Predicting the Winner of St. Louis Cardinals' Key Position Battles

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Predicting the Winner of St. Louis Cardinals' Key Position Battles
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The St. Louis Cardinals reached the World Series last season for the fourth time in the last decade, and they did so with a roster of mostly homegrown players. Even after losing Carlos Beltran to free agency, the Cardinals were viewed as potential contenders headed into 2014 given the holdovers from last year’s club.

The decision not to re-sign Beltran enabled the team to address its two glaring holes at the major league level during the offseason, as it traded for speedy center field Peter Bourjos and signed free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta.

But in spite of their upgrades at both up-the-middle positions, the Cardinals will have several decisions to make in the coming weeks pertaining to their Opening Day roster.

 

Fifth Starter: Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez vs. Tyler Lyons

The Cardinals will open the season with the same starting rotation that carried them into the World Series. Staff ace Adam Wainwright will lead the way followed by 26-year-old Lance Lynn, while second-year standouts Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha are interchangeable as the team’s third and fourth starters.

Noticeably absent from the Cardinals’ projected rotation is left-hander Jaime Garcia, who has been limited to 177 innings over the last two seasons due to a perpetual shoulder injury. The 27-year-old appeared to be healthy headed into spring training, even throwing three pain-free bullpen sessions after reporting to camp.

However, it was announced a few days later that Garcia would travel back to St. Louis for an MRI on his left shoulder. The tests revealed no structural damage, but Garcia still was given a cortisone shot and prescribed 10 to 15 days of rest for his problematic wing.

Since they once again cannot rely on Garcia, the Cardinals will audition several pitchers for the final spot in the Opening Day rotation. According to manager Mike Matheny, via Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com:

I think all of us have been around this enough to know that [injuries happen], and it shouldn't completely devastate you. You need to have some contingency plans in place of what it might look like. ... We're fortunate that we've got plenty of guys ready to compete right now, and we'll just watch how they continue to progress.

The early favorite headed into spring training was Joe Kelly, who was arguably the team’s most consistent starter during the second half of the 2013 season, with a 9-2 record and 1.91 ERA in 75.1 innings (12 starts). He also made four postseason starts last year, registering a 4.15 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 21.2 innings.

Though the 25-year-old struggled in his first start on Monday against the Tigers, allowing two runs on a pair of hits and walks in 1.2 innings, he’s never had a particularly strong spring training (5.86 ERA in 27.2 innings headed into camp). So don’t read too far into Kelly’s spring stats; his regular-season and postseason accomplishments will always trump the small sample sizes.

However, that’s not to say Kelly is without competition.

Flame-throwing right-hander Carlos Martinez is also auditioning this spring for the final rotation spot, fresh off a breakout performance last October as the Cardinals’ setup man. In spite of his success and future potential out of the bullpen, the organization plans to use the 22-year-old as a starter in the upcoming season.

To ensure that Martinez receives sufficient innings to compete for the role, Matheny had the youngster start the team’s Grapefruit League debut last Friday. Besides the two-run home run he allowed to Garrett Jones on a hanging slider, the right-hander looked sharp in his season debut, striking out two batters over three innings without issuing a walk.

Left-hander Tyler Lyons is the third pitcher competing for a spot in the rotation, though it’s unlikely to see him getting the nod over Kelly and Martinez save for injuries to both right-handers.

Lyons had a respectable showing last season in the major leagues, posting a 4.75 ERA and 43-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53 innings (eight starts), but worked out of the bullpen during September in deference to Wacha in the starting rotation.

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The 25-year-old doesn’t have the experience or upside of Kelly or Martinez, but he’s nonetheless a solid rotation option from the left side. Plus, Lyons has looked good so far this spring, allowing two earned run on two hits with four strikeouts and no walks in four innings spanning two outings.

Though the Cardinals have plenty of options, it’s hard not to see the team breaking camp with Kelly as the fifth starter.

Martinez will likely make a strong case for consideration. However, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty associated with the youngster, and the team knows what it will get from Kelly. Plus, it’s not like it’s a bad thing to have Martinez working the eighth inning.

