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The Right Field Question

Right field was an absolute disaster for the Cardinals in 2014. What kind of options do they have to upgrade their one great hole this offseason?

Dilip Vishwanat

As we prepare to head into the offseason period in earnest, with neverending discussion of what the team should do, will do, and then, a bit later on, what they should have done instead of the dumbass thing they actually did, it's probably a good idea to first take stock of where the Cardinals stand, and what they already have.

And, looking around the field, it quickly becomes apparent that the Cardinals, for the most part, don't really have a whole lot of needs. The infield is pretty much sewn up, unless one thinks the organisation would be willing to make a move at first base to upgrade on Matt Adams, although their own public statements on the big man would suggest they believe he's a core sort of player going forward. I'm not so sure I agree on that particular subject, to be honest; I like Adams plenty, but the platoon issues, concerns about his body going forward, and, most importantly, his almost shockingly low walk rate all make me wonder if he's really The Guy at first long term. I know there has been some talk here the last few days about trying to see if Carlos Santana of the Indians would be available in a trade to move around the diamond at third, first, and behind the plate; personally, I would be just fine if the Cards targeted him for first base full-time and Adams happened to be part of the package going out, either directly to Cleveland or as part of a three-team deal. But, I can't imagine that happening, so let's move on from first base, shall we?

The center field situation is handled, one way or the other; while I personally disagree quite strongly with the way center will be handled going forward (see my previously published work for details), I'm smart enough to see the writing on the wall and comprehend the letters that say things are going to go completely counter to what I think is a good idea for pretty much the foreseeable future. Ergo, center is settled. (Heavy sigh.)

Remember when I said a few minutes ago that the team doesn't really have a whole lot of needs or holes or unsettled positions? Well, turning that around and looking at it from a less-optimistic (and probably more realistic, frankly), point of view, it's just as easy to say the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals really don't have many opportunities for improvement. In fact, if you're looking for an area on the field to get better, you're looking at second base improving through development of the incumbent, catcher improving through magically better health for Yadier Molina, even though the brain trust of this organisation doesn't seem to have any inclination to, you know, plan toward that goal, preferring instead to go with the old, "Fingers crossed!" approach to player health, and, well the one position there really is an opportunity: right field.

In 2014, right field was a black hole for the Cardinals. A literal one, in fact. The combined gravity of the various performances in right eventually became so massive that no WAR could escape from its terrible pull. Some nights on FSN Midwest you could almost see the shimmering event horizon, about midway between Kolten Wong and the right field position.

Of course, right field is also, currently, the toughest position to really talk about, as recent circumstances have made it a touchy subject. And yet, in spite of it all, the baseball season will still come around again, and right field will still have to be manned by someone, even if it isn't the player we all wish were doing so.

The three players who combined to make up the primary right fielder for the Cardinals were, overall, pretty wretched. The three-headed monster of Taveras, Allen Craig, and Randal Grichuk was worth a combined -1.0 fWAR in 2014, with only Grichuk (0.6), posting a positive WAR value, and that's largely the product of a completely unsustainable defensive run value over an extremely brief period of time. Taveras, for all the promise and flashes we saw, was actually the worst of the three in his limited chances, dragging down the position to the tone of a whopping -1.1 WAR over 248 plate appearances. Allen Craig, who came into the season the incumbent, lost the club another half win in value, at -0.5 WAR in nearly 400 plate appearances. (Want to know something amazing? Craig was actually substantially worse after going to Boston, which is honestly kind of difficult to believe.)

If there's going to be an upgrade for El Birdos in 2015 over the version we just watched come up short against the Giants, chances are that upgrade is going to happen in right field. The math alone makes it a virtual certainty. It is exceedingly rare for a baseball team to go a full season receiving below-replacement level value from a given position; the fact that feat was accomplished by a contending team is, to be frank, flat-out incredible.

But what form is that upgrade most likely to take? Well, there are three paths the club could take to turning right field from one of the biggest vulnerabilities in all of baseball into a real strength.

