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Who will win the Cardinals' open starting spots?

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Five Cardinals, all with their own question marks, will compete for three spots.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the starting spots for the Cardinals are set. If healthy, Yadier Molina will be starting catcher. If not Brayan Pena will be getting the bulk of innings behind the plate. Matt Carpenter is entrenched at third, same with Peralta and Wong up the middle. Holliday is set to again fill Left field, although he is now taking reps at first. Either way he will be a starter, and at this point him starting at first is a long shot, so this analysis will assume he is in Left.

The remaining three positions have five candidates to fill the job. Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, Brandon Moss, and Matt Adams will be competing with one another for the Center Field, Right Field, and First Base spots. Due to the positional versatility of the players involved, Moss, Adams, and Piscotty is the only combination that won't work because either Randal Grichuk or Tommy Pham will need to man Center Field. And that's where we'll start our analysis:

Center Field: Randal Grichuk vs. Tommy Pham

Both of these players had fine 2015 seasons. Let's review each players stats:

BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Grichuk 6.3 % 31.4 % .272 .365 .276 .329 .548 .370 137 1.9 17.1 1.1 3.1
Pham 11.0 % 23.7 % .209 .333 .268 .347 .477 .352 125 3.3 8.4 0.8 1.5

As I covered last week, Grichuk had one of the worst plate approaches in the league last year, but made up for it with amazing results when making contact. Pham is more balanced. He had a well above average walk rate and while he struck out a little more than average (league average among non-pitchers in 2015 was 19.9%) he still is a lot better than Randal in the category.

Of course, Randal had much better results on contact, but Pham had good results as well and neither had enough of a sample size to have much faith in them. So let's examine their batted ball stats and see what we can gleam:

LD% GB% IFFB% HR/FB IFH% Pull% Cent% Opp% Hard%
Grichuk 20.6 % 37.9 % 10.1 % 19.1 % 12.3 % 50.5 % 30.8 % 18.7 % 36.9 %
Pham 21.2 % 51.3 % 3.2 % 16.1 % 6.9 % 30.1 % 43.4 % 26.6 % 38.1 %

This actually paints a really clear picture. Pham's slightly higher LD%, higher GB%, lower pop-up rate, and his ability to hit to all fields points towards Pham having a better chance of doing well on balls in play. Grichuk's lower GB%, slightly higher HR/FB rate, and higher Pull% indicates that Grichuk should supply more power. Of course, the sample size here is still smaller than what we would prefer, but it's not meaningless at this point either.

For instance both player's HR/FB rate are more likely to regress than not. Grichuk's rate was just behind Edwin Encarnacion, David Ortiz, and Ryan Braun. Pham's was just behind Brandon Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Adams Jones. Both Grichuk and Pham fell short of a qualified season, but the six others did, and were all in the top 25 in HR/FB rate in 2015 (out of a player pool of 141). We can't assume they're that good yet, but at least they have that level of potential.

These players are quite evenly matched. Both seem vaguely above average base runners, and also seem vaguely average in Center Field. But it doesn't seem like a decision that Matheny will have to make too often. Both players seem to be prone to injury, and theoretically one could play Center and one could play Right. For now I'll just leave this as a tie.

First Base: Brandon Moss vs. Matt Adams vs. Stephen Piscotty

This situation is a bit more complicated, and there are handedness issues to consider. Adams and Moss have both hit weaker against LHP in their career:

PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Adams vs L 230 3.9 % 30.9 % .197 .230 .317 .119 .259 .241 50
Adams vs R 929 5.9 % 20.2 % .296 .337 .485 .189 .343 .355 128
Moss vs L 559 9.3 % 28.1 % .246 .322 .399 .153 .323 .318 100
Moss vs. R 2097 9.5 % 25.8 % .243 .322 .463 .220 .289 .339 114
Generally, left-handed hitters will have some type of split, and that is true of Adams and Moss as well. Generally, right-handed hitters will have a split as well, but smaller. So as long as you think Piscotty is an average hitter overall, he should be getting the starts at first base with a Southpaw on the mound.

Adams has gotten the better results against RHP, but the difference is entirely due to each player's BABIP. Moss has hit for more power and walked more, while striking out a little more. Both players had strong 2013 and 2014 campaigns followed by disappointing 2015 seasons:

PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR OFF DEF WAR
2013-2014 Moss 1085 10.8 % 27.0 % .234 .291 .244 .335 .478 .353 129 1.1 35.9 -29 4.6
2015 Moss 526 9.3 % 28.1 % .181 .285 .226 .304 .407 .308 94 -0.4 -3.9 -7.8 0.6
2013-2014 Adams 882 5.6 % 22.0 % .187 .338 .287 .327 .474 .347 123 -2.5 20 -13.2 3.6
2015 Adams 186 5.4 % 22.0 % .137 .285 .240 .280 .377 .284 78 0.9 -3.8 -0.3 0.2
Moss not only was better in 2013 and 2014, he also had the more sustainable profile, with less dependence on BABIP. Among players with 800 PA between those two years, Adams placed 30th out of 192 in BABIP. Let's see if Adams' Batted Ball stats can back up such a ranking:
LD% GB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Hard%
2013-2014 22.6 % 37.9 % 6.4 % 12.7 % 41.8 % 32.7 % 25.5 % 34.9 %
2015 20.1 % 41.0 % 7.7 % 9.6 % 43.7 % 31.1 % 25.2 % 37.0 %
There is some semblance of an above average BABIP performer here, but not something that screams top 16%. Slightly above average Line Drive rate, below average IFFB%, and an above average rate of hard hit balls all point to Adams being above average at balls in play, but not one of the best. 2015 was mostly worse for Adams, with a lower LD% and a more pull-happy approach both hurting his BABIP abilities, but at least he actually hit the ball a little harder. I don't think Adams' is as good as his results in 2013-2014, or as bad as his results in 2015. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

