The club has set as its next apparent priority locating a right-handed bat for the bench. You've got to hate hearing those words if you're Pete Kozma, because it likely means the 5-man bench will be a left-handed infielder (either Descalso or Greg Garcia), a backup catcher (probably Tony Cruz), two outfielders (probably Jon Jay and Shane Robinson), and Not You.
But finding a right-handed hitter who will contribute to the team in a bench role is harder than you might think. Why? Well, the easiest place to find someone who would contribute as a pinch hitter is at a corner infield spot. And here's the list of teams who got less than replacement value from the first base position last year:
Six more teams got less than one win of value from the first base position.
As offensive numbers have sunk across the league, it's getting harder and harder to find a plausible first baseman. So, it's a player's market for first basemen. Even guys who have recently struggled might find themselves given a chance to compete for a starting role on a team without a set first baseman, including some teams (Yankees, Pirates) that are plausible contenders.
So, if you were a first baseman, would you entertain offers to pick up 100-200 PAs as a pinch-hitter and spot starter behind Matt Adams and Allen Craig? Or would you look for a team that might give you 400-500? Even for some of the less appealing options on our list of possible right-handed talent, we may not be able to pay them to stink for us.
Here's a few names to bat around:
Michael Young is right-handed and an infielder. He's sort of a bat, I guess. The problem is that he's mostly terrible in the field now. Once upon a time, people let him play shortstop; he actually has some decent defensive numbers at second base . . . from 2003. Right now, I'm not sure I'd let him play first base with a soccer net behind him. Last year, he was below replacement value (-0.2). The year before, he was also below replacement value (-1.6).
The good news is that Steamer at least projects him to be decent, though much of that comes from projecting him to be merely bad, as opposed to appalling, in the field. He's still a semi-decent hitter, though; he hit for a .320 wOBA last year, and he'll probably hit around that next year. He has a modest split over his career, but nothing exaggerated -- basically, 21 points of wOBA difference between RH and LH pitching.
Mark Reynolds is also right-handed and also an infielder, as far as that goes. Over the past three seasons, he's been worth 0.2 WAR. He's a pretty good hitter, notching a .310 wOBA this year, and might improve some next year. He's a real distinctive three-true-outcomes guy, striking out almost a third of the time, walking at a good clip, and putting a lot of dingers over the fence.
The reason he hasn't been worth much is that he's one of the worst defenders around. I'm not even sure he could convincingly stand around third base now, and he's a minus-minus defender at first.
While some people have discussed having Reynolds play a pure PH role, I'm not convinced that will work, or that he would come here to do that. And if you let him play in the field, he's going to lose you almost all the value he provides with the bat. There are very few cases of National League teams successfully carrying a real pinch-hitter on their teams long-term. The Phillies tried to turn long-time DH Jim Thome into such a thing back in 2012. He appeared in 30 games, took 71 PAs, and played only four games at first. He was traded to the Orioles by July 1.
The almost-certain reality is that if we take Reynolds, or a similar player, he's going to have to play in the field at least some of the time. If he plays only against left-handers, he has a slightly better chance of having some value, but I'm not in love with the idea. I also suspect that Reynolds is one of the players most likely to get an offer to play first base as a potential starter.
Another frequently mentioned name is that of the Greek God of Walks. Since leaving the Sox, his power and his value have tanked. He's still really, really, really good at drawing a walk, walking in 26% of his 118 PAs with the Yankees last year. He played a little at first and third last year, but soon needed back surgery. His health is an open question. However, if healthy, he's a decent bounceback candidate. Youkilis may be the least likely to sign with the Cardinals, given his reputation and upside, and most likely to sign to compete for a starting role.
Moving away from the infield corners, second baseman Jeff Baker could pinch-hit and relieve Kolten Wong occasionally. Unfortunately, Jeff Baker has one of the lowest upsides of any candidate, having been worth only 2.4 WAR total over his entire career. Even with his SLG suddenly spiking to .266 in a small sample size in Texas, he was still only slightly above replacement value last year. Although he has a career .330 wOBA, his career 96 wRC+ is more telling, as he's played exclusively in hitter's parks. He seems like low-hanging fruit that makes some sense for the Cardinals, but is not particularly tempting generally. Maybe that points to the futility of this consideration, since a bench second baseman shouldn't be particularly tempting, merely serviceable.
Baker also murders left-handed pitching. For his career, he has a 128 wRC+ against LHP, and only a 64 wRC+ against RHP. That's actually better than most of our slugging first basemen perform against LHP; Reynolds hits for a 119 wRC+ against LHP and Young for a 116 wRC+. Only Youkilis has a more impressive split, with a 140 wRC+ against lefties.
A review of Baker's record raises a further question: has his value been depressed by poor managing? Despite a strong split, he's hit against LHP just as often as RHP: 826 to 827 PAs. Had he been managed by someone who understood and could use platoons properly, maybe he would have more substantial value for his career.
Right-handed utility guy Bloomquist has only been worth a total of 1.4 WAR across his entire career. He's never really had a starting role and he's neither particularly competent or incompetent at any position. Imagine Daniel Descalso, but right-handed and nine years older. Bloomquist isn't any kind of a pinch-hitter, though, with an 84 wRC+ projection. That's practically interchangeable with Daniel Descalso, who has no strong split. Bloomquist seems like a pointless acquisition.
To Sum Up
If I had to pick among these options, I'd actually guess that most of the prototypical first basemen won't really talk to us. With 12 teams getting less than a win out of first base in 2013, I'd imagine anyone who looks like he may be tolerable at first base will at least be in competition for a starting role somewhere.
The other thing to consider about the first base candidates is that their chances in St. Louis are likely to diminish, not improve, over the season. Oscar Taveras and even Stephen Piscotty may be mid-season call-ups, likely to push Allen Craig towards more playing time at first base later in the season. It doesn't seem like a first base slugger is a good fit for the team or the player.
If I were making decisions, I think Jeff Baker is the most appealing option here. We will probably have a left-handed infielder in the bench mix, since Peralta is a rightie. But that leaves no corresponding right-handed counterpart to Carpenter and Wong. Finding someone to give those two a rest occasionally makes for a much more flexible lineup. I certainly don't like the idea of Young or Reynolds trying to play anywhere other than first; I haven't watched Youkilis at third base in a long time, but I suspect he's no longer the plausible option there that he once was.
To the extent we are looking for a platoon partner in a limited role, Jeff Baker has actually hit lefties better than anyone on this list other than Youkilis. Given his positional flexibility, he seems like the best fit for the team.
Baker should be a reasonable get for the Cardinals. Unlike the first base candidates, Baker has never gotten more than 333 PAs in a single season, usually serving in only a limited role. He has little reason to anticipate better opportunities this season. If he can sign on with a strong contender who can pay him a little bit more, I don't see why he would decline a strong offer from the Cardinals.
If the Cardinals sign Baker quickly, they can spend the rest of the offseason listening to increasingly desperate offers for their pitching and wait for something that sounds good.