Two seasons ago, the Cards were positively woeful against left-handed pitching, mustering a .264/.330/.401 line against southpaws. Their slugging and OPS in '06 against lefties were good enough for 28th and 27th in baseball, respectively. Last year, curiously, the team improved slightly against lefties. Their batting average improved to .276 and their OBP improved by 20 points to .370. Unfortunately, the .401 slugging percentage was exactly what it was in 2006 and the team finished 27th in baseball in slugging, and 23rd in OPS in 2007.
For at least 2 years, the Cards have really struggled against left-handers. In 2007, one of the Cards' best hitters against lefties was So Taguchi. Despite many complaints from the fanbase about So, he was a very valuable player in the 4 full seasons he spent in a Cardinal uniform. Last year, only Albert had a higher OPS among semi-regular players against left-handed pitchers. So's .314/.370/.390 line made him a valuable contributor to last year's team. Granted, a .390 SLG hardly makes him a slugger and So was never known as such (save 1 great NLCS AB) during his tenure in St. Louis, but a .370 OBP is nothing to sneeze at. So had the most AB's and the 2nd most PA's on the team vs. lefties in 2007.
Still, it was clear this offseason that the team was going to try to find a way to improve its performance vs. lefties. To that end, the team brought in Josh Phelps and Juan Gonzalez as minor league free agents and added Joe Mather to the 40-man roster. I must admit finding Phelps' addition a little curious. It's not as if the team isn't set at 1B, Phelps' natural position, and with no DH, it just didn't seem to make a lot of sense. Even w/ Spiezio's departure, it seems as though Duncan would take over at 1B in the event that Albert went down w/ an injury for an extended period of time and Phelps has played exactly 0 games as a big-league OF.
Gonzalez's addition was only slightly less curious as he's had exactly 1 major-league PA since 2004. His arrival has been more noteworthy this spring as Tony seems to be hoping for a return to the glory days and those of us hoping the team will get younger this year cringe every time Gonzalez gets a spring PA. Among the three, therefore, Mather is probably the one who is most interesting.
It's worth noting that the search for a lefty-mashing OF would be made a lot easier if there was any indication that Ryan Ludwick might be able to fill that role. While Ludwick had a pretty good season in '07, he was hardly a lefty-masher. His .221/.307/.377 line against southpaws was pretty well in line with his career numbers (.211/.286/.418). Granted, it's only 139 PA's in '07 and 285 for his career - a pretty small sample - but, as I said, there's really nothing there to indicate any real improvement in his ability to hit lefties.
So while it's difficult to envision an OF w/o Ryan Ludwick in it this year, it's also hard to believe that he's what Tony is looking for against left-handed pitchers. Brian Barton was added, of course, as a Rule 5 player but there's been much written about how he doesn't seem to be in Tony's plans for '08, despite a strong start to the spring. Therefore, maybe Mather's the guy.
To date, only Rick Ankiel and Ludwick have more spring AB's than Mather's 21 (though Barton, Schumaker, and Gonzalez also have 21). Mather's a 25 year old former 3B and 1B who was drafted in the 3rd round in 2001. He's a huge guy in the mold of Chris Duncan - 6'5" and 210 lbs. - and has power to spare. Last year he blasted 31 HR's between Springfield and Memphis w/ a combined .357 OBP and .522 SLG. He also manages to get his bat on the ball, having never struck out more than 91 times in a season, despite his power numbers.
The writers at called Mather the 15th and 16th best prospect in the Cards' system entering this season. John Sickels has Mather at 16, Baseball America has him at 13, and Kevin Goldstein has him at 10. Goldstein calls says about Mather that "(his) raw power is the best in the system" and that despite being "a below-average outfielder," "his arm is above-average." That last part should give him a leg up on Brian Barton. He couldn't play CF, of course, but would be serviceable in either RF or LF.
It's only been 21 AB's this spring, but he's started off w/ a robust .381/.500/.714 line that has made him worthy of Tony's attention. He has just the 1 homer but also has 2 2B's and 3 BB's. He has struck out 5 times, which might be an indicator of his readiness, considering it is higher than his minor league K rate but, considering the fact that he's absolutely pummeling the ball right now, the 5 K's aren't a serious problem as of yet.
While several of the Cardinal hitters are having strong springs to start off, it's difficult to find another Cardinal who's been better this spring (non-Albert competition) than Mather. Barton, Schumaker, Ankiel, Glaus, and even Ludwick and Gonzalez (and, of course, Rasmus) have all been very strong through their first 20-25 PA's, but none has a higher SLG than Mather, and only Glaus' OBP is higher. If he can keep it up, he's got a good chance to make it.
More to the point - can he hit lefties? In 2007 at Springfield, he hit lefties to the tune of .389/.477/.685 - an OPS of 1.162 - not too shabby. Upon moving up to AAA, he struggled somewhat, against both righties and lefties and only had 68 PA's against lefties. His OPS was a Taguchi-like .703. Still, it's reasonable to think that, if he is ready to hit major-league pitching, he could be much stronger against lefties than Ludwick has been or than Taguchi was during his tenure in St. Louis.
In other news, the Cards were able to hold the Dodgers to 20 yesterday but could only muster a couple of field goals as the Dodgers won by 2 TD's. Looper was on the mound. As someone who charted Looper's games last year and remembers the Tigers and the A's each going for about 14 in games started by Looper, I can't help but wonder if we'll see more games w/ Miles or someone else on the mound this year.
Reyes goes again today for the good guys. He's had 1 good one and 1 not-so-good. Hopefully, we'll see another good one today. As most know, I've always been a Reyes-rooter. Even if you're not, he's going to have to pitch better in order to get anything for him so, whether he ends up in the rotation or not, it would be nice to see some well-pitched innings from the man.