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The Cardinals' Playoff Outfield Dilemma

The Cardinals have called upon a remarkably deep stable of outfielders this season to help propel them to the playoffs. But now that the playoffs are here, how do they find room for all those fly guys?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Fun fact of the day: Jason Heyward had what nearly everyone considers his best, or at least most impressive, offensive season in 2012, when he blasted 27 home runs as a 22 year old. It was also the only 20/20 season of his career so far, as he swiped 21 bags.

It was also the 2012 season that most people seem to be pining for, as we've been treated to a fairly constant refrain this year of talk about why Heyward has never gotten back to that level offensively. Or how, if Heyward were the hitter he showed the potential to be in 2012, when he swatted 27 homers, he might -- might -- be worth $200 million. But not this player. This is a player with 13 homers and 60 RBI, and probably not even worth $100 million, much less double that. The guy who walloped 27 dingers in 2012 (and yes, I'm just repeating that to see how many synonyms I can come up with for 'hit'), isn't walking through that door, and the glove-first corner outfield profile is not one you pay for.

Jason Heyward's wRC+ (which is, I should remind everyone, adjusted for league and park and all that sort of stuff, and represented as a number, scaled to 100, with every point above or below roughly 1% in relation to league average), in 2012 was 121. So 21% better than league average, which combined with the defense and the baserunning and all that, is pretty effing awesome. Sure would be nice to have that kind of player, right? That's the kind of guy you lock up to a long-term deal ASAP.

Jason Heyward's wRC+ in 2015: 120.

Further fun fact: Jason Heyward's wRC+ in the second half of the season is 140.

Just some food for thought, next time you hear or see someone express that sentiment about Jason Heyward never again putting up the kind of numbers he did in 2012.


Barring some further sort of weather-related disaster, the Cardinals and Braves will play games 161 and 162 of their respective seasons this afternoon. Of course, if there is such a weather disaster, the two clubs could always just, you know, skip it. After all, neither club has any stake in the outcomes of the two games scheduled for today; the Cardinals have nothing to play for in a good way, while the Braves have been referred to as 'playing out the string' for weeks now.

Personally, I'm hoping they get the games in. Not because they're meaningful, obviously, or even because I'm particularly worried about seeing our boys back on the field one more time before the tournament begins. Sure, it would be nice to get another look at Adam Wainwright, just for peace of mind, or to see Stephen Piscotty able to take the field following the terrifying collision of not even a week ago, but those things are largely academic. I'm mostly hoping they get the games in just because somewhere in Georgia there is a young boy or a young girl who is supposed to attend their first game ever today, and I hope they get to. I tend to get sentimental this time of year, as we transition from the long summer into October's majesty, and this year is no different.

Stan Lee, the legendary comic book writer of Marvel fame, was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making sure he and all writers under his direction explained nearly every single thing stated or referenced in a story, as if the reader had no familiarity whatsoever with any past events of the universe. It often led to clumsy writing, particularly in comically long captions laying out entire character backstories in a few paragraphs worth of text, but it also followed Lee's own personal mantra: every comic book is someone's first comic book. By ensuring the stories were entirely self-sufficient, that everything you needed to understand the story and characters was right there on the page, a reader could jump in at any time, and never feel lost, or out of their depth, or just give up on the work as impenetrable. Every story was a chance for a new person, child or adult, to fall in love with comic books, so it was important to always have the stories written in a way that invited them in.

By that same token, every baseball game is someone's first baseball game, and there is a person in the world just waiting to fall in love with a meaningless early October contest between a juggernaut with all accounts settled and a disappointing, mid-rebuild club looking toward the future. It will be the first for someone; the first time they ever really feel the pull of this delicate, manifold, occasionally transcendent game, and they will be hooked. And as someone whose life is continually enriched by the love of this game, who has spent more hours than I could ever begin to count in my life considering baseball from every conceivable angle, I want today's games to happen, if only so that someone, somewhere, can fall in love for the very first time.


All that being said, I have to admit I have absolutely no real interest in the games today, beyond wanting to watch a baseball game on a chilly, rainy Sunday in October. Which, hey, is plenty of interest, really, but not enough to actually think of anything to write about.