1.) The Incumbent Route -- In this scenario, the Cardinals do one of two things: they either a) put Randal Grichuk on the field for the majority of the time in 2015 and hope he develops into a strong everyday player, or b) they work out an arrangement in which Peter Bourjos gets more playing time in center field, with Jon Jay sliding over to right more often than he did in 2014, taking advantage of the stronger defense in center and Jay's bat in right to add value to the club. Grichuk still gets plenty of playing time in this scenario, if not quite as much as being given a full-time gig.

The upside to this plan is, of course, simplicity, as the Cardinals already have all the pieces on hand. It's relatively cheap, too, since all they have to do is give out the necessary arbitration raises to keep the arrangement viable. Grichuk is young and dynamic and showed very well defensively in right this past year, not to mention the power potential he offers, and Jon Jay, while not a prototypical right fielder by any means, has proven himself capable of hitting for a high batting average most of the time and has plenty of range for a corner spot.

The downside is, well, the upside, which is very limited. As dynamic as Grichuk is, there are major, major holes in his game, and I'm not sure how much better some of those things are going to get. We tend to think of plate discipline as a learned skill, but there's plenty of evidence out there to support the idea it's much less a learned or acquired skill than we think. There's a pretty good chance (in fact, I would say it's the most likely outcome, really), that Grichuk simply is who he is, and while he may improve some with experience and playing time, he's unlikely to completely change his stripes. Or spots. Or whatever it is animals don't usually change that we've made a parable out of.

In the comments section a few days ago (I don't recall where, sorry), I made the comparison between Grichuk and Jeff Francoeur. I think it's a fairly apt one, in that both are supreme athletic talents, with remarkable bat speed (and thus raw power), prototypical right field profiles defensively, and fairly appalling plate discipline. The scary thing is Grichuk may be even worse than Francoeur in that arena, as while both players appear to be roughly equally averse to taking a walk, I think Frenchy's contact skills are actually a bit better than Grichuk's. Grichuk is capable of doing most of the things Francoeur did (the arm might not be quite as good, but it's close), but watching him swing, I think there's little reason to believe Randal can make contact at the rate Francoeur did in his salad days, leaving a player whose strikeout rate is closer to 25% than the 18-20% Francoeur typically put up when he was still a viable option.

I think going with Grichuk as a full-time starter in right will end up ultimately disappointing, possibly in a major way. Starting him 150 games is unlikely to net anything more than a league-average at best situation in right, I believe, and that may be on the high end. The Jay/Bourjos outfield is probably a little better, I think, and could offer six to seven wins of total value. Still, considering Jay and Bourjos combined for 4.1 WAR in center alone this year, it's a decent but not massive upgrade. And, honestly, I think the Grichuk starting plan is by far the most likely.

Projected RF Upgrade: 2.0-2.5 WAR

The MIddle Road Plan -- In this scenario, the Cardinals are going out and picking up a mid-level outfielder on the market, either free agent or trade, to help take up some of the slack in right field without requiring a long-term commitment. Michael Cuddyer is the sort of player you're looking at here, though Cuddyer himself may be out of the running due to Colorado making him a qualifying offer and the accompanying draft pick loss that entails. If the Orioles can't work out an extension with Nick Markakis, he's the kind of player you might be looking for in trade, as he combines solid offense with almost historically awful defense in right to average out right around league average.

The ideal in this scenario, of course, would be to find a left-handed bat to complement Grichuk in right, so the team could put a platoon out for relatively cheap which could offer some real upside. Unfortunately, I don't believe the Cardinals have a manager capable of a platoon, so I'm just taking that idea off the table.

If, however, one wished to be optimistic and believe the Cards could manage a platoon in right, Brandon Moss is about to get expensive-ish while still being under control for a couple more years. I don't know if the A's would be interested in moving him, and he's a pretty terrible defender to boot, but the level of power production you could get from platooning Grichuk and Moss properly could be fantastic.

But, overall, bringing in a mid-tier guy is really likely to only offer a slightly better upgrade value than starting Grichuk alone, and maybe none at all versus the Jay/Bourjos plan. Plus, it's more expensive. This seems like a very bad use of resources, unless someone can come up with a really good name that would make more of a difference than I think.

Projected RF Upgrade: 2.0-3.0 WAR

The Shoot for the Moon Plan -- And here, ladies and gentlemen, is my plan of choice. Probably not a huge surprise, I'm sure, given that we bloggers aren't always required to live in the real world, but still.

