I've had Elton John's "Empty Garden" stuck in my head for the last several days. Ordinarily, having an Elton John tune stuck in my head is really one of the better outcomes I feel a person has any right to aspire to, but in this particular case it's gone on long enough that I'm really starting to get tired of the refrain to that song.
It's a bit strange, really, seeing as how I haven't heard that song in probably years, either. Well, until it started playing in my head last Thursday and I then went and dug the record out of my collection and listened to it. Which, in retrospect, was probably a mistake.
I often wonder what causes a thing like this. Why would I suddenly think of that song, after not having heard it in years? It's not my favourite Elton John song, not by a longshot, and frankly the majority of the Jump Up! record is kind of terrible, and I only purchased my copy because the record was in extraordinarily good shape at a yard sale close to a decade and a half ago. And yet here it is, playing over and over again in my head, refusing to leave like an obstinate laggard at the end of a party, failing to recognise it's time to go home, the hosts want to stumble off for some more or less satisfactory drunken coitus, and you're really just in the way at this point. I wish there was some kind of reason behind my brain coughing up this particular piece of musical apocrypha, something I could latch on to as meaningful or significant, but I find myself doubting that's the case.
I think my cat is also very tired of me singing, "Can't you come out to play?" at the top of my lungs while showering. I feel sorry for him.
The Cardinals' first base situation in 2015 was, to put it lightly, less than optimal. In fact, the Cards' first base situation in 2015 was probably every bit as bad as that of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013 and '14, when it was a constant source of wonderment that a club could fail so miserably at fielding a representative bat at a position so far down at the ugly end of the defensive spectrum. Funnily enough, the common element seems to be a willingness to give Mark Reynolds starter's playing time. Or maybe not so funny, when you look at the results.
Okay, so that's probably a bit unfair. First base in 2015 was not that bad. Not apocalyptic. Not sink-your-season-singlehandedly bad. But it was a frustrating position for the birds, and if you're looking for a way to upgrade the offense in 2016, first base is probably the first place you're going to look. It's exceedingly unlikely the Cardinals will find a way to improve first base from one season to the next as dramatically as they did right field from 2014 to '15, but that doesn't mean they can't try, right?
There are multiple options for the Cardinals going forward, both internal and external. So let's take a look at some of the internal possibilities today, shall we? In an attempt to not turn this into a 4000-5000 word epic, I'm going to split the external options out into a second post for Sunday.
The Hope For the Best Option -- Matt Adams, Starter
In this scenario, the Cardinals head into 2016 with the same first base arrangement as 2015. The big man, the big mayo himself, is the primary option, and there's really only need for a backup, probably in the form of an internal option.
Pros: The Cardinals, in some ways, still don't know exactly what they have in Matt Adams, or so the line of reasoning goes. He was outstanding in his first extended taste of the big leagues in 2013, putting up the type of power numbers the Cardinals have been searching for, then struggled to adjust to shifts, both defensive and philosophical, coming into 2014. He got out of the gate slowly in 2015, then missed most of the year with a serious leg injury. The total extent of his major league career is still less than 1200 plate appearances, and he might still show up as the kind of hitter the Redbirds were envisioning while he was demolishing the minors. He's also cost-controlled, and so helps to manage the payroll.
Cons: The hopes for Matt Adams to show something he has yet to in his big league career seem mostly centered around the idea there's significantly more power in his swing than we've yet seen, and his pure hitting ability will eventually allow that power to come out. The counter argument to that would be, simply, that Matt Adams doesn't have the kind of light-tower power some have attributed to him, and his plate approach is not nearly selective enough to allow him to center in on drivable pitches and hit for much more power than he has so far. He doesn't get on base at any sort of great clip (career 5.5% walk rate, .316 on-base percentage), and struggles badly to hit left-handed pitching. All in all, hoping for Matt Adams to suddenly turn into an above-average starter in the big leagues is probably just that: hope. He has just short of two seasons' worth of plate appearances, and 3.5 career WAR. League average is probably just about right for the Mayo Man.
The Hoping, But Hedging The Bets Option -- Matt Adams, Platoon Player
In this option, Adams would remain more or less the starter at first base, but would in reality be the long side of a platoon, with Stephen Piscotty being the most likely right-handed partner for him.
Pros: This solution would eliminate the troublesome issues with lefty pitching Adams has had in his big league career, replacing him in the lineup with Stephen Piscotty much of the time the Redbirds find themselves opposite a left-handed pitcher. It wouldn't solve the other issues with Adams, of course, but would certainly ameliorate some of those offensive concerns.
Cons: Those in the Matt Adams, future star camp will point to Adams' numbers against lefties in the minors, where he had no trouble bashing them quite effectively, and say platooning him will stunt his development into a full-time player by taking away his opportunities for improvement against portsiders. Personally, I have no interest in that argument, but I'm trying to present all sides here. There is still some question about how much power an Adams/Piscotty platoon would produce, as Adams posted a .137 ISO last season and Piscotty, prior to a power surge in 2015 that could still prove a mirage, was known as a bat-control artist without any serious thunder in his bat. It's possible you could end up with a platoon in which neither half can break a .150 ISO.
The Straight Platoon Option
Here we have a very similar path to the one immediately above, only instead of Matt Adams as the lefty half of the platoon, you go with Brandon Moss. Moss is under club control for next season, and absent a deal sending him to another club, will present one of the more intriguing bats the Cardinals have to field in 2016.
