The St. Louis Cardinals have won two World Series Championships since 2006 for a reason. They continue to scout and develop on a level unparalleled in Major League Baseball. Each season, further talent is injected into their lineup. Regardless of the names on the back of the jersey's, the organization continues to win, as exemplified by their four playoff appearances since 2009.
Winning year after year is a difficult task for MLB clubs. Just ask the Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and plethora of remaining clubs who struggle to reach the postseason on a consistent annual basis. With just one losing season since 2000, there is a reason the Cardinals have averaged 91 wins annually over the last 14 seasons.
In 2014, first baseman Matt Adams can be projected to further exemplify why St. Louis is so brilliant with their baseball operations. With just 410 MLB plate appearances under his belt thus far, the 25-year-old can be expected to further enhance his stock as he settles in as an everyday player for the Cardinals.
Or will he?
Surely, questions loom as to whether or not the Philipsburg, Pa. native will see a full slate of at-bats this upcoming season. The Cardinals have an extraordinary amount of talented depth lingering around the majors and upper minor league levels.
Allen Craig has been traditionally used as the Cardinals first baseman since Albert Pujols left. With the departure of Carlos Beltran and the emergence of Adams, Craig will be primarily utilized in right field. Matt Holliday in left field, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos in center, as well as elite prospect Oscar Taveras make for a crowded Cardinals outfield.
Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest a certain level of committee use at first base. Such a platoon is certain if Taveras breaks spring training as a member of the MLB club. Taveras is too talented to not use in right field, and that would shift Craig to first base while nudging Adams into a subordinate role.
For the Cardinals, it is great being back-loaded with talent.
On the other hand, exhibiting further patience with Taveras and testing his range as a center fielder in Triple-A would allow the Cardinals to intensify their lineup when Taveras gets the call. After all, Jay is a known, average commodity whose defense has dramatically left fans and pundits demanding more. Bourjos, meanwhile, is a defensive replacement player with enough bat to stick around as a complimentary outfield piece on a contender.
Nothing is indicating the latter, though. All signs point to Craig keeping right field warm for Taveras. Therefore, one has to wonder if St. Louis will showcase Adams to other clubs or quietly shop Jay while they groom Taveras for center. No one quite knows, but with spring training opening up, more clues should be given to us.
As for Adams, he has a simple, traditional and compact swing that levies tremendous power on the baseball upon contact. He has 19 HR with less than a full season's worth of ABs in his career. Projection-wise, it's plausible Adams could mash for more than 30 HR and 95 RBI if he were to see 600 or more AB this season.
What distinguishes Adams is the fact that his hitting is already encroaching among the best first basemen in MLB. Since traditional quantifiers don't necessarily suffice with the advent of metrics, let's delve into the details of Adams' ability to hit.
Isolated Power, or ISO, "measures how good a player is at hitting for extra bases" according to Fangraphs. Among all first basemen with at least 250 AB last season, Adams was eighth best with a .220 ISO. Comparatively speaking, Adams finished right behind slugger Adam Dunn and ahead of Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo and Prince Fielder.
Further, Adams finished among the top eight among first basemen with at least 250 AB in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). According to Fangraphs, BABIP "measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits" while considering the three variables of defense, luck and variations in talent level.
As evident by the chart below, Adams's BABIP put him slightly behind Goldschmidt. Accordingly, Adams did finish with a higher BABIP than Baltimore's Davis, Eric Hosmer and Adrian Gonzalez.
Since Adams' BABIP is greater than league average, it is possible some regression could occur. However, whatever regression there is, it is likely to be minimal.
So what should you take away from Adams?
Simply put, he harnesses power similar to Dunn but hits at a rate comparable to Goldschmidt and Votto. Aside from 12 AB in the minors last season, Adams' final 789 minor league AB in 2011 and 2012 saw him hit for an AVG of .315. In the majors, it is likely Adams will hit close to .300 as he did last year.
Busch Stadium, the home of the Cardinals, typically ranks as one of the more pitcher-friendly ballparks in MLB. Last season, it ranked 24th out of 30 in HR allowed, according to ESPN's Park Factors. While superb pitching plays a minor role in those factors, Busch Stadium isn't known for having a short porch like Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.
Playing in the confines of a pitcher-friendly park will not bar Adams from reaching the 30-HR plateau. His natural power is legit. If anything prevents him from reaching that mark, it will be a lack of plate appearances.
Then again, it's not like Craig has been a citadel health-wise. Knee surgery in 2012 and a Lisfranc injury last year has impeded his ability to play a full, healthy season. Health concerns surrounding Craig could be a factor in the Cardinals decision-making process. They remain equipped with talented depth as opposed to making deals. If no concerns were abound, wouldn't the Cardinals take the opportunity to upgrade at various positions via talent consolidation?
Either way, the Adams' question could be solved with a certainty that Taveras would be apt to play in center. On the other hand, this would require moving Jay elsewhere likely via trade. Something which has yet to occur nor does it look likely to occur at this time. There is no doubt Taveras is projected to be better than Jay and Bourjos, even if his defense isn't great in center field.
The swing, contact rate and power is there for Adams. An improvement against left-handed pitching would even further justify the case to make him a mainstay at first base, regardless of Craig, Taveras and the others. While certainty can't be declared for Adams in St. Louis, it is a good position for him and the organization to be in. Adams gets to contend for a pennant while the Cardinals maintain a competitive advantage with their deep pool of talent.