As for Moss, his problem began and ended with his calling card: power. His ISO falling from elite to merely above average was the culprit of his weak 2015.
LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Hard%
2013-2014 19.7 % 30.2 % 50.2 % 9.1 % 16.7 % 44.3 % 33.8 % 21.9 % 36.3 %
2015 20.4 % 32.5 % 47.1 % 6.6 % 12.5 % 49.4 % 30.6 % 20.1 % 39.2 %
Less fly balls, and less of those fly balls left the yard than usual in 2015 for Moss. But he was still making quality contact, so there is some bounce-back potential in store for Moss in 2016. There's bounce-back potential for Adams as well, but too much of Adam's bounce-back depends on BABIP results that could have been a mirage. While it's close, I would prefer Moss based on this analysis.

Last but not least is Stephen Piscotty, former compensation pick for losing Albert Pujols to free agency. Piscotty is a tough one to project, because in 2015 he began consciously changing his approach to try to get the ball in the air more often and generate more extra base hits. This is backed-up in the numbers supplied by MinorLeagueCentral.com. Here are both his seasons at Triple-A:
PA LD% GB% OFB IFB
2014 556 23.8% 43.4% 24.0% 6.1%
2015 268 20.6% 37.6% 31.7% 7.4%
So indeed Piscotty was successful at dropping his GB% and increasing his FB%. Now let's look at Piscotty's line after getting called up to the majors:
BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Stephen Piscotty 7.8 % 21.9 % .189 .372 .305 .359 .494 .364 133 -1.3 8.5 -6 1.1
Of course a lot of that 133 wRC+ is based on some very fortunate BABIP results, but he also supplied a higher than average ISO. Looking at the Batted Ball numbers:
LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Hard
21.2% 45.3 % 33.5 % 1.7 % 11.7 % 34.6 % 31.3 % 34.1 % 37.4 %
Nothing eye-popping here, outside of a strong Hard%. What I do notice is that even though he was consciously trying to hit the ball in air, his LD/GB/FB distribution was almost exactly league average. As he adjusts to major league pitching and continues to work on getting the ball into the air more, I would expect that number to increase, and as a result his ISO should increase as well.

I like the future for Piscotty based on this analysis. He's a smart guy who has already shown that he can alter his approach against advanced pitching, and if he continues to do that in 2016 he could very well have a strong sophomore campaign. The BABIP isn't real but the ISO is, and more could be coming for the Stanford grad if he can get more balls in the air.

Who I would start and where

Before I give you my picks for who would start where, a caveat: this analysis shows that all 5 of these players are very evenly matched. The difference between my preferred three and my least preferred three is going to be pretty small. Also all of these players except for Piscotty have extensive injury histories, so for parts of the season there will probably be no competition at all, just whichever three that are healthy will start.

But with that caveat, I would pick for Grichuk and Pham in the outfield, with Moss at first against RHP and Piscotty against LHP. Piscotty would also be the primary sub at all 3 outfield spots, with whoever plays RF shifting to center on days that the CF needs rest. I think Piscotty is a similar value to Grichuk and Pham at the plate, but those two are both likely to be better fielders than Piscotty in right.

This would lead to a good amount of playing time for everyone except Adams, who has no real role other than spelling Moss against RHP and pinch-hitting duties. But, an injury to Moss would put him at first against RHP and an injury to Piscotty would lead to him backing up all the outfield spots by proxy, and an injury to Pham or Grichuk would lead to him backing up the corners by proxy.

Who Steamer would start

The Steamer projections for each player, stretched out to 600 PA for the counting stats:

BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ OFF DEF WAR
Adams 6.0 % 21.1 % .190 .309 .270 .316 .460 .332 111 7.5 -7.5 2
Grichuk 5.5 % 24.3 % .196 .295 .249 .296 .445 .317 101 1.1 -2.2 1.9
Pham 8.2 % 22.6 % .139 .331 .265 .329 .405 .320 103 3 -5.4 1.7
Moss 9.7 % 26.8 % .205 .291 .240 .322 .445 .330 110 7 -13.3 1.3
Piscotty 7.5 % 16.8 % .140 .304 .267 .327 .407 .319 103 1.2 -8.3 1.2

So I think Adams is at the bottom of the bunch, but Steamer feels the opposite. Steamer and I completely disagree with Adams' projected ISO. He has been lower than that the last two years, and the only year he exceeded it was in 319 PA in 2013. Perhaps he gets extra credit for entering his age 27 season, with the assumption that he's entering his physical prime.

Who Matheny will start

Grichuk and Adams are the biggest Mike guys, so I have a hard time not seeing those two start. Moss has that veteran-y prove-y-ness though, so you can't count him out. If I had to guess I'd think those three will be starting opening day, with Matheny looking to get Piscotty in as often as he can. Pham I think will end up being the odd man out assuming everyone is healthy. Everyone will not stay healthy though, and I think the most obvious prediction is that if healthy, each player will have a shot at an everyday job. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out in 2016.