Instead, I'm looking toward the postseason, and thinking about what the Cardinal roster is going to look like as they begin their trek toward (hopefully), a twelfth World Series victory. I'm never confident heading into October; rather, I am essentially a ball of anxiety and nerves pretty much the whole month, convinced that every single game is going to bring disaster down on my team, and send them to an early exit. You would think, considering the remarkable success of this club in the postseason over the past half-decade, that some of that anxiety would have abated by now for me. However, you would be 100% wrong in thinking that.

We know what the starting lineup of the Cardinals is going to look like in the postseason, at least in a rough sort of way. The health of Yadier Molina is still an open question, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Center field is also surprisingly up in the air, with Jon Jay getting the bulk of playing time of late, despite being something like the team's fourth-best option in center field. Fifth best if Randal Grichuk's arm is healthy enough to make the throws in center.

The bench is also a rather fascinating conundrum at the moment, but I think for now I'll just focus on the outfield mix. I will say this about the bench in general, though: I hope, with every fiber of my being, that the club realises that in the playoffs, when you have no need to rest your regulars and can replace an injured player immediately after the game, there is really no reason to worry about backing up every position specifically. Jhonny Peralta is going to play every inning of every game, and rightfully so, unless something goes badly wrong. There is zero reason to worry about Pete Kozma being on the roster. Just ignore the positions, and load up the bench with every good bat available. Meaning, I want Brandon Moss and Mark Reynolds both on the team. As much as I like Greg Garcia, if it's a choice between his bat and middle-infield profile or Grichuk's thunder coming off the bench, give me Grichuk and just don't double switch Wong or Jhonny under any circumstances.

Here's the thing about the outfield, though: it's crowded. Like, really crowded. And that mostly hasn't been a problem this season, as various players have missed time, leaving opportunities for others to take advantage of. But now, staring down a super-condensed schedule and with a surprisingly healthy roster of flycatchers, it's looking more and more as if the Cardinals are going to have to make some extremely difficult decisions on who plays in the outfield this postseason.

Jason Heyward is starting every game. I think that's fairly clear, right? Okay, glad we agree. Another fun fact about Heyward: over the past four seasons, his UZR/150 is 21.6, meaning he's been worth 21.6 runs more than an average right fielder per 150 games of playing time.

Matt Holliday is also probably starting every game, don't you think? Even nearing 36 years old and somewhat physically compromised, Holliday might still be the Redbirds' best overall hitter. Maybe second-best, after Matt Carpenter. The power wasn't there for Holliday this season, as he got off to a fairly predictable slow start in terms of slugging (which he nearly always does), and was then out for a long chunk of time with the leg injuries. Still, he is the owner of a .396 OBP on the year, powered by both continued contact excellence and a 14.2% walk rate, which rates as the best of his long and storied career. He could certainly be a double switch candidate late in games, probably for either Grichuk or Piscotty, with Brandon Moss an additional candidate to get some time in left if he makes the roster at all. (See my earlier comments for my opinion on Moss.)

Which leaves, of course, only one outfield position to fill: center. And the Cardinals have four legitimate candidates to play center field. Two are very good candidates, and two are not as much.

First off, the two not so good candidates: Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos.

I love Peter Bourjos. I love watching him play defense. I love watching him fly around second base on his way to a stand-up triple on a line drive down the right field line. I was thrilled beyond words when the Cardinals acquired him, and I thought we would see him settle in as an averageish bat, transcendent glove player for the club, sign a five year deal, and wear the Birds on the Bat through something like 2020.

All that being said, Bourjos has not been very good this year. A big part of that, of course, is a lack of opportunities. But, at this point, I'm honestly okay with Peter not making the postseason roster. I don't like it, necessarily, but there are other players who deserve playing time, even at one of my very favourite players' expense.

Jon Jay, at this point, should not be on the playoff roster. I don't hate Jon Jay. Promise. But, he hasn't hit at all this season, and hasn't looked any better since coming back from wrist issues than he did early on. The power has evaporated -- he's down to a .049 ISO this season -- and while he's a fine defender in center field, I don't think he's appreciably better than any of the other options. If you want a player to not hit and catch everything in the field, just take Bourjos.

On the more productive but still not completely worry-free side, we have Randal Grichuk. I wrote recently about Grichuk's still-questionable plate discipline, but what isn't in question with The Grich is his ability to hit the everloving hell out of a baseball. When he makes contact, the ball tends to go a long way, and that's a talent the Cardinals have a definite dearth of at the moment.

