First off, I hope you'll forgive the very rushed nature of this post; the fancy new modem the people at Charter sent me to take advantage of the fancy new higher-speed service I'm supposedly receiving has been significantly less painless to set up than was advertised. Of course, why a person would choose to do both new modem setup and some deadline writing all together at seven a.m. is a question for another time; suffice to say the person in question isn't the sharpest tool in the shed and leave it at that. Ergo, my apologies.
There's been a pretty fair amount of digital ink spilled of late on the subject of the Cardinals' bench, with Craig lamenting the barely-extant nature of it (at least the infield side, anyhow), while Eric did the virtually unthinkable and came out in strong support of Daniel Descalso just the other day, in a move that rocked this blog to its very foundations. (I assume so, anyway; if anyone out there feels insufficiently rocked, let me know. There are some opinions regarding enjoyment of watching Sam Freeman pitch I might be able to blow your hair back with. Or maybe not.) And, really, it's not so surprising to see some of the focus fall on the bench; this Cardinal team, for all its much-ballyhooed depth (which, admittedly, skews arms-heavy), has struggled, badly, to generate much in the way of offensive production from the bench this season. Or in 2013, for that matter.
Given that we know largely what the club's starting eight is likely to be for next season already, it's tough to see much in the way of marked offensive improvement there. Kolten Wong should have a full season under his belt, will hopefully stay a bit healthier, and should also hopefully get a little help from the BABIP fairy, so we should expect a bit better from second base. Oscar Taveras is the biggest question mark, of course, and maybe the biggest potential swing one way or the other. Matt Adams could be better, but then again, he might not. Jhonny and Holliday will almost certainly fall off some, while Matt Carpenter feels like a rock-solid bet to produce right now, even if you would hope for better power production going forward. In short, there are a few up arrows, a few down arrows, and not a ton of breakout potential, I don't believe. There simply isn't enough uncertainty in the identity of the players to expect a huge upswing.
Which leaves us with the bench. If the Cardinals are going to see a significant improvement in their offensive numbers as a team next season, a big part of that improvement is probably going to have to come from players not on the field every day. And, since September is here, bringing with it expanded rosters, at least some of those players who might very well be on the bench next year are on the bench right now. Or will be soon, in the case of a few Memphis Redbirds.
If we assume we have a five-man bench to work with (and I hope we can assume that, because eight-man bullpens are just fucking stupid, and really indicative of managerial incompetence in a lot of situations), then we should have space for two extra outfielders, two infielders, and the backup catcher. Backup catcher is, of course, not a great place to try and squeeze offensive value out, although the 2015 Cardinals may have an interesting decision to make there.
There are those of us around here who have been calling for the Cardinals to make an upgrade at backup catcher for what feels like years now, hoping to limit the innings on Yadier Molina's well-worn knees. I, for instance, back in the offseason when I was agitating for a Peter Bourjos trade, was hoping the Cardinals would find a way to get the Angels to include Hank Conger in the deal. Unfortunately, that suggestion really only serves to make me look dumb as hell at this present date, as Conger has been brutal this season. Still, the idea is a sound one, I think, even if the player I was targeting has fallen off a cliff.
It will be very interesting to see if the Cardinals do make a move to try and address the backup catcher position this offseason. We've heard all the stories about how much the club values Tony Cruz's glove and makeup behind the plate, and how he and Molina have formed this bond, going on vacations together (with other people involved, it should be noted, though the mental image of Yadi and Cruz sipping hot cocoa all alone on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire somewhere in Tahoe is, admittedly, much funnier), and working together on the game planning aspect of things. It's very much a mentor-mentee sort of situation, and that's all very heartwarming. But the fact is, when the unthinkable happened this year and Molina went down for a significant chunk of time, the Cardinals first tried to fill just the backup to the backup role with George Kottaras, only to very quickly decide that just wasn't going to be good enough and go grab A.J. Pierzynski off the market, putting Cruz in, at best, a time-share situation with the former Sox (of both varieties), backstop. In short, when the chips were down, Tony Cruz was not the man, and I think we all know it now, if we didn't before. (I had a sneaking suspicion.)