What you're looking for with this sort of plan is a game-changer, a franchise cornerstone sort of player you can plug into right field and turn it from an enormous weakness into a major strength, and thus remake your team in a hurry. Basically, think of what the Cardinals did with shortstop in 2014, going from one of the worst situations in baseball to one of the very best in bringing in Jhonny Peralta to replace Pete Kozma. Kozma was almost exactly replacement level in 2013; Jhonny was worth 5.4 wins this year. Just think of how bad the Cards' situation would have been in 2014 had they not gained five and a half wins worth of value at shortstop. Now think of what a similar upgrade could do in right field.

The first name that comes to mind, of course, is Giancarlo Stanton, and, well, that's probably as it should be. Stanton is one of the most amazing players in the game, and he's still just 25 years old. You could pick him up, hand him a ten-year deal, and feel fairly certain you weren't going to take too much of a beating on the back end, which is kind of remarkable. Unfortunately, I just don't see any way the Cards could acquire Stanton -- particularly having lost their one magic bullet trade piece -- and the Marlins appear committed to at least attempting to extend Giancarlo anyhow. So, probably a no-go there.

Yoenis Cespedes might be available from the Red Sox, as there are rumblings they were lukewarm on him after the acquisition, but this one isn't such a good idea. Cespedes feels like a huge upgrade, but the name outstrips the actual production in this case. He hasn't come close to the heights of his rookie season batting line over the past two years,, and he's really only a slightly above-average player, rather than a transformative one. Steamer pegs him for right about three WAR next season, and that feels about right to me. He really belongs in the previous category of mid-level pickups, even if the name recognition would seem to put him higher.

Which brings us to the guy I want, the guy I think could make all the difference in the world for the Cardinals next season, and for the next however many years, really: Jason Heyward. Heyward has earned himself the adjective 'enigmatic' with a game that doesn't at all match up to his appearance (i.e. he's the same size as Giancarlo Stanton, but hit about 27% as many home runs in 2014), but is still one of the most productive all-around outfielders in the game today. His plate discipline is remarkable, he's shown in the past he at least has the strength to hit for power, and the defensive is beyond reproach. He's not a one-year wonder with the glove, either; Heyward's UZR/150 in right field is over 20 for three years running. You simply don't get any better than Heyward defensively in right.

He also just happens to be the one member of the Braves' core of young players they have yet to extend, and most scuttlebutt around baseball suggests they likely won't for whatever reason. Which means, of course, he is probably available, for the right price.

Now, Heyward is not without his warts, certainly. The power isn't what you would expect from a player of his stature as I mentioned before, and he's had definite issues with left-handed pitching at times in his career. Still, he's just barely 25, and even if he doesn't take a big step forward offensively (which, honestly, I think there's a very real chance he could), he's an amazingly valuable player. Steamer likes him for roughly five wins next year; that follows a 5.1 WAR season in 2014 and a 6.3 win season in 2012, sandwiched around a 2013 which saw him miss a large chunk of time after being hit in the face with a pitch. (He was still worth 3.4 WAR in 440 plate appearances that year.)

Beyond Heyward, there really aren't a ton of players I think fit this category of move who might be at all available. And I don't know how costly it would be to acquire him, though I'm certain it would be quite high indeed. Still, a pickup of Heyward would suddenly transform right field from an enormous weakness for the Cardinals into one of the stronger situations in all of baseball, and would give them one of the very best defensive outfields in the game on days when Heyward and Bourjos were playing next to each other, even with Matt Holliday patrolling left. It would be an incredibly costly proposition to bring to fruition, but one I honestly think would ultimately be worth it.

Projected RF Upgrade: 5.5-6.5 WAR

The Cardinals are in a weird position this offseason, being a very mediocre team without many obvious areas to upgrade. Right field is their one big shot in all likelihood, and even with recent happenings, this is a team with an excess of ammo to use in trying to acquire a major piece. I say go big or go home, and make the 2015 season possibly something amazing.

That being said, it's going to be Grichuk. You know it, I know it, the American people know it. And this is 3000 wasted words.

All the same, let me know what route you prefer to go in the comments. Or maybe I'll even attach a poll to this.

Have a nice day, everyone.