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Moss or Big City: The Cardinals' 2016 first base conundrum

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The Cardinals enter 2016 with two fine but flawed candidates for first base. So who should get the job?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

From the outside looking in, the Cardinals appear to have a question mark at first base heading into 2016.  The two likely incumbents, Brandon Moss and Matt Adams, are flawed but certainly serviceable.  Both bat from the left side and offer no platoon advantage.  Plus, they were equally dreadful in 2015.  Moss hit a lowly .226/.304/.407 - his worst season as regular.   Adams was just as bad at the plate, hitting .240/.280/.377, which were all career lows.  Moss and Adams were worth 0.6 and 0.2 fWAR, respectively.  That's not to say they didn't have their reasons.  Moss was coming off hip surgery and Adams only saw 186 plate appearances due to a torn quadriceps muscle which cost him a majority of the season.

The Cardinals know first base is a potential issue which is likely why they were loosely linked to Chris Davis during peak Hot Stove season.  Davis, a Scott Boras client, remains unsigned and is shopping for a big contract evidenced by the fact that he turned down seven years/$154 million from the Orioles.  Following that, I infer that the Cardinals wisely backed away.  Barring a surprise, there doesn't appear to be any other first basemen outside the organization that are of interest.

Stephen Piscotty played a competent first base in very limited action in 2015 (57 innings, not including the postseason), but his limited experience at the position along with his strong arm makes him the best in-house candidate to fill the void left by Jason Heyward in right field.  The Cardinals' website currently has Moss atop the "depth chart" at first base which, in January, I think means next to nothing.  In any event, Steamer sees it differently and currently projects Adams to get 548 plate appearances in 2016.  Since Adams lacks the versatility to play another position, that means he'd be the regular first baseman.  Steamer projects Moss to see only 400 plate appearances which surprises me given his ability and experience at the corner spots in the outfield as well.  To date, he's played 158 more games in the outfield than at first base.

Also, when accounting for injuries, these situations often work themselves out naturally.  Look no further than the "Carlos Martinez vs. Jaime Garcia for the fifth spot in the rotation" debate which lagged into late March of last year.  Given Moss and Adams's recent injury history the same sort of resolution could very well happen in 2016.  And if history is any guide, the remaining outfield core of Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk will likely spend some time on the disabled list in 2016, which could make Moss' presence in the outfield a necessity.

Nevertheless, for the sake of this post, assume that the Cardinals will open in Pittsburgh in April with the option of either a healthy Moss or Adams at first base.  Via FanGraphs, here's a look at their offensive production to date:

Name

Team

G

PA

HR

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

wRC+

WAR

Brandon Moss

- - -

770

2656

110

9.500%

26.300%

0.206

0.296

0.243

0.322

0.45

0.334

111

7.9

Matt Adams

Cardinals

337

1159

39

5.500%

22.300%

0.175

0.327

0.276

0.316

0.451

0.332

112

3.5

Nothing really jumps out here as they have somewhat similar profiles.  They're both capable of generating power, they each strike out too much - Moss especially so, and Adams has done a poor job of drawing walks.

On that note, here's a look at their plate discipline:

Name

Team

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Contact%

Zone%

Brandon Moss

- - -

32.900%

71.700%

49.700%

53.500%

83.900%

72.400%

43.200%

Matt Adams

Cardinals

39.00%

67.900%

50.500%

66.800%

88.600%

78.400%

39.700%

As you see, hitting for contact is not one of Moss' strengths, which made him an equal but frustrating platoon last year with Mark Reynolds, who also notoriously lacks that skill.  Adams has been a bit better of a contact hitter but swings at way too many bad pitches.  It's not a mystery why his walk rate is so low.

Adams has a scary bat vs. right-handed pitchers (.296/.337/.485 with a 128 wRC+ in 929 plate appearances), but while it's not a large sample his splits are not pretty.  In 230 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers he has hit .197/.230/.317 with a 50 wRC+.  Per Baseball-References's Play Index, since Adams entered the league in 2012 there have been 97 left-handed batters with at least 225 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers.  Within that group, Adams's slash line ranks as follows: 87th/96th/84th.  Yikes.

In very limited action vs. lefties in 2015 (27 plate appearances), Adams had just one extra-base hit.  That he hit home runs off of southpaw wonder boys Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner in the '14 postseason was a wonderful thing but should probably be treated the same way you would a double rainbow: Be happy you saw it - don't expect to see it again any time soon.

At this point, I think it's fair to say that Moss has been the more balanced hitter.  While he's no Joey Votto, Moss has been considerably better vs. left-handed pitchers than Adams.  Since he entered the league in 2007, Moss has a slash line of .246/.323/.399 with a 100 wRC+ in 560 plate appearances vs. lefties.  Those stats don't necessarily jump off the page but they are certainly above average for lefties vs. lefties.

Again, using the Play Index, since Moss entered the league in 2007, there are 75 active left-handed hitters with at least 500 plate appearances vs. lefties.  Here's where Moss' slash line ranks within that group: 42nd/27th/24th.  (Just for fun, here's where Jason Heyward's slash line of .230/.309/.351 ranks: 57th/39th/54th.  Like I always said, who needs that guy.)  And if you allow me to cherrypick even more, between 2012-2015, there are 66 left-handed batters with at least 400 plate appearances vs. lefties.  Moss' slash line of .246/.324/.406 ranks as follows: 40th/25th/18th.  Versus right-handed pitchers for his career Moss has hit .243/.322/.463 with a 114 wRC+.  He's also only a year removed from a three-year stretch in which his fWAR fluctuated between 2.1 and 2.5.

As for defense, neither have been exceptional but Adams ranks above Moss.  According to FanGraphs, in 2,047 innings played at first base, Moss has a -19 DRS and -12.9 UZR compared to 12 and 2.8 , respectively, for Adams in 2,307.1 innings.  Does that move the needle much in Adams's direction?  Possibly.  But for a team that struggled again in 2015 to score runs (11th out of 15 in the National League), I prefer the more reliable bat.

The not-quite elephant in the room is that Moss is the more ideal candidate from a business standpoint.  He's due to make $6.5 million next year.  The Cardinals acquired him in a trade near the 2015 deadline for highly regarded prospect Rob Kaminsky.  Meanwhile Adams is still a cost-controlled player and was drafted by the Cardinals in the 23rd round in 2009.  I'll admit, my knowledge of Kaminsky doesn't extend beyond what I've read about him on this very site and from bits and pieces here and there from Keith Law.  But to trade a promising left-handed pitching prospect for a year and a half of service from a mildly expensive player coming off hip surgery doesn't sit too well with me.  And it certainly doesn't sit too well if the Cardinals aren't going to at least maximize the potential production from that player.  I'd much rather see the cheaper player from Slippery Rock, the diamond in the rough that is the 23rd round of the amateur draft play the role of semi-regular.

Matt Adams is still an intimidating bat off the bench and a very good option when there's a right-handed pitcher on the mound.  And as far as I'm concerned he can play every inning vs. Cincinnati regardless of who's pitching (.342/.389/.632 in 126 plate appearances vs. the Reds).  He's also five years younger than Moss and perhaps hasn't been given a fair opportunity to be an every day player - 2014 is the only season in which he's had 400+ plate appearances.  But as things currently look in January, I believe Moss is the more reliable option at first base to help the Cardinals put some runs on the board.