Unfortunately, it's tough to expect much offensive help from a backup catcher, or even a platoon-type catcher. That's just not really how catchers work, unless you happen to be the Oakland A's and are willing to put John Jaso behind the plate, with all that entails defensively. Cody Stanley is probably the nearest thing to an intriguing offensive catching option in the upper minors, and he does offer the benefit of a left-handed stick, which could complement Yadi quite nicely. However, Stanley was only at Double-A this year, and doesn't necessarily fit the organisation's insistence on catcher defense uber alles, though he's also by no means a butcher behind the plate.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying backup catcher probably isn't going to be a place to add much offense next season. Sad, but them's the breaks.
On the infield side, one has to assume that Daniel Descalso will not be a Cardinal next season. Better-than-expected (or less-bad-than-feared, perhaps), 2014 performance or no, Descalso is going into his second year of arbitration this offseason, and that's going to necessitate a decent raise for the veteran of so many missions flown in the Pacific theatre, and I have my doubts the Redbirds are going to want to pay that particular piper. It's one of the chief reason to focus on a minor league pipeline, after all; the fringe players you can plug in for the league minimum represent some of the most useful savings a team can come up with.
Unfortunately, as Craig pointed out the other day, the infield is where the bench barrel is most having its bottom scraped at the moment. Greg Garcia is the most obvious choice to take over for Dirty Dan next year, and while I like Greg Garcia more than his performance likely merits, if he's the guy, you're not expecting much from the bat, I'm afraid. Still, looking at the upper minors for the Redbirds, there isn't much in the way of players who can play the middle infield spots and being anything with the stick. Short of acquiring Ben Zobrist this offseason, that all-purpose utility infield guy isn't going to offer much thunder, either.
However, there is one player I'm very curious about going into the 2014 offseason, and that's Xavier Scruggs. Scruggs has seemingly been in the Cardinal system forever, and he'll turn 27 later this month. At this point, Scruggs probably is what he is going to be. However, what he is also happens to be pretty intriguing, particularly in the context of what else is on the roster. Scruggs has some definite swing and miss to his game, with elevated strikeout rates throughout his minor league career, but he's also very willing to take a walk (9.9% BB rate this season, 15.1% in 2013), has plenty of power (20+ home runs each of the past four seasons), and, best of all, hits from the right side of the plate. I say best of all because Scruggs is a first baseman by trade -- he's played a little left field as well, but you probably don't want to see much of that -- and the fellow the Cards have manning first on a regular basis not only hits from the left side, but has shown to have a pretty brutal platoon split in his time in the majors so far. To wit, Adams' wRC against right-handed pitcher for his career is 107.9; versus southpaws that number is 11.2. No, that is not a typo. Matt Adams has a 275 point OPS differential against righties and lefties. Which, of course, would point toward perhaps a right-handed bat for the bench who could spell Big City/Mayo/Sexy/Country/Whatever the hell people are calling him this week when there's a lefty on the mound.
Further evidence for Scruggs offering a mightily intriguing platoon option: his career OPS in the minors against right-handed pitching is .783, which isn't terrible. Against left-handers, however, he's a one-man wrecking crew, with an OPS of .988 and a .299 ISO. That's...certainly something.
To my mind, Scruggs offers the best internal option the Cardinals have to fill that Eduardo Perez sort of role off the bench, that of the right-handed thumper who doesn't offer much positional flexibility but should show up as a pinch hitter in most of the team's biggest moments, simply because he offers the potential of damage in a way none of the other guys riding the pine can.
Moving to the outfield, the picture is much more muddied, largely because the Cardinals will have a decision to make about center field this offseason. They've managed to cobble together one of the most productive center field situations in all of baseball between Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, and I couldn't really blame the club if they chose to keep that tandem together for another season, even if it isn't the way I would go about things. (Personally, I would put Jay on the market, because he's due for a large arbitration raise thanks to very good offensive numbers and should have enough value to bring back something really meaningful, but that's just me.) If we assume both Jay and Bourjos will be back with the club -- and again, I'm not saying we should assume that, but just for hypothetical's sake here -- that leaves us with just one bench spot in the outfield, and probably only about two players to fill it.