 

Second Base: Kolten Wong vs. Mark Ellis 

After trading third baseman David Freese during the offseason and shifting Matt Carpenter to the hot corner, the Cardinals are hoping prospect Kolten Wong will emerge as the team’s Opening Day second baseman.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The position will be Wong’s to lose, however, as the 23-year-old has plenty to prove after a disappointing showing in the major leagues last summer, when he batted .153/.194/.169 in 62 plate appearances spanning 32 games. So it wasn’t surprising that the Cardinals signed veteran Mark Ellis this offseason as an insurance plan should Wong not run away with the position this spring.

Wong has received the bulk of the playing time at the keystone through the Cardinals’ first week of Grapefruit League games, but he’s yet to capitalize on the ample opportunities. After appearing in four games over the past week, Wong is currently 0-for-9 with four strikeouts.

Matheny said the following regarding Wong’s slow start this spring, via Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

I think we’d all rather get off to a good start than a bad one. But I think Kolten is going to be one of those guys that just trusts himself and his ability and not get too high or too low. I think there’s a lot to be seen about how he handles it when things don’t go his way. We’re constantly watching that as well with all these guys.

He’s a talented player and we’ll continue to give him some at-bats and some opportunities out there, and he’s going to be just fine. He looks good this spring. He’s got a nice, short stroke. It’s the first day out there, and he’s pretty hard on himself, so we’re going to have to just make sure he stays the course and keeps doing what he’s doing.

However, Matheny won’t necessarily open the season with Wong at second base solely because he’s viewed as the long-term answer at the position; he hopes Ellis will force the organization to give him more playing time as the spring unfolds, via Langosch of MLB.com:

I want Mark to come out and just do his thing, get ready the way he knows how, and [we'll] tell Kolten that there is going to be an opportunity for you to go out and compete also. We've talked relentlessly with this staff that, 'Let's not commit to what we think it has to look like.' Let's let these guys go play this game and it'll make it obvious for itself. There are going to be opportunities for Kolten, and there are going to be opportunities for Mark as well.

There’s a realistic chance that both Wong and Ellis will make the Opening Day roster in a platoon at second base, with Wong receiving playing time against right-handed pitchers and Ellis against southpaws. The organization doesn’t want to cut Wong out of the mix at this stage in his career, yet it also wants to field a winning team at the major league level.

 

Bench: Pete Kozma vs. Daniel Descalso

The final battle in Cardinals camp this spring is for a spot on the Opening Day roster as a reserve infielder. If Ellis and Wong both make the team in a platoon scenario at second base—though it’s possible Ellis also sees time at shortstop and third base—then the team will likely carry one utility infielder on the active roster.

Through the first week of games, the top two candidates for the spot are Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso.

Kozma spent last season at shortstop for the Cardinals thanks to his strong performance during both September and postseason in 2012. As expected, the 25-year-old’s one-month production (.952 OPS in 82 plate appearances) proved to be unsustainable over a full major league season, as he batted just .217/.275/.273 with one home run and 91 strikeouts in 448 plate appearances last year.

Additionally, Kozma is a right-handed batter who struggles against left-handed pitching, as evidenced by his .184/.280/.256 batting line versus southpaws last season. Against righties, Kozma fared only slightly better, batting .232/.273/.281 in nearly twice as many plate appearances.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Descalso, 27, served as the Cardinals’ utility infielder last season, as he received playing time at shortstop (55 games), second base (39 games) and third (38 games). However, the left-handed hitter struggled mightily at the dish during the second half of the season, batting .199/.237/.304 with 12 extra-base hits in 172 plate appearances. He also struggled against same-sided pitching last year, posting a .183/.246/.283 batting line in 66 plate appearances.

By now you hopefully get the idea; neither Descalso nor Kozma represents an ideal bat on the bench. However, given both of their respective abilities to play both middle-infield positions, the Cardinals will almost definitely break camp with one of them.

Though Descalso is capable of playing three infield spots, he’s not a particularly strong defender at any of them. According to FanGraphs.com's fielding metrics, he cost the Cardinals seven runs at shortstop last season and four runs at second base. His only positive marks come at third base, where his glove saved the team four runs.

Kozma, on the other hand, played 137 games at shortstop last season and committed only nine errors while saving eight runs and showing good range (8.0 UZR/150).

