It wouldn't be much longer in Jupiter. The young reporter had left his hotel early in the morning to get to the ballpark. He expected to arrive before most of the players in part because he was behind on a story for the Sunday paper. It was supposed to be expansive and look toward the themes of March. After the games, writing a recap was easy. The broad expansive pieces were a bit more problematic and the truth was he just didn't know what to write about. He thought that being at the ballpark and just watching everyone arrive might help stir some creative thoughts. Parking the car he got out and headed toward the complex.
I'm wary of Skip Schumaker being the designated giver of advice but the Cardinals have made an unorthodox choice in attempting to convert Matt Carpenter to second base. In that regard, I suppose Schumaker is the best player to talk to. Rick Hummel gets some quotes from Carpenter about his reason for converting to second base and it is, unsurprisingly, because he can hit. That was always the theory with Schumaker too. Matt Carpenter doesn't have to be good at second base for a conversion to make sense. His combination of offense and defense just has to be better at that position than Daniel Descalso's in order to receive playing time. If Matt Carpenter can pass a kind of minimum threshold test defensively then the team can see whether this really makes sense.
There was a nice and solid wooden picnic table in between the parking lot and the player's entrance at the ballpark. The young reporter set down his bag with laptop and more archaic writing material down. Opting to start with a pad of paper and pencil, he moved the laptop to the side. Ideas were needed first. The weather had been unusually lacking in rain of late making for remarkably pleasant days. Warm and less humid than usual, the reporter sat trying to brainstorm. Manager Mike Matheny showed up first that morning. Walking slowly toward the entrance, clearly taking his time after the surgery, he offered the reporter a quick nod as he walked by. The reporter wondered if Matheny could be an emblematic theme for the club. Late surgery forced him to miss a few games but he managed to come back and coach just like everyone thought he would. There were capable stand ins during the interim too.The unplanned surgery didn't derail the season.
The Allen Craig extension more closely mirrors the moves of other ball clubs to lock players up early in their cost controlled years. The team offers financial certainty to the player and the player generally offers a discount and gives up a few years of free agency in some fashion. The Cardinals don't make that exchange as often as some clubs seem to -- obviously the Tampa Bay Rays come to mind -- though Jaime Garcia's recent contract was not terribly dissimilar in principle. What makes this all intriguing to me is the decision to invest in Allen Craig but not David Freese. Freese is the more well known player. He plays good defense at third base while Craig's defense has confined him to first base with some corner outfield play. Craig is only a year younger than Freese.
There's lots of reasons how this scenario could come about and many of them having nothing to do with either player's body of work on the diamond. Freese, sidelined by a sore back, has the more extensive and troubling injury record with rebuilt ankles and lots of missed time. Freese could want to take it on a yearly basis to make more money foregoing the security of a big paycheck. It's merely a curiosity, and an unanswerable one at that, where the Cardinals found a player of comparable value and age to David Freese and signed him long term but haven't done the same with David Freese.
The injury story line seemed played out though. There are only so many times you can write about Rafael Furcal's elbow especially given that it was a known risk going into the season. Every team suffers injuries and has to work through them. The players were starting to arrive in greater numbers filing past the young reporter. Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay comparing shoes on their phones trying to determine Jay's next purchase. Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller racing to see who could get from the car to the entrance faster. The result was contested but quickly turned to a challenge to settle over a Call of Duty game. Yadier Molina discussing a pitch grip with Fernando Salas as they walked by. The reporter made a mental note to work on his Spanish in the coming weeks. Many of the players were quick to shout things to one another in the foreign language and the reporter was far to slow to follow what might be interesting conversations. The players filed past, most of them now familiar faces. Steady presences on the field.
There are parts of yesterday's lineup that make me cringe -- Ty Wigginton as a DH, Ronny Cedeno as a SS -- but the heart of the order was simply a ridiculous mashup of big bats. Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams and Oscar Taveras is a sick 2-6. It's also a reminder of how scary the Cardinals lineup can be when they want it to. When Yadier Molina returns he'll offer another legitimate offensive threat from a defensive position. David Freese over Daniel Descalso improves the lineup as well. With the exception of shortstop and pitcher, the Cardinals could field a squad where no player had a wOBA under .340 last year. Even more frightening, that doesn't include either Oscar Taveras or Matt Adams both of whom are prospects for their offensive projections. It's a reminder that Pete Kozma may be less than ideal, he may be terrible, he may get replaced mid year but there's no reason to think the Cardinals bats can't be the driving force of the team even if one position is lacking.