Shane Robinson's time with the Cardinals is, almost assuredly, up. As much as managers seem to like him, and as useful as he can be at times, the service time clock is ticking on him, and there are players pushing up behind him who offer higher possible ceilings he just can't quite compete with, namely Randal Grichuk, whom we have seen already at the big league level, and Tommy Pham, of whom we know only from myth and legend and the MASH report.
Both Pham and Grichuk offer solid glovework, with Pham being a more natural fit in center field (and I've seen him out there; he's at least average), and really having fewer offensive holes in his game. Both players offer an intriguing power/speed combo, with Pham having more speed and Grichuk having the edge in raw, eye-popping power. In terms of plate approach and discipline, though, Pham is a far more patient hitter (9.7% BB rate in Triple A this season, compared to just 5.9% for Grichuk in Memphis) and much less vulnerable to breaking balls, which we have seen to be the bugaboo of Grichuk in a big way in the majors. I don't have numbers to back that up about Pham; they might be available at Minor League Central, but I don't have time to look them up right now, as I'm already more than two hours late with this article. In having viewed both of them, though, I feel I can pretty confidently say Pham will not look nearly so helpless against offspeed pitches as we've seen Randal Grichuk look.
We should see Pham in the majors soon; he'll have to be added to the 40 man roster, but once the Memphis season is over, he will be. The club won't risk leaving him exposed to the Rule V draft next spring, and there's a real need to see what they have in him right now. Injuries have held him back for years, but the talent has never been in question.
The other option for a bench role in the outfield, in my opinion -- particularly if the Cardinals were to move Jay and thus make their outfield somewhat less left-handed -- would have been James Ramsey, who would have brought many of the positive qualities I touted in terms of Xavier Scruggs up above to the table. Sadly, Ramsey was lost in one of the most disastrous bets I can recall in recent history, when Justin Masterson decided he would return nothing but double zeroes all day long, house wins, everybody. Which is not to criticise the organisation for making the move; it's simply an illustration of how even pieces you might look at as eminently expendable could very well be an important piece of the puzzle down the road somewhere. (And not even that far down the road, in this case.)
If we're looking at solely internal options for the bench next season, the best arrangement, to my mind, would be Garcia as the utility infielder, Scruggs as the bench thumper and occasional platoon partner for Matt Adams (or maybe not so occasional, honestly; those splits for Adams are brutal), Tommy Pham as the all-around outfield fill-in, and probably the Jay/Bourjos combination still splitting time in center. The backup catcher spot I wish I had a good answer for, but considering the incredible hesitance of managers in general -- and Matheny in particular -- to use their backup catchers on anything approaching a regular basis as a bench bat, I'm not sure that spot is ever going to be much of an offensive factor. At least not here, anyway.
Of course, I'm sure there will be a veteran utility player signed somewhere along the way; Ty Wiggington will finally be off the books next year, and Mark Ellis's ghost will have departed town as well. I can't imagine the club will be comfortable only looking at internal options for next season; without a gritty veteran presence to provide leadership and collapse in a shocking way, what would we all complain about?
A pipeline of talent that produces everyday players is, of course, the lifeblood of a team. Sustainability requires this kind of pipeline. But those players on the margins are oftentimes just as important a reflection of the pipeline's value; every bench bat you aren't buying is five million dollars you can put toward something you're going to need, like contract extensions for a whole bunch of young pitchers and the like.
Looking at the group of players the Cardinals could put together for an Opening Day bench next season, just from internal options, is heartening to me. As brutal as the bench has been offensively this season, there's reason to believe it could be better next year. Scruggs in particular could, I think, make an impact in part-time play, if deployed in an intelligent way.
So what do you think, VEBers? The bench has been a black hole of outs this season. Would this arrangement be enough for you to feel markedly better about it going into 2015? Or does the club need outside help on this one? Is it even possible we'll see such a simple, elegant solution, or will Pete Kozma somehow still be hanging around again next year?