I have no doubt that the St. Louis Cardinals have more talent on their roster than the Pittsburgh Pirates right now.
So, how did the Redbirds manage to get swept by the Bucs — and in embarrassing fashion, losing a five-run lead in one game and letting a guy making his major league debut pitch a perfect game against them into the seventh inning?
It seems that, while the team made some improvements over the winter, it did nothing to improve its tragically inept corner infield defense that is killing the club. Meanwhile, the players on the roster seem to often be under-prepared and unfortunately utilized, which puts the Cardinals in a vulnerable position in close games.
These defensive issues — specifically at the corners of the infield — are going to be the Achilles heel of this club. If it misses the playoffs for a third year in a row, this is going to be why.
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The Birds had corner infield defense issues last year because Matt Carpenter, while he has been a productive offensive player over the course of his career, just isn't a very good defender. Although the team has moved him around the field in search of a place to hide him, it seems the best fit for Carpenter was first base because it limited the impact his poor throwing arm has on games. Unfortunately, the front office decided that it wanted more than anything to get Jose Martinez into the everyday lineup, and first base is the only place he can sorta kinda play.
Martinez can hit, no doubt. He leads St. Louis with 18 runs batted in and is third on the club with a .306 batting average. But he was directly responsible for allowing at least five runs over the weekend that shouldn’t have happened when he botched a pair of easy double play chances and let another ball go under his glove. Meanwhile, Martinez forced Carpenter back across the diamond to third base where his troublesome arm is allowing even more runners to reach base. The development has also caused Jedd Gyorko, the best corner defender the Birds have, to take a bench role.
After the Cardinals lost the five-run lead game, I heard people complain incessantly about the pitching staff. But how many times can the hurlers be expected to get four, five or six outs an inning without allowing a run?
I know St. Louis President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak loves nothing better than to find a bargain in the dust bin of baseball. And he likes nothing less than to eat the contract of a player who has lost his job. But Carpenter has seen a precipitous drop off in his offensive production the past year and a half — and his defense has worsened as his arm has. Martinez was a great bench bat. But in a starting role, he’s over-exposed in the field. It’s funny that manager Mike Matheny used to pull Matt Holliday from games for defensive replacements. But he absolutely refuses to put in defensive replacements for Martinez and Carpenter.
If the Birds are going to get better, they need to fix the problems with their defense. If they would have signed Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, a much better defender than what they have now, and used Gyorko at first base instead of Martinez, the defense would be remarkably better. As a result, the Cardinals might have two or three more wins and they’d be right in the middle of the mix for first place instead of sinking to third with a nightmarish weekend in Pittsburgh.
The strength of this team in the future, obviously, is intended to be the young pitching. If Mozeliak wants Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, Alex Reyes, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber and Jordan Hicks to be successful, it would probably be a pretty good idea to find some people to play behind them who can actually catch the ball.