In most areas, the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the heavyweights. Power lineup. Power starters. Power relievers.
The bench, however? Well, let’s be generous by calling them lightweights.
For a team possessing all the ingredients to reach the World Series this season, a bench absent of any semblance of pop could be a thorn in their strategy for success.
The five players expected to comprise that unit for the Redbirds in 2014—Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, Mark Ellis, Tony Cruz and Daniel Descalso—have 147 career homers in 8,390 at-bats. Ellis hit 19 home runs in a season, but that happened way back in 2007. Remove his 105 long balls from the equation, and you’re at 42 homers in 3,451 ABs.
Opposing pitchers can motion their outfielders to play in a few more steps when a player from this "fearsome fivesome" arrives at the dish. Collectively, they’ve hit just .206 in 266 pinch-hit appearances with two home runs, both coming from Jay.
St. Louis’ most threatening pinch-hitter from last season, Matt Adams, is now a full-time starter at first base. He accounted for all three of the Cards’ pinch-hit long balls while batting .314 with a .968 OPS.
As I've illustrated in a previous article, the Cardinals’ home run production dropped significantly from 2012 to 2013. A casualty of that power outage was the team’s inability to come from behind, especially late.
When the Cardinals were ahead in games last season, they led the National League with a .287 average and 68 homers. Conversely, when they were behind, they hit .240 (ninth) with 26 homers (last).
Division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati own stellar bullpens, including lock-down closers in Jason Grilli and Aroldis Chapman. Rallies against quality relievers are made that much more challenging with an assembly of Punch-and-Judy pinch-hitters.
Slugging options could emerge for the Cardinals later in the season.
Top prospect Oscar Taveras will likely get more seasoning at Triple-A Memphis. But barring an injury, he’ll debut in St. Louis sometime in 2014. He’d be a formidable late-inning option or push a strong bat from Allen Craig or Adams to the bench on days he starts.
Randal Grichuk, who was acquired from the Angels in the David Freese deal, hit 22 homers last season at Double-A. With a crowded outfield in St. Louis, his path to playing time in the short term will come as a potential fifth outfielder/bench bat.
Another outfield prospect, Stephen Piscotty, hit 15 homers last year between Single-A and Double-A. He’d admittedly be a long shot for this role, but the Cardinals certainly haven’t shown an aversion to thrusting young players into the limelight.
Last season, it took the Cardinals 118 games before rallying for a win after trailing by three or more runs. They ended up 1-57 when trailing after eight innings.
Teams that reach the postseason frequently rely on late-inning magic to play into October. That hasn’t been the Cards’ journey—at least not recently.
The Redbirds should be good again in 2014. And a weak bench may not make a difference. It didn’t keep the team from a trip to the Fall Classic last season. But it’s the one noticeable chink in their strong, red armor.