Pros: The power concerns about an Adams/Piscotty platoon are at least partially allayed here, as Moss has shown well above-average power in his career, particularly against right-handed pitching. (Career ISO vs righties of .220) He's not helpless against lefties, but definitely has slugged much better against opposite-handed pitching over the course of his career.
There is an additional, rather more hidden, benefit to a Moss/Piscotty platoon, as opposed to an Adams/Piscotty timeshare. If Moss and Piscotty are sharing time at first, it likely means Matt Adams has been moved in an offseason trade, and there will be more at-bats overall available for Piscotty to take. If Piscotty is the short side of a platoon with Adams at first, that likely means Moss is still in the outfield rotation (or was moved in the worst kind of sell-low deal imaginable, considering his hip surgery prior to 2015), and Stephen will receive far less playing time in the outfield. If Moss moves primarily to first, Piscotty can take the short side of the first base platoon, then also play in left or right field a day or two a week, with the goal being pushing him into that ~400 plate appearance range that would give him adequate opportunity to prove himself.
Cons: Defense. With Stephen Piscotty, an outfielder by trade, and Brandon Moss, who is average in the outfield himself but quite bad in the dirt, sharing time at first, the Cardinals could conceivably end up with an absolutely horrific defensive arrangement there. We tend to discount defense at first base, at least in part because of the kinds of players who tend to get playing time there, but historically great run-prevention teams can't afford to have their first basemen trying to catch throws from the other infielders with skillets instead of gloves, lest their run prevention go all non-historic in a big hurry.
Moss is also coming off a down year offensively, and while there is plenty of reason to believe he'll be better, and show more power, now that he's able to do his usual conditioning and workout regimens, but there's also the chance he just...isn't. Which could be potentially very bad. Platooning Piscotty and Moss also probably means you moved on from Matt Adams, and there is a non-zero opportunity cost there, in the sense he perhaps could still turn out to be something very good.
Personally, the Moss/Piscotty platoon would probably be my preferred scenario; the higher strikeouts of Moss are more than made up for over Adams by a superior walk rate and substantially better power production over the course of his career. Working Piscotty into left field to give Matt Holliday more days off potentially helps to keep the aging slugger healthier, as well, and allows Piscotty to play what is likely his best defensive position long term.
Finally, let's face it: all the platoon scenarios require creative thinking and an ability to balance competing imperatives on the part of the manager. I'm not trying to be snarky, or criticise for the sake of criticism, but honestly, have we really seen anything from Mike Matheny that suggests he would be able to manage that level of creativity and flexibility?
The "Keith Hernandez" Option
This is an interesting one, because it could possibly fall under the external options category also. The Keith Hernandez option is, essentially, Matt Carpenter moving across the diamond and becoming what I believe could be an extraordinary defensive first baseman, given he has all the tools to play a solid third base, with only a below-average arm holding him back in my opinion. Carpenter has the cerebral approach to the game to make the proper choices at first, in terms of what balls to pursue and when to demure in favour of covering the bag, and the hands and range that would immediately put him head and shoulders above most first basemen in the league. Carpenter already reminds me quite a lot of Hernandez in terms of the type of hitter he is; seeing him turn into a gold glove first baseman as well would seem very poetic to me.
The reason I say this could fall under the external category is because, let's face it, this is probably only an option if the Cardinals were to acquire someone to play one of the positions on the left side of the infield from outside the organisation. The Cards go out and get Jurickson Profar, and he gradually takes over at shortstop, you could slide Jhonny Peralta over to third, disguising his declining range, and Carpenter moves across to first. Trade for Nolan Arenado (I know, not going to happen; I'm just giving an example, don't get yourself all in a twist), and he obviously slots in better at third than the noodle-armed Marp.
The one exception to that could be Patrick Wisdom, though it's a fairly extreme long shot. If Wisdom were to show going forward he's more the player he looked like after coming back from swing camp last season, then it's possible he could push his way to the big leagues relatively soon. He's always been a well above-average defender at third, and could displace Carpenter if there was a place to put Marp's bat. I'm not holding my breath, though.
Pros: Well, all the stuff I said a minute ago, about Carpenter's defense playing up at first, at least to my eye, and perhaps improving the left side defense as well. Given this option is essentially contingent on the Cardinals acquiring a valuable asset they don't already possess, the pros are both easy to imagine and incredibly vague.
Cons: Potentially none, depending on what acquisition would hypothetically set this chain of events in motion. However, the presence of Carpenter at first would mean less opportunities for Piscotty, potentially costing him valuable adjustment-slash-development time, and would force Brandon Moss into a more limited role again. As I said, though, Matt Carpenter would likely only move if the Cardinals acquired something really exciting, and so it's probable that those would be acceptable casualties of an overall improved roster.
I suppose it would also be an option for the Cardinals to simply install Stephen Piscotty as the full-time starter at first base in 2016, but given how crowded the roster is, that seems pretty unlikely to me. It would also suggest a significant amount of roster churn, and not necessarily in the direction I'm expecting.
Overall, barring a surprise Profar-type move that could lead to the Keith Hernandezing of Matt Carpenter, I lean toward the Moss/Piscotty platoon. The defense could be an issue, but there could also be improvement there, and more importantly, I think there's a chance a matchup-based arrangement of those two bats could potentially be extremely productive.
If, of course, that platoon could be properly applied and executed. But that's another subject, really.
Next time we'll look at what the market at large could offer the Cardinals when it comes to upgrading the first base position. Until then, everyone.