That was it. The steady presence. Ascribing values to any team is a fool's errand for the most part. It says more about the writer than the team but what the young reporter found so difficult about crafting some overarching narrative was the lack of a standout character to build it around. This wasn't a team built around Albert Pujols any more. This team wasn't yet looking to its next great prospect to provide a boost. There had been so little turnover between seasons. This was a team that was already a team in 2012. The even spread of talent across the field ended with a club that, excepting shortstop, lacked both a glaring weakness and a glaring strength. There was balance on the team. Good pitching, good hitting, no obvious defensive holes. It looks like a wonderful feat of planning.
Pitchers get hurt. The next wave of prospects arrives to replace them. A new fire-balling reliever emerges in Trevor Rosenthal to give the bullpen another potentially dominant arm. The depth at first and outfield provides the manager with a bevy of tactical options. Through it all, these players already know each other. They already know their manager after his first season. There should be a comfort and an understanding that was lacking last season. Or at the very least, the young reporter could craft it that way. This club was an achievement of planning by the front office. Now it was just up to the players to make good on those plans. This was a theme he could write around but he wanted to get some quotes. Regarding his surroundings with more scrutiny after the epiphany, he noted the General Manager John Mozeliak heading for a side entrance. He was carrying an enormous box shaped item. It looked like it was draped in a black cloth. The young reporter quickly gathered up his things and sought to catch up with the GM for some words.
John Mozeliak has a "good vibe". At this stage in the season, you'd hope so. Barring a catastrophic injury, this is the club he assembled on paper. The whole article is an exercise in classic Mozeliak speech. Clipped compliments about players, a cautious hedging at all times and an unwillingness to be pinned down. You can almost see him rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he slowly comments on the various positions Hummel asks him about.
It's another off season without a massive unforced error. The Wigginton signing will continue to be perplexing and the Choate signing will look to long but neither of them is particularly damaging in the long term. It's the kind of move you don't like but forget about in a year or two. Which brings me to my real question for the day after meandering through some random, waning spring training news: What is the defining decision of Mozeliak's tenure with the Cardinals?
After nearly 5 years on the job, he's signed Matt Holliday to a major contract, extended players like Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, picked up aging guys like Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal and overseen a massive overhaul of the system. The Holliday signing is the obvious selection but is that a defining moment for the GM? Can GMs have defining moments in the positive sense or do we only remember the Ryan Howard contracts of the world? It interests me what lens we judge these general managers through.
The young reporter hurried to catch up. He saw John Mozeliak shut the door to his office from down the hallway. Crossing the final few yards, the young reporter paused. He could hear Mozeliak talking to someone but he was almost certain that the room had been empty when he went in. Not wanting to interrupt, the young reporter waited a bit until the conversation died down. The door opened unexpectedly startling both general manager and reporter. The young reporter apologized and asked for a bit of John Mozeliak's time. Demurring but promising to catch up with him after that day's game, Mozeliak stepped past the reporter pausing to offer some genuine compliments about his writing that spring. The young reporter thanked him and soaked in the praise as Mozeliak continued on to his business for the day.
Bending down to put his things back in order after hastily scooping them off the picnic table, the reporter heard a loud clanging from inside the general managers office. The door was open just a crack. Just enough to see through. Setting on top of the desk was the large rectangular box covered with the black sheet. It was, unmistakably, moving. Shaking even. The young reporter went to nudge the door open just a bit, throwing a hesitant glance over his shoulder for anyone coming down the hall, when the box fell to the floor. The sheet, dislodged from covering what was now obviously a wire mesh crate, failed to obscure the small man inside the two foot by two foot crate. Dressed all in green, and clutching a bag that clinked, the leprechaun started to climb free from the crate that he had broken open.
The reporter was pushed aside from behind as Mozeliak brushed past to slam the crate door shut on the little man. Turning to look at the reporter he said, unapologetically, "Even the best laid plans are reliant on a little bit of luck in the game of baseball."
[Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! Drink a pint of green beer and kiss an Irish.]