As he's struggled, there's no relief and no chance -- even for a day or two to clear his head on the bench, much less sending him back to the minor leagues to recover his lost stroke. Without Craig -- who may or may not have re-injured his ankle had he remained with the Cardinals instead of playing for the Boston Red Sox, the Cardinals don't have an acceptable Plan B.
It doesn't matter if Taveras goes into a terrible slump, if he has to play with a nagging injury or if his confidence becomes tattered. He's in there for better or worse. Sink or swim.
That's bad for him. But it's also bad for the Cardinals because the Birds because the right fielder is typically a slugger who is a major component of an MLB team's offense. And St. Louis is committed to theirs even though he offers virtually no production.
Yes, it's true. Craig wasn't playing up to his usual standards when he was still here. But he was hitting 30 points better than Taveras, moving runners up when he wasn't driving them in and he was playing better defense. That little bit can mean a lot in a nip and tuck playoff race.
There is an element of Cardinals fandom that believes the only way to go is to let Taveras play every day. And I don't get it. Over more than 150 years on professional baseball there have been hundreds of star baseball players who had to earn their playing time before a position was handed to them. One of them is the Cardinals' current first baseman who seems to have survived being a part time player the last two years before emerging as a starter in 2014.
It is far too much to expect Taveras, regardless of his long term potential, to play at an All-Star level in his first go-round in the major leagues. Especially on a team that is contending.
Wong is a different case. The Cardinals went out and got Mark Ellis, a veteran second baseman, with the purpose of taking the pressure off him this season. Unfortunately, Ellis completely disappeared offensively. And that has forced the Birds to play every day when they might have benefitted from a veteran presence at crunch time.
It has a negative cumulative effect on the team that it is required to play two inexperienced players in the same lineup almost every day. Wong struggled with the pressure for a while. But, fortunately, he seems to be settling in. He's finally got his batting average above .250 and he's shown unusual power for a small guy. But he still makes untimely errors every now and then as young players are wont to do.
It would be easy if the Cardinals -- and their fans -- had no expectation of making it back to the World Series to say let the kids play and then take stock next year. But they clearly do. Unfortunately, the departed Craig, Ellis as well as Peter Bourjos have disappointed at the plate. Catcher Yadier Molina got hurt and the bench hasn't contributed much.
So the spotlight is that much brighter, and unfairly so, on the kids.