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Since both players only hit right-handed pitching, the Cardinals' decision on who makes the Opening Day roster will likely come down to defense. With the team’s offseason signing of bat-first shortstop Peralta, it will need to carry a strong defender capable of replacing the 31-year-old in the late innings, and given Kozma’s track record with the glove at the position, he’s seemingly best suited for the role.

However, there’s also something to be said for Descalso’s versatility, as he gives the Cardinals the ability to mix and match the lineup on any given day. Plus, he recently settled his arbitration case for $1.29 million, which means the organization has additional incentive to keep him in the major leagues.

 

Center Field: Peter Bourjos vs. Jon Jay

The Cardinals first move of the offseason addressed the team’s lack of speed and defensive, as they traded 2011 World Series MVP David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for center fielder Peter Bourjos and a prospect.

The Bourjos acquisition means that Jon Jay, who helped the Cardinals win a pair of NL pennants and a World Series title since reaching the major leagues in 2010, has his work cut out for him this spring.

Talking with Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch prior to spring training, general manager John Mozeliak explained the team’s decision to trade for Bourjos:

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

“When you think about the elements of our team and where we could directionally move things, this was one area where, if possible, we could upgrade (by) finding someone who could be an elite defender in the league. … There’s no doubt when you look at what Jay has accomplished offensively. I look at Bourjos’ addition as an injection that is a very rare commodity to find. How it all gets used and put in place we’ll see.”

Jay, who turns 29 in March, spent most of the first half trying to alter the timing of his swing and owned a disappointing .671 OPS through his first 91 games. However, he eventually settled in after the All-Star break and posted a much-improved .791 OPS over his final 260 plate appearances. And while Jay’s .276/.351/.370 batting line represented an across-the-board regression, he did post career highs in doubles (27), runs scored (75) and RBI (67).

Bourjos began 2013 on a tear as the Angels’ everyday center fielder, batting .333/.392/.457 with eight extra-base hits through his first 147 plate appearances. Unfortunately, his red-hot start hit a wall in late April when the 26-year-old landed on the 15-day disabled list with a left hamstring strain. Bourjos returned to action and picked up where he had left off, posting an .888 OPS in 18 games. But, as fate would have it, a hit by pitch on June 29 resulted in a fractured right wrist and another 47 games on the disabled list.

Bourjos was able to rejoin the Angels in mid-August, but the wrist injury clearly affected his ability to handle the bat, evidenced by a .109/.163/.152 batting line in 49 plate appearances spanning Aug. 16 to Sept. 3. Following the season, he underwent surgery on the wrist to repair a small fracture.

With Bourjos fully healthy entering 2014, the Cardinals hope he can return to his 2011 form, when he batted .271/.327/.438 with 72 runs scored, 49 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases in 552 plate appearances.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

However, while Jay gets the edge for his steady production and durability, it’s impossible to overlook what Bourjos brings to the table defensively.

Since reaching the major leagues in 2010, Bourjos’ 20.2 UZR/150 (which measures a player’s range) is the highest mark among all active center fielders with at least 1,500 innings at the position, according to FanGraphs.com’s defensive metrics, and he also ranks fifth with 33 runs saved.

From 2010 to 2012, Jay played average defense in center field, saving the team a total of three runs during that span. Last year, however, Jay’s normally reliable defense deteriorated in a hurry, as his -10 runs saved represented the second-worst total among qualified center fielder (trailing only Shin-Soo Choo with -17). Meanwhile, his zone rating of -7.5 UZR/150 was by far the lowest in his four-year career and ranked as the third-worst among his peers.

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Both players offer a uniquely different lineup dynamic; Bourjos is a right-handed batter with speed and the ability to save runs, where as Jay swings from the left side with a track record of consistent production. The Cardinals will use spring training to evaluate both players and best determine their best option to open the season in center field. Yet, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Bourjos or Jay is strictly favored over the other, save for an injury.

Instead, it’s likely that both players will split time at the position this spring and possibly well into the regular season, with the organization hoping that one of them will eventually rise to the top and emerge as the everyday guy. 

Bourjos has considerably more upside given his age and tools and should serve as the Cardinals’ center fielder for years to come, but don’t expect the organization to completely write off Jay this year after only one poor season.

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