As long as there has been spring training there have been position battles. This year, the St. Louis Cardinals have a few such competitions, from the starting rotation to second base to center field. With pitchers only throwing bullpens, the starting pitcher competition has taken a backseat to the battle for center field between incumbent Jon Jay and the newly acquired Peter Bourjos.
On his stltoday.com blog yesterday, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz called out the Cardinals' framing of center field as a spring training competition. Bourjos, reasons Miklasz, is the preferred starter, so why not be upfront with all parties. Miklasz has a point, at least as far as general manager John Mozeliak is concerned. After trading for Bourjos, Mozeliak made clear that Bourjos was the favorite to start in center this season. Meanwhile, manager Mike Matheny offered a somewhat different take on center field, and it was one of competition. Neither player had a set role entering spring training. One of them would have to earn it.
Miklasz harked to 1996, when then-manager Tony La Russa framed the shortstop position as an open competition even though he didn't mean it. This left him in the awkward position of benching Ozzie Smith, the greatest shortstop in baseball history, in favor of Royce Clayton even though the Wizard outperformed Clayton. Miklasz believes the Cards should take care to avoid such a situation with their ostensible center field competition this year.
While honesty is certainly a good policy, allowing the center field competition to play out without a declared favorite is a better one.
It's prudent that a manager, who must deal with the players day in and day out over the 162-game grind of the regular season, would opt for a competition. Over the course of the baseball season, the cream will rise to the top, so why not let the rising start in February? What's more, an injury may make the decision for Matheny. If those fickle Gods of Baseball make the opposite decision of the manager by causing an injury to the starter he chose, how would that impact his relationship with the fate-anointed starter?
There's also Bourjos's wrist, which was fractured by a pitched baseball a year ago, and to an extent that required season-ending corrective surgery. Sure, the Cardinals had the Angels perform an MRI on Bourjos before finalizing the trade. And it appears they were comfortable with what they saw. After all, they went through with the deal. But an MRI isn't the same as Bourjos digging in against adversarial major-league pitching and trying to rap out hits. How would it look if the Cardinals declared Bourjos the starting center fielder in mid-February only to learn by mid-March that his wrist injury has left him incapable of hitting enough to play everyday?
There's also the possibility that neither player will emerge as clearly deserving the bulk of the playing time in center. It's difficult to have players the caliber of Jay and Bourjos only to sit one of them the vast majority of the time. Because of this, the winner and runner-up in the center-field derby may not get a prize of the size they're expecting. The triumphant center fielder seems unlikely to be the everyday center fielder and more likely to become the majority center fielder, with the runner-up getting his fair share of the playing time as well.
If a center-field timeshare proves desirable, Matheny would be wise to leverage Bourjos's elite ability to track down flyballs. At a minimum, it seems like Bourjos will be an ideal pairing with Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, when the Texans start. Miller's 41.3% FB rate in 2013 was the sixth-highest in the majors. Wacha's 39.1% FB rate would've ranked as the 14th highest in the big-leagues had he qualified for the ERA crown. If Miller and Wacha's severe flyball tendencies continue, Bourjos should be their personal center fielder. Such an arrangement would give Bourjos about 40% of the center-field innings. The Cards could then use Jay when groundballers Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia start.
Many factors have led to the Cardinals opening up center field for competition this spring. There's the potential for injury, the possibility that Bourjos may feel the lingering effects of his wrist injury, and the fact that a timeshare may be most desirable. The Cardinals' framing of the center field situation this spring as a competition is a wise one. But it's still up to them to deploy Jay and Bourjos in a way that puts the club in the best position to win on any given day. That may prove tricky for Matheny no matter how he frames the springtime center-field situation.