And then we have Tommy Pham, the player who, at the moment at least, offers what looks like the most well-rounded overall game of any potential center fielder the Cardinals can roster.

Ugh. Shockwave is giving my computer all sorts of fits at the moment, for whatever reason. Goddamit, FanGraphs, I'll read whatever ad banner you want to throw up, but the video ads are borderline intolerable. I don't usually use Adblock, because I understand the necessity of websites to actually, you know, pay for their existences. But come on. Fuck.

Anyhow, Pham's walk rate is 10.1%, to Grichuk's 6.4%. His strikeout rate, even having hit a skid the past week of swinging and missing, is 24.4%, which is quite high, unless you're comparing it to Grichuk's 31.3% mark.

Pham and Grichuk both look like fine fielders in center, with Pham appearing a bit rangier to my eye, though either one can catch most anything hit in the general vicinity. They have very similar numbers by UZR/150, with Pham a little better, though the sample sizes are much too small to draw any real conclusions from. Still, the numbers generally match the eye test, which is always an encouraging sign.

Where Grichuk really has an advantage, again, is in terms of power, as his .276 ISO is absolutely elite. Even so, Pham's own isolated slugging of .213 is well above-average, and I would argue his superior on-base skills make him a better offensive player. To wit, Pham's .339 on-base percentage is higher than Grichuk's (.328), in spite of Randal still running a .364 BABIP for the season.

And, of course, there is also the matter of Grichuk's arm, which may or may not be at full strength. If he is still compromised, then the decision is easy: Grichuk goes to the bench, someone else starts in center. If he's healthy, though, then the deciding vote likely rests with Mike Matheny, and, well, we have at least some idea of how that vote is likely to go.

There is one final option for center, of course, and that's to simply slide Jason Heyward over from right field. Heyward has played an extremely limited number of innings in center for his career, but has looked at least competent, and probably better, in those innings.

The benefit to moving Heyward into center would be the opportunity to get playing time in right field for either Stephen Piscotty (again, if fully healthy), or Brandon Moss, depending on the handedness of that day's pitcher, most likely. Moss offers big-time power in the Randal Grichuk mold, while Piscotty has done nothing but hit since being called up earlier this season and offers a much more Cardinaly offensive profile. It's possible Piscotty could see time at first base in the playoffs, also, but it seems like a dangerous time to be experimenting with an inexperienced rookie at a new position.

So what we have here, if all players are healthy, is some combination of Jason Heyward, Matt Holliday, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Stephen Piscotty, and Brandon Moss to play three outfield positions. Oh, and as I mentioned before, unless something bad happens, the first two of that group will be playing every single day. Piscotty and Moss could both see some time at first, potentially, but it's unclear just how much opportunity is there.

If I had my druthers, the Cards would leave both Jay and Bourjos off the playoff roster. Carry all six of the others, at least as bench bats, and start Pham in center the majority of the time. Swap Holliday out for either Piscotty or Grichuk late in games as needed. From the seventh inning on, your best defensive alignment is Grich/Piscotty in left, Pham in center, and Heyward in right, so make it happen. I'm not even going to start on how to best handle first base, between Reynolds, Matt Adams, and Moss.

Now, do I think that's what will happen? Honestly, no. I think Bourjos could easily be left off the roster, but I have a very hard time seeing Jay not make it. It's Allen Craig all over again, and we saw the lengths to which Mozeliak had to go to take that toy away from the manager. When Matheny gets attached to a guy, he really, really gets attached. And that's honestly not even a huge criticism; I have plenty of problems with the way Matheny manages this club, but watching the horrors in Washington this season it's hard not to appreciate the fact it's literally impossible to imagine the Cardinal clubhouse self-destructing the way we see happen elsewhere on occasion. So credit where credit is due, in that Matheny seems capable of setting a tone, if not necessarily making great tactical decisions.

The regular season has pushed the Cards' outfield depth to its limits, and we've seen how beneficial it is to have option after option to call on, as 100 wins (and counting), would not have been possible without contributions from an absurd number of players. But now that we've come to the postseason, things are going to get much tougher, in terms of playing time decisions and roster spots. No matter what sort of defensive shifts you want to employ, I'm not sure it's possible to get eight outfielders onto the field at the same time. Someone is going to be left out, and that someone is probably going to be someone with a very good argument to be on the team.

I can honestly say, for once in my life, I'm glad I'm